Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Beast of the City (1932)

The Beast of the City, released in 1932, was MGM’s attempt at the gangster movie genre. It’s based on a story by W. R. Burnett and was directed by Charles Brabin.

To say that Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) is a hardboiled cop would be putting it mildly. He’s not just hardboiled, he’s impetuous and obsessive. And he’s obsessed with putting big-time mobster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) behind bars. Fitzpatrick is honest but he’s prepared to stretch the rules a little to get results.

His attempts to nail Belmonte for the murder of four bootleggers backfire, and Fitzpatrick finds himself transferred to the quietest precinct the Chief of Police can find, where he can’t get himself into hot water.

His brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford) is a cop as well.

Hoping to find even a shred of evidence to use against Belmonte Jim Fitzpatrick has a bunch of blondes brought in for questioning. He hopes that a witness can ID Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow) for her part in a robbery. Daisy is pretty hardboiled as well and she knows how to handle cops.

Perhaps not altogether wisely Ed Fitzpatrick pays a visit to Daisy’s home. He falls for her considerable and very obvious charms. Given that this is Jean Harlow it would be difficult for any man to resist those charms. Seducing Ed is child’s play.

Jim Fitzpatrick hits the headlines after foiling a bank robbery and the moral reformers push for him to be made Chief of Police. His job is to clean up the town. People are having fun and someone has to put a stop to that.

Ed had hoped that with his brother now Chief of Police he’d get an immediate promotion. It doesn’t happen. Ed is bitter about this and he finds that maintaining a mistress like Daisy is an expensive proposition. He gets drawn into the rackets. In a small way at first, and then in a big way. He tips off Belmonte’s chief henchman about a shipment of bank money. The heist goes badly wrong. Ed ends up facing a murder charge. Jim Fitzpatrick is keen to see his brother go to the electric chair. Jim is not a forgiving kind of guy.

It all leads up to a finale that is one of the most extraordinary you’ll see in any gangster movie. Jim has a plan to nail Belmonte. It’s breathtakingly ruthless. Jim will use any methods, any methods at all, to get the result he wants.

Wallace Ford is very good as Ed Fitzpatrick but it’s Walter Huston and Jean Harlow who take centre stage. Huston manages to be incredibly intense without resorting to any histrionics. In the same year he played a very similar role as an obsessed lawman in the superb western Law and Order, a movie which has strong thematic affinities with this one.

Harlow is delightful. She does the full-blown sexy bad girl thing and, unconstrained by the Production Code, she sizzles.

There’s some classic pre-code dialogue. Ed grabs Daisy’s arms. She tells him he’s hurting her. He says she doesn’t like being hurt. She replies that sometimes it’s kinda fun, if it’s done in the right spirit.

This is an extremely violent brutal movie but it’s intelligent and provocative as well. Is Sam Belmonte the beast of the city, or is it Jim Fitzpatrick? Jim is entirely humourless and he’s utterly convinced that he is right. He has convinced himself that any methods can be justified, no matter how brutal. It never occurs to him that he may have become an inhuman monster.

Not surprisingly MGM were horrified by this movie when they saw it and made sure it disappeared into obscurity. One of the many things that frightened MGM was the implication that mobsters and the police can end up being almost indistinguishable, and that good men who believe themselves to be right can be horribly dangerous.

This movie is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series, with a very good transfer.

The Beast of the City is one of the most interesting of pre-code gangster films. Had it been made by Warner Brothers it might have been a major hit but MGM was the wrong studio for it. Very highly recommended.


  1. Dee, good write-up of THE BEAST OF THE CITY(filmed 1931, released 1932). I've never viewed this movie. I'll be on the lookout for it. Thanks.

    1. I hope you find a copy. I don't think you'll be disappointed. It would make a great double feature with that other Walter Huston pre-code classic LAW AND ORDER. Thematically quite similar.