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Barbary Coast

Howard Hawks

Barbary Coast
This isn't a great Howard Hawks film by a long shot, but it's got some dark atmospherics that lift it above the merely average. Miriam Hopkins lands in 19th century San Francisco only to find that her rich fiancé has been murdered; she immediately takes up with his rumoured killer (Edward G. Robinson), a gambling lord and swindler who never met a punter he couldn't fleece. All goes well until poet/prospector Joel McCrea shows up to steal her heart and incur the wrath of Robinson. You almost wish that McCrea never shows up because it's a lovely wallow in wickedness up until then: Hopkins immediately establishes herself as a self-involved gold-digger, Robinson seems her perfect match in greed and avarice, and Hawks makes everything dank and fetid as they go about their nefarious business. They're such a scuzzy pair that it doesn't make sense that McCrea could appeal to her conscience or that she'd give a hoot about Robinson's campaign of intimidation, meaning the film hits a brick wall once the Production Code has its way with the script. Still, a redemptive romance and rinky-dink upbeat ending can't entirely blow off the scandalous nature of the production. And though there's not much meat to the highly abbreviated script, it's got enough immoral incidents to bolster Hawks's stylistics with their suggestion of moral anarchy and sensual decay. The Barbary Coast setting feels like a sister under the skin to Dead Man's corrupt town of Machine, making you wonder if Jim Jarmusch is a fan. If it's only half a good movie, the good half is good enough to make you stomach the slack parts. (MGM)


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