|Released by Columbia | Directed by Irving Cummings
Run time: 72 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- The woman Burton sleeps with is cheating on him. Frustrated, he tells the other man, “It may relieve you to know I’m not taking up my option on her.”
- Oedipal themes a-plenty.
- Can I count this? I want to count this:
Attorney for the Defense: Guilt and The Lawyer
“Your Honor, I ask that the witness be sworn in again.”
“Why do you wish the witness sworn a second time?”
“Because this time I expect him to tell the truth!”
It’s said that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. Of course, that statement is true in several ways in Attorney for the Defense, a Columbia ‘mouthpiece’ picture that takes many of the same headline-grabbing antics that other studios’ lawyer pictures were taking to the bank. But it also plays into the plot of the film as well, a tale of how one mistake and one bad love affair cascade off one another, leading to hurt, pain, and murder.
Barton (Lowe) is the crackerjack New York City District Attorney. He’s just scored a conviction that will lead to his 18th convict to the electric chair. He’s convinced the man is guilty, but can’t work up any enthusiasm for the man’s death; Barton’s confidant (and pining secretary) Ruth takes him to moral task for his use of circumstantial evidence: “The people had no case. All they had was a very clever District Attorney.” After the convict is discovered innocent just too late, Barton makes amends by promising to support the man’s widow and son the rest of their lives, though that whole ‘killing their husband/father’ thing leads to a number of unresolved feelings.
In Barton’s personal life, he had a thing going with Val (Brent) until he walks in on her with a criminal named Nick Quinn (Bradley Page). She tries to brush it off, but Barton sneers, with about as much anger as he can muster, “Why don’t you go on a cheese diet? It’s good for rats.”
That line, as silly as it may seem, probably represents the challenges in the movie, most stemming from the limited range of Edmund Lowe. Stuck as the poor man’s William Powell (yes, even Adolphe Menjou could earn a few more coins when he did soft shoe), Lowe is excellent in light, comedic fair, or in even some truly silly stuff. When asked to pull off serious dramatic weight, however, it comes across as stiff. It doesn’t help that Barton, despite killing an executed man and later attempting to mislead a murder investigation, is still lily-white morally. He’s a cardboard character backed by an actor unable to sink his teeth in.
When not asked to push the dramatic bulwark, Lowe is quite good, especially when a punchline (sometimes literally) floats his way. Years pass, and Barton moves into the role of a high priced defense attorney. However, we never see how he gets his money, and he’s still chasing after Quinn with all his might. Quinn seeks the upper hand before he could be arrested, and he hatches a nasty plan: Val will seduce college-aged and all-around-dope Paul (Don Dillaway), the boy Barton had helped raise and regards as a surrogate son. Using Paul, Val plans to revenge herself on Barton and make a pretty penny, too. But she’s found dead by Barton, with an drunk, unconscious Paul nearby. Barton shoos the boy away, but will he take the rap for him or will he crumble and put his charge next in line for the electric chair?
There’s a lot of nice details and camera shots, even if the film seems a beat or two too slow. The best moments are either where one of the film’s more lively actors, such as Clarence Muse or Nat Pendleton in small comedic roles or Dwight Frye as the doomed man at the beginning, grab the film and shake things loose. There’s a couple of excellent tracking shots, and the scene where Muse discovers Lowe’s Barton ransacking the dead woman’s room radiates with a nasty confidence that deserved a better film. There’s also a great deal of humor wrangled from the casual indifference and outright machinations of journalists; they plot to get Barton out of office and then eagerly chomp the bit at his murder trial, rooting on his imminent death with malicious glee.
Constance Cummings has the most unnecessary role as the pining secretary, which were a dime a dozen in these films. The villains of the picture, Page and Brent, get relatively few moments to shine and little meat on their roles, though Brent at least looks like she’s enjoying the dark turn.
Attorney for the Defense is probably among the weaker lawyer offerings of the pre-Code era, probably because it’s surprisingly squeaky clean compared to its brethren. It’s still fun, though, with a nice surprising ending and a number of coldblooded moments that cry out for better material. Barton’s life rhymed, but the meter is simply off.
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Trivia & Links
- Mordaunt Hall, who is at least consistent, ruins the film’s ending in the title of his review. He’s also unimpressed with the film itself:
The present contribution is based on a story by James K. McGuinness. Although it is often melodramatic and scarcely convincing, and Mr. Lowe does not always succeed in lending to his portrayal the necessary sincerity—which, it is true, would not be an easy matter in the circumstances—its last scene was greeted with applause from an audience yesterday afternoon.
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera talks about the film’s relation to other films based on William J. Fallon’s life, and surmises:
Attorney for the Defense is the weakest of that cycle, tainted by its unfortunate time-jump, the miscasting of Dillway, the mistreatment of Muse (more noticeable than usual, I thought), and a too virtuous interpretation of Fallon, yet it still does more right than wrong. Lowe is better than his character is written and Brent is electric—so too is Dwight Frye in his much smaller role. Pendleton and Eddie Kane provide a sense of humor and the movie carries a strong twist that caught me off-guard at the climax.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is an obscure one– it shows every so often on TCM, but otherwise has never had a home video release. I wish you luck in finding it!