|Released by RKO Pathe | Directed by Tay Garnett
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Plenty of drinking and gambling.
- To tell a person to get lost, they’re simply ordered to “Screw.”
- A butler has had multiple wives
- A nasty gangster lures our beautiful heroine into his lair and tells her, “If ya wasn’t such a dumb dame, ya’d know you have to be nice to me before you leave here!”
Bad Company: All the King’s Men
“You want out? There’s only one way out, and you’re too young and beautiful to pick that one!”
The movie opens with a gay yachting party, kids speed boating and diving without a care. At the center of it is young Helen (Twelvetrees), a young, perfect ingenue who doesn’t have a care in the world. That’s because behind this glamour lies a host of dirty secrets which will soon engulf and destroy her life.
Her lawyer boyfriend, Steve (Garrick, who looks eerily like Neil Hamilton), seems like the perfect paramour, but it’s delicately revealed that he’s actually under the employ of Goldie Gorio (Cortez), one of the nastiest gangsters out there.
Well, maybe “nasty” undersells it. Gorio is a veritable iceberg of eccentricities. He hates untidiness, throwing his cigarette butts onto the floor and immediately orders his butler to pick them up. He beats and murders underlings who offend his slightest vanity. He’s gotten to the top because of how much he enjoys violence but has a weak stomach and hates the sight of blood. “This milk’s been cut!” he whines at one point. “It’s as thin as dishwater!” Cortez’s performance showcases him as a vainglorious, obsessive madman, and it’s supremely entertaining.
Steve decides he wants to marry Helen and get out of the mob, but in a rather funny moment of irony, it turns out Goldie is far more excited about the plan that Steve had expected. It turns out Helen’s brother is another gangster, and the marriage will bring peace between the mobs. Steve is revolted, but he has no choice in the matter. Goldie promises him the most elaborate wedding they’ve ever seen, and boy does he deliver.
Unfortunately for all involved, the Romeo and Juliet aspect is no good– Goldie sets his eyes on Helen for the first time at the wedding and we instantly know it’s doomed. His face as he sees her and realizes his desire is perfect– it’s not ogling or hormonal, but Cortez pulls back his features to make them serpentine. Director Tay Garnett, who does some exciting stuff here, then takes us past the departing bride and groom leaving the church at the end of the ceremony– with the “til death do us part” verse still ringing in our ears– to Goldie, already making his plans.
Goldie realizes he can’t seduce her away, so he makes other plans to push Steve out of this picture. This closely follows as he preens his own organization as well, and once the bloodshed begins in this movie, it hardly has time to let up. Goldie has holed himself in an apartment building with a large series of traps and machine gun nests. We’re introduced to it as Steve enters the labrinth at the beginning of the film. You can call it Chekhov’s castle– if you show the battlements in the first act, the last will see a siege. And what a siege it is.
Among the chaos (including a not-so-subtle reference to the Valentine’s Day Massacre, still fresh in the public’s minds), Helen finally discovers the truth about everyone in her midst. She’s the sister of a gangster and the wife of a gangster. She quietly resigns herself to it, but when she realizes what Goldie has done, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
The reasoning behind Bad Company is that your life is rich and carefree when you have money– no matter where that money came from. Helen’s ignorance comes at a high price in the third act, as bodies fall and her world is shattered. But for all of her friends who don’t stumble on the truth of their family’s wealth, life continues. The scenes of Helen and her pals carefree as well as the gradual dissolution of her world probably hit home for the audience, and it’s well played enough by Twelvetrees that you’re not actively rooting for it.
That being said, Twelvetrees– whose name is bigger than both the film’s title and Cortez’s credit combined– isn’t given a whole lot to do, as it’s mostly about the men repositioning themselves and Cortez chortling with maniacal glee. Her looks as she slowly realizes the gravity of situation are more grotesque that horrified, and she spends far too much of the movie off screen. After the film had ended, I honestly wished she’d switched places with Steve, instead herself playing a gun moll caught in that ugly situation. That would have given her more of a chance to fight against Cortez and be more active in the plot.
But as a showcase for Cortez, the movie is fun. Like the other big three gangster movies of the pre-Code era, it gives us an underworld fully realized and utterly perverse. The violence is frankly shocking for the time, and the direction lively and playful. There are a couple of awkward beats– some of the lines have pauses afterward, like everyone is waiting carefully as to not overstep lines. But when you see this film, which you should, it’s the utter insanity of Cortez’s Capone-esque magnate you’ll take away with you.
Hover over for controls.
Trivia & Links
- The New York Times review says that Cortez’s performance is the only novelty on display here.
- Cliff, author of Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue, talks a bit about her role in this film over at his blog Immortal Ephemera:
Despite being the object that all three men—her husband, her brother, and Goldie—are fighting for, the Helen Twelvetrees character is weak, and she doesn’t seem to get the guiding hand she had from director Tay Garnett in her earlier breakthrough, Her Man (1930). She gets a fine scene at the end of the film alongside Cortez, but spends most of the movie out of the loop when it comes to the gang dealings, mooning over her husband, and being disgusted by Gorio’s courting, before all is revealed to her. The dialogue she’s given is unfortunate at best, really laughable. First she’s stunned: “Then, all I’ve ever had. My education. Luxuries. Everything. Gangster’s money.” Then, after a moment more of absorbing this information, she’s resolved: “All right. I’m a gangster’s sister. And I’m a gangster’s wife. I’m going to be the best wife I can be.”
- Leonard Maltin’s 2 1/2 star review (which does make this movie as good as Laserblast) unjustly notes:
Deservedly not as famous as the other gangster pictures of its day.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is an obscure one. I wish you luck in finding it!
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Cliff Aliperti · December 18, 2015 at 2:41 pm
I think we’re peas in a pod on this one! You might have even liked it a little more than I did. Friggin’ Cortez, man, he’s a maniac here—love him! Glad you liked it.
Judy · December 25, 2015 at 3:40 am
This has just had an official region 2 DVD release in Spain, but unfortunately is very expensive at amazon.co.uk – it’s a fraction of the price at the Spanish Amazon site, though I’m not sure what the shipping charges are like.
Judy · December 25, 2015 at 3:49 am
Danny, you make this sound well worth seeking out. I’ve also just started reading Cliff’s book, so will be interested to see more of Helen Twelvetrees’ films/
I have just spotted on the uk Amazon that there is an official Spanish DVD release in region 2, and posted a link to details, but unfortunately looks as if that has landed in your spam filter.
Danny · January 8, 2016 at 1:03 am
It escaped. How did that end up on Spanish DVD? How weird.
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