behind the eight ball
by Douglas Messerli
Rowland Brown and Speed Kendall (screenplay, the later uncredited) with Hal Long (continuity), Rowland Brown (director) Blood Money / 1933
Rowland Brown’s 1933 pre-code movie Blood Money seems like it might be another noir or simply a tough-talking gangster film in the manner of The Public Enemy (1931) or Little Ceasar (1931); but Brown’s film, much like his picture of the year before, Hell’s Highway, is full of subtle surprises challenging us to look at the cops and robbers genre in new ways.
First of all, the film’s “hero” Bill Bailey (George Bancroft) is neither a cop nor a robber, or perhaps he is both, working as he does as a bail bondsman, a man who takes houses away from poor mothers in order to keep their young sons out of jail while still working closely with the police force to help them to keep their accused criminals from bolting. In many respects he might be perceived as a good man for helping those without any other recourse to free their loved ones; yet at the same time he clearly survives quite nicely by taking advantage of those who have little to offer yet believe in their erring sometimes recidivist family members. At one point even the woman who most loves him, Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson) calls him a “bloodsucker,” and throughout the film she cannot quite determine whether she admires him for his many good points or hates him for his ability of work both sides of system which pits law and order against those who are accused of disobeying its rules.
Early in the film we glimpse just such a situation, as a poor mother visits his offices with a 16 year old son who’s been accused of criminal assault of a woman of 38. He assures the mother that given the boy’s age there will be no problem while at the same time making certain that she leaves the deed to the house she owns with his clerk. If at first you might wish to read the situation as utterly ludicrous, wondering how a high school age kid could possibly even be accused of such a crime, you can also look at it from the perspective that the very fact that such a young boy has been arrested for such an act demonstrates his early delinquency and suggests he has tendencies that will get him into trouble for the rest of his life. That deed in his office drawer may ultimately mean that he can sell the house for his own financial benefit.
And, as we later discover, he is not above advising some of the criminals for whom he has put up bail, such as Ruby’s bank-robbing brother Drury (Chick Chandler), when things get bad for them, to pay him off and make a run.
Ruby runs a fancy uptown speakeasy and is closely aligned with gangsters. Moreover, it is clear that she is quite successful, a woman who has financially made it in a paternalistic, macho world. Yet she desires quite the opposite from the exciting, independent life she has made for herself. She seeks stability, love, and perhaps even marriage, and Bill Bailey represents the closest man in her circle who might even possibly represent respectability. Bill has connections of the good kind, with lawyers, insurance agents, worried fathers such as Elaine’s wealthy dad, judges, and even the mayor. If Ruby has power, Bill has some vague sense, at least, of ideals and honesty. And over the years she has invested a great of time in trying to bring him safely into her grasp, evidently, she discovers without complete success. Although he clearly admires and loves her, he has not yet recognized her as the “marrying kind,” a woman with whom he might settle down and raise a family.
Elaine, the heiress of the Talbart fortune made through his father’s investments in Hawaiian plantations, has all the money and good-breeding that one could imagine. She has, however, perhaps seen too many films like Little Ceasar and The Public Enemy and instead of enjoying her role as a débutante princess, she spends her time shoplifting in major department stores, longing for the excitement of just such a world in which Ruby thrives. Arrested for nonpayment of goods she carried out of a major store, she meets Bill seeking bond, offering up an expensive ring worth far more than any bond she might be asked to pay. Interested in finding out why she has stolen, he listens in to a telephone conversation she has with her father, and traces the call to the Talbart estate, realizing that she is in deeper danger for the crimes she has yet to commit than those for which she has been arrested.
So too does he discover that the attractive Miss Talbart has quite inappropriately kinky fantasies. Offering to drive her home, he offers her a cigarette which she lights up with a special lighter she has stolen off his desk which is inscribed to Bill from the Prize fighter Jack Dempsey. When he grabs it back, she smiles, shrugs her shoulders, and declares, “So what.”
When he later attends a Hawaiian-themed supper party her father gives for his clients, she breezily confesses her interest in the exciting life he leads and hints of her desires by declaring she wants a “man who’s my master.” He replies with rather fatherly advice, “What you do need is a darn good spanking.”
Her response, however, suggests she may be further into S&M that he might expect: “ “What I need is someone to give me a thrashing. I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash.”
As commentator Cliff Aliperti correctly observes: “There’s an unsettling expression of true hope that flashes across Dee’s face as she says the line. Bailey changes the subject.”
At another point, when he visits Ruby’s illegal
bar, he meets up with a woman dressed entirely in male attire, looking in fact
precisely as if she were a lesbian as portrayed by artist Romaine Brooks. He
hands her one of his special handmade Cuban cigars, which she seemingly knowingly
rolls against her upper lip sniffing its bouquet before responding: “You big
sissy.” Once more, he laughs heartily on his way upstairs to see Ruby, finding
her twice-convicted criminal brother Drury
It is interesting that in almost all cases, except Ruby who is already living a transgressive life, they seek sexual experiences outside the heteronormative. Like so many hip young men and women of the last several decades these would-be up-to-date women and men are attracted to the world of so-called sexual rebels.
Is it any wonder that Bill himself, trapped between his goodness of heart and his shady business dealings, between working both with the cops and the criminals would be attracted to a youthful beauty who herself would straddle the two opposing lifestyes? He recognizes her kind, and even is helpful in suggesting a solution to her father to deal with her occasional shoplifting sprees: open an account at all major department stores, so that when she walks away with something you can simply ask them to put it on your account.
Indeed, this film reminds me some of the 1947 film Desert Fury in which a young girl brought up by her gangster-connected mother to be properly educated and culturally normalized, desires a life very similar to what Elaine seeks. You might say that just as the sheriff-lover in that film, Bill is willing to give his new attraction enough rope so that she might explore her desires but if need be reeled safely back into the reality of her life.
After another girl who has accompanied to the robbery threatens to testify at the trial, Bill can only suggest Drury get out of town as quickly as possible; Drury does so, entrusting one set of saleable bonds to be delivered by Elaine to Bill in order to pay off his bail, while telling her the others, which have been registered, are valueless and should be destroyed.
She double crosses them both, paying off Bill with the worthless bonds while keeping the usable ones in case, after she and Drury marry, they may need more money.
Furious with what Bill perceives as Drury’s betrayal, he joins with the police in attacking the illegal businesses, including houses of prostitution and speakeasys like Ruby’s. Already having felt spurned by Bill for his attraction to Elaine, Ruby now gathers the gangsters who together plot how to destroy her former lover. First, they tell all their arrested partners to skip bail, assuring that Bailey will go broke. And secondly, they dynamite his office safe, calling the attention of the police to the nonnegotiable bonds he has stored there, implying his involvement, while assuring the police chief that he will win the case against Drury.
Without her even knowing it, the darker elements of the gangster consortium plot Bill’s death by filling an eight ball with explosives so that playing his daily pool game he will be blown up. Overhearing their plans, and discovering from her imprisoned brother that Elaine has stolen the payment that was to have delivered to Bill, Ruby rushes in a near-runaway taxi to save her man, crashing into another car just outside the poolhall at the very moment when Bill was about to put his cue to the eight ball.
Suddenly faced with robbery charges, Elaine also rushes toward Bill, who, she claims, is the only one who truly understands her. She doesn’t reach Bill, but does run into a girl on the street who claims she’s just been manhandled by an individual interviewing her for employment. Elaine grabs the paper from her and runs to be interviewed. Surely, one way or another, Elaine will receive the punishment she seems to desire, whether or not she truly enjoys the S&M life she has mentally embraced.
Los Angeles, July 23, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2021).