Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 22, 2023)
Despite a title that implies a large feline on the prowl, 1953’s A Lion Is In the Streets involves no ferocious cats. Instead, it looks at politics.
Hank Martin (James Cagney) works as a traveling salesman and uses his ample charisma to sell his wares to locals in the southern bayous. Eventually Hank crusades against an allegedly crooked mill owner (Larry Keating), a move for the working men that endears him to the population.
This acts as a springboard for a political endeavor that pushes Hank to campaign for governor. However, his darker side creates issues in terms of both career and personal life.
Four years earlier, 1949’s All the King’s Men told a fictionalized tale of Louisiana politician Huey Long. Streets follows a similar path, as it also alludes to aspects of the prominent southern politician’s life.
Viewers may also feel reminded of a later film: 1957’s A Face in the Crowd. That one told of a backwoods huckster who used his folksy charm to rise through the political ranks.
Crowd remains a prescient classic, and while Men doesn’t hold up especially well after all these decades, it stays relevant as the winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Does Streets merit consideration as an equal to those two?
Nope. A series of missteps damage its ability to fulfill its promise.
As much as I try to avoid politics in my reviews, it seems inevitable to compare Hank to Donald Trump. Both exist as con men who use their charisma to hornswoggle the population.
This same connection became clear when I watched Face in the Crowd. While I can’t claim Streets and/or Face predicted the rise of Trump, they certainly showed how an aspiring demagogue can earn the votes of a depressingly large number of Americans.
Because it concentrates on the politics, Face delivers a powerful view of the topic. Unfortunately, Streets becomes too disjointed to pack much punch.
Based on my synopsis, one might assume Hank enters politics pretty early in the tale. One might assume incorrectly, as much of the film’s first half revolves around Hank’s personal life.
We see how Hank meets/marries his wife Verity (Barbara Hale). We also follow complications related to Flamingo (Anne Francis), a much younger woman with romantic intentions aimed at Hank.
Hank’s path as social crusader winds into these elements as well. However, much of the film’s first act dwells on Hank’s personal melodrama, elements that feel contrived and downright dull.
Once Hank embarks on his attempts to stand up for the working men, matters improve somewhat – but not a lot, partly because Streets fails to find a real groove. Even when it threatens to kick into higher gear, the film sputters.
Though undeniably a great talent, Cagney feels miscast as our lead. He plays Hank in the same fiery, angry mode he brought to his notable gangsters, and this comes across as awkward and out of place.
Cagney’s Hank simply doesn’t match the bayou vibe, as he seems more appropriate for the big city. It doesn’t help that Cagney’s stab at a southern accent flops.
Still, it’s Cagney’s manic performance that becomes the biggest drawback. One wants to tell him to switch to decaf as he devours scenery.
As noted, Streets comes with a timely tale, as the current political landscape remains bogged down with charlatans. The film also climaxes with Hank’s cries of a rigged election and a call for violent action from his followers.
Sound familiar? Despite these prescient moments, Streets largely fails to connect and seems too goofy and disjointed to serve the material well.