Sog.: dall’omonimo romanzo di Jim Tully. Scen.: Tom Reed. F.: John Stumar. M.: Philip Cahn. Int.: Pat O’Brien (Barney Slaney), Merna Kennedy (Marybelle Evans), Berton Churchill (Mike Slaney), Gloria Stuart (Lorraine), Arthur Vinton (Grover Perkins), Clarence Muse (Jackson), Douglas Dumbrille (Ed Perkins). Prod.: Carl Leammle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp.. 35mm. D.: 70’. Bn.
This astonishing film had been forgotten in the vaults until a new print was created in 2013 for an academic conference on the work of the ‘hobo novelist’ Jim Tully (Beggars of Life). A rising star at Universal, the director Edward L. Cahn (Afraid to Talk) had clearly earned the trust of Junior Laemmle, who allowed him to create one of the most radical works – politically and stylistically – to emerge from that adventuresome studio.
Pat O’Brien’s Barney Slaney is a railroad engineer who, in an echo of La Bête humaine, murders his unfaithful wife when he catches her with her lover – one of three brothers who have tormented Barney since his childhood. Condemned to a chain gang (where he witnesses a brutal, racially-motivated lynching), he eventually escapes, only to find himself wandering alone through a bleak, lunar landscape – an Expressionist wasteland ravaged by plague and poverty. Redemption seems briefly possible when he meets another refurgee, a young woman (Gloria Stuart) who has lost her family to the spreading disease, but their happiness is only an interlude.
There is hardly a sequence in the film that is not marked by Cahn’s visual invention, which includes such innovations as a startlingly advanced use of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rampage. The final sequences seem Bergmanese in their bleakness and despair, though the sudden suspension of the narrative at a key moment suggests that the end of Barney’s story, at least as Tully wrote it, was too desolate even for Laemmle. Cahn immediately vanished from Universal’s roster, resurfacing two years later at the Poverty Row studio Mascot – the beginning of a wildly prolific career as a B director that extended into the early 60s.