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Nobody has used the term "MGM Noir" but one can spot a Culver City Film Noir a mile away. The talented folk at the most glamorous studio in town got away with an occasional uncompromised winner, like Tension, but for every one of those three titles were effectively de-noired. John Sturges' 1951 The People Against O'Hara is an exciting mystery thriller and technically a true Film Noir. Pedants can check off the contextual clues: dark wet night scenes, a compromised main character, an innocent man convicted of a crime he didn't commit. The story even presents a believable underworld, with its realistic portrait of a nasty crime kingpin controlling the docks. Closing the deal is the excellent chiaroscuro work by the brilliant lighting cinematographer John Alton, who practically defines the noir look.
The story is a fable of weakness, duty, shame and atonement. "Retired" criminal defense attorney James B. Curtayne (Spencer Tracy) lost his practice due to alcoholism, and is only now recovering with the help of his loyal daughter Ginny (Diana Lynn). She's putting off her wedding to Jeff Chapman (Richard Anderson) to keep dad on the straight and level. Then comes a plea from the old Irish neighborhood. Young fish market worker Johnny O'Hara (James Arness) has been arrested for the murder of his boss, and his alibi doesn't hold water. With the added punch of an eyewitness, a Norwegian sailor named Norson (Jay C. Flippen), D.A. Louis Barra (John Hodiak) and Detective Vincent Ricks (Pat O'Brien) don't see any way out for Johnny. Curtayne takes the case, and soon decides that the gangster Knuckles Lanzetta (Eduardo Ciannelli) is somehow involved. But he cannot get anyone to talk. Johnny O'Hara swears ignorance, and the hoodlum Frank Korvac (William Campbell) sneeringly insists that Johnny was the shooter.
The trial becomes a fiasco when Curtayne's only defense strategy is shot down. Desperate, he falls off the wagon. Then the eyewitness Norson offers to change his testimony for $500. To save Johnny, Curtayne writes the check...
So what evidence weighs against The People Against O'Hara being a full-blooded noir? The story surrounds attorney Curtayne with corrupt characters. The D.A. is eager for a fast conviction with which to gild his gubernatorial ambitions. Lanzetti scoffs at Curtayne and mocks his alcoholism. The lowlife males in the immigrant Korvac family play tough with Curtayne, while the Korvac mother asks in vain what's going on. Curtayne senses that Lanzetti's sensual young wife Katrina (Yvette Duguay) is part of the picture, but the untrusting O'Hara refuses to tell his lawyer the whole truth. The Norwegian sailor Norson (Flippen) openly offers to sell his testimony.
It's the script, folks. MGM takes pains to undermine the film's noir qualities while presenting its own conservative set of values. O'Hara is the kind of noir about a world out of kilter. It's that cynical, dirty world that frames innocent men and causes virtuous heroes to fall. But John Monks Jr.'s screenplay dilutes the cynicism and neutralizes the social comment. On the surface Tracy's Curtayne resembles a Noir Loser, a fellow that by chance or choice ends up on the slippery slope to doom. The classic example is Al Roberts of Detour but Curtayne is more like the lawyer in The File on Thelma Jordon or the doctor in Nora Prentiss. Both of those men throw their careers away through sexual obsession. Despite his alcoholism Curtayne isn't really a loser. Even his most suicidal act is based on selfless altruism. He's just a straight hero with a liquor problem, not a man compelled by inner or outer forces. And he's not isolated, neurotic or paranoid -- he has a darling of a daughter and a loyal future son-in-law. He can leave the future in good hands. That's not exactly noir.
Secondly, the film undercuts its own suspicion that the city is railroading Johnny O'Hara. Louis Barra proves to be neither unscrupulous nor unethical. After the conviction, he undertakes a risky nighttime mission to clear Johnny's name. Film Noir is about social instability. The authorities' righteous search for the truth validates the status quo. Johnny O'Hara is really in trouble only because he doesn't tell the cops or Curtayne the truth. Justice is alive and well in this city.
And where does the evil lie? With vicious, brutal and unfeeling immigrant scum like Lanzetta and the Korvacs. Johnny is just the fall guy in Lanzetta's dastardly narcotics smuggling scheme, screwed up by the trigger-happy Frank Korvac. Sure, Barra came from the same neighborhood, but The People Against O'Hara tosses the fault for the city's dirt right back on the unwashed and unlettered sub-working class. In contrast, the established folk honor their departed friends at a funeral; Ginny and Jeff trim the tree with the cross-eyed snowman. Nope, it's not our problem.
The above is an exercise in definitions, for The People Against O'Hara is visually firmly rooted in the Noir canon. Curtayne is increasingly seen in grimy barrooms and finally undergoes his own late night Calvary walk, in full John Alton lighting stylization. The atmosphere is so doom-laden that Curtayne's pay-phone farewell to his daughter really isn't necessary.
The People Against O'Hara doesn't stress the notion, but it looks as if the beautiful Katrina could be a child bride seized by the old-world Italian (Sicilian?) Knuckles Lanzetta as repayment for a debt, or as a matrimonial hostage. Other characters are given elaborate back-stories, but hers is left unexplored. If Johnny O'Hara is trying to rescue his sweetheart from a horrible life, he isn't as stupid as the film makes him out to be. This role was probably a big setback for James Arness, as he comes off looking like a total dolt.
None of the acting or direction can be faulted. John Sturges directs the drama with a sure hand. Compared to Kind Lady or It's a Big Country, O'Hara is a choice showcase for a director earning his stripes. It has action, courtroom drama and compelling on-location realism.
Spencer Tracy is often praised for playing against type as a weak alcoholic, but that's a superficial distinction ... his character is as upstanding and decent as ever. John Hodiak makes a fine impression, as does Jay C. Flippen with his Norwegian accent. Diana Lynn is of course a bright spot in a stock role; anyone who has seen her in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek will love her forever.
As long as one does not expect a major character surprise, The People Against O'Hara is a solid, entertaining thriller. We're told that Sturges earned a major green light for his directing career by successfully keeping Spencer Tracy on the job and happy. By this time the actor's delays and drinking were becoming a real liability. In 1951 MGM's budgets and overhead were feeling the economic pinch.
Eager actor-spotters will be amused to see an uncredited Charles Bronson as one of the Korvacs, spitting out a few angry lines. Ned Glass plays a judge. He was blacklisted but with help from friends was able to struggle through and build a better career on television. Emile Meyer from Sweet Smell of Success is here as well. The inimitable Paul Frees dubs the voice of the elder Korvacs brother. Strother Martin is said to be in there somewhere as well, but I didn't catch him.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The People Against O'Hara is a very good encoding of this attractive B&W production. The first scene is a tiny bit unsteady, perhaps from film shrinkage, and from then on the transfer is in excellent shape. Carmen Dragon's music is a good fit for John Alton's dramatic, high contrast images.
The WAC includes an original trailer that stresses a "class sell" almost against the film's natural market. I would imagine that filmgoers attracted to Tracy's name in the marquee might have been disappointed to see such a dark film. The trailer begins with a set of title cards extolling a great new movie. They're over images of silk pillows or sheets or something, giving the entirely wrong first impression!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The People Against O'Hara rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.