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Charles Engle has been caught embezzling. He writes a suicide note, and goes out wandering on the town. Small-time hustler Bill O'Brian sees him give a couple of big tips, figures he's rich, and plans to take him over to a big-time card game and fleece him. He enlists Nina Barone to help get Engle to the game. She goes along, but is more interested in O'Brien than in his schemes. Meanwhile, a perpetually drunk and none too successful playwright, Gene Gibbons, finds the suicide note. He cooks up a scheme (with the reluctant aid of O'Brien) to get the money Engle needs to pay back his employer and save his life.Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
ANGELS OVER Broadway (Ben Hecht and Lee Garmes, 1940) ***
For the most part this unusual, thought-provoking and character-driven moral fable is a fascinating affair but, in spite of the compact running-time, it becomes tiresomely talkative (especially given Hecht's overwritten script). Co-directed by a writer (Hecht made seven films in this multiple capacity, but this is the first one I've watched!) and a cinematographer that were second to none in their respective professions, it's small wonder that the film is brimming with sparkling dialogue (particularly as delivered by Thomas Mitchell, here in his trademark role of philosophical drunk) and inventive shadowy lighting.
The main roles, however, are equally well-filled: Mitchell, as I said, wasn't really stretching himself here but his three co-stars - Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Rita Hayworth and John Qualen - had rarely been offered such an opportunity to shine up to this point. Fairbanks' best-known role had been his 'smiling villain' Rupert of Hentzau in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937; where's that DVD, Warners?) but he had already made other impressive ensemble pieces, such as THE YOUNG IN HEART (1938; see my review elsewhere) and GUNGA DIN (1939); actually, his role here is sort of similar to that of the former - though he's a harder character, an utter heel, but whose scheme of 'taking' a man he believes to be a millionaire rebounds on himself and actually ends up involved in the 'taking' of his 'business partners' to the benefit of the latter (who's really an embezzler on the brink of suicide)! The unwilling crook is played by John Qualen, the great - if largely unsung - diminutive and mild-mannered character actor, whose other notable roles included the murderer in HIS GIRL Friday (1940), a victim of the Oklahoma Dustbowl in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and "Miser" Stevens in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). The film's feminine interest, then, is provided by a young Rita Hayworth who, again, exceeds all expectations with her role of a star-struck girl who forsakes her dreams of glory in order to do a good deed (even if she's initially drawn into the 'plot' purely on a whim by Fairbanks); indeed, the characters' individual reformation - more so than in THE YOUNG IN HEART, and done in a much less sentimental manner - adds an undercurrent of spirituality to the film's prominent sophistication and hard-boiled veneer, which is not so surprising coming from Hecht!
For its time, ANGELS OVER Broadway must have seemed like a B-movie with pretensions; while it falters here and there under the strain of its own self-indulgence, because it is unique, the film doesn't feel all that dated today and is bound to give detailed pleasure on every viewing.
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