Friday, June 13, 2014

Criminal Lawyer (Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the 1951 film Criminal Lawyer, one of the odd items TCM showed about a month ago as part of a tribute to actress Jane Wyatt. It turned out to be a nice 74-minute quasi-noir “B” in which Pat O’Brien, seedier and considerably more restrained as an actor than usual, played alcoholic attorney James Edward Reagan (incidentally the last name is pronounced “REE-gun,” the way Ronald Reagan pronounced his name when he was an actor, not the “RAY-gun” pronunciation Ronnie adopted when he got into politics). Reagan is a standard-issue high-class shyster, following a character template set in the early 1930’s based on such flamboyant real-life attorneys as New York’s Bill Fallon and L.A.’s Earl Rogers (Rogers was the father of Hearst reporter turned screenwriter Adela Rogers St. John and was Erle Stanley Gardner’s real-life model for the character of Perry Mason). He’s skilled at winning acquittals for gangsters and high-paying clients by staging scenes outside the courtroom that convince juries to vote his way; in the opening scene he discredits the one eyewitness to a killing committed by gangster Vincent Cheney (Mickey Knox) by staging a scene in which the two get photographed together but the witness didn’t recognize Cheney when the picture was taken, contradicting his statement that “I’d know him anywhere.” Reagan alternates between periods of relative sobriety (there’s a clever and amusing scene in which he’s at a bar drinking … milk, which the bartender shame-facedly confesses he’s never served anyone before) and full-scale binges that are jeopardizing not only his legal skills but his physical health as well. The plot by Harold R. Greene shows off the skill of old-time screenwriters at packing numerous incidents in a relatively short (74-minute) running time, as Reagan gets nominated for a judgeship and hopes the promotion will get him out of the sleazy business of representing high-paying clients and getting them off on legal but unethical tricks. Only his judicial appointment first has to be approved by the Bar Association, and a well-connected state senator, Tucker Bourne (Carl Benton Reid), sandbags the appointment.

Then Bill Webber (Darryl Hickman), ne’er-do-well son of 1-percenter Melville Webber (Wallis Clark), gets arrested for manslaughter — he was on his way home from a drunken party when he ran down and killed a pedestrian — and Webber père and Bourne see Reagan together and basically say that if Reagan takes Bill’s case and gets him off, the judgeship will be his. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the judicial appointment, Reagan has turned over both his law office and his long-suffering secretary Maggie Powell (Jane Wyatt) to his partner, Clark P. Sommers (Robert Shayne in a quite good Warren William-style performance), and Sommers has cut a deal with gangster Harry Cheney (Douglas Fowley), Vincent’s brother, to represent him exclusively in exchange for a cut of the profits from Cheney’s criminal enterprises. By staging three fake accidents in which members of the Webber jury nearly run down pedestrians themselves — the “pedestrians” are actually actors hired by Reagan, who’s masterminding Webber’s defense behind the scenes even though Sommers is actually the attorney appearing in court — Reagan wins Bill Webber’s acquittal, only he’s confronted at his home by Mrs. Johnson (Mary Ann Hokanson), widow of Bill Webber’s victim, who pulls a gun on Reagan and tells him that the money the Webber family was originally going to pay her as a settlement instead went to Reagan as a fee, and therefore she is destitute. Reagan’s conscience and his alcoholism both go into overdrive at this revelation, and he’s traced down after a week-long binge by his long-suffering chauffeur, Moose Hendricks (Mike Mazurki, the marvelous character actor from Murder, My Sweet ­— once again cast as a character named “Moose”!), an ex-wrestler Reagan once saved from a murder charge. Then Harry Cheney is found clubbed to death in his apartment and Moose is arrested for the crime; Reagan comes back and at first is unsteady on his feet in the courtroom, but later pulls himself together and establishes not only that Moose is innocent but the real killer is … frankly, I was expecting it to be Reagan himself having killed Cheney in a drunken stupor and then forgotten about the crime when he sobered up, but instead [spoiler alert!] it’s Sommers, who fought with Cheney when Cheney wanted to renegotiate their deal and hit him with a bowling trophy Cheney had won years before and kept displayed on his desk. Criminal Lawyer is the sort of movie that doesn’t break any ground — though the script does achieve originality through an artful and unusual blending of clichés — but does achieve the sort of reliable entertainment the studio system (just breaking down when this film was made) was good at, and it’s better than average in its understated but still very much discernible social critique of how people with money (legally or illegally obtained) can buy favorable treatment from the courts and thereby avoid paying for crimes that the 99 percent get popped for and sentenced to long prison terms.