Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the DVD edition under review.
Now out as part of Sony's Choice Collection line of made-to-order DVD reissues, I Am the Law provided a mildly entertaining vehicle for Edward G. Robinson. By the time this routine, ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama was released in 1938, Robinson had made the transition from heavies and gangsters to cultured authority figures who went after the heavies and gangsters.
Like his fellow compadre-in-crime James Cagney, Robinson had the versatility and talent to overcome his early typecasting as a crude criminal. This particular film, however, found the heavy-lidded, liver-lipped screen legend on loan-out to Columbia essaying a more modest variant on what was already established at Warner Brothers. The script pretty much hewed to the conventions of the day's crime dramas, but with a Breen Office-friendly twist. Here, he plays a fellow named John Lindsay - an erudite college professor (but of course) embarking on a crusade to rid his town of racketeers once and for all.
As I Am the Law opens, Robinson's Lindsay is about to take a sabbatical from the legal academy where he held an esteemed position for several years. Gathering with his colleagues and former students, Lindsay is the picture of ambivalence as he prepares for a long cruise with his patient wife, Jerry (Barbara O'Neil). Before long, however, the rash of violence involving local business owners and mobsters snaps him back into the game. The corrupt civic leader Eugene Ferguson (Otto Kruger) - father to one of Lindsay's star pupils, Paul (John Beal) - appoints Lindsay as a special prosecutor. Ferguson is certain that the bumbling, ineffectual Lindsay will do nothing to ease the crime wave terrorizing the town. Lindsay has a few tricks up his sleeve, though, including stepping out with Frankie Ballou (Wendy Barrie), a slinky and well-connected ex-reporter who happens to be Ferguson's girlfriend. Lindsay's investigation is abruptly halted when some classified info falls into the wrong hands and he's fired. Undaunted, Lindsay decides to continue the hunt on his own - hiring Paul and other graduates as staff, setting up his and Jerry's household as base of operations, using the local press to shame out the offenders, and gradually coaxing the victims to name names. After Lindsay finally catches on that Ferguson is behind all this, the dominoes start falling - a tragedy involving Lindsay's main witness temporarily gives Ferguson and his goons the upper hand, however.
With its reliance on stock footage, wipes, ready-made sets and other cost-cutting measures, a very cheesy, b-movie-like feel permeates I Am the Law. The Lindsay character also seems like a distinct come-down from the multi-dimensional men Edward G. Robinson played at Warner's. Jo Swerling's script has Lindsay doing self-consciously goofy bits like sticking a lit pipe inside his jacket pocket (a running gag, unfortunately), things that make his self-assured behavior in the second half all the more implausible. At one point, Robinson and Barrie are called upon to do a silly, synchronized dance step known as The Big Apple (it's no Lindy Hop, that's for sure). A lot of films can mix together comedy and gritty drama effectively; I Am the Law misses the mark.
Lowbrow ambitions and seen-it before story aside, I Am the Law pulls it together for a tense, exciting second half. Robinson does a solid job when Lindsay's snooping heats up (although his climactic fistfight employs an obvious stunt double). Kruger has the right blend of intelligence and insidiousness as the ringleader, and appealing, feminine support is supplied by the elegant duo of Barrie and O'Neil (I kept picturing the latter as the evil duchess from All This and Heaven Too, made two years later). The film never won any awards for originality - and Robinson has certainly appeared in better stuff. On its own terms, however, I Am the Law makes for a pleasantly enjoyable 83 minutes of mob-busting action.
Sony's Choice Collection m.o.d. edition uses a reissue print of I Am The Law with the wrong copyright date on the title screen (the reissue's poster art is also used on the packaging). The transfer is relatively sharp one with nice, professional looking mastering, even if the source print is riddled with dust and white specks. In a few instances where scenes fade into each other, the picture becomes grainy and indistinct. Decent, overall.
Sony presents the film's mono soundtrack in a decent mix, replete with the usual pops, hiss, noise and other artifacts. Nothing special, nothing too awful, either. No subtitle options are provided on this disc.
Another disc lacking a menu, the film automatically plays upon disc insertion - then re-plays once it's finished.
Edward G. Robinson: Citizen Vigilante! With 1938's I Am The Law, law professor Robinson attempts to cleanse a college town of mobsters using unconventional means. Awkwardly combining standard-issue crime drama, comedy, and b-movie production techniques, a compelling second half nevertheless makes this m.o.d. release a pleasant diversion for Eddie G.'s fans. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.