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'The Way of the Strong' is an excellent crime drama from the late silent era, proving that Frank Capra had a firm grasp of the grammar of film techniques before he made his first talkie. The subject matter is also unusual for Capra: this film deals with themes that are more typical for Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks.
One of my least favourite movie plots is the old 'good crook/bad crook' chestnut. This is the one in which the 'hero' is a crook, but we're supposed to like him because he's charming and good-looking and a snappy dresser ... and because somebody else in the same movie is an even bigger crook but without the good looks and the charm. We're expected to empathise with the 'good' crook while he takes over the criminal empire of the (uglier, coarser and sloppier) rival crook ... and, conveniently, the 'good' crook is never shown robbing or cheating anyone except other criminals. ('The Sting' is a textbook example of this hoary old plot.) This plot line was already a cliché in 1928, when Tod Browning directed Lon Chaney in 'The Big City'.
Refreshingly, 'The Way of the Strong' stands the cliché on its head. In Capra's film, both of the rival gangsters are established as unsympathetic at the beginning of the film, and the 'good' crook must gradually earn our sympathy through his actions, rather than charming us with a flashy wardrobe or some snappy dialogue. Even more refreshingly, for once the 'good' crook is extremely ugly. Outside of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' or 'The Elephant Man', I can't recall any other film besides 'The Way of the Strong' in which a character so grotesque-looking is still meant to engage our sympathy. (I'm excluding films such as 'The Phantom of the Opera', in which the deformed character hides his features behind a mask.)
Mitchell Lewis gives an astonishing performance as a bootlegger with the ironic nickname 'Handsome' Williams ... ironic because he is a spectacularly ugly man. The close-ups in this movie indicate that actor Lewis is displaying his own extremely lumpy face on screen, with little or no prosthetic make-up. Based on this film, Lewis was an extremely talented actor, yet I've never seen him in a leading role in any other film; I'm forced to conclude that his grotesque features compromised his career. He looks slightly acromegalic, although not so extreme as Rondo Hatton or William F. Sauls (an acromegalic bit actor whom Capra used in several films over the course of three decades, and who also played a gangster in 'Some Like it Hot').
'Handsome' Williams meets Nora, a young woman who is down-and-out but attractive. (A good performance from Alice Day, whose voice was unsuitable for talkies.) It's clear that Williams is attracted to Nora for sexual reasons, but we gradually see that he also feels genuine concern for her welfare. He gives her money and allows her to live in his mansion, which is also the headquarters for his bootlegging empire. We sense that Williams would like to have sex with Nora but fears rejection due to his spectacular ugliness.
Williams's enemy is rival bootlegger Tiger Louie, played by William Norton Bailey. Each bootlegger commands a gang of thugs. Eventually the rivalry between the two gangs erupts into all-out gang war, with Nora caught in the middle. SPOILER COMING. It would be nice to report that Williams is reformed by the love of a good woman, and that Nora overcomes her disgust for Williams's ugliness, and she learns to return his love. Sad to say, these things don't happen. Williams wins the gang war, but he knows that Nora could never love him. He ends up drowning. The final shot in this movie is remarkably similar to the final shot in 'Phantom of the Opera'.
I saw this movie at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and I was distressed when other people at the screening laughed during the gang-war sequence, in which Williams and his henchmen defend his mansion with elaborate machine-guns on the staircases. I didn't see anything ludicrous about this. During Prohibition, bootlegging was an extremely lucrative enterprise, and criminals defended themselves (against government agents and rival crooks) with substantial firepower. Nowadays, drugs dealers use the most lethal weapons available: bootleggers did the same thing in the 1920s.
I'll rate 'The Way of the Strong' 8 points out of 10. The script is excellent; why did these screenwriters spend their entire careers in obscurity?
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