Despite courtroom drama clichés aplenty, Criminal Lawyer (1951) is moderately entertaining anyway, mainly because it's fun to watch its great cast of character actors, some playing against type. It also helps that while the movie is quite short (73 minutes), packing a lot into its unusually dense story, including three separate criminal trials, giving it the pacing of contemporary TV shows like Law & Order. It's certainly undeserving of the * 1/2 rating given it by the usually reliable Leonard Maltin.
A region-free "Sony Screen Classics by Request" title on DVD-R format, Criminal Lawyer is presented in its original 1.37:1 full-frame format, in a solid transfer typical of their fine releases. A trailer is tossed in as an unbilled extra feature.
Hotshot lawyer Jimmy Reagan (Pat O'Brien) pulls another wildly theatrical victory from the jaws of defeat, discrediting an eyewitness (Charles Lane) while defending gangster Vincent Cheney (Mickey Knox). Reagan's ingrate of a partner, Clark Sommers (Robert Shayne), complains, not without justification, that here he is doing all the legwork while Reagan grabs all the glory and gets most of the dough. Reagan's devoted secretary, Maggie Powell (Jane Wyatt), comes to Reagan's defense.
But Clark looks like an even bigger sap when Reagan announces, prematurely as it turns out, his retirement after being nominated to the bench, generously turning over the firm to Sommers in the process. Sommers, deeply in debt, immediately contacts Vincent's brother Harry (Douglas Fowley), an even bigger, brasher hood, with an offer to represent his legal interests, implying the advantages of a having a sympathetic judge (i.e., Reagan) in his pocket.
But Reagan learns from D.A. Walter Medford (Jerome Cowan) that the judgeship is off: Reagan's theatrics and association with the criminal classes killed his chances. Reagan goes on a bender, but his kind-hearted bodyguard, Moose (Mike Mazurki), reins in his boss's drinking. He then selflessly comes out of retirement to defend the son (Darryl Hickman) of one of the very attorneys (Wallis Clark) that nixed Reagan's chances. He gets the lad off a drunk-driving rap but later feels remorse when confronted by the victim's wife. Later still Reagan comes to the aide of one of his closest friends, wrongly accused of murder.
Criminal Lawyer chokes with clichés: the alcoholic star attorney defending notorious gangsters, legal victories and moral injustices that send him sprinting toward the liquor cabinet, etc., and Pat O'Brien, who played his fair share of character clichés (saintly priest, Irish cop, etc.) walks through the film without much energy or enthusiasm.
But the film is fast-paced and the rest of the cast is quite good considering its big B/nervous A status. Wyatt is charming as Reagan's love interest, and Fowley and Knox are good as the bad guys. Best of all, many in the cast play offbeat parts. Mazurki, film noir's ultimate hulking henchman, is sweet and tender as Reagan's devoted bodyguard. Robert Shayne, usually the by-the-book military officer, local policeman and the like, here is incredibly slimy and unscrupulous. Marvin Kaplan, normally brought in for eccentric comic support, plays a perfectly normal legal aide. Normally haughty, middle-management type Charles Lane in this is an over-confident, sociable eyewitness.
Politically the film is also interesting. O'Brien was notoriously right wing ("near-fascist" according to some), even actively supporting Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Conversely, Jane Wyatt and Marvin Kaplan were openly liberal, while both Mickey Knox and Robert Shayne were blacklisted not long after this was made. Must have been a fun set.
Also in the cast is visually arresting Mary Castle, whose entire career seems rooted in her striking resemblance to Columbia's biggest female star, Rita Hayworth. Louis Jean Heydt has a good role as a reporter with a bone to pick, Arthur Space as his ethical editor, Lewis Martin as a judge, John Hamilton as a police captain, and Amanda Blake as a secretary. Most found steady work in television before the decade was out.
Video & Audio
Criminal Lawyer is presented in its original 1.37:1 full frame, in a transfer generally clean and quite sharp. The disc is region free and the English mono audio is fine. There are no subtitle options or closed-captioning, and the lone Extra Feature is a brief trailer, but it's complete with narration and text.
Surprisingly entertaining despite its familiarity and occasional ludicrousness, Criminal Lawyer is another lively, fun release in Sony's MOD line. Recommended.
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