Street Scene (1931)

10 08 2009

King Vidor accomplished many cinematic feats throughout his career, this, however, is not one of them. At the same time, this actually is one of my favorite film of his. It’s just that Vidor does little to nothing to hide the screenplay’s roots as a theatrical production. The entire thing takes place in one location (outside an apartment complex) with almost entirely the same angle, but the script is good enough and the performances are riveting enough for the whole thing to work. It’s a success in the same way as Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party or Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths.

The connection with Kurosawa’s film doesn’t even end at the superficial theatrical setup. The stories are pretty similar too. Both take place within some sort of living quarter and both document the many colorful characters that inhabit these housing situations. Vidor’s film has the benefit of being a lot shorter and boasting some much better performances. While this is certainly a “theatrical” movie, the acting is actually quite good. Sure, a lot of the roles are heightened, but not to the point of feeling particularly frustrating.

Beulah Bondi, in her first screen role, introduces a brutally bitter women, a persona that she would reprise in Wellman’s excellent Track of the Cat some twenty years later. For a good twenty minutes (or maybe more, the film, if anything, goes by fast) she is the center of a gossiping group of tenants. Eventually, she becomes something of a background character as Sylvia Sidney is thrown into the spotlight as becomes the closest thing to a central protagonist. Overall, though, Vidor devotes his attention to the entire apartment complex. Maybe he doesn’t dive deeply into every character, but he does give his camera time to observe just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative has to toss in some drama, and it comes from a jealous husband slaying his wife and her lover. It seems rather unnecessary at first, but it doesn’t really “raise” the movie into a sense of something substantial. One could still describe the movie as pointless, but that’s why I like it so much. It doesn’t really force anything else, just takes it time and allows the viewer to get in tune with the street. These are some of the worst neighbors one can hope for, but they are s0 vivid and fascinating to watch. Vidor, perhaps more than anyone, is great at creating specific sequences. The one in which a newspaper boy tries to sell Sylvia Sidney the paper that has her mother’s death on the front page is one of the most memorable from this film, but there’s plenty of others.

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