"The Third Degree" is significant as the first American film of the Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, whose career is woefully under-rated. I've never understood why many people who (rightly) heap so much praise on "Casablanca" have so little good to say about the man who directed it. "The Third Degree" shows that many of Curtiz's most distinctive touches were already in place in 1926, including his impressive ability to work rapidly within the break-neck Warner Brothers production schedule, which gave him no advance time to prepare camera set-ups or character motivations.
This is the THIRD film version of this story, which had originally been a stage play. Unfortunately, "The Third Degree" is too long, and features some howlingly bad plot coincidences. But there are some exciting sequences here, and it's an unusual story that's well worth a look, performed by an excellent cast.
Alicia (well-played by Louise Dresser) is married to Daredevil Daley, a circus performer. (Daley is played in a standout performance by Tom Santschi, a brawny actor who had an impressive silent-film career.) Annie is their little daughter. Alicia is planning to run away FROM the circus (now there's a switch) along with Underwood, the ringmaster ... and she plans to bring along Annie. (Underwood - who has all the excitement and sex appeal of a manual typewriter - is played by Rockliffe Fellowes, who later played Groucho Marx's boss in "Monkey Business".) In Daredevil's circus act, he rides a motorcycle inside the Cage of Death, with little Annie on his back! This sequence is extremely exciting, even though the stunt-doubling is very obvious. Daredevil has always done this act successfully, but tonight he realises that Alicia is planning to desert him. This unnerves him; he slips during his act and fractures his skull, yet he still manages to prevent Alicia from taking Annie. Alicia runs away with Underwood, leaving Annie with her injured father. The shock of losing his wife, combined with his skull fracture, causes Daredevil's death.
Annie stays with the circus, and a few years later she has matured into young adulthood (played by beautiful Dolores Costello). Like her daredevil dead dad did, she does a high-dive and tightrope act. Working in a pier show, she meets handsome young Howard Jeffries, Junior (played by Jason Robards, Senior ... an actor whose career has now been thoroughly eclipsed by that of his namesake son). Jeffries Junior is the son of a millionaire (of course), but when Jeffries Senior finds out that Jeffries Junior has married a "circus girl", he's so appalled (of course) that he disinherits his son.
SPOILERS COMING. Now the coincidences pile up knee-deep. Jeffries Jnr doesn't know that Jeffries Snr is married to (none other than) the former Alicia Daley ... which means that Jeffries Snr's daughter-in-law is also his stepdaughter. Alicia has long since split up with Underwood to marry the wealthier Jeffries. Now Jeffries Snr engages a private detective to spy on Jeffries Jnr and break up his marriage to Annie. The private detective turns out to be (wait for it) Underwood, who decides to ruin Annie by faking evidence to make it look like he's seduced her. (Why not? He's already seduced her mother!)
Jeffries Junior bursts into the counterfeit love nest and starts a brawl, and he gives Upperwood an undercut (no, I mean he gives Underwood an uppercut) that knocks him cold. Then Jeffries exits stage left just as Alicia enters stage right with a revolver, and she pumps a few slugs into Underwood, killing him. (Rockliffe Fellowes's performance does not change discernibly after his character becomes a corpse.) Of course, Jeffries Junior gets arrested for the murder. Noble young Annie decides to save her husband by taking the rap for Underwood's murder, not knowing that her own missing mother is the murderer. Will Annie trade her tightrope for a hangman's noose? Who cares? The ending is obvious.
Despite its laughable plot, "The Third Degree" features some impressive camera work and lighting, and good production values. Most of the cast perform their roles well, despite some ludicrous scripting. A few camera angles are more contrived than they need to be, especially in the circus and pier sequences. The script and the movie are much too long, slackly paced, and some scenes could have been eliminated altogether. I suspect that this movie was shot on the trot, which is a testament to Curtiz's skill. Ironically, if Warners had allowed a longer shooting schedule, Curtiz could have turned in a shorter (and much better) movie. In spite of this film's many flaws, I found "The Third Degree" fascinating, and I'll rate it 7 points out of 10. Hurrah for Michael Curtiz!
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