I found it a powerful film, with wonderful acting from Cagney and Ann Dvorak in particular, and am puzzled as to why it isn’t better-known – especially as a top director like Howard Hawks was at the helm. You’d think there would be a demand for it just because of the racing footage, let alone the acting. As with the other reviews on this blog so far, I originally posted this on livejournal, but have reworked it a bit. I also now (December 2008) have a better copy and have noticed a couple of errors in what I’ve written, so am adjusting accordingly.
Spoilers behind the cut, plus more pictures
The basic story is quite melodramatic and emotional, and I found it very compelling, but there are also some witty one-liners and sharp dialogue. The racing scenes are pretty spectacular in themselves, and I can see why some of the footage was borrowed for a later movie. Cagney looks very much as he does in The Public Enemy at the start, and seems similarly tough and arrogant in his role as a top racing driver, Joe Greer, dominating his friends and ordering his long-suffering girlfriend, Lee (Dvorak) about. However, it’s apparent right from the start of the movie that a lot of the toughness is a facade and Joe is under stress – living in the “insane world” of early motor racing, as one book I’ve seen described it.
In the opening scene, he’s seen on a train, nervously knocking back tots of whisky from a flask he carries in his pocket. Lee and Spud (Frank McHugh, wonderful in a more serious role than usual as the best friend) both seem protective towards him, and when he leads him away on a visit to his home town, Spud promises “I’ll look after him for you.” An interesting double-edged moment in this early part of the film – vulnerable and aggressive both at once – comes when Joe suddenly asks Lee if she loves him (whispering – Cagney whispers a lot in this movie.) When she says yes, throws his arms round her and replies, “I love you too!” – a scene I’ve usually seen played the other way round in other films, with the woman as the one asking for reassurance. However, after re-watching, it’s struck me that he isn’t only seeking reassurance, but also deliberately silencing her. She has just been lecturing him about giving up both driving and drinking, and he makes it impossible to carry on this conversation.
It emerges that Joe is extremely mixed-up, to put it mildly – he “loves” Lee, but seems to hold to the sexual double standard and so feels that because he is sleeping with her she isn’t “good enough” to be introduced to his parents or to get to know his brother. When he learns that his younger brother, Eddie (Eric Linden) is also starting to make a career as a racing driver, he feels threatened and jealous. He makes a muddled speech warning Eddie of the dangers of racing, where as an older brother he seems big-headed and fierce – yet all too clearly betrays how scared he is of getting killed himself, though he would never admit it.
His fear also comes across when he runs into Spud and his wife and child at the track, and, as soon as they are out of earshot, whispers sardonically “A racing driver has no business having children.”
Joe himself refuses to marry Lee, but I wasn’t clear whether this is because she supposedly isn’t good enough or because he is scared of dying on the track – maybe a bit of both. He downright despises her friend, Ann (Joan Blondell, who got top billing with Cagney in the movie posters, despite Dvorak really being the leading lady as far as I can see), and goes bonkers with rage when Ann sets out to seduce his precious brother. Before long, he’s breaking up with Lee, hitting the bottle and causing a fatal crash in his next race.
I thought the most powerful part of the movie comes after this point, when Joe has hit the skids in his career and is on his own, penniless and starving, wandering round a racetrack trying to put on a brave face and asking one man after another to hire him. (Some of those he approaches are really famous racing drivers of the period, listed at the start of the film, putting in guest appearances.) Cagney is just astonishing in this scene. He’s always great at coming up with gestures which somehow sum up what the character is feeling, and here he does it by repeatedly pulling up the collar of his worn-out jacket and putting his shoulders slightly forward, trying to shelter himself as he sets off to ask for another job he knows he won’t get.
He also makes you know that his character is weak with hunger and almost on the point of collapse, without hamming it up at all – he doesn’t sway all over the place, but just a tiny bit, and at one moment grabs at a wall to steady himself … for just a second, when no one is looking. (At this moment he is actually watching his brother, now a driver in his turn, living the life which used to be his.)
Watching this section of the movie, it really struck me that the movie was made at the height of the great depression, and that Joe’s suffering is very much what thousands of other people would have been going through at the time. In the end he pauses at a food stall and the owner refuses to believe his obvious lie “I’m not hungry”, (another whisper), grabbing his arm and telling him to sit down. Then, in the sort of coincidence which only happens in dreams and movies, Lee – who has gone to the major race event in a quest to find him – turns up working as a waitress on the very same stall. After their reunion, she puts a bowl of soup in front of him, telling him: “Eat”.
But then there’s an abrupt break and in the very next scene Joe is mysteriously reunited with his brother, taking over as relief driver when he is injured. However, I got this ending wrong when I first watched the movie. I thought that Joe was suddenly fine again in this scene, and found it impossible to believe that someone as despairing as he was in the previous scene could suddenly bounce back this quickly .
Watching the race scene more closely, I see this was unfair of me. It all happens so fast that I missed the final twist! While Joe is driving, with his injured brother sitting next to him in the car, another car catches fire, bringing back the bad memories, and he starts to crack up again – there’s a close-up of Cagney’s face contorted in agony. He slows down and is about to lose the race, when his brother sees his pain and takes over, putting his foot on top of his on the pedal. So they are reunited – before a cheesy tacked-on ending where they are taken to hospital for minor injuries and, cheeky and laughing, encourage their rival ambulances to race with one another.
Although the final race scene is better than I’d thought, it’s still ironic in some way that, after breaking down, all Joe can hope for is to go back to racing, rather like the shell-shocked war aces in other movies I’ve seen who are healed only to go back to the front.
This is very much Cagney’s film, but I thought Dvorak and Blondell were both very good too and their friendship comes across well. I’m puzzled as to how either of them is supposed to be making a living early on – all the characters seem to live in different rooms in a hotel, as far as I can make out. The two women do have a few scenes together as friends, but I think all their conversations are about the men in their lives. Ann insists that Lee should stop being such a doormat and loving Joe no matter what he does to her – but Lee can never really imagine a life apart from her man, and her most powerful lines are all about her self-sacrificing love for him.