RKO-Pathe gangster entry released at the end of 1931, several months after Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and the little wave of lesser remembered mobsters who followed that Spring, but ahead of the following year’s Scarface. It's not in the class of the "Big 3," but Bad Company fits near the top of the next tier of pre-Code gangster films.
The performances aren’t great, with one key exception: Ricardo Cortez as Capone-inspired kingpin Goldie Gorio is gifted with a character made colorful by many idiosyncrasies, and Cortez enlivens him with an equally eccentric performance. That performance, be it bad or good, is different.
Cortez is menacing, his Gorio making best use ever of his ingratiating smile (lots of teeth throughout!), his character weighed down by phobias and obsessions, his voice cracking up and down, whether he be issuing life-altering orders or petty complaints. “Take that cat away—he’s staring at me!” Gorio's cries out at one point, his voice wavering like an irritated child. Goldie is a neat freak, demanding his butler (Paul Hurst), “Pick it up,” immediately after flicking his gold-tipped, monogrammed cigarettes to the floor. He's a blood-soaked killer with a weak stomach, complaining of gas pains, and quick to lose his appetite. “How do you expect a guy to eat with all this blood around the dump?” he asks after spotting a Band-Aid wrapped around his butler's thumb as he's served. Shortly after that spoiled meal, Gorio rips a hail of machine-gun fire across his rival gangsters in a scene meant to invoke the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The final twenty minutes of the film, beginning with that massacre, and leading to a wild machine-gun battle between Goldie’s gang and the police in the lobby of his luxury hotel, the Golden Arms, are some of the most violent scenes put to film to that time. Bullets pierce through the hotel lobby and across bodies that topple and fall, the rattle of the gunfire practically constant during the final battle. All the while, Goldie watches safely from above in his hotel room, preening like a rooster and murmuring like a madman as Helen Carlyle (Helen Twelvetrees), a captive come to kill him, watches in horror while realizing Goldie is completely insane.
Unfortunately, Bad Company can be weak in the parts that don’t involve Cortez. It opens on Markham King’s (Frank Conroy) yacht, where his little sister, Helen, parties with other young people until her fiance, Steve Carlyle (John Garrick), arrives. Steve is called away from the party on business, and it’s quickly revealed that he’s Goldie Gorio’s lawyer. Steve uses his meeting with Goldie to ask out of the mob, explaining to Goldie that he’s going to marry a swell girl and wants to go straight. He’s then shocked to hear the voice of his future brother-in-law, Markham, who reveals himself as an opposing gangland kingpin. Goldie runs the east side of town, Markham the west. They’re rivals and both view Steve’s union with Helen as a sort of royal wedding that will unite their formerly warring gangs. Perhaps Steve and Helen’s wedding would have brought peace, at least for a time, but the moment Goldie spots the bride walking down the aisle from the wedding altar, it revises, or at least speeds up, his plans for Steve. Goldie must have Helen, and Steve has to go.
Steve and Markham seem purposely normal in order to stress that the gang problem is happening everywhere. It’s not just foreigners killing off one other anymore, it’s everyone and anyone looking for a piece of the pie in what has become big business. A bit of moralizing by Markham when he's staring down a machine-gun barrel is so heavy-handed that it’s hard to take. It's during this speech that he refers to “this rotten racket” and tells his underlings, “we’re all half-yellow” to have been in it in the first place.
Despite being the object that all three men—her husband, her brother, and Goldie—are fighting for, the Helen Twelvetrees character is weak, and she doesn't seem to get the guiding hand she had from director Tay Garnett in her earlier breakthrough, Her Man (1930). She gets a fine scene at the end of the film alongside Cortez, but spends most of the movie out of the loop when it comes to the gang dealings, mooning over her husband, and being disgusted by Gorio’s courting, before all is revealed to her. The dialogue she’s given is unfortunate at best, really laughable. First she’s stunned: “Then, all I’ve ever had. My education. Luxuries. Everything. Gangster’s money.” Then, after a moment more of absorbing this information, she's resolved: “All right. I’m a gangster’s sister. And I’m a gangster’s wife. I’m going to be the best wife I can be.”
But Cortez is present enough of the time that the other problems don't bog down Bad Company too much. Director Tay Garnett, who dismissed Bad Company with brief, negative mention in his autobiography, brings excellent technique to the action scenes, including the gun battles already mentioned, and an anesthesia-fueled flashback scenes that includes the shadow of, appropriately, a giant black hand looming over one of the characters. Cortez handles the rest with a performance that shouldn’t keep him too many breaths away from a mention alongside Robinson, Cagney, and Muni.
This was a reunion for director Garnett and leads Cortez and Twelvetrees, who had all previously worked together on the hit Her Man (1930). Bad Company also features Frank McHugh in a small, practically mute part as one of Markham's men. Edgar Kennedy is the poetry-spouting doorman of the Golden Arms, where inside an elderly couple played by Emma Dunn and William V. Mong are part of Goldie's front.
Turner Home Entertainment released Bad Company on Laserdisc in 1990 as part of “The RKO Classic Collection” from Image Entertainment. Oddly, this RKO-Pathe feature has not had a home video release since that time. It's begging for inclusion in a future Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Collection.
My IMDb rating: 8/10.
[…] Cliff, author of Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue, talks a bit about her role in this film over at his blog Immortal Ephemera: […]