Rowland Brown's snarling Pre-Code feature Blood Money was thought lost for decades, perhaps out of wishful thinking for decency's sake. The story of cop-turned-amoral bondsman Bill Bailey (George Bancroft), Blood Money is an unsentimental, occasionally repellent dive into the criminal underworld by way of one of its transitory members. Bill talks a big game and hands out Cuban cigars by the handful, but his arrogance is tempered by the quiet knowledge that the criminals he considers friends and allies will desert him at the earliest sign of trouble.
The Depression-era underworld Brown drifts through is a topsy-turvy fever dream of transvestism, bootlegging and sadomasochism. There's no moral to offset the madness of the film's crime-ridden social pits; if anything, Brown considers crime a completely viable form of business in the Depression. Without it, how would you know you were in the city?
Brown's film has some of the awkward pacing of the early talkies, but his brutal wit manages to box back any snags in the narrative. Innuendo infuses nearly every line, and Brown's blunt visual style keeps matters so off-keel that the occasional moments of stiffness never slow down the nightmare. Bill's movements through speakeasies and racetracks offer some baffling sights: a woman in drag (complete with monocle) stands like a butler at a party. When Bill offers her a cigar, she drawls, "You big cissy" like a disappointed father. Even stranger, Bill wheezes with uncontrollable laughter, one of several indications that he too might fall somewhere in-between sexual roles.
Some of the film's transgressiveness isn't even intentional but the result of retrospective career evaluations. Frances Dee, who would later be known for more wholesome roles and her early retirement to raise a family, here plays a bored rich girl slumming around the underworld to tend to her dark fetishes. She shoplifts for the fun of it, suggests a bisexuality primarily based on a need to screw whomever's nearest, and a sadomasochism she pins down to a need for someone to "give me a good thrashing." Judith Anderson, one of the great stage actresses of the era, makes her film debut as Ruby, a speakeasy madam and Bill's only true friend in the world. Despite her talent, Anderson only ever got cast as the gruesome hag in film because of her looks, and Brown's nonjudgmental view of his characters is perhaps best exemplified by his casting of her as a sex symbol and the only character in the film with anything approaching true beauty.
But that's not to say Brown condemns anyone else. He prefers instead to show the blurred lines that separate out the various touchstones of civilized society. As has been said, gender and sexual distinctions muddy with the cross-dressing and sexual ambiguity. Naturally, Brown also erases the thin blue line separating cop from criminal: Bill spends his nights carousing around the underworld, but he can also rub elbows with legitimate businessmen, even the D.A. himself. The cops do chase the criminals, but they also seem to accept the idea of crime; after all, without it, they'd have no job.
That unspoken agreement between the law and the street trash forms the basis for the climax: Drury, Ruby's deadbeat jailbird brother, robs a bank as soon has he gets out of prison, a move that threatens a life sentence. Bill, for Ruby's sake, gives him the bail money, but Elaine, smitten with this dangerous criminal, swaps out Bill's cash for worthless bonds and absconds with the robber, who thinks himself Scot-free. When the bail bounces, people assume Bill shortchanged Drury, and the one thing that cannot be forgiven in this sleazy world is a double-cross. Even Ruby, who clearly still loves Bill despite his faded attraction to her, cannot abide such a transgression, and her organization of the criminal elements against him seems more a response to this breaking of the rules than any emotional attachment to her own flesh and blood.
The climax of the film is hilarious and, considering its utter lack of redemption, oddly touching. The mob uses an 8-ball packed with explosives to kill Bill while he's playing pool (a reference to a similar, albeit lighter, element taken from Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., perhaps?). The truth is uncovered with only minutes to spare, leading to a brilliantly cross-cut sequence of Ruby racing to the billiards hall as Bailey has an almost unfortunately good game that speeds him through his shots. But when the crisis is averted, Bill and Ruby get back together as if they'd just come through the typical rom-com Big Misunderstanding. Elaine, dumped by Drury for making him an unwitting traitor, runs into a woman walking out of an office in tatters, sobbing that she answered an ad about modeling work and was instead viciously assaulted. Elaine forcefully asks where she can find the man, but before she marches off, the look of pure lust and hunger on her face suggests she isn't going to go put a stop to the man's violent streak.
Spared the moral shackles of the Hays Code, Brown never has to worry about saddling his film with a message. Because of this, his grimy portrait of an amoral society actually feels more identifiably human despite its lunacy. Brown doesn't judge anyone for his or her weirdness, doesn't validate the system after spending so much time in the depths of it. There's no outright violence or sex in Blood Money, but it feels dirtier than the glorified softcore porn that passes for action fare these days. But for all its sordid detail and for-the-cheap-seats acting, Blood Money is still an engaging and unexpectedly intelligent film. I've not seen many Pre-Code pictures, but this ranks among my favorites.