Thursday, January 21, 2010

#90: Illegal (Lewis Allen, 1955)

Released: October 28, 1955

Director: Lewis Allen; Screenplay: W.R. Burnett and James R. Webb based on a story by Frank J. Collins; Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Frank P. Rosenberg; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Victor Scott), Nina Foch (Ellen Miles), Hugh Marlowe (Ray Borden), Jayne Mansfield (Angel O’Hara), Albert Dekker (Frank Garland), Howard St. John (E.A. Smith), Ellen Corby (Miss Hinkel), Edward Platt (Ralph Ford), Jan Merlin (Andy Garth), Robert Ellenstein (Joe Knight), Jay Adler (Joseph Carter), Henry Kulky (Taylor), James McCallion (Allen Parker), Addison Richards (Steve Harper), Lawrence Dobkin (Al Carol)

- “I don’t blame people… I bury ‘em.”

Yes, more Edward G. Robinson. I have very good reasons for ranking this one where I do, most of them centering on showcasing the varied talents of Mr. Robinson. Perhaps the epic fall, rise and consequent fall of attorney Victor Scott becomes too melodramatic in spots, but it gives the opportunity to show that Robinson can be equally impressive as both a hero and a heel. He does both in the same film here and it’s quite entertaining to watch. This is far from the epic or great ride that many films in this countdown remain, but I find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t be able to get lost in this one for an afternoon or evening. Is it forgettable afterward? Maybe for some, but it’s the kind of pulpy yarn that I’m a sucker for.

Robinson is District Attorney Victor Scott, an unbeatable prosecutor who always convicts his man. His perfect record is blemished, however, when a man that he convicted and sent to the electric chair is proven to have been innocent. Unable to live with the guilt, Scott becomes a hopeless drunk and completely loses the life he built for himself. The only person to stick by his side is his former assistant and surrogate daughter Ellen Miles (Nina Foch), who does her best to take care of the ailing man. Things turn for Scott after his own run in with the law – while waiting to appear before a judge, he gives some legal advice to a fellow inmate. He then realizes that he has the legal acumen to make a living as a defense attorney. A string of successes brings him to the attention of local crime boss Frank Garland (Albert Dekker), and Scott is slowly sucked into the underworld that Garland controls. Becoming house counsel to the crime lord, Scott becomes increasingly enamored by the money and power the job entails. But when Garland’s organization and planning begin to threaten the freedom of his beloved Ellen, Scott sees that he is going to have to find a way out of Garland’s grasp.

There are other principals that should at least be acknowledged – the always entertaining Albert Dekker is very good as the smug crime boss and Jayne Mansfield makes her film debut as a Garland gun moll. Nina Foch and Hugh Marlowe are solid as Scott’s dependable aides at the District Attorney’s office. Lewis Allen’s direction is honestly rather pedestrian, although the sequence with people scrambling to stop the execution of the innocent man is worthy of praise. There is nothing particularly memorable about the cinematography. The great Max Steiner contributes the score, but even that isn't unforgettable. Through it all, it’s Robinson that carries it for me. As I said earlier, it is interesting to see the two sides to Robinson’s on-screen personas within the same film. The man who became famous playing the callous Rico Bandello shows himself to be every bit as sleazy as Victor Scott the defense attorney. Yet, you also the get the do-gooder, looking for the truth Robinson exhibited in classics like Double Indemnity. Illegal came at a time when Robinson was still trying to recover his reputation after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s and reluctantly giving names of communist sympathizers. Although it saved him from significant trouble with HUAC, it meant that few in Hollywood was quick to pass on prime parts to him as they had in the past. This meant that he took leads in a number of lower-budget crime films and this is the best of his pre-The Ten Commandments work.

Thanks to the wonderful Warner Brothers Film Noir Collection Vol. 4, Illegal is now easy to get hold of and watch. I’m under no illusion that everyone will like it as much as I do. But it’s one any fan of Robinson needs to see, if for no other reason than to be reminded how long he remained a great actor.


  1. Its cool that you put some lesser admired films on your list. Its is after all your opinion and a well written piece. I'm interested in how you would say that this film is better than Woman in the Window, Act of Violence, or He Walked by Night the 3 on this list so far that I really love. When I saw this movie other than E. Robinson I didn't think much of it or its companion The Big Steal. It seems too routine and never really approaches greatness especially in a visual sense and script. I guess thats what makes these lists so much fun.

  2. Dave, I've had Film Noir vol. 4 on my shelf now and this may be the only one left that I haven't watched. I'll have to rectify right away. Have you ever seen the original film, The Mouthpiece? It'd be interesting to compare the films to see what apart from time period makes one noir and one -- not?

  3. Robinson is excellent in it, and although it is predictable I don't really mind the melodramatic parts you refer to. I don't, however, think it's a very good movie, and my problem with is the incredibly uninspired, often stagey direction. Too much of it comes across like filmed theater. I know it's on the same DVD, but I really take issue with Anonymous lumping this in with The Big Steal, which is a great film that stands alongside Siegel's very best work.

  4. Doniphon--The Big Steal is a better film. I meant i was disappointed with it compared to the other films I mentioned above. I don't consider it a bad film just not a great one.

  5. This is only partly meant to be a flip answer, but the reason this is placed above Woman in the Window, Act of Violence and He Walked By Night is... I like it more. :) In all seriousness, at this point in the countdown, I feel that all of the movies have obvious weaknesses, so it's purely personal preference. I've got to be to work shortly, so I can't go into great detail, but my issues with the three mentioned were raised in the pieces -- the terrible ending to Woman in the Window, just strained believability/predictability in Act of Violence, and the complete lack of character development in He Walked By Night.

    But I enjoy all of these films, despite any flaws I recognize. Other than that, as I said from the start, personal taste is going to be the main determinant.

  6. Samuel - There are some that will argue that timer period is _the_ determinant on what is a noir and what is not. I haven't seen the original, though, so I can't compare the two.

  7. "Dave, I've had Film Noir vol. 4 on my shelf now and this may be the only one left that I haven't watched. I'll have to rectify right away. Have you ever seen the original film, The Mouthpiece?"

    Ha! You and me both Samuel. That set has been sitting here for a while, and for some reason I just haven't gotten around to this particular film. It's true what you say about Robinson (and your historical context is most interesting, what with the actor having difficulty getting the better roles after his testimony) and I am a huge Max Steiner advocate, so that alone should spur me on to popping this into the DVD player, but best of all is your review!

  8. A wonderful review and a good explanation for your placement in the countdown. Robinson is always an entertaining actor who can make just about any film watchable. This is nothing great, easily forgetable. I agree the direction leaves a lot to be desired.