A Lion Is in the Streets - Warner Archive CollectionOverview -
James Cagney roars in A Lion Is in the Streets, but all his sound and fury don't signify as much as most film fans might like. Though directed with gusto by Raoul Walsh and featuring a strong cast, this little-known, thinly veiled portrait of politician and demagogue Huey Long rarely rises above the mundane. Robust audio and a remastered transfer struck from the original negatives that showcase the lush Technicolor photography distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of this rare Cagney curio. Worth a Look.
Tension boils over in a rural Southern community when the tough, idealistic Hank Martin (James Cagney) backs a group of sharecroppers against their corrupt boss, Robert Castleberry (Larry Keating), who has been taking advantage of them. The two sides come to blows, and one of Martin's friends, Jeb (John McIntire), is arrested for murder and must stand trial. Meanwhile, a gangster, Guy Polli (Onslow Stevens), sees the hunger in Martin and makes it possible for him to rise in politics.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
A poor man's All the King's Men is the best way to describe A Lion Is in the Streets, another thinly disguised bio of demagogue Huey Long, the corrupt and controversial Louisiana governor and U.S. Senator who was assassinated in 1935. Though actor James Cagney and his brother, producer William Cagney, optioned the novel upon which the film is based four years before All the King's Men premiered, they couldn't make A Lion Is in the Streets until three years after writer-director Robert Rossen's movie won three Oscars, including Best Picture. It's tough not to compare the two films, and when one does, A Lion Is in the Streets can't compete with its highly lauded predecessor.
All the King's Men is a gritty, blistering, black-and-white film shot on location that brims with depth and nuance. A Lion Is in the Streets is a glossy, sanitized, largely superficial Technicolor movie filmed at Warner's Burbank studio. The differences in look and tone are so glaring, it's hard to believe the two movies depict the same character. Though both Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark in All the King's Men and Cagney's Hank Martin in A Lion Is in the Streets do a lot of roaring, A Lion Is in the Streets lacks the bite that makes All the King's Men so compelling.
That's somewhat surprising, considering A Lion Is in the Streets is directed by the great Raoul Walsh, who worked with Cagney four times and helmed two of the actor's best films, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Despite Cagney's loud, blustery, pugnacious portrayal, the folksy feel of A Lion Is in the Streets prevents us from becoming fully invested in a tale that doesn't hit its stride until its final half hour. Exteriors shot on soundstages and the obvious use of the Warner backlot to convey the swampy atmosphere of South Florida's bayou cheapens the film and heightens its artifice, while the eye-popping Technicolor softens the movie's cynical message.
"It's like learnin' to play a musical instrument by ear. All you gotta know is one place to push to get one note. Then pretty soon everyone is dancin' to your tune." That's the philosophy of Hank Martin, a pushy traveling salesman who peddles an array of wares in rural Florida. Hank uses his brash charm and sly manipulations to develop a loyal following that grows into a vociferous throng when he decides to expose the corrupt practices of a local company that buys cotton from sharecroppers. The notoriety Hank gains from that episode leads him into politics and an eventual run for governor, but his dishonesty, unscrupulous tactics, selfish dealings, and exploitation of others spur his swift downfall.
Cagney commands the screen in his inimitable way, but his Southern accent is suspect and his constant bellowing grows tiresome over time. Both Barbara Hale, who portrays Hank's loyal, loving, and long-suffering spouse, and a young Anne Francis, who plays his conniving, nubile mistress (an underdeveloped role that sadly recedes from view as the film races toward its climax), handle their chores well, but the script by Luther Davis gives them little chance to shine. Cagney's sister Jeanne, who many might remember from Yankee Doodle Dandy, gets the juiciest part (and sinks her teeth into it) and his erstwhile second banana Frank McHugh, who supported Cagney in 10 films between 1932 and 1940, joins him for what would turn out to be the final time.
Tellingly, Cagney doesn't even mention A Lion Is in the Streets in his autobiography. It's an entertaining film, but it pales when stacked against not only All the King's Men, but also other Cagney vehicles in the same vein. His largely one-note portrayal keeps the picture in the same gear throughout and keeps him from exploring the subtler facets of Hank's character. More introspection and less braggadocio would make A Lion Is in the Streets a more incisive and scarier animal.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Lion Is in the Streets arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand-new HD scan struck from the original negatives yields a vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that maximizes the impact of two-time Oscar-winner and 15-time nominee Harry Stradling Sr.'s Technicolor cinematography. A Lion Is in the Streets looks luscious on Blu-ray, but the marvelous clarity and contrast and sumptuous hues somewhat dilute the sense of realism that's such an important aspect of this type of film by calling more attention to the artifice of studio-centric moviemaking. That's a small price to pay, though, for such a vivid, lush picture.
Cagney made precious few Technicolor films, so it's a treat to see his ruddy complexion and fiery red hair on screen. Francis and her blonde tresses look lovely, and such colorful accents as a yellow taxi cab, the blue skies, and splashes of bold red provide welcome stimuli. Faint grain preserves the feel of celluloid, sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features, excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and nary a single nick or mark mar the pristine print. The day-for-night scenes appear a little bright, but that's probably baked into the original source. If you're a Cagney fan, you'll be thrilled with this top-flight rendering of a rarely-seen film.
Any film called A Lion Is in the Streets demands robust sound and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track delivers just that. Excellent fidelity and tonal depth allow Franz Waxman's bold yet whimsical score to fill the room with ease, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like clanking pots and pans, thunder, and gunshots are crisp and subtleties like rain, chirping birds, and squeaky crickets supply essential atmosphere. No distortion creeps into the mix and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased.
Warner Archive skimps a bit on the extras for this release.
Vintage Cartoon: Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (HD, 7 minutes) - This classic Looney Tunes short stars Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd, and looks fantastic in HD. I remember watching this cartoon as a kid on TV and it's just as funny today as it was a half-century ago.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - An extended clip from the early part of the film comprises this odd preview.
If you're looking for the best thinly veiled account of Huey Long's rise and fall, watch All the King's Men, but if you're craving some Cagney and don't mind a less incisive portrait of Long, check out A Lion Is in the Streets. Cagney's magnetism carries director Raoul Walsh's film and Warner Archive's remastered HD transfer maximizes its Technicolor splendor. Extras are slim, but robust audio allows this little-known Lion to roar. Worth a Look.
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