Directed by Lewis Allen
Screenplay by W. R. Burnett and James R. Webb
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Few those familiar with the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, few names strike a chord like Edward G. Robinson. Shorter than most of his co-stars perhaps, what the actor lacked in physical stature he made up for with a lively personality and charm in bringing his roles to life, so much so that he made quite a name for himself playing especially tough characters in the early days of his career over at Warner Brothers in films the likes of Little Caesar (1931). Remembering Robinson purely as a tough thug paints an incomplete picture for his roles were far more diverse, as exemplified in Lewis Allen’s courtroom noir, Illegal.
Illegal takes the notion of starting off a movie with a bang in the most literal sense possible, as a young woman in her washroom is taken by surprise by a man who sneaks in with a pistol. The camera never reveals the gunman’s identity, preferring to rest on the firearm as it launches no less than six bullets into the fragile woman’s body. Cut to a courtroom, where District attorney Victor Scott (Edward G. Robinson), a man some say will one day be the next state governor, is milking everything he can out of the sad case to earn his side yet another victory. When the verdict declares to accused to be guilty of the murder, Vic and his assistant Ellen Miles (Nina Foch) go out for a early celebration, although their elation is quickly squashed when the D.A. Receives word that the man he sent to the chair was in fact innocent. Psychologically broken, Vic goes on a heavy drinking binge, leading himself into trouble with the law for public disturbance. Rather than destroy him entirely, this misadventure leads him to a new career as a defence attorney. He may be fighting for the other side now, in particular for those under the employment of crime boss Frank Garland’s (Albert Dekker) for his dirty work, but winning is still what matters most.
Lewis Allen’s film, despite its different setting, is a fine example of the noir genre for reasons that will be explored shortly, but first and foremost the performance of star Edward G. Robinson should receive every ounce of credit it deserves. Right from the first moment the actor appears on screen in that early courtroom scene, there is an indication that this Robinson character differs from so many that have come before. Vic Scott is highly educated, highly intelligent in manners of the law and presents himself with an all around sense of sophistication where so many of his previous characters existed with a harder. He remains good old Edward G. (his character even briefly mentions at one point that he grew up in a rough neighbourhood), but this is a different version of the man. He thus moulds his performance in accordance with what the script and director ask of him, with the results proving to be highly engaging, and nearly his most engaging performance ever, although that may be declaring a bit too much. He is witty, he refuses to take abuse from anybody, but this is a more mannered version of Robinson. Even some of the lines he utters seem to have been tailored to the type of character he portrays in the film. Rather than toss around boisterously catchy phrases, the comedic quips feel more natural and intellectually based. The most compelling aspect about the entire performance is that for the better part of the picture he is fighting alongside the many villains of the piece, just as he would have in his famous gangster films, only this time it is through far more legal, respectable means. An interesting twist for the actor, he turns in a fine performance to be sure.
A proper film noir will always present a story and characters who share ambiguous traits. In those respects, Illegal adapts itself nicely to the genre in some potent ways. For one, the film is never apologetic with regards to the protagonists switched alliances. Many people he knew, most notably Ellen Miles, still work for the D. A.’s office (under a new employer at this point, obviously), yet this is not a matter Vic concerns himself with. He has always emerged victorious from his courtroom battles and he has no intention of ever seeing that change. There is an interesting line of dialogue said just after the wrongfully presumed guilty debacle, a line which succinctly defines Vic: ‘I’d rather see a hundred guilty men go free than convict another innocent man.’ As a philosophy that carries a significant amount of weight, clearly defining the sort of principles which drive him. Despite their being hints up until that point at the DNA of his psychological makeup, that bit of dialogue truly carries over as everything about him takes shape for the remainder of the story. Illegal has its central figure abruptly change sides at a critical moment in his life and career, although not for unethical reasons. He is a ruthlessly effective lawyer, no matter who it is he is tasked with defending for accusing, hence his willingness to pursue a career despite the less savoury nature of the people he works from now. That sort of ethical murkiness is a hallmark of the genre, it practically defining the genre itself, only this is one of the rare occasions when the main figures act out their battles in the courtroom, adding a nice twist to the proceedings. All good films must raise the stakes to keep the audience on its toes, and here as well, when it is discovered that a rat from within the new D.A.’s office is leaking critical information to crime boss (and Vic’s current main client) Frank Garland, director Lewis Allen carefully plays his cards in a way that neither feels too forced yet comfortably fits into the confines of the genre. The truth behind the ordeal presents a landmine of risks, putting Vic in the most awkward position imaginable. Whatever he chooses to do, he puts himself and either close associates or close friends in jeopardy.
Notwithstanding a few issues the film must work around, such as an overly dramatic climax and some weak ‘on the nose’ dialogue cheaply delivered by some supporting players (the news reporter who continuously follows Vic around, sneering snoopy questions, hoping to get a hold of some controversial news, is one of the most poorly performed and annoying characters in the film), Illegal still stands tall by the end title card. The cleverness by which it transports familiar dramatic beats of the genre into the world of courtroom drama is impressive, and Robinson’s performance is second to none.