Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

  During his days as a journalist in New York Damon Runyon crafted the myth of Broadway. He spent his days writing articles about the people that populated New York City's night life. He was known for juxtaposing the respectable law-abiding citizen with the mugs, hoodlums, and dolls that trafficked Times Square. When the english language did not have the appropriate word or phrase to capture the feeling of the streets Runyon didn't think twice about inventing them from everyday words. In Runyon's world a roscoe is a gun, a shiv is a knife, and if you were smart you knew to keep your snoot out of a mug's business when he was packing either of them.
  As Runyon became more and more popular he started to turn his attention away from documenting the real-life travails of New York's gamblers, gangsters, and ever-loving louts and put his energy towards creating original work based on characters he knew quite well.
  A Slight Case of Murder started out as a play but with the help of Lloyd Bacon, the director, Edward G. Robinson, the star, and a cast packed with the decade's best character actors a gangster comedy classic was created.
  Edward G. Robinson plays good guy bootlegger Remy Marco; a character who takes several cues from previous tough guy protagonists that Robinson has played. With the repeal of Prohibition Marco decides to go legit and start a brewery so that he can provide the entire country with beer legally. Marco's desire for respectability almost does him in several times during the story though. As in most gangster stories the stench of the streets is a stink that doesn't easily go away.
  The comedy within the movie is rooted in the audience being well aware of the conventions of the gangster story. It is to the entire casts credit that every actor in the story doesn't overdo the comedic elements of the characters they are portraying, because with just one wrong note the entire movie could have collapsed into a dramatic mess. The level of violence in the movie is ramped up due to the fact that the story is about gangsters, but one never feels the anxiety of the violence being enacted on the screen. You don't believe that the victims of violence within the movie are really human. Not to say that the characters are mere caricature's, but that unlike dramatic gangster movies that had to cater to the whims of the Hays Code, making sure to never show a gangster enjoying or getting away with breaking the law, the comedic gangster movie could get away with most things as long as it was for a laugh.
  With this movie an audience can root for the gangster and not feel guilty for siding with the bad guys. The gangsters in the story are neither good or bad; in fact as you watch the movie it is quite easy to even forget that these characters are gangsters. By treating the characters as people first and gangsters second the movie creates a believable reality that still gets plenty of laughs.

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