Outside a palatial mansion that is identified by a block of sculpted stone bearing the name “Hansen,” a crowd of onlookers has gathered to watch as policemen and other authority figures drive up in cars and through a set of iron gates. Inside the house, there’s a full-blown crisis in progress: the son of Kurt Hansen (Herbert Rawlinson) has been snatched by kidnappers and a ransom of 00,000 is being asked for his safe return. Despite the admonitions of FBI agent Reed (Frank Conroy) not to give in to the crooks’ demands and let the Federal boys handle the case, Hansen agrees to pay what they ask.
The story then diverts its attention to a young couple, Joe and Loretta Martin (Edward Norris, Rochelle Hudson), who find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere (and in a downpour) because Joe, in the tradition of so many movie and TV husbands, was convinced that he “knew a shortcut.” With their infant daughter in tow, Joe and Loretta find an abandoned farmhouse in which to seek shelter…and yet it seems odd that a residence that’s been unoccupied for so long would feature a well-stocked pantry of canned goods, a recent newspaper and brand-new sleeping cots…not to mention wood for the fireplace.
The Martins soon learn why their temporary shelter has so many amenities: it is the hideout of the four men who were responsible for the Hansen kidnapping. Tobey (Cesar Romero), Pitch (Bruce Cabot), Buzz (Edward Brophy) and Gimp (Warren Hymer), despite their successful kidnapping caper, are unable to keep secret from the Martins the fact that they are the men on the run. Pitch, who has both a hair-trigger temper and a heavy pull on the bottle, is all for eliminating the couple and their baby…but Tobey’s idea is to take Joe into town and spend a little of the ransom in order to make certain none of the cash contains marked bills.
The gang’s hunch was right—the FBI did substitute traceable money in the ransom (humorously, agent Reed nonchalantly mentions this while refusing to go into detail as to how it was done) and what’s more…several people have identified Joe as the plunger who spent most of the loot in neighboring towns. Tobey insists that if they just lay low they’ll be able to ride out this complication but the other three gang members insist on cutting out…particularly when the Martins’ dog runs off with some of the bills—he’s shot down by Pitch, but the resourceful mutt manages to reach safety.
(Rochelle Hudson and Edward Norris)
The three dissenters make a break for it: Gimp is shot down while trying to escape the cops at the train station, while Buzz winds up dead after the law ambushes him and Pitch a few miles outside a gas station. Pitch, though wounded, is able to make his way back to the house where Joe and Loretta are pleading with Tobey to let them go so that they can get medical attention for their sick baby. Pitch talks Tobey into throwing in with him on a second escape…but double-crosses him at the last minute. As the long arm of the law starts to close in on Pitch (they’ve been able to suss out the location of the hideout), he’s gunned down by Loretta…and the Martins receive a hefty award for their efforts.
The studio we now recognize as 20th Century Fox wasn’t always designated as such. The founding of Fox dates all the way back to the silent era in 1915, and while the studio was one of the major film factories in Hollywood for twenty years; Fox was in serious financial straits by the spring of 1935. A merger with the independent Twentieth Century Pictures would be the only way to save the studio.
Twentieth Century, formed in 1933 by former United Artists president Joseph Schenck, Warner Bros’ Darryl F. Zanuck, Fox’s William Goetz and comedian-turned-producer Raymond Griffith, was sort of the Miramax of its era; despite being a small studio, Twentieth Century had already released two films—The House of Rothschild (1934) and Les Misérables (1935)—that had been nominated for Best Picture Oscars. The reason why the studio that resulted from their merger with Fox wasn’t called Fox Twentieth Century was that Century, despite its independent status, was more profitable and possessed more talent than its bigger brother. The new company began trading as 20th Century-Fox (dropping the hyphen in 1985) on May 31, 1935.
Show Them No Mercy! was one of the last films to be branded with the Twentieth Century appellation (it would be followed by A Message to Garcia and an all-French version of the previously-released Folies Bergère) and with a story-screenplay courtesy of Kubec Glasmon (who also contributed to such films as Blonde Crazy and Three on a Match), it is very much in keeping with the hard-hitting crime melodramas so popular throughout the 1930s. Released to VHS in the 1990s, Mercy! was a hard-to-locate treat for many years (though it did occasionally surface on the Fox Movie Channel) but with an MOD release in 2012 as part of Fox’s Cinema Archives, it’s available for reappraisal and I personally think it doesn’t disappoint.
Mercy! benefits from the four strong performances that comprise the kidnapping quartet—with Cesar Romero displaying a bottomless reservoir of charm as the leader. His Tobey—who whistles, sings and dances with himself around the hideout in several scenes—actually comes across as a fairly sympathetic sort despite the severity of his crime. (Which is not to say that Tobey should be dismissed lightly—you just sort of wish he had gone into some other line of work; he would have made a great gigolo.) Bruce Cabot, as the treacherous Pitch, provides the right amount of menace as a thug who’s not to be trusted…as Tobey learns much too late to his dismay.
Whenever the call went out for an actor to play a dumb hood, you can bet Warren Hymer’s name was on the sheet…and yet, Hymer’s portrayal of Gimp (so named because he walks with a limp) is a little different than the usual hoods the actor plays in that he demonstrates he has a little Moxie on the ball. When Hymer’s Gimp is making his getaway, he raises the twelve dollars he needs for train fare by stopping at a number of churches to exchange his marked money in the collection plate. (Gimp is only tripped up because he misses the deadline for the reduced fare by an hour, and in paying with a marked bill he is soon set upon by the police.) Finally, character great Edward Brophy provides much comic relief as Buzz, a goon who engages in a little physical comedy by falling through the floorboards of the front porch a couple of times when he is vexed by a nettlesome woodpecker.
If the lighter moments are courtesy of Glasmon’s script—then director George Marshall was just the man needed to balance both the comedy and melodrama. Marshall is often dismissed as merely a journeyman, but he had a talent for tackling comedies with serious themes and vice versa, responsible for helming such films as Destry Rides Again (1939), The Ghost Breakers (1940), Murder, He Says (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). The comedic tone of Show Them No Mercy! allows the audience a bit of a breather between the movie’s more suspenseful moments…and you can’t say that Marshall skimps on the action, with the memorably violent climax as proof of that.
Mercy! is not without its weaknesses. I realize that the emphasis is on the gang and not their captives, but Edward Norris—with the exception of They Won’t Forget (1937) and Boys Town (1938)—always comes across to me as a fairly bland, non-descript presence; around my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear he’s remembered as the lackluster hero of a 1945 serial called Jungle Queen…which was so awful it took me two years to finish watching it. Rochelle Hudson, as Norris’ leading lady, fares a little better (and she’s pretty adept with a tommy gun) though she was much more delightful in the Will Rogers vehicles Doctor Bull (1933) and Life Begins at 40 (1935). Most of the actors in this movie—particularly the ones playing the law enforcement types—aren’t particular standouts…though I did chuckle when I spotted Bowery Boy William “Billy” Benedict in a tree during the opening scenes.
It’s refreshing to see neglected classics like Show Them No Mercy! surface on DVD—and in the case of this film it’s important because Mercy! provided a blueprint for the later Rawhide, a 1951 western starring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward that screenwriter Dudley Nichols borrowed for the tale of a man and a woman at the mercy of four would-be stagecoach bandits. If your taste runs toward the gritty social drama that was the trademark of Warner Bros in the 1930s, Twentieth Century copied it to perfection in this first-rate film.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix…because he’s the only one who’ll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.