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A faltering indie production with lots of potential--not realized--but some fun parts, too.
The House Across the Bay (1940)
By 1940 the gangster film, and the related prison film, have been pretty well explored, and here the clichés are on display. It's all done well, with good acting, but there is a sense of dull familiarity to it. I can only imagine, as WWI is breaking out in Europe, how much this movie might have looked worn and dull. In fact, it lost a lot of money for Warner Bros. and didn't do leading man George Raft any favors professionally.
Just as Humphrey Bogart was coming into his great fame in the early 1940s, Raft was falling from a routine stardom in the 1930s into a kind of lesser echo career of Bogart's for the 1940s. Because Raft never was and never will be Bogart, there's something missing to this gangster drama that is partly due to Raft's lack of screen presence.
This isn't actually a Warner Bros. production even though Raft was on contract to them. This is produced by independent producer Walter Wanger (who had just done "Stagecoach" in 1939 and was about to produce "The Long Voyage Home"). And in a way this film marks the end of Raft's fame as a leading leading man. The other leads include Joan Bennett, not a great crime female but a good actress and she holds her own. A third lead is the ever-likable and easy going Lloyd Nolan, who plays friend and lawyer to Raft and to Bennett once Raft gets in trouble.
The only copy I know of for this movie is a weak one (on Netflix) probably made for television release, and the filming and mood of the movie are really excellent. You just can't quite appreciate it here, and unfortunately, this mood is partly what makes the movie click. There are some great archetypes to check off, including good old Alcatraz, though some of the setwork for these scenes is cheap looking. "The food in Leavenworth is much better," says one wife on the boat back to San Francisco.
This is an unexpected turning point of the movie, and weirdly enough, it's the real substance of it. Because, in fact, the house across the bay is the place on Telegraph Hill that Bennett has rented to look out over the bay to the prison. A second kind of plot grows up exactly halfway through as Bennett waits out Raft's prison term. Walter Pidgeon joins Bennett and also Gladys George (another inmate wife) in what is a more mainstream kind of drama and I liked this part of the film a lot. It's fun and has lots of minor little twists and a bit of a love story.
Expect nothing deep or superb here. A little bit of the WWII aspects are probably patched on last minute (some chitchat about gun mounts), but it does give this part of the movie some edge over the George Raft part. In the air sequence you'll see one of the first aerial views of the Golden Gate Bridge in Hollywood (the bridge was finished in 1937).
The final scenes of the movie are dramatic and not a bit believable, but it's just part of the drama and go for it. A whole mixture of things go slightly wrong throughout, keeping this from being the big drama it was trying to be. But there are lots of good aspects, too, especially for lovers of this era. Just hope they come up with a better transfer by the time you see it.
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