A Valiant Effort With An Offbeat Plot That Keeps Its Secrets
The organ music announcing the credits fades, the sound tracks buzzes and hums, and the camera focuses on a door at the end of a bleak hallway. A shot rings out, and Paul Muni stumbles out holding a gun. He says not a word, as he stumbles down a noisy street, tries to get the attention of a cop. While everyone around him chatters on (in the aimless way sometimes one finds in the early talkie), and life goes on, Muni is a man apart, in his own silent world, his motives a mystery, his identity a mystery, but his guilt written all over him. Muni, through the operation of the rather simple and simplistic plot, will prove himself one of THE VALIANT, but will remain almost a total mystery as he goes willingly to the electric chair.
This is a movie with a dynamite opening sequence -- which takes superb advantage of the primitive state of movie-making technology circa 1929 -- that, alas, does not live up to the opening. Paul Muni is good enough to deserve his Oscar nomination (and a heck of a lot better than the guy that got the Oscar that year -- Warner Baxter), but everyone else is wedded to the over-enunciated acting of 1929. And, as is the case with so much of the 1929 product, the pace is so verrrry slow, with the overlong scenes that suggest a filmed play. Any scene that does not feature Muni is downright terrible. He is the one that makes the movie work.
So, this is a movie you might want to see, but you might want to give up on halfway through. It is exceptionally brave plotting though, that while we do sort of settle the mystery of who Paul Muni is, we never quite find out why he did what he did, or even if the story he tells at the end has some element of truth. It's a pity this play does not seem to have been remade, when talkie acting styles had improved.
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