Monday, October 15, 2012

Midnight Court (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Midnight Court, a typical 1937 “B” from Warner Bros. that featured Ann Dvorak and John Litel (not exactly names to conjure with in Hollywood history) in a surprisingly grim tale about an auto-theft ring being led by Al Kruger (William Davidson) and his sidekick/enforcer Slim Jacobs (Stanley Fields). They get homeless teenagers to steal cars for them, then repaint them, alter their serial numbers and sell them as supposedly “legitimate” used cars. Kruger says to Slim that the only person he has to worry about is former district attorney Victor Shanley (John Litel), who thanks to Kruger’s connections was defeated for re-election two years before and is now a major alcoholic, hanging out at the skid-row place Kruger owns and getting himself busted for vagrancy and intoxication in a police raid. (The fact that the cops could just walk into a bar and bust everybody there for no particular reason is pretty chilling in and of itself.) Victor ends up in night court, where his ex-wife Carol O’Neil (Ann Dvorak) is the court reporter, but he’s bailed out by Kruger, who wants to sober up Victor so he can become the attorney for his gang. Victor goes along — screenwriters Don Ryan (who apparently was a Los Angeles reporter who specialized in covering night courts) and Kenneth Gamet depict him as so embittered by his fall that he’s willing to put his ethics aside and do whatever corrupt work Kruger wants from him, especially since it turns out to be lucrative — and in his first trial as Kruger’s “mouthpiece” he wins the acquittal of Bob Terrill (Carlyle Moore, Jr.), a basically decent kid who got caught up in Kruger’s auto-theft ring. Victor tries to have it both ways, doing Kruger’s dirty work but also courting his ex and trying to convince her to come back to him by saying he’s still basically a decent guy. He reaches out to Bob, offering to help him go to college if he straightens out and quits Kruger’s operation, but Kruger, afraid that if Bob makes a legitimate life for himself he’ll rat out the gang, has Slim kill him and fake it to look like either an accident or suicide by sticking his body into one of the stolen cars and sending it off a cliff. (This being a 60-minute “B” at the lowest end of Warners’ output, this scene is not actually shown.)

Victor is appalled, and when Carol chews him out and says he’s basically responsible for Bob’s death, he agrees and gets himself fired by Kruger. Two months later Victor appears in night court again and agrees to serve as special prosecutor in the case against Kruger and Slim, who’ve finally been busted by the police. Naturally, Kruger’s new lawyer challenges Victor’s appearance, noting that he can’t use anything he learned about Kruger when he was working for him because it would violate attorney-client privilege, but Victor convinces the judge (Joseph Crehan) that he’ll base the case entirely on things that happened after he stopped working for Kruger. Using a blank piece of paper as a bluff, Victor claims that Bob kept a list of the original serial numbers of all the cars Kruger’s ring stole and altered, and he tricks Slim into confessing that the cars were altered. Some of Kruger’s men smuggle guns into the courtroom and try to kill Victor in mid-trial, but Carol catches on and sneaks out a note to the police, who arrive in time to shoot down the gunmen instead, and Victor has both his moral redemption and his reconciliation with Carol. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this film except the way it anticipates a later (and much better movie), Party Girl (1958), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Robert Taylor as a corrupt Mob attorney (in that case Taylor is disabled — he has a limp in his leg — and he gets surgery that corrects both his physical disability and, in effect, his moral one: the idea was he turned corrupt because of his bitterness over his condition) who eventually comes clean and helps bust the Mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) he used to work for. Ray’s film is considerably deeper, richer, longer and better acted (Robert Taylor was one of those performers who actually improved as an actor once he aged and could no longer “coast” on his looks) but the two track surprisingly closely plot-wise, and Midnight Court is a nice example of the sort of reliable, professionally made entertainment the studios could do even on a “B” budget.