Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Devil's Party (1938)

The Devil's Party is a 1938 Universal programmer about five slum kids who start out as juvenile delinquents and whose lives then take different paths. There are obvious similarities to Angels with Dirty Faces and while this movie is not quite in the same league it’s still worth a look. The lead character’s fate gives this movie a very slight claim to being a film noir precursor.

The five kids are involved in petty crimes until one of their capers almost goes tragically wrong. Marty, the leader of the gang, starts a fire as a distraction during a robbery. Fortunately no-one is injured, although the fact that someone easily could have been shocks them into the realisation that crime is no joke. Marty is the only member of the gang to be caught. He refuses to squeal on his friends and is sent to reform school.

Some years later the five are still firm friends although their lives have taken different courses. Jerry Donovan (Paul Kelly) is now a priest. Helen McCoy (Beatrice Roberts) is a nightclub singer while brothers Mike (William Gargan) and Joe (John Gallaudet) O’Mara are cops. Marty (Victor McLaglen) runs a gambling joint. Marty isn’t really a mobster and his gambling club isn’t crooked but at times his activities are close to the borderline of the law.

Things start to go wrong when Marty sends a couple of heavies to persuade a reluctant gambler to pay up. The heavies, Diamond (Joe Downing) and Sam (Frank Jenks), get a bit too enthusiastic in their persuading, with predictably tragic and fatal results. Marty is now in an awkward spot. He genuinely did not intend that things should go that far. He’s basically a good-natured sort of guy and he only wanted his strong-arm boys to put the frighteners on the gambler. Now he’s mixed up in a murder.

All that is bad enough but the two O’Mara brothers are involved in the investigation of the murder. They’re not detectives but they have ambitions to get themselves transfered to the detective branch. Diamond and Sam had tried to make the gambler’s death look like an accident but the brothers are convinced it was murder. This will lead to further tragedy.

The friendships between the five former delinquents will be tested in a variety of ways as events build towards the inevitable climax.

The plot sets up some nice dramatic tensions between the characters but its weakness is that given the conventions of late 1930s gangster movies it plays out in an overly predictable manner.

Director Ray McCarey was the brother of Leo McCarey. His career failed to reach the same heights as his brother’s and was cut short by his premature death at the age of 44. Roy Chanslor’s screenplay was based on a book by Borden Chase. Chase knew about crime from the inside, having been a chauffeur for a mobster. He was lucky to escape with his life when his employer was rubbed out by Al Capone. Chase decided that crime was a bit too dangerous for his tastes and turned to writing, with some success.

Victor McLaglen dominates the movie, giving a nuanced performance as a man who finds that when you start skating close to the edge of crime it’s easy to fall over the edge. He’s essentially a decent guy but one bad break is enough to set him on the downward spiral into what could (even if it’s a bit of a stretch) be described as a film noir nightmare world. It’s impossible not to like him and we want him to escape his fate but we have serious doubts that he’ll be able to do so.

The other players are less impressive although William Gargan is solid enough. Joe Downing is entertaining as the smooth but vicious Diamond. Paul Kelly is too earnest and too stiff as the priest Jerry Donovan. Mercifully there’s little of the comic relief that usually infests crime B-movies of its era.

The interactions between the characters, especially those between Marty and Mike O’Mara and between Marty and Father Donovan are more complex than you expect from a B-picture. Combined with McLagen’s lively performance the end result is a cut above the average 1930s programmer.

The Devil's Party is included in Mill Creek’s Dark Crimes boxed set. Being a public domain movie the print is a bit rough but it’s quite watchable. Had this movie not fallen into the public domain and had it been given a good DVD release it might now have a better reputation.

The Devil's Party might be a bit of a poor man’s Angels with Dirty Faces but it’s worth seeing if you enjoy Hollywood crime B-pictures. Film noir fans will find it of some interest as a kind of proto-noir. Recommended.

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