Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
Not exactly a proto-noir despite its juggled sympathies, not really a direct thriller, Manhattan Melodrama is really nothing more or less than what its title suggests: an impressively gritty film for adults about the progression of time and the dichotomy of law and order — universally, but especially in New York during the Depression. The Oliver Garrett – Joseph L. Mankiewicz script is mathematically perfect high-concept storytelling in the decade when that was still possible: two best pals grow up, one on the side of the law and one a gambling murderer, and the doomed destiny of one allows the other to thrive. They are, incidentally, William Powell and Clark Gable — with Myrna Loy as the long-suffering girlfriend of Gable’s gangster Blackie, later to join Powell’s respected d.a. Jim Wade. If that’s not enough reason to see this, you haven’t watched enough movies.
The three central performances are as ace as you’d expect. Powell and Loy, so iconic as an onscreen couple in years to come, are wet behind the ears this time and exhibit just the sort of ease and warmth that would provide their meteoric rise to stardom. Already well-established actors, the film made them massive celebrities. Gable, meanwhile, found his career only further enhanced by the film’s widespread success and ascendancy to full-fledged phenomenon status. He indeed outshines his costars by a mile, casting everything in his customary confidence and humor right up to his grim final scene, but that is no slur on Loy and Powell, who simply don’t have roles quite as complex as Blackie. His confused loyalties and commitment to the underworld doom him almost willfully, knowingly — he puts his existence on the line to save Jim’s career, then is prosecuted and sent to the electric chair by him. Jim is equally torn up by his conflict of duty and personal love for Blackie.
Powell and Gable embody this messy, supportive, self-destructive male relationship on down through its years of complications with impressive realism; their shared existence is as appreciably complex as it should be in the context of this strange town, in this strange time. The film goes so far as to carefully establish their camaraderie in a scene of childhood tragedy thirty years earlier, which in some manner seals their fate: both are orphaned by a shipboard fire, then again when the man who takes them in is meaninglessly killed in an act of possible police brutality. It’s a hairy business, and sets the stakes high for these two diverging lives.
What the typical modern viewer will find most impressive, in the context of how too damn much we know about movies before we see them, is that from the posters and most summaries, you’d expect this to be the love triangle drama it absolutely isn’t. Even now, the icon associated with Manhattan Melodrama implies it to be a simple matter of conflicted loyalties. Actually, its structure — down to the glitz and glamour of a nice coat of dubious ownership — owes a bit to Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld and its complicated but sweeping, epic sense of the way a life constantly on the lam muddies up human relationships, the way fear of capture breeds interpersonal paranoia, but it does more with the premise — and feels heavier, improbably. It even still carries the ability to shock, as in the sequence that has Blackie taking his affinity toward Jim to an extreme bordering on insanity, which Underworld does not.
These are big and heady ideas, enough so that the film feels like a piece of American mythology, a superhero origin story sans superhero. (Christopher Nolan wishes he could write dialogue like this.) The baggage of history actually helps it: for most students of American history if not film, the content of Manhattan Melodrama will always be less important than its permanent association with the shootout that killed John Dillinger. It was the movie he saw just before being gunned down by the Chicago police in July 1934. There was always unease on the part of the cast and filmmakers over the somewhat tasteless use MGM made of the happening to sell movie tickets, but it must have worked — and even now, it seems to add to the film’s air of strange, supernatural importance. The final scene — wherein Jim somewhat unbelievably resigns after watching his former best buddy sent to the chair — is superfluous, probably a bone thrown to censors to avoid a sense of overwhelming pessimism. So what. The glitzy resources of MGM matched to David O. Selznick’s oddball populism are a thing to behold indeed, and the breathless sense you get of watching history unfold is all but impossible to duplicate elsewhere.