Thursday, 1 April 2021

Movie Review: Nob Hill (1945)

A mixture of romance, politics and music in a quasi-western setting, Nob Hill defies any one genre but still provides decent if rough-around-the-edges entertainment.

The setting is the early 1900s in San Francisco, known then as the "Paris of the USA". In the working class Barbary Coast neighbourhood, Tony Angelo (George Raft) runs the large and lavish Gold Coast nightclub, where his romantic interest Sally Templeton (Vivian Blaine) is the star performer. Tony is an astute but also kindhearted businessman, and agrees to care for young Katie Flanagan (Peggy Ann Garner) after she arrives alone from Ireland only to discover her uncle already deceased.

At a church service Katie and Tony meet Harriet Carruthers (Joan Bennett), who resides in the elite Nob Hill neighbourhood overlooking the city. Sparks immediately fly between Tony and Harriet, much to Sally's disappointment. But Harriet may have an ulterior motive: her brother Lash is running for election as District Attorney and needs Tony's support. Romance and politics get entangled, threatening Tony's business.

Colourful, rowdy, and packed with people and incidents, Nob Hill never lacks energy and momentum. But the film is also short on polish and tonal consistency, director Henry Hathaway and star George Raft an uneasy fit in a musical milieu. Vivian Blaine carries the load to perform several songs surrounded by a gaggle of can-can style burlesque dancers, jugglers and back-up singers. The Twentieth Century Fox production lacks smooth choreography and stylish staging, settling instead for a choppy, throw-everything-at-the-show approach.

The plot compensates with multiple themes. The romantic triangle featuring Sally, Tony and Harriet crackles with envy, deception and hidden agendas. The class divide between Nob Hill and Barbary Coast is either a permanent schism separating the riffraff from the snobs, or an exaggerated creation in Tony's head. The election sub-story reveals neighbourhood dependencies but also the potential for pragmatic exploitation in search of political gain. And Katie's arrival in the new world is a window to the hopes, dreams, and risks embedded in the immigrant experience.

Nob Hill benefits from four memorable characters. George Raft aims at a Rick Blaine vibe and gets close. As the town's prime entertainer Vivian Blaine shines on stage but is otherwise given little to do. Joan Bennett's role is smaller but more manipulative as Harriet wields the charm weapons available only to the rich. And young Peggy Ann Garner steals the show, injecting wide-eyed tender innocence and no shortage of courage as she first seeks to understand the adult world then strives to make it better.

It may not always be the talk of the town, but Nob Hill is still worth the climb.



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