The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
I know, the title seems awfully redundant…but Criminal Lawyer (1951) is a better-than-average Columbia programmer that casts Pat O’Brien as the titular attorney. As the film opens, O’Brien’s Jim Regan is defending young Vince Cheney (Mickey Knox) on an armed robbery charge—and he helps the kid beat the rap by demonstrating that the testimony from the only eyewitness (Charles Lane) is questionable at best. Vince is the younger brother of kingpin Harry Cheney (Douglas Fowley), who is apparently involved in shady dealings though we never actually witness any of them. But Harry is grateful that Regan’s won the case, and despite some earlier friction between the two men is willing to let bygones be bygones.
Regan, on the other hand, isn’t planning to stay a defense attorney for long. He’s got his eye on a judgeship, and he’s pretty much a shoo-in—all he needs is the endorsement of the bar association and he’s as good as stocking his wardrobe with black robes. He’ll turn his law practice over to partner Clark Sommers (Robert Shayne), who’s been bellyaching to Regan’s secretary Maggie Powell (Jane Wyatt) that he does most of the work in the firm while Jim takes all the credit. Out to dinner with Maggie, law clerk Sammy (Marvin Kaplan), Sammy’s receptionist/girlfriend Gloria (Mary Castle) and Jim’s personal bodyguard “Moose” Hendricks (Mike Mazurki), Regan runs into D.A. Walter Medford (Jerome Cowan), who lets Jim know that several members of the bar association—chiefly attorney Tucker Bourne (Carl Benton Reid)—have thumbed down Jim’s endorsement. Regan, who already has a reputation for having a heavy pull on the bottle, goes on a week-long bender to anesthetize the pain from the rejection.
Maggie gets in touch with Moose, who’s been keeping tabs on his boss to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, and persuades him to bring Regan back into Sommers’ offices. Bourne and another lawyer, Melville Webber (Wallis Clark), need Jim to defend Webber’s son Bill (Darryl Hickman) on a hit-and-run charge…and the quid pro quo will be that if Regan gets the kid off, the bar association will reconsider their judiciary endorsement. Regan’s not completely sold on doing so but after talking with young Webber is convinced he’s innocent…and successfully wins the case in court. But there’s one more obstacle in the way of Jim’s future gavel-banging…Harry Cheney ends up murdered, and he has to defend Moose when the bodyguard is accused of the deed.
Criminal Lawyer is an interesting little B-pic because several of its characters aren’t cut from the typical bolt of cloth one usually sees on display in these types of movies. O’Brien’s Regan is a flawed individual; he’s a bit of a lush and isn’t hesitant about pulling a few courtroom tricks to ensure his clients emerge triumphant in the courtroom—and yet O’Brien relies heavily on that Irish charm of his to convince the audience he’s a right guy. But Jim Regan is also the kind of attorney who genuinely believes all of his clients are innocent-and while somebody like William Kunstler might have been convinced of that in real life, anyone with a passing familiarity with the legal system knows that simply isn’t so. What’s more, Regan is able to get Bill Webber acquitted by having all the jury members experience the same hit-and-run situation as the defendant…by having some associates step out in front of their automobiles to cause near-accidents at various points during the trial. A newspaper reporter, Frank Burnett (Louis Jean Heydt), learns about this and writes a story that his editor (Arthur Space) ends up spiking because he has little to back up the assertions…but speculation or no, they do have a name for that: jury tampering.
Wyatt’s Maggie Powell is fiercely devoted to her boss (Regan), and defends him from people like Burnett who suggest that Jim might be a little light in the ethics department. But at another point in the film she resigns from the firm now being run by Sommers because she’s uncomfortable with the exclusive contract he’s signed with Cheney (Sommers will be his one and only lawyer, at his beck and call night and day). So Maggie’s ethics seem to kick in when the man she’s working for is in cahoots with a mobster (whom we never actually see mobstering) but jury tampering—that’s perfectly okay.
The standout performer in Criminal Lawyer is character great Mazurki, who borrows his first name from the character most remembered from the many feature films in which he appeared—”Moose” Malloy in Murder, My Sweet (1944). Due to his bulk and ugly mug, Mazurki specialized in playing thugs and henchmen but rarely got the opportunity (outside of 1947’s Nightmare Alley and 1950’s Night and the City) to get a part with some meat on it. Mike is really impressive in this film—he’s got the muscle but also personality to accommodate it.
As mentioned earlier, Charles Lane has a small role as the eyewitness in the Vince Cheney trial that is a noticeable departure from the dyspeptic authority figures he often played in movies and TV; you’ll also glimpse familiar faces like Gunsmoke’s Amanda Blake (as a receptionist), old-time radio veteran Ken Christy (that unmistakable voice of his rings out in his role as a jury foreman) and John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton as a uniformed police captain. The only blemish on this underrated film is that because the list of suspects as to who killed Cheney is so short the guilty culprit is pretty obvious—Perry Mason would have solved this one on his lunch hour.