For Reel

City Streets (1931)
March 21, 2011, 6:30 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Although not particularly well known today, Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets was a significant contributor in Hollywood’s exploration with the possibilities of sound in the early 1930s. Not only did Mamoulian revolutionize (and some sources say first innovate) the “blimp” – a device used to isolate the noise a camera made without restricting movement – City Streets is recognized as a pioneering work in voice over with it’s use of an auditory flashback, a technique used commonly today. At the time, however, those within the industry had assumed that audiences wouldn’t have been able to understand where the sound was coming from had it not been the byproduct of what was happening directly on screen. Starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney, City Streets is an entertaining pre-Code gangster picture that also possesses the anthropological curiosities of a 1931 carnival and even a woman’s prison. While the story of a common man corrupted by evil is rather routine, what elevates the material is Mamoulian’s inventive visual style – he uses fast cutting close-ups to elevate suspense, and even predicts Hitchcock with the reoccurring motif of predatory birds. A landmark in sound with uniquely stylized visuals, City Streets is well worth the watch if only to study the steps taken by the filmmakers of the early 1930s in reinventing the language of cinema after the production of silents had ceased.