Mamoulian's City Streets

Rouben Mamoulian first came to Hollywood in 1929, from a successful career as a stage director. He would have had explained to him the things he couldn't do with the newly introduced sound recording: advice which he promptly proceeded to ignore. In his first film, Applause, he made innovative use of sounds, and in a career spanning another thirty years, though only another fifteen films, he made a name for himself for innovative direction. In his later years it was said he had run out of ideas, though in fact his few films are well and imaginatively directed: his reputation has faded in recent years, something a current season at the National Film Theatre seeks to redress.

The main feature yesterday evening was preceded by a lecture by Goeff Andrew, the Head of the British Film Institute's Film Programme: with short extracts from several of the films he demonstrated that Mamoulian's skill lay not only in technical innovation but also in imaginative use of suggestion and subtle direction of his actors.

Mamoulian's most famous film is probably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) - certainly the best of the many film versions of Stevenson's novel (probably the most filmed in cinema history - but the main feature was City Streets (1931); on the surface a gangster story (in which the four killings are not shown but hinted at) but in fact about two lovers torn between the honest (but poor) world and the criminal world of a bootlegging gang. The story is routine enough for the most part - verging on the ludicrous by the end - but Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney both give convincing performances to sustain the plot. The photography is superb (by the top cinematographer Lee Garmes) - though the print shown wasn't up to the highest standards of grading and looked rather grey at times.

Mamoulian's direction is striking, using a number of visual pointers to the action and confident use of sound at a time when many directors were still struggling with the new unfamiliar medium. There are many deft touches - the first murder is not shown, just the victim's hat floating in the river, and one of the earliest uses of the 'voices in the head' technique as the heroine - in jail at the time - is haunted by phrases spoken earlier in the film.

Mamoulian certainly deserves to be more recognized than he generally is at present, and this season should do something to enhance his reputation

Posted: Thu - December 4, 2008 at 08:47 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM