Monday May 23, 2022
Movie Review: You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939)
Billy Halop of the Dead End Kids is third-billed here, but he’s really the lead. The movie’s on his shoulders. Too much.
He plays Johnnie, a Hell's Kitchen punk who begins palling around with hoodlum Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart) despite the positive example of his older sister Madge (Gale Page) and her fiancé, policeman Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens). It doesn’t help that sis and Burke are bland as all get-out.
A Shawshank vibe
Early on, Johnnie steals Burke’s gun, which Frank then uses in a pawn shop robbery that goes bad: Frank kills the owner. “Yeah, with Fred’s gun,” Frank tells a distraught Johnnie. “And you give it to me. You took it from the copper’s room. … There’s a murder rap hanging over both of us.” Shortly afterward, Johnnie and Frank are picked up by the cops—but for an earlier robbery. It's Burke who's arrested for the pawn-shop murder.
At this point we’re 17 minutes into a 78-minute movie, and the rest of it boils down to this question: When will Johnnie come clean? He’s certainly worried about Burke but Frank says Burke’ll be fine. “He’s got an alibi, don’t he?” Then Burke is convicted and sentenced to death. Again Johnnie is worried, again Frank says what he says. Each iteration we get the same back-and-forth, and the emotional weight of it is always the same. Johnnie seems as worried at the idea Burke will be arrested as he is with the reality that in three hours Burke will be executed for a crime Frank committed. Plus we must get some variation of this conversation a half dozen times:
Concerned adult: You know something, Johnnie, something that will save Burke, and it’s weighing down on you. What is it?
Johnnie: I don’t know nuttin I tells ya!
Halop was good as the leader of the Dead End Kids, but you get why he never became a leading man. Put him in a suit and fedora next to Bogart and he’s just a kid playing dress up. Director Lewis Seiler doesn’t seem to help him much, either.
Anyway, that’s what’s wrong with the film: We keep spinning our wheels. Here’s what’s interesting about it. You can’t help but wonder if a young Stephen King saw it on late-night TV.
Most of the movie is a prison movie, most of the prisoners are colorful characters, and there's a real “Shawshank Redemption” vibe. Toad (George E. Stone) is the bookie who takes bets on whether guys fry or not; Sam (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) is the hungry guy who reads recipes aloud to sate himself. There’s even a happy-go-lucky con named Red (Joe Sawyer), who is sure he’s going to get paroled. But the real “Shawshank” vibe comes from Pop (Henry Travers, Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), who runs the prison library and who trains Johnnie on the system. He’s quiet, kindly, moves slow. I immediately flashed on James Whitmore’s Brooks Hatlen. I'm not the first.
Get busy dying
So after spinning our wheels for 68 minutes, everything comes to a head on the same night Burke is to be executed for Frank’s crime:
- Frank and Scappa (Harold Huber) plot a prison escape
- Red is denied parole and joins the prison break
- Pop becomes ill
- Johnnie writes out his confession and leaves it for Pop
- Frank takes the confession
Only Red successfully makes it over the wall. Scappa screws the pooch, is killed. Holed up, Frank confronts Johnnie with his written confession, shoots him, and gives himself up. But Johnnie lives long enough to right the record.
Oddly, his first words aren’t about the pawnshop murder; they’re about himself. “Wilson … shot me,” he says. He says it twice, near death. Only then does he finally get around to saying what he should've said an hour earlier: Burke is innocent. Cut to the infirmary, surrounded by everyone, and Johnnie apologizing to Burke. He also tries to thank Pop, the movie’s true father figure, but Pop tells him to get some sleep. “You’re right, Pop,” he says, “I can …. sleep … now,” and his head drops off. He's dead, but at least his burden is over. THE END.
One question the movie doesn’t answer: Did Red get away? I like to think that he did. I like to think he made it across the border. I hope the Pacific was as blue as it had been in his dreams.