Wednesday 11 November 2020

Movie Review: I Cover The Waterfront (1933)

A marauding journalist drama with romance and a dose of thrills, I Cover The Waterfront is an uncompromising investigative story with a mean streak of humour. 

In San Diego, reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is tired of chasing mundane stories covering the waterfront for the Standard newspaper. His days don't get any better when affable unemployed newsman McCoy (Hobart Cavanaugh) crashes at his already cramped apartment. Miller finally secures permission from his crusty editor Phelps (Purnell Pratt) to investigate Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence), a commercial fisher suspected of human and alcohol smuggling.

Miller meets Eli's feisty daughter Julie (Claudette Colbert) and initiates a romance to learn more about her father's business. But they fall truly in love, complicating his investigation. Meanwhile Eli becomes more inventive in his smuggling tactics and plots a relocation to a new port city.

Based on the book by Max Miller and directed with freewheeling abandon by James Cruze, I Cover The Waterfront is a potent mix of hard-nosed thrills and romance packed into 75 minutes. The Jack Jevne script is filled with quippy barbed threats and frustrations, while Cruze frequently ventures outdoors to capture the waterfront sights and smells and throws in a sojourn way out to sea where Eli and his crew are hunting hungry sharks.

As a pre-Hays Code film, I Cover The Waterfront encompasses adult themes and scenes that would soon be deemed unacceptable. Miller and McCoy share a bed; Julie is introduced as a nude swimmer hidden from the shoulders down behind a rock; Eli makes good use of a whorehouse; a dead body is fished from the harbour, transported and unceremoniously plonked onto a newspaper editor's desk; and Miller finally imposes his kisses on Julie by tying her up in a medieval torture device.

Notwithstanding a few shortcuts, the plot is serviceable to sustain the fast-moving events. And in the interludes between Eli's lethal business and Joe's dogged pursuit, character development scenes add good refinement. Joe is sick and tired of the waterfront, allowing his grim mood to clutter his apartment and cover his windows with a layer of grime. Julie nudges him towards rediscovering the joys of living on the water's edge, and their romance benefits from an unusual level of depth. Eli is also a complex character, world weariness draped on his stout frame and displaying a genuine affection towards his daughter but otherwise committed to making a cold-hearted living outside the law's edges.

The cast buys into all the antics, Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert generating decent chemistry while Ernest Torrence and Hobart Cavanaugh provide strong support. Suitably rough around the edges, I Cover The Waterfront embraces the stench of dead fish at the harbour.

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