Old Movies: King Vidor’s Street Scene

Street Scene directed by King Vidor
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As the summer heat continues, so does our old movies column – this time we recommend King Vidor’s Street Scene. 

The sun is a ghastly thing. It’s a mindless, gaseous beast that beats down on us during summer with its hot bloody heat. For me, there’s nothing more draining than several blazing days in a row. Sure, in small doses, it gives us vitamins and helps keep us healthy but Jesus, at what cost? I am melting here.

Last time in this column I suggested several films to watch during this scorching heatwave, but I left out one crucial and important one – King Vidor’s Street Scene (1931).

Decades before Spike Lee directed his seminal movie Do The Right Thing (1989), a microcosm in New York City falls about during the scorching summer in Street Scene too. On a stoop in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, residents complain about the sweltering weather and even more, the heated relationships that take place between the neighbours. The literal melting pot of different religions, classes, and nationalities collide across just 24 hours. With children fighting over ice blocks and that sticky stress zapping energy from everyone, tensions are high. Even more so when Anne Maurrant flirts with local milkman Steve Sankey, causing gossip and rumours to turn into murder.

Based on Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, Street Scene is an incredibly tight and taut film that depictions the interweaving lives of this small neighbourhood. The entire action of the movie takes place on the stone steps of an apartment block in Hell’s Kitchen – where the temperature is truly living up to the name of the area. The varied characters come by throughout the day, giving us snippets of their lives. It’s so wonderfully written that you know instantly who the characters are and what they strive for; their thoughts and feelings leaning out of their windows and calling down on others. The strict script and the dynamic direction means this flows with fervent feelings and tense temptations.

Street Scene directed by King Vidor

At the heart of the story is the Maurrant family. From the stern Frank to the hapless Anne, through to the idealistic Rose, this family’s future unravels in the summer sun. Silent film star Estelle Taylor is terrific as Anne, a woman whose heart yearns for someone else and yet her circumstances box her into that small flat. It’s no wonder that her attentions stray to someone who treats her with an iota of kindness. Taylor in these soft moments of desperation is terrific.

However, the scene stealer is the wonderful Sylvia Sidney – who’s truly one of the best pre-code actresses. Her eyes transform from sweet, wide-eyed hope to pools of sudden sadness across the film, and then turn to steely resolve as she must face the world almost completely alone. Sidney is tremendous and beautifully watchable here.

There are some brilliant and memorable scenes here as the action boils over into an act of murder. As a shot rings out across the street, a montage of shocked residents’ faces are shown as they storm the stoop looking for the murderer. In a lesser film, the camera would follow the people up the stairs towards that tense showdown in the flat, but Vidor keeps the view against the steps and the people’s reaction to the calamitous sound. Like the neighbours, it causes us to wildly guess what has happened in that small flat.

The final shot of children playing as the camera pans over the city skyline reminds us that a town as populous as New York will move on from murder in a moment.

For those who are looking for a film as scorching as the sun, it is certainly worth putting Street Scene on. It also boasts a gorgeous score from Alfred Newman, who, fun fact, is Randy Newman’s uncle! It’s a powerful and succinct picture.

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