PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
Victor Scott (Edward G. Robinson) is a District Attorney with a drive to win every case. He is assisted by attorney Ellen Miles (Nina Foch) who is not quite as relentless, but is devoted to her D.A. boss. After Scott discovers that a man he sent to his death is innocent, he falls into an alcoholic haze, is arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, and determines to defend another incarcerated man. This leads to a new career as a defense attorney.
Scott ends up defending an associate of the city’s crime boss, a man he refused to work for earlier due to the fact that “…no one would testify against you; you own the people who work for you.” This, in turn, leads him into direct confrontation with the very office he used to head.
Ellen Miles kills her husband in self-defense. Scott is determined to clear her, as there are no witnesses. There is an ongoing leak between the D.A.’s office and the crime boss. The leak turns out to be Ellen’s husband, Ray Borden. The new D.A., not knowing this, determines that Ellen herself is the leak and that she murdered her husband when found out.
Before I begin this review about Illegal, can I just mention how hard it is to find anything about this film on-line? Seriously, type “illegal” or “illegal movie” in and this is not the first thing to come up. There are some rather, shall we say, questionable websites that popped up in my search. Obviously, I did find what I was looking for, and that is this film noir that I’m watching at this late hour.
What is this about?
Ambitious D.A. Victor Scott zealously prosecutes Ed Clary for a woman’s murder. But as Clary walks “the last mile” to the electric chair, Scott receives evidence that exonerates the condemned man. Realizing that he’s made a terrible mistake he tries to stop the execution but is too late. Humbled by his grievous misjudgement, Scott resigns as a prosecutor. Entering private practice, he employs the same cunning that made his reputation and draws the attention of mob kingpin, Frank Garland. The mobster succeeds in bribing Scott into representing one of his stooges on a murder rap and Scott, in a grand display of courtroom theatrics, wins the case. But soon Scott finds himself embroiled in dirty mob politics. The situation becomes intolerable when his former protege in the D.A.’s office is charged with a murder that seems to implicate her as an informant to the Garland mob. Can Victor defend the woman he secretly loves and also keep his life?
What did I like?
Not so fast, pretty boy. Today’s leading men, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, etc. are all “pretty boys”, if you will notice. Back in the day, though, audiences were not so hung up on looks or maybe it was the fact that they were more interested in the actor’s talent. This explains how a hideous troll like Edward G. Robinson had such a tremendous career. He can really act, and not just as the shifty gangster types he normally was cast as, but he was allowed to shine in roles likes this where he gets to really flex his acting chops.
Gray matter. Expectations can be a tricky thing. I went into this film, expecting a morally black and white film, as can be expected when dealing with the law. However, this is more about lawyers, who are known to be just as crooked, if not more so than gangsters. I don’t need to tell you that this made for quite the interesting shades of gray. Robinson is the good guy, but he’s still a bad guy, if that makes any sense.
Introducing…Jayne Mansfield. A real treat makes an appearance in a rather small, but important role. Not quite a sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield appears in one of her first movie roles. It is well documented that I love, love, LOVE Jayne, but I had no idea she was in this flick until she popped up, and even then I had to do a double take (not counting that her name was in the opening credits). I believe this is her best serious performance. She’s using her real voice, not the manufactured airehead voice that she would use after she rose to fame, which makes this role much more subdued and in step with the rest of the cast. Can you imagine later Jayne in this film? Trainwreck!!!
What didn’t I like?
Theatrics. Robinson’s courtroom theatrics were interesting and are surely the reason he was such a good attorney. If Law and Order (and its many spinoffs) used some of that, maybe I’d actually watch. For me, though, while I enjoyed his antics, I couldn’t help but think they were a bit much for a film that is this serious. It was almost like watching Night Court instead.
Mob tactics. Guess what? The mob is in this film showing their might and doing mob type enforcing stuffs. What’s the problem with that? Well, it just doesn’t seem like this version of the mob is as intimidating as they could and should be, at least to me. They come off as just some guys in suits with resources, rather than a highly connected and efficient group of hitmen, thieves, and assassins.
Hugh. Token 50s asshole Hugh Marlowe once again plays the same role he always played. I know this guy had his fans, but I’m not one of them. True, his film personal worked for how this film played out, there still could have been a better way to utilize his talents. I may just be letting my disdain for this guy cloud my judgment, though.
When the dust clears, Illegal turned out to be a really, really good film noir that I’m glad YouTube recommended, otherwise I would have never heard of, let alone seen. The script is tight, especially for this era of film, the acting is top-notch, and the pacing is just that right mix of snappy, yet slow enough for the audience to keep up with everything. There are few flaws here and there, but they are few and far between. I highly recommend this as a film you should see before you die!
5 out of 5 stars