Thursday, September 20, 2007

CORSAIR (1931)

An action melodrama directed by Roland West, who, after making a name in silent films, directed only three talkies (the other two being ALIBI and THE BAT WHISPERS) before retiring to run a restaurant. My understanding is that West was something of an early "indie" director, working just outside the Hollywood mainstream, which might explain the primitive, stagy moviemaking punctuated occasionally by the use of interesting visual style and atmosphere. We first see Chester Morris as a college football hero being flirted with at a high society party by snooty Thelma Todd. A year later, he's working for her stockbroker father (Emmett Corrigan), but isn't comfortable there, and when he refuses to cheat an old lady by selling her bad stock, he's fired (and dumped by Todd, who nevertheless remains interested). Morris and his college buddy Frank McHugh wind up working for bootlegger Fred Kohler, whose main customer is Corrigan. Soon Morris is using his ship, the Corsair, to hijack Kohler's liquor with some inside help from Corrigan's secretary (Mayo Methot) and her boyfriend (Ned Sparks); then he sells it at higher prices back to Corrigan. The insiders' method is far-fetched but ingenious: Methot uses her typewriter keys to send a Morse code message to Sparks, listening just outside the window. However, Corrigan catches on and plants bombs in champagne crates that he knows Morris will try to steal. Sure enough, he does, though he's brought thrill-seeking Todd (and her femme boyfriend William Austin) with him this time. All hell breaks loose in the well-done climactic scene, which includes a horrifying moment when the bad guys drown someone by dropping him into the ocean with weights tied to his feet. The pre-Code ending, which allows Morris to remain unpunished by the law and Todd to remain a spoiled, nasty piece of work, is quite satisfying. Methot, who never became a big star, is remembered now mostly as Humphrey Bogart's first wife. [DVD]

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