A long-lost Renoir, just about. In the first scene, railroad engineer Grant Withers leaps off his train, munches breakfast and banters with the diner waitress ("I’d break every rule in the book for you, Tootsie. Give us a little... butter, and leave it off the check"); the carriages slog just outside the window, Withers hops back on once he’s done eating and flirting -- a marvel, yet William Wellman just weaves it into the lifeworn whole, no big deal. Later, Withers and snappy hash-slinger Joan Blondell walk and talk on the rails, an unbroken, reverse tracking shot that concludes with Blondell’s offscreen raspberry. Kicked out of his boarding house, he moves in with pal Regis Toomey and Toomey’s wife, Mary Astor; emotions released by a casual kiss scotch their idyll, the two men fight at work, the ensuing train crash leaves Toomey blind and Withers guilt-ridden. Given 70 minutes, Wellman provides the least judgmental Hollywood portrait of an unfaithful wife until Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, anticipates La Bęte Humaine and They Drive by Night, and still sets time aside for James Cagney’s two virtuosic long-takes: Talking guy talk atop a moving train while nonchalantly ducking under an incoming overpass, then revealing a tuxedo beneath his raincoat, grabbing the gal at the ballroom entrance and soft-shoeing across the frame onto the dance floor. The first half is airy and jaunty, the second is studded with arresting expressionism (a ground-level shot of Toomey that transforms a rainy night into clashing geometric swaths, a camera that slides in and out of focus as it dollies toward the suicidal locomotive). With Fred Kohler, J. Farrell McDonald, Lillian Worth, and Walter Long. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce