Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- One of these characters gets away with murder, and on a technicality no less!
Hello, and welcome once again to the Pre-Code Follies. I usually don’t start off with an introduction, but today I’m delving once more into the world of Movies No One Has Ever Heard Of. This one has a whopping 26 votes on IMDB, which isn’t the lowest I’ve seen for a film I’ve rated, but I know this is not going to be a review that the internet is crying out for.
Thus my usual effort in trying to find a great attention grabber in the first paragraph seems rather moot. I will instead move onto the ever-popular and evidently very necessary plot description for now.
The story is this: high powered attorney William Foster is making a mockery of the city’s law and justice system. His showboating ways and clever tricks have made him the scourge of the town and won him the heart of fair Irene Manners. The only trouble here is that Foster refuses to believe his good luck, and Irene is too eager to please. When a third man comes in, Jack Defoe, he raises both’s ire. Foster presumes Irene loves him, and Irene presumes the way Foster acts means that he doesn’t love her.
This reaches a dramatic crash when Irene, spending the night out with a drunk Jack and speeding at a whopping 45 MPH on the back roads, accidentally strikes and kills someone. The love triangle heats up as the unapologetic Foster has to defend the man he think stole his love’s love away. Once Foster is caught for jury tampering, the underworld and all of his friends immediately turn against him, leaving him alone in every way but for Irene’s love.
And it’s soapy, and completely impractical. When the studios made courtroom melodramas, they always liked stacking the deck with tawdry twists and turns. It would be a miserable mess if it weren’t for a couple of lucky factors here, one being the director, and two being the stars.
Let’s go with the stars first: yes, it’s another William Powell flick and yet another Kay Francis movie for me. This is a film that lives or dies by its leads, and William Powell is pretty much the perfect fit. Calm, compassionate, but with enough snake oil in him to make you believe that there’s a bastard hiding beneath all the charm. Francis is still young, but definitely a step up from her dull acting in Transgression.
The director gives both a boost. He’s John Cromwell, and his most famous work is probably the ’34 version of Of Human Bondage, which I should be getting to sooner or later. (Hopefully sooner considering the quality of the other Bette Davis pre-codes I’ve been seeing.) He and the screenwriters have a couple of neat tricks, from taking their time to introducing Powell, only to reveal him at a gala for the district attorney’s office, his back to the speaker, reading the newspaper.
There’s one detail that fascinated me about the courtroom that most of the film is set in. Besides the snaking hallways that are drenched in the shadows of bars that run behind it, the courtroom itself has a cage set against the wall. It encircles one side of the courtroom opposite of the doors that the crowd and defenders enter through, and clearly represents the duality of the world that Foster inhabits. When he finds himself on the other side, behind the wire mesh that usually ensnares those he’s defending, you can almost see the man’s sense of dignity boiling.
Corridors play a rather striking function in the film as well, and that may be the oddest thing I’ve ever noted in a review yet. Powell’s character, as he journeys from rebellious defender of the guilty to the self sacrificing noble is often portrayed by the way he carries himself through long hallways. And, to add to my previous odd statement, no one walks down a corridor quite like Powell does. They’re quick, but contemplative, giving our great attorney/actor a few seconds for us to see his gears working. This isn’t something you see too much in films of this period, as people are always “on”, but the space this give Powell as he’s left in various stages to ponder his choices really help to get under Foster’s skin.
For the Defense is your pretty standard courtroom drama, but one that’s saved by the charm of the stars and the grace of its director. Frankly, at this point, I’m pretty sure William Powell could sell me a bridge in Brooklyn. And I would love it.