|J. Peverell Marley|
After an overly aggressive district attorney unknowingly sends an innocent man to the chair, he resigns, turns to drinking, and acquires a criminal clientèle.
Almost Forgotten Noir *****
A remake of Warner’s “The Mouthpiece” (1932) “Illegal” is a substantial half forgotten Noir! Directed for Warners in 1955 by Englishman Lewis Allen it stars Edward G. Robinson as a highly accomplished prosecuting attorney who becomes disillusioned when he learns that the man he was responsible for sending to the electric chair (a young DeForest Kelly) has finally been exonerated and found to be innocent after all. With his reputation now in tatters he hits the bottle ending up on skid row. But he slowly picks himself up from the gutter becomes a defence lawyer and a “fixer” for racketeer Albert Dekker. Robinson is terrific in it! His screen presence – with that soft spoken matter of fact acting style
- is altogether appealing. This, after “Key Largo” (1948) was his first.
picture for the studio since his contract ended with them in 1942. And while not being an overly auspicious return it wasn’t a bad one either. Others in the cast are Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe and making her debut , as Dekker’s moll, the voluptuous Jayne Mansfield with the dubious moniker Angel O’Hara (Dekker auditioning her as she plays the piano glibly declares to Robinson “interesting girl – lives and breaths music!”). A fairly engaging movie, nicely written and sharply photographed in monochrome by Perverell Marley. The studio’s legendary composer Max Steiner provides an attractive score which gives the movie an agreeable pace.
“Illegal” is the second feature on this excellent DVD that also features RKO’s enjoyable Mitchum Noir “The Big Steal” (1949). A splendid package this fine double bill comes with trailers and commentaries for both movies plus a featurette. Interestingly the commentary on “Illegal” is spoken by the film’s leading lady Nina Foch (she pronounces it Fash) who informs us that she now teaches film directing at USC. Not bad for an 84 year old! Also Robinson is interviewed on set by the ill-fated Gig Young where we learn that Robinson loaned some of his prized and valuable paintings from his famous art collection to the studio for use in the picture. They can readily be seen in the movie in Dekker’s palatial apartment.
Classic line from “Illegal” – when Robinson warns Dekker not to blame him if the court case goes wrong – Dekker responds “I don’t blame people – I bury ’em”!
During filming Robinson lent his considerable contemporary art collection to the production company. These include some impressionist works by Gauguin, Degas, Duran, and Gladys Lloyd, all of which appear in the film. Because Robinson was also the target of investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee this movie was of a lower budget and caliber than his earlier films.
Film critic Bosley Crowther compared the film to The Asphalt Jungle but thought it was not as good. He wrote, “For one thing, the story of Illegal invades the higher echelons of crime, with a fast-thinking, double-dealing lawyer as the principal character … The fact that this hard-bitten lawyer is played by Edward G. Robinson in his old vein of stinging sarcasm is a clue to what you may expect. But more than this and more than the climate of sordid deceit that is achieved is the fact that Illegal tries to blueprint The Asphalt Jungle’s Marilyn Monroe. You may remember that Miss Monroe’s first screen role was in the latter. She spoke not a word but she went right to work as an adornment in the apartment of the criminal counselor. Well, in Illegal Jayne Mansfield plays precisely the same sort of role in the apartment of Albert Dekker, the big poobah of crime. Miss Mansfield, we might add, is the beauty who is imitating Miss Monroe in a feeble imitation of Once In a Lifetime on the Broadway stage.”
A Clever Man and a Wrong Move
“Illegal” is an intelligent and nimble little crackerjack of a crime thriller starring Edward G. Robinson as a D.A who’s maybe a little too smart – and smart-assed – for his own good. He’s ruthless because his job requires him to be. He wins cases. That’s what he’s paid for. He’s quick of wit and tongue. He’s ambitious, canny and – technically, at least – in compliance with the law. He’s, at heart, a good man, and he’s in the public eye, but he’s not universally well-liked. One day, he sends the wrong man to the chair. And he comes undone.
This sets in motion a plot that winds and twists without becoming outlandish. The picture, which doesn’t strike me as a “noir”, moves at a nice clip, each of the broad spectrum of characters is painted with a defining brush stroke, and the dialogue is efficient and snappy. It’s the kind of movie that hooks you and hooks you good. It did me.
“Illegal” is, above all, an Edward G. Robinson picture. It doesn’t seem like a star vehicle. Robinson shares the screen with everyone, yet he is such a forceful presence and creates such a complex and complicated character, sympathetic yet warped, you search him out in every scene.
You want to watch him. He’s magnetic. I’m becoming a real Edward G. Robinson fan on the strength of his 40’s and 50’s films alone, some of them comic reminders of his earlier gangster persona. He’s as good in this movie as he is in “Scarlet Street”, which I saw recently for the first time and which, well… kinda sorta blew my mind. I’ve lived a little and can recognize the truths that some of these lively, well-written B-movies shine a light on.
E.G. Robinson in legal thriller that’s better than its parts, thanks to director Lewis Allen
Author: bmacv from Western New York
11 August 2002
Illegal puts Edward G. Robinson through more perils than Pauline ever suffered. A tenacious District Attorney on his way to the governor’s mansion, he resigns when a man he had sent to the electric chair proves innocent. But the civil practice he hopes to undertake goes bust, and he takes to the bottle (a plot development which goes nowhere).
Down and out, he defends a fellow inmate he encounters in a holding cell, and decides to apply his legal acumen to becoming a sharp, high-priced criminal attorney. To get off a guilty client, he grandstands in court by downing a bottle of poison placed in evidence, only to rush off to have his stomach pumped. (This particular ploy was originated by George Brent in 1940’s The Man Who Talked Too Much.) He’s such a brilliant mouthpiece he comes to the attention of civic crime boss Albert Dekker, whose blandishments he tries to resist.
Meanwhile, back at the D.A.’s office, he’s left behind his protégé Nina Foch (looking matronly), whom he had taken under his wing when her father, an old mentor of his, passed away. Though he harbors romantic feelings for her, he gives his blessing when she announces her marriage to a young, ambitious lawyer, Hugh Marlowe. But a series of leaks from the office concerning Dekker’s activities brings suspicion on all three. Ultimately, Robinson finds himself defending Foch for murder, during which Jayne Mansfield, Dekker’s mistress, sashays to the witness stand in a wasp-waisted black outfit, replete with picture hat…..
The fast and too complicated plot takes a few pointless and baffling turns. Though on the talky side, there’s a high quotient of gunplay. Still, it’s absorbing. Robinson, still in his early-50s string of B-pictures owing to his guilt-by-association in the wake of the anti-Communist crusade, holds everything together with his bag of old tricks. And credit must go also to director Lewis Allen, who somehow brought a distinctiveness to several of his films which otherwise might have passed unnoticed: Desert Fury, Chicago Deadline, Suddenly. It’s hard to point out just how, but he brought some of it to Illegal, too.
Solid E.G. Robinson Performance
Author: gordonl56 from Canada
7 December 2014
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
ILLEGAL – 1955
Illegal is the second remake of the 1932 film, THE MOUTHPIECE. Here, Warner’s lets W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle)punch up the story and move it up to the 50’s.
Edward G. Robinson plays a slick D.A. who wins far more cases than he loses. He wins a big one and decides it is time to run for higher office. This idea goes south when the man he sent to the chair, turns out to be innocent. Robinson resigns and takes to the bottle in a big way.
One day, after spending a night in the drunk tank, Robinson helps a man, Jay Adler, beat a murder beef. He decides to dry out and open up a civil practice. He is soon in demand with all the wrong people. Mobster, Albert Dekker hires him to get various mob types off.
Nina Foch, a friend from his D.A. days is not amused with Robinson’s working for the “dark side”. The new D.A. Edward Platt, is sure that Robinson must have a source inside the D.A.s office. Platt is sure that the source is Miss Foch. Actually, it is Foch’s husband, Hugh Marlowe. Marlowe got in deep with the mob over a large gambling debt. He is paying the debt off by feeding Dekker info on cases.
This arrangement soon ends when wife Foch learns the truth. She ends up shooting hubby Marlowe when he tries to silence her. D.A. Platt, believes that Foch had murdered Marlowe to stop “him” from informing on Foch. She is charged with murder.
Robinson quickly steps up and takes her case. Needless to say no one believes a word that Foch says. Robinson digs around and comes up with a witness to Dekker and Marlowe being in cahoots. Dekker is not the least bit amused with this, and sends a hit-man to deep six Robinson. Robinson survives the attack and presents his witness, Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield coughs up more than enough evidence to get Foch off and mobster Dekker in deep trouble.
A quite watchable film noir with Robinson as usual, giving a reliable performance. Foch, Marlowe and Dekker are also good. The hourglass figured Mansfield, in her first billed role, seems to spend all her limited screen time leaning her upper-works into the camera.
The director here, Lewis Allen is in good form as well. His other film noir include, SUDDENLY, DESERT FURY, A BULLET FOR JOEY, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER and CHICAGO DEADLINE. The sharp looking film was shot by veteran cinematographer, Pev Marley. The two time, Oscar nominated Marley’s work, includes, THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, LIFE WITH FATHER, PRIDE OF THE MARINES, DRUMBEAT and KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE.
ILLEGAL (Lewis Allen, 1955) ***
Author: MARIO GAUCI (email@example.com) from Naxxar, Malta
4 July 2008
Due to his brush with HUAC, Edward G. Robinson’s career suffered throughout the 1950s; I hadn’t watched that much of his work from this period myself – but have now managed to catch two (coincidentally, both semi-noirs made for the same director) in one day.
Though actually the second one, this was the superior effort: in fact, I found it to be quite an underrated genre outing – whose courtroom milieu supplies an added treat; for the record, it was the third screen version of a popular play of the 1920s (the others were THE MOUTHPIECE , the best-regarded one, and THE MAN WHO TALKED TOO MUCH ). Robinson is perfectly in his element here as a crusading D.A. who hits the skids after he sends an innocent man (STAR TREK’s DeForrest Kelley!) to the electric chair – trying to pick up the pieces as a common civil lawyer, he falls in with a powerful gangster but is ultimately redeemed (in both senses of the word). At this point, the actor must have relished such a meaty part – particularly one that so vividly recalled some of his earlier vintage work (but most of all BULLETS OR BALLOTS , a Robinson vehicle I watched for the first time only recently and greatly enjoyed, and which also sees him playing on either side of the law).
The play was here adapted for the screen by two notable scriptwriters, W.R. Burnett (author of LITTLE CAESAR , which had made the star’s name in the first place) and James R. Webb. The supporting cast is also well chosen: Nina Foch as Robinson’s diligent assistant and surrogate daughter, who stays on with the D.A.’s office once the hero is disgraced; Hugh Marlowe as another Robinson aide who loves and subsequently marries Foch; Ellen Corby, one more member of Robinson’s staff but who devotedly sticks with her boss; Albert Dekker as the gangster figure; and a debuting Jayne Mansfield as Dekker’s ‘talented’ moll (her role reminded me of Marilyn Monroe’s celebrated bit in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE , coincidentally drawn from another popular W.R. Burnett novel).
Eventually, the mole in the D.A.’s office – suspected to be Foch due to her ties with Robinson – is discovered to be Marlowe who, when confronted by Foch, she ends up killing him in self-defense; Robinson defies his boss by taking up her case (protecting himself by secreting evidence that would point the finger at Dekker in the event that something happens to him). Though the film is an atypical noir and contains just one action sequence, Robinson’s unconventional courtroom tactics are at least as entertaining and arresting: knocking out a burly witness to a brawl so as to prove his unreliability; drinking a dose of slow-acting poison himself in order to smash the new D.A.’s case against his client (an associate of Dekker’s); at the end turning up in court mortally wounded to acquit Foch. By the way, a handful of paintings from Robinson’s personal renowned art collection are passed off as Dekker’s in the film!
Warners’ exemplary DVD – issued as a double-feature, as part of their “Film Noir Collection Vol. 4”, with Don Siegel’s even better THE BIG STEAL (1949) featuring the great team of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer – contains the trailer, an Audio Commentary (an extra I used to lap up in the past but haven’t listened to one in a long time – chiefly due to time constraints and a huge backlog of films!) as well as two featurettes. One discusses the film proper (all-too briefly) and the other a vintage TV piece in black-and-white, hosted by the ubiquitous Gig Young, about courtroomers produced by Warners (with clips from the Oscar-winning THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA  and two ‘brand-new’ efforts – Otto Preminger’s THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL , which I haven’t watched, and, of course, ILLEGAL itself with even a brief contribution from Edward G. Robinson).