erik lundegaard

Monday August 01, 2022

Movie Review: Illegal (1955)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Edward G. Robinson plays a district attorney who convicts “Star Trek”’s Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) of murder, then finds evidence he was innocent but is too late to stop the execution. He descends into booze, loses his job to “Get Smart”’s Chief (Edward Platt), loses his girl to “Another World”’s Jim Mathews (Hugh Marlowe), but with the help of his assistant, Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby), takes on the bad guys, including Roger Manning, Space Cadet (Jan Merlin), and saves the day.

You get the idea. “Illegal” was a cheap B picture made at the fulcrum of old movies and new television.

It doesn’t speak much of new television. Or it speaks to something odd in the culture—that the dynamic, ethnic heroes of Warner Bros.’s early talkies (Robinson, whose ethnicity kept shifting; Cagney, whose ethnicity didn’t), were replaced by dull WASPs—that mid-century, “FBI”ish thing. Do we blame Joseph Breen and the PCA for pushing us in this direction or is it what we wanted? Either way, it's Robinson, licking his wounds after HUAC and trying not to fall too far, and the others trying to hold onto their rung of the ladder and possibly ascend. This is where they meet. 

“Illegal” is also the debut, or near-debut, of Jayne Mansfield. She’s the moll, but smart, and piano-playing, and the final surprise witness. She’s definitely doing Marilyn but she’s not full-on Jayne Mansfield yet. She seems like she might be a person.

Decking and drinking
Robinson plays Victor Scott, who crawled up from the gutter to become D.A. but then lost it all. It’s not just guilt over the death of “Bones”; it’s that, without prosecution he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not really interested in corporate law and/or the corporate types shun him. It’s not until he winds up in court on a drunk and disorderly and hears a man pleading his innocence that the light bulb goes on: Oh right, I could be a criminal defense attorney. The most obvious path from prosecution.

As such, we see him get clients off by: 1) literally decking a witness, and 2) literally drinking poison, which is Exhibit A in the case. He pretends it’s not poison, but it is, just slow-acting, so when the prosecution asks for a recess to regroup, he goes to get his stomach pumped. But … I don’t know. Destroying evidence? And doesn’t this mean his client was guilty?

The girl he loses early, his former assistant, is Ellen Miles, played by Nina Foch, who played the rich bitch in “An American in Paris.” You know she wasn’t even 30 when that movie came out? Here, she’s the daughter of a judge whom Scott helped raise, and she has a thing for him despite this and the difference in their ages. Scott feels she’s better off elsewhere and pushes her into the arms of his assistant, Ray Borden (Marlowe), who winds up a crum-bum mole for the mob in the D.A.’s office. Plus he's a jerk of a husband. Plus he’s a jerk to Jayne Mansfield.

The second half of the movie is basically: Scott rises as a defense attorney while trying to steer clear of mob boss Frank Garland (Albert Dekker). At the same time, the new D.A., Ralph Ford (Platt), tries to find the leak in his office. Both come to a head when Ellen overhears her husband plotting with Garland, he hears that she overhears, and she has to kill him in self-defense. Sadly, District Attorney Ford is such an idiot he assumes Ellen was the leak, not Ray, and he puts her on trial for murder. So Scott has to defend her without implicating Garland.

That last part is silly, too, and goes away when Garland uses creepy hit man Andy Garth (Merlin) to try to off Scott, who winds up gut-shot but insists on calling surprise witness Angel O’Hara (Mansfield), who can testify that Ray called Garland a lot, including the night of his murder. And he was a jerk besides.

So the prosecution drops its case just in time for Scott to die on the courtroom floor. Mother of mercy, is this the end of Victor Scott? It is.

Stuff dreams are made of
Why “Illegal” as a title? I guess for the pulpiness of it. Probably should’ve had an exclamation point. That’s what the movie feels like. Like it makes up for its lack with SENSATIONALISM!

It was produced on the cheap by Frank Rosenberg, whose upcoming film, “Miracle in the Rain,” can also be spotted here on a movie marquee. What else can be spotted? Believe it or not, the Maltese Falcon—or a Maltese Falcon. It’s on the top shelf in a bookcase in the D.A.’s office. I guess because Warner Bros. needed to fill background? “What do we got in the prop closet?” “Well, it’s this or the letters of transit from 'Casablanca.'” Meanwhile, those Degas and Gauguin originals that Scott admires in Garland’s office are in fact Degas and Gauguin originals. They belonged to Robinson, an art lover, and he lent them to the production. I like that his character says “I’ve always had to content myself with reproductions” when they’re actually his.

Despite the cheapness, there’s still talent in the room. Max Steiner does the music, and the screenplay was co-written by W.R. Burnett, who wrote the original “Little Caesar,” as well as “High Sierra,” “The Asphalt Jungle” and even “The Great Escape.” Robinson is his usual professional self, while Jan Merlin impresses as the porkpie-hat wearing hit man. Something about his character just feels off. Like he could’ve played perverse Richard Widmark-type roles. Maybe he did.

The rest is a lot of bland WASPy stuff that will wind up on television. And Mansfield, the shape of things to come.

Just a knick-knack on the shelf. 

Posted at 07:38 AM on Monday August 01, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s  
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