The Pay-Off (1930)
“The final reward is DEATH!”
Director: Lowell Sherman
Cast: Lowell Sherman, Marian Nixon, Hugh Trevor
Synopsis: A thug robs a young engaged couple of their last few dollars. When the thug’s gang boss hears of the robbery, he gives them back their money and takes them under his wing.
Now-forgotten Lowell Sherman was a once-famous silent star nearing the end of his career when he directed and starred in The Pay-Off, a stagy adaptation of an off-Broadway play. He would be dead four years later, taken by pneumonia at the age of 46. One of his co-stars here, Hugh Trevor, would die even sooner from a botched appendix operation in 1933 at just 30-years-old.
The story must have seemed as far-fetched back in 1930 as it does today. William Janney and (perhaps) Marian Nixon play Tommy and Nancy, a young couple robbed of their savings on the eve of their wedding. Serves them right for hanging around a city park after midnight, really, but there you go. The robber is a guy called Rocky (Hugh Trevor), whom Tommy recognises from his job as a bellboy in a swanky hotel. Instead of going to the cops, Tommy and Nancy decide to get their own back by following Rocky back to the hotel and holding him up. Naturally, their plan goes wrong when Rocky’s boss Gene Fenmore (Lowell Sherman) switches off the lights in mid-robbery and the kids are disarmed in the ensuing melee. Gene takes a shine to the kids — Nancy, in particular — and takes them under his wing. The trouble is that Gene is a high class thief who fashions himself after Robin Hood (although without going through that tiresome ‘giving to the poor’ bit), and it’s not long before the members of his gang draw the unwitting kids into a job without their boss’s knowledge.
Never were there two kids as naÃ¯ve as Tommy and Nancy. They go through the entire movie in this fluffy bubble of ignorance, never understanding or questioning the motives of those around them, seeing the good in everyone, and giving no thought to any consequences that might await them. Fenmore is a dandyish crook, likeable in every respect, and director Sherman ensures that actor Sherman gets all the best lines and all the best shots. Other members of the cast orbit around him like tiny satellites captured in the aura of his magnetism, but he’s an antiquated anti-hero, a relic of a bygone age even in 1930, and it’s no wonder that, in what little time remained to him, Sherman focused more on directing than leading man duties.
(Reviewed 28th December 2013)