Bad Movie of the Week

One of a series

I’m running low on bad movies, so it’s back to Amazon Prime Video to refresh the pipeline. The Bad Movie of the Week today is The House Across the Bay, and it’s as old as I am. One would think that would have been a very good year. This one stars George Raft as Steve Larwitt and Joan Bennett as Brenda Bentley, later Brenda Larwitt. Images are screen shots from the Amazon video stream, and details are from Wikipedia. The production company was United Artists.

You get an idea of the standards of production in those days, about the time the Germans were preparing to invade Norway and Denmark. The opening scene shows two high-rollers in an upscale night club, and they are heading to the back room to park their money at the roulette wheel. So, director Archie Mayo lines up two dudes and has them march up to the door and demand to be allowed to  come in and deposit their money. The only cinematic invention comes when they are refused, and they need to march back to the club owner, Mr. Larwitt, and demand action. This bit is an invention to show us what a tough guy Larwitt is, as we see him come back, dress down  the gatekeeper, and then proceed to enter, as well, and promptly drop $50 on a single spin. Now we know Larwitt is tough, impulsive, and free with his money. This is called character development.

How assertive and impulsive is Steve Larwitt? This is how assertive and impulsive. He meets one of the cabaret singers at his club, Brenda, and suffers her rebuff. Later he watches her deliver a dynamite performance and promptly fires her. As she exits the club after changing into her civvies he accosts her in the parking lot and announces they are going to get married. Then he turns on the charm, and eventually she comes around.

Surprise, surprise! It’s a marriage made in heaven. There is real love and devotion. What a happy couple! And Steve is rolling in dough. His tough business methods soon elevate him to the upper tiers in the business world. However, his high-handed hostile takeover approach makes enemies of the worst kind, and we see him escaping a drive-by shooting.

Brenda knows Steve is on the shady side of the law, and she decides to ice him down before he gets himself killed. She drips a dime on him, sending the IRS an anonymous letter containing what she has been told will send him up for about 12 months.

But Steve’s friend and lawyer, Slant Kolma (Lloyd Nolan) can’t seem to do anything to prevent a cascade of charges followed by a conviction followed by a 10-year sentence. It’s to Alcatraz for Steve, and Brenda takes an apartment on Telegraph hill, where she can watch and wait until her true love gets off the rock and comes back to her.

She is the epitome of the faithful “rock widow,” taking the monthly ferry trip over to visit Steve.

But then… Then she’s trying to get to a phone to call a cab for her friend Mary Bogel (Gladys George). There she meets Tim Nolan (Walter Pidgeon), a wealthy aircraft industrialist.

Tim doesn’t know Brenda is a convict’s moll, and he pursues her relentlessly. He wins her affections but not her commitment. She stays true to Steve.

Shyster lawyer Slant Kolma has the hots for Brenda, always has had, and it becomes apparent he muffed Steve’s defense, even helped pile on phony evidence, to get Steve out of the way. Brenda rebuffs Slant, and Slant, in turn, is furious that Brenda is cozying up to Tim. He horns in on Brenda’s visit with Steve and later comes back to plant false stories about Brenda and Tim. Meanwhile, Slant has siphoned off the money Steve left to take care of Brenda, and she has secretly taken a job as a cabaret singer at a night club.

Steve is infuriated, and he crashes the rock and makes his way to where Brenda is now working. He waits for her in her dressing room. As she tries to tell him the truth, Steve prepares to strangle the only woman he has ever loved.

Just then, Tim bursts in, and he has a gun. He forces Steve to listen to reason. He tells Steve Brenda has always remained true to  him and that Slant has been working against him.

And that’s it. Steve tracks down Slant and murders him. Then he puts back on his prison uniform and makes to swim back out to the Rock. Of course, the police boats are still sweeping the bay for him, and they spot him in the water. A cop raises a rifle and shoots Steve in the head.

Finally we see Brenda on a flight back to Indiana, and Tim pops up, sitting right behind her. He changes seats with a passenger and takes the seat beside her. This is going to end well.

Except this is a worrisome plot. There is a lot of rigmarole that fails to contribute much. For example, in the beginning we see Steve being sweet on another chorus girl, and we see tension between Brenda and her. That leads to Brenda meeting Steve for the first time, which meeting could have been more artful.

The drive-by shooting episode serves to motivate Brenda to shake Steve out of the cycle of crooked dealing he is spiraling into. It seems painfully contrived.

Steve gets pissed at Brenda after Slant unloads on her. So pissed he breaks out of Alcatraz. Wait. There were 300 or more inmates there at any one time, and there was likely not one of  them who was not pissed. But Steve is the only one who got so pissed he broke out of a locked cell and swam all the way to the shore. Not to be believed.

Now Steve is preparing to strangle Brenda. But Tim bursts in, delivers a few words, and turns the whole situation around. Somebody must have been watching the clock about then and decided they had burned enough celluloid, and it was time to draw the whole business to a close. A great opportunity for some real drama was ushered out the door.

The cops see Steve swimming in the bay. The don’t motor over and offer him a lift. They shoot him in the head. People, the police never did that sort of thing, even 77 years ago.

Brenda gets an apartment across the bay from  the Rock. And the title is The House Across the Bay. Am I being a stickler?

George Raft grew famous portraying gangsters in films, and few viewers knew he once was one, having been a “wheel man” for the mob in his youth. In his movies he got killed a lot, particularly as a friend of Paul Muni‘s, who shoots him when he thinks he has defiled his sister. It’s one of film history’s great dying scenes.

This was two years before Pidgeon starred in Mrs. Miniver, one of his most notable roles.