Miriam Hopkins, glitteringly lovely and massively moving, gives the performance of a lifetime as “Swan,” who beds with a dishonest man for security and loses her heart to an honest, poetically minded man in Barbary Coast, one of the most dazzling dramatic entertainments of the Great Depression. The film was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed in the main by Howard Hawks, who replaced William Wyler.
The setting is mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco, a fog-bound town “owned” by thug Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesaring), whose gambling house, Bella Donna, bilks customers at its roulette tables. Louis installs “Swan,” his mistress, at one of the wheels, where she parts prospector Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea) from his gold, but with whom she has already fallen in love, setting the two men on a collision course. Meanwhile, the Vigilantes are taking the law into their own hands in order to “clean up” San Francisco.
It is hard to say which moment is more sweepingly compelling: Jim’s declaration of love for “Swan”; her plea to Louis for Jim’s life. Belatedly, one realizes that a redistribution of the moral accents involved accounts for the transformation of this triangle in another film Hecht would write: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
All the acting is good, with two exceptions: Hopkins’s, which is brilliant; Walter Brennan’s, as loutish boat-rower and barfly “Old Atrocity,” which is irritating, hollow and boring—perhaps the worst performance that Brennan ever gave. (His best would also be for Hawks, in Rio Bravo, 1959.)
Ray June’s black-and-white cinematography amidst heavy fog is gorgeous.
Make of this what you will: the name of the protagonist, whose nickname is “Swan,” is Mary Rutledge—the names of Abraham Lincoln’s wife and former sweetheart.
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