Friday, August 22, 2008

I Am the Law (Columbia, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I watched last night was one I hadn’t seen before but it came from Turner Classic Movies’ recent “Summer Under the Stars” day-long tribute to Edward G. Robinson — I Am the Law, made at Columbia in 1938 and inspired, like Warners’ Marked Woman and quite a lot of other films back then, by Thomas E. Dewey’s more or less successful crusades against gangsters and racketeers in New York City. This isn’t set in New York, but in a small university town in Hollywood’s generic version of the Midwest, in which Robinson’s character, John Lindsay — an ironic character name! — is a law professor who’s understandably proud of the caliber of students he’s graduated over the years, and in particular of newly minted young lawyer Paul Ferguson (John Beal, looking even more like James Stewart than usual). Lindsay has been forced into taking a sabbatical year and his wife Jerry (Barbara O’Neil) has booked them on a round-the-world cruise, but when Lindsay goes to a movie theatre to relax one afternoon and arrives just as the place has been smoke-bombed and the patrons are fleeing in panicked disgust, he realizes that the city is infested with racketeers and nobody being victimized will testify against them for fear of retaliation. Paul Ferguson’s father Eugene (Otto Kruger) wangles an appointment for him as special prosecutor with authority to go after the rackets in the city, and Lindsay eagerly accepts.

What he doesn’t know — but we’re told almost immediately — is that Eugene Ferguson is actually the rackets boss of the entire city and has engineered Lindsay’s appointment to keep the state governor from calling in a militia or doing any sort of stronger response to the crime problem. The elder Ferguson is counting on Lindsay’s naïveté to make sure he doesn’t actually prosecute anything, but just to make sure he’s also infiltrated spies into Lindsay’s staff, particularly one especially creepy stool pigeon who’d been a career D.A. staff member for six years and who’s on the phone to Ferguson when Lindsay is about to do anything that might jeopardize the interests of the gangs — of which, though Ferguson is in overall control, there are basically two, led by rival gangsters Eddie Girard (Marc Lawrence) and Kom Cronin (Joe Downing), both of whom are hitting up the same restaurateurs, merchants, soda fountain owners, milkmen and other small fry for “protection” money and essentially fighting out their gang war on neutral turf and creating quite a lot of collateral damage. Between them, they’ve got the townspeople so intimidated that nobody will testify against them.

Lindsay hooks up with Frankie Ballou (Wendy Barrie in an intriguing good-bad girl performance) and makes her a sort of Baedeker’s to the local rackets, unaware that she, a former reporter, is also the mistress of Eugene Ferguson (and their rather kinky scenes together prefigure the ones between Louis Calhern and Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle 12 years later). He finds out about their connection when he goes through a file of old newspaper clippings and finds that she did an interview with him during her days as a reporter, and he’s concerned to keep from Paul Ferguson, who’s now his number one assistant on the investigation, that his dad is a crook. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s wife Jerry seeks out the wife (Fay Helm) of dairyman J. W. Butler (Louis Jean Heydt, a striking-looking, charismatic and talented actor who should have become much bigger than he was) and convinces her to get him to testify — only when Paul Ferguson goes to the Butlers’ home to fetch him, a member of the gang beats him to it, kidnaps Butler and kills him.

This leads the city government to cut off funding for Lindsay’s investigation — only he decides to continue independently, firing his spy-ridden staff and using his former law students instead, getting the money from loan sharks (figuring he’ll never have to pay them back since he’s going to be putting them out of business) and swearing that he’ll use whatever methods he has to, including gangland’s own, to stop them. (This makes I Am the Law a sort of semi-remake of The Beast of the City — though without that film’s almost hallucinatory power — and, surprisingly given Robinson’s real-life politics, this movie takes a Right-wing position that the war on crime is too important to maintain constitutional liberties and due-process guarantees.) It all ends in a confrontation in which Lindsay invites the witnesses to his home, has all the gangsters arrested on shaky grounds, and gives the witnesses the now-or-never pitch that it’s time for them to identify the gangsters who’ve been terrorizing and extorting from them. Eugene Ferguson commits suicide in a roundabout way — he accepts the loan of Lindsay’s car, aware that his gang members have wired it to explode as soon as it’s started — after Lindsay has extracted a will from him deeding most of his ill-gotten fortune to a crime victims’ fund, so Paul can continue his illustrious career without the burden of a crooked father holding him back.

I Am the Law was made at Columbia under a clause in Robinson’s Warners contract that allowed him to do one film a year elsewhere, though why he should have used that to make so conventional a movie — and one so much in the Warners’ vein — while he was simultaneously pressuring Jack Warner to green-light his personal project, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, is a mystery. It’s basically your standard-issue Edward G. Robinson as good guy fighting the gangsters (instead of playing one) movie, and it suffers from uncertainty of tone and a miscast screenwriter. Jo Swerling was best known as a comedy writer — and a damned good one, too — but he’s the wrong scribe for a tough gangster picture; throughout the movie he tries to inject quirky humor into the story and it falls flat. The director, Alexander Hall, was also known mostly for comedies, and though his 1949 Bob Hope vehicle The Great Lover is surprisingly dark for a Hope film, it’s clear he’s more at home in lighter fare than I Am the Law is clearly supposed to be.

Aside from those weird streaks of comedy, some of which work (like the kinky scenes between Otto Kruger and Wendy Barrie, and the scene William K. Everson recalled in his book The Detective in Film in which Robinson seems to intuit via ESP that Byron Foulger was the mole in his office who fingered the dairyman who was about to turn state’s evidence and gives him a thorough tongue-lashing about his “shifty eyes and weak chin”) and more of which don’t (like the almost slapsticky fight between rival gangsters at a posh nightclub where Mrs. Lindsay runs into Mr. Lindsay with Frankie and, of course, leaps to the wrong impression), I Am the Law is a Warners-type movie that isn’t as good as it would have been back at Robinson’s home studio, though it’s still reliably entertaining and there are some clichés Swerling (adapting a news story called “Tracking New York’s Crime Barons” by Fred Allhoff in the October 31, 1936 issue of Liberty — you know, the one that just about then predicted that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in that year’s Presidential election) wisely avoided. He didn’t have Frankie seduce Paul Ferguson into betraying the investigation, nor did he have her turn good at the end and/or fall genuinely in love with Paul — all of which I was anticipating, and dreading.