by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I picked out was a 1932 Columbia “B” called Attorney for the Defense, which I’d recorded on the same disc as The Good Bad Girl and proved to be a far, far better movie even with a weaker director, Irving Cummings (best known for the historically important but not especially good films In Old Arizona and Behind That Curtain with Warner Baxter for Fox in 1929). The script was by Jo Swerling (again), based on an original story by James Kevin McGuinness, and it not only allowed for Swerling’s marvelous wit but also provided Cummings and a good but (with two exceptions, Evelyn Brent and — in a brief role — Dwight Frye) not especially scintillating cast with a strong, suspenseful melodrama, not especially innovative but at least artful and unusual in its deployment of the standard movie clichés.
It opens with a premise that seems all too topical today, in the era of the Innocence Project and exoneration through DNA evidence (though of course DNA evidence was unknown in 1932): district attorney William J. Barton (Edmund Lowe, top-billed) wins a murder case against James Wallace (Dwight Frye) based totally on circumstantial evidence. Ruth Barry (Constance Cummings), Burton’s secretary, who’s also his assistant and has an unrequited crush on him that we notice immediately even though he remains oblivious until the very last reel, has misgivings about the conviction and the evidence, but Burton presses ahead and actually gets Wallace the death penalty. Wallace is led out of the courtroom screaming that he’s innocent (and Frye plays the scene much the way he played Renfield’s maddest moments in Dracula), and only after his execution is Wallace finally exonerated when someone else confesses to the crime (and, though we’re not shown this, presumably the police check it out and find the later confession accurate), and the conscience-stricken Burton resigns as D.A. and opens a defense practice.
He also reaches out to Wallace’s widow (Dorothy Peterson) and son Paul (Douglas Haig) and offers them financial help — which she takes though Paul angrily demands that she refuse it — and Paul stays bitter even as Burton's largesse pays for his education, which leads him to the Thomas Jefferson College of Law, where he becomes a star on the football team as well as being groomed by Burton to join his practice once he passes the bar. This happens during a cut in which the film leaps forward 12 years or so — though most of the actors look about the same as they did playing their decade-younger selves and the only change is that Paul is now played by Donald Dillaway (with whom Columbia’s casting department scored a real coup because they actually found a young actor who looked believable as the offspring of Dwight Frye). Burton receives a visit from his former mistress, Val Lorraine (Evelyn Brent) — whom he dumped while he was still D.A., when he found she was two-timing him with gangster Nick Quinn (Bradley Page) — who’s ostensibly interested in getting back together with him but is actually trying to steal back a packet of letters by Quinn implicating him in the city’s corruption, which Burton is working with a citizens’ committee to try to break — and when she can’t seduce Burton himself she and Quinn decide to get back at him by sending her after Paul.
In the space of a couple more jump-cuts we find that Paul has fallen for her hook, line and sinker, enough so that he’s breaking football training with all-night drinking bouts at her apartment and he agrees to steal the letters from Burton’s office — whereupon he takes them to Val’s apartment and throws them in the fire, assuming she only wanted them because they implicated her. She retrieves them because she really wanted them for Quinn, who needs them intact — and when the drunken Paul awakes from his stupor long enough to hear Val on the phone to Quinn and realize how he’s been used, he approaches her with anger and murderous hatred in his eyes and … fadeout to Val lying dead on the floor near her bed, Paul passed out again and unaware of what happened, and Burton arriving on the scene and being discovered by the building’s Black elevator operator (Clarence Muse). The rest of the film is a courtroom melodrama as Burton is himself arrested for Val’s murder and put on trial, he refuses to offer a defense thinking that by so doing he’s shielding Paul, but ultimately he proves in court that Quinn really killed Val (why?), both he and Paul are off the hook, and he finally realizes Barry loves him and the two get together at the fadeout.
Though it’s made up of familiar elements, Attorney for the Defense is actually a quite good movie (even though one could wish for a stronger actor, like Warren William, in the male lead); Evelyn Brent is chilling in her restraint in a role that would have sent most actresses of the day to the scenery with their teeth bared (she has some of the same understatement as her fellow Josef von Sternberg “discovery,” Marlene Dietrich), and though most of it is pretty straightforwardly photographed cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (a more prestigious “name” than one usually got in a picture like this) gets a few proto-noir atmospherics into it. Indeed, the plot is sufficiently rich in moral ambiguities it’s a wonder Columbia didn’t remake it in the noir era (especially in the late 1940’s, when two actors who would have been superb in the lead, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell, were both working there) unless the Production Code Administration nixed it the way they did Columbia’s plans to remake The Good Bad Girl in 1937 for its frank treatment of extramarital sexual relationships (including one involving the hero); it’s a quite literate, well-written movie at a time when Hollywood wasn’t making that many good crime films outside the gangster genre.