Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Masterpieces of the Early Sound Cinema: Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Rouben Mamoulian’s second film City Streets (1931), with a screenplay by Dashiel Hammett, screened yesterday at Film Forum as part of a larger Mamoulian retrospective. In it Gary Cooper plays a straight arrow and sharp shooting carnival man who is roped into the mob when his girlfriend is framed for a murder committed by her bootlegging father. Mamoulian famously remarked that the film contains 10 murders, none of which are seen.

The film opens with a low-angled shot of trucks barreling down the eponymous boulevards before passing over the camera, a close-up of a mysterious liquid leaking out of the back of one of the vehicles prompts an explanitory cut a to a beer bottling plant, and finally to a pint of beer being dispensed in extreme close-up. The camera lingers on the head of the froth in the glass as a light, effervescent bubbling sound is picked up on the soundtrack, a pregnant moment which distills the exuberance that greeted the sound cinema in the early 30s – the new and improved beer bubbles of the talking cinema can be seen and heard.

A man moves into the shot and downs the glass prompting a cut-to a close-up of a large wooden vat of beer being filled with a hose, the rushing and bubbling of the liquid fills the soundtrack, drawing a fascinating contrast between the recorded sound of moving and still liquid. After a beat the camera pulls back to reveal a crowd of bootleggers around the still, arguing over their territory. One man pulls a wad of bills out of a hat – a silent-film style close-up draws the spectators attention to the initials marking its crown – and pays the other. At the conclusion of a tense but amiable discussion between the men, the camera returns once again to admire the swirling vat of liquid that will bring joy and heartache to many as the narrative continues.

A first instance of the latter comes to the fore as a graphic match transports the story from the froth of forbidden ale to the threatening waves of the river where the hat with the initials is seen floating. Here again the sound of the water is highlighted. In this way, Mamoulian the consummate cinematic innovator is not content merely to highlight the existence of cinematic sound – as he did with great success in 1929’s Applause – but its possibility for subtlety and variety. He gives the spectator both the auditory thrill of jazz clubs and gun shots, and also the nearly scientific fascination (audio-microscopy) of recorded beer bubbles. Mamoulian also plays with early sound film conventions, providing a close-up of a bird in a cage but refusing the audience its song – the bird’s owner notes that it hasn’t produced a tune all day.

Despite the aural fireworks, City Street’s image track holds its own just fine. The scenes in the seaside carnival provide plenty of spectacular bells, whistles, flashing lights, and funhouse mirrors while the love scene between Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as Nan yields up breathtaking beauty. A 180° panning shot sweeps the moonlit beach and finds the lovers ensconced on a large rock in the surf. Cooper and Sidney are both lovely to look at, and the moonlight reflected off the water gilds their faces as they embrace, squabble, and embrace again.

A clever and appealing use of shadow and smoke throughout the film – a gangster converses with an offscreen man whose giant, speaking shadow can be seen on the wall; a nightclub scene is so fogged with smoke that each lamp casts a delicate halo – creates a mysterious yet playful tone similar to that of Jean Renoir’s early sound masterwork La Nuit Du Carrefour (1932). While City Streets is every inch the sound film, it harkens back to silent-film convention in its frequent use of extreme close-ups, attention-directing camera movements, and associative montage. In this way, Mamoulian places heightened emphasis on the materiality of both the sound and the image tracks, creating a film that is constantly directing the audience’s attention to its own virtuosic construction.


matty said...

This makes me want to see the movies you just mentioned.

Film Forum.


Anonymous said...

Thanks much for this review of City Streets. Never having seen it, I'm now very intrigued. Gary Cooper in a gangster flick is alone enough to whet my appetite. Cooper's variety of roles was truly astonishing, especially when you consider that he's often nailed as the quintessential American. Why isn't this out on dvd?!?