The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....
The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews
Let 'em Have It is an interesting movie that I enjoyed more out of historical fascination than for cinematic enjoyment. It's actually kind of a cruel and hateful movie full of vile political and social ideas... but it's also an intriguing proto-cop movie that sets the framework for a lot of cliches and tropes we still see today.
My Rating: 3.5 / 5
The Part Where I Summarize the Plot
Mal Stevens (Richard Arlen) is a rookie FBI Agent who teams up with two buddies (one of whom is supposed to be the strong, stupid type and the other one the socially awkward genius type, but they kind of end up being interchangeable by the end) to lead an anti-gangster unit. He soon gets his first major test as an Agent when he follows the exploits of Joe Keefer (Bruce Cabot), an up and coming bank robber.
When the film opens, Joe is a chauffeur for Eleanor Spencer (Virginia Bruce), a socialite and love interest for Mal. Joe hatches a kidnapping plot to hold Eleanor for ransom, but Mal quickly catches on and interrupts it, leading Joe to prison.
After a brief stay - maybe five minutes of film time - Joe breaks out and wreaks havoc. And... that's pretty much it. This is not a plot-heavy film.
So let me take the time to pad out this bit with some of the things I liked about this movie, since the rest of my write-up this week is kind of complainy. Surprisingly so, considering that I gave the movie a 3.5.
First, I really dig Bruce Cabot's performance. Joe Keefer is a charismatic yet brooding villain who steals the spotlight every time he decides to do something horribly evil. I liked that the movie didn't pull any punches with his crime spree, either. In a lot of movies from this era, the crimes are kind of glossed over or anemic since they weren't allowed to show much on the screen. ("Somebody stole three pies of windowsills this week! Call the Captain!") But Let 'em Have It doesn't shy away from the violence and horror so much - Joe kills at least half a dozen people during his exploits and actually feels like a menace.
Next, I enjoyed seeing how the FBI tracked him down. Did you ever hear about how that recent Robin Hood movie was originally going to be a procedural crime drama about how the Sheriff of Nottingham used actual 13th century investigation tactics to track down Robin Hood, but then they pussied out at the last minute and turned the movie into bullshit instead? That's kind of what this movie makes me think of, except if they just went for it. There's a bunch of great scenes of FBI Agents using old-timey tactics to figure out who and where Joe is. It's pretty much Depression Era CSI.
Finally, I loved almost everything about the final act. There's a sequence with a plastic surgeon that plays out exactly how I wanted it to (both when Joe gets the surgery and his reveal later on), and the final confrontation between Mal and Joe is sufficiently violent and brutal. They have a protracted slugfest that's graceless and painful, like the alley scene in They Live.
So regardless of how much I might complain about the movie from here to the end, keep in mind that I still liked it. I just have a weird way of showing that I like things.
Some Bits About Historical Interest
At 80 years old, I think this is the oldest film I've watched for the Holy Grail so far, and it's definitely showing its age. Whenever I watch a movie that's this old, I always feel like I have to approach it the same way I do a foreign film: there's going to be some strange cultural attitudes and I have to just accept that they do things differently.
The editing and pacing are bizarrely laid-back even in the context of multiple homicides, the acting is unnaturally stoic, and the narrative just seems to come and go as it pleases. But all that aside - there's some fascinating stuff in here that makes it a compelling view for anybody who's a fan of action, thrillers, or crime dramas.
I'm no film historian, but I might go out on a limb and say that this is one of the first procedurals ever made. It almost follows the formula that we've all come to know and love beat for beat. Ridiculously brilliant cop who has bizarre social affectations? Check. A seemingly hopeless case with no clear leads? Check. Minor details that are scrutinized to death in a lab by a team of forensics experts who arrive at dramatic and wild conclusions? Check. The thrilling denouement in which a team of police descend on the criminals, then end the story without a satisfying epilogue? Check!
The main difference between Let 'em Have It and something like CSI is in the discovery of the crime. Procedurals today are usually convinced that who did it is a compelling part of the mystery, and not how the cops find out. More often you'll see a show that opens up with the cops discovering a corpse and you don't even meet the killer until the final act. Let 'em Have It lays it out up front who's behind all the crimes. I kind of prefer this approach - it feels like they're cutting past a lot of bullcrap and getting to the point. Honestly, I don't care that Bit Player #257 was the murderer all along.
Although... speaking of getting to the point....
One of the most peculiar (and hilarious) parts of this movie is how plodding the opening act is. You don't just get introduced to the three FBI Agents who will solve the case; you get introduced to the entire FBI. You see the heroes go through training and learn about what it means to analyze a crime scene almost as if solving crimes is some kind of new fad that you might not have heard about.
It's such a bizarre sequence. Even acknowledging that the FBI was relatively new in 1935 (it was founded in 1908), do we really need the movie to hold our hand and teach us what an "investigation" is? I guess police dramas were a new invention when this one came out.
How would that look in other genres? What if they made a buddy comedy with Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill as teachers, but they started it out with the principal explaining to them, "Kids are sent here on buses to be educated for six to eight hours a day. They receive a score on assignments given to them to evaluate their progress. A 'grade,' if you will." Or maybe a sports drama that opens with a Power Point on the rules of football? Or maybe a porn that begins with a diagram of the uterus?
The Bit About Politics
There are a few interesting moments that speak to the political atmosphere of the time. Mainly there's two things I noticed.
The first is that the movie simultaneously tries to play up some empathy for Joe as a victim of poverty at the same time that it paints him to be a snotty and self-centered asshole. It also puts this in the context of these really wonderful and amazing rich people who fall victim to Joe's terrible crimes. The result is this horrible and misguided conservative attitude that honestly hasn't really changed much in 80 years, but seeing it in a film from the depths of the Depression makes it that much more ridiculous.
Joe is a poor man who comes from a family with a long history of domestic servitude. In recent generations, they have all served the Spencer family. Joe is frustrated that he's got nothing to look forward to but more service work and eventually death. He complains about this to deaf ears - even his own parents tell him to quit bitching about his poverty and "be grateful" for what he has. But Joe is too ambitious to settle for the bottom rung of the ladder; he dreams of becoming a millionaire - by any means necessary.
He eventually decides to prey on the Spencers, who are supremely wealthy for reasons that aren't particularly made clear. But the Spencers aren't just any rich people - they're also some of the nicest and classiest rich people you'll ever meet. They're so great and wonderful and perfect and loving, in fact, that Eleanor Spencer goes so far as to try to protect Joe from prison when his kidnapping scheme is foiled. "We'll get you the finest lawyer we can buy!"
The disparity between them is so great, and the condemnation against Joe so stark, that there's even a throwaway line late in the movie that directly addresses his social mobility as an insult. When Buddy Spencer, Eleanor's brother, decides to join the FBI (Aside: why the fuck is a socialite joining the FBI? Was he really bored and thought it would be a fun lark?), he comes face to face with Joe during his investigation of a halfway house. Joe, doubting that Buddy would ever have a reason to rent a room at so lowly an establishment, tries to egg him on. To which Buddy replies something to the effect of:
"I got a job. It doesn't pay much, but I'm just trying to live within my means. You can respect that, can't you?"
Wow. Condescend much, 1935? All those whiny farmers and unskilled workers bitching about how they don't have any money, and all they had to do the whole time was live within their means... what a genius idea!
So there you have it: an Evil Poor Man terrorizes an Innocent, Good Rich Woman. How did people buy this shit in 1935 of all times? Can you see somebody making something like this today?
....well, okay, yeah. I guess you can. But still, Hollywood at least tries to dress up its classism nowadays so that we don't all feel this uncomfortable.
But if you're worried that this film is only going to promote awkward fiscal conservatism, don't despair! There's another sequence where we get so see some awkward social conservatism, too!
After Joe is arrested, there's a scene where the cast discusses the possibility that he may be up for parole. True to the spirit of assuming that people in 1935 didn't know things, the movie first explains what parole is and how the process might work. But then it cuts to Mal fuming. "Parole?" he fumes. "How can society be so stupid as to allow something like parole?"
Let's be clear: this isn't a scene where an obvious psychopath is being released and there's a single cop who knows that tragedy will result. If that was the case, then it would be just fine for Mal to fume. "You can't release Joe Keefer! He's a madman! He'll destroy the city! Et cetera!" We've seen that scene a thousand times, and it's fine.
No, Mal's frustration in this movie isn't specific to Joe Keefer... it is that parole even exists. He's upset that our justice system allows rehabilitated criminals to be released in any capacity. After all, once a criminal, always a criminal, right? Lock 'em all up and let 'em have it.
The Part Where I Tell You Where to Watch
Despite feeling like an uncomfortable moment with your grandfather from time to time, Let 'em Have It is still a fun and quick watch. You can check it out on Netflix Streaming right now.