Illegal (1955)

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*. This is a film with a history. It’s based on a 1929 play titled The Mouthpiece and was, I believe, filmed three times. The first film version was in 1932, and it had the same title as the play.
*. You’d think from this that it would be a great story, or at least be well written. But it isn’t. It’s contrived and preposterous. I’m not sure why anyone would have wanted to make it into a movie once.
*. Robinson punches a witness and wins his case just like that? Why does Garland order Scott killed? Doesn’t the moll know that she’s in danger testifying against her boss? Wasn’t there an easier way to kill the embezzler than gunning him down in public in broad daylight? Wasn’t Robinson taking a huge risk drinking all that poison? Why does a professional like Ellen break down so pathetically as soon as she’s arrested? None of it makes sense, but I guess any legal drama sells.

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*. In earlier versions of the story Robinson’s character of the fallen D.A. Victor Scott was in love with Nina Foch’s Ellen. But here that’s avoided through making Scott a father figure to Ellen. Any romance would therefore have an incestuous angle to it, though it is, remarkably, still hinted at in the scene where Scott comes to visit Ellen in jail right after her arrest and says he was “the wrong man for you.” As it stands, that’s a rather awkward line.
*. Yes, that’s DeForest Kelley (misspelled Kelly in the credits), “Bones” himself, going to the electric chair.
*. As another interesting bit of trivia, the Maltese falcon seems to have found its way into the D.A.’s office. It’s sitting on top of the bookshelf just inside the door. After all that fuss spent looking for it . . .
*. The best thing about this movie is the DVD commentary with Nina Foch. Foch had gone on to become a film professor and was 82 when she did the commentary (she would die a couple of years later), and she’s full of excellent observations about the making of not only this movie but other movies of the period.

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*. She has no illusions about the grandeur of the golden age. Instead she is quite critical of the stiffness and unreality of the filmmaking of the period. She even says to her sidekick Patricia King Hanson at one point: “I don’t think pictures are worth the effort you bring to them.” Ouch.
*. Foch’s main complaint is that because of the fixed lighting and primitive sound recording people had to be posed like statues. They couldn’t act fluidly, move naturally, or respond to one another. Overlapping dialogue, for example, was impossible.
*. As she explains: “We weren’t making movies about actual human beings in the way that we later did.” The spare set dressing is part of the same critique: “This is a world where nobody lives.” The slow editing adds to this sense of stilted formality, as do wardrobe elements such as Garland’s perfectly folded pocket handkerchief: “It’s all right there in the handkerchief even, everyone has the three points . . . because it’s very hard to match disorder.”

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*. Another delightful point Foch makes has to do with the first editions and other rarities she says could be found among the books purchased in bulk (“by the yard”) for set dressing. I don’t know how likely that would be in a film like this, however, where the books are likely all old legal serials of no value at all.
*. Did people keep bottles of Scotch in their kitchen cabinets back in the 1950s? And not notice when they were empty?
*. Edward G. Robinson’s reputation as a tough guy was always a bit weird. He was a great actor just to be able to sell it. You have to shake your head at his bolstering his client’s claim to toughness by saying “he’s as big as me.” In fact, he apparently stood on apple boxes to get up to Foch’s height in their scenes together.

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*. Those are works from Robinson’s own art collection on the walls of Garland’s office, by the way. Robinson was a great collector of Impressionists, but why does he pronounce Degas as he does? That’s not the French pronunciation, which he must have known.
*. I don’t think this was Jayne Mansfield’s first movie appearance, but it was her first role, and it closely parallels Marilyn Monroe’s part as a gangster’s moll in The Asphalt Jungle. As an aside, Foch repeats the urban legend that Mansfield died when she was decapitated when her convertible slammed into the back of a truck and went partially underneath it. In fact, she was not decapitated but her head was crushed.
*. Don’t bother calling for a doctor or an ambulance or anything like that when Scott collapses in the courtroom. Just let him give his final words to Ellen and wrap up all those loose ends as quickly as possible.
*. I love how the final shot has Jayne Mansfield cantilevered over the railing to the witness box, her bosom suspended over Robinson’s prone form. I guess if that doesn’t revive him then nothing will.

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