Illegal (1955) Directed by Lewis Allen
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe
Written by W.R. Burnett & James R. Webb

The rough and tumble world of American noir is thick with cheap pleasures, remembered best for constant lampooning by more contemporary pop-culture. Back lot studios churned out cheap hood stories using their contract players and directors with little regard for source material and less thought on chemistry. The most enduring legacies were patched together piece by piece, character by character, as carefully crafted as the shooting schedule allowed. From this capricious world of disposable celluloid crawled an unlikely assortment of icons, standing on the shoulders of their talentless peers, roaring above the mind-numbing, stilted dialogue, who will forever live on through their imprint left on the American psyche.


It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely star than Edward G. Robinson, whom I used to refer to as the man with “the name I can never remember and the face I can never forget”. He looks like a blubbering bulldog, sneering each line through his nostrils like an asthmatic playing a bent kazoo. Yet he shines in every role, and his portrayal of disgraced District Attorney Victor Scott is no exception.

We’re introduced to Scott as he concludes a murder case, courting the jury’s favor with an almost operatic performance. He’s successful, the best D.A. in the state, and victory is made sweeter by his adopted daughter’s (herself employed as an assistant to the D.A.’s office) announcement to marry her long-time beau. The time is right for his run for governor but suddenly his life shatters when a dying criminal confesses to the same killing on the eve of the convicted man’s (a stunning two-line performance by future interstellar physician DeForest Kelly) execution. The reprieve comes too late, the innocent dies, and Scott falls apart. He resigns from his position, abandons his political ambitions and slips quickly into the bottom of an endless parade of Scotch bottles.


Finding himself on the wrong end of the court system Scott realizes that his skill in swaying juries could lead to a new career as a criminal defense attorney. Freed from the dignity of a city-employee Scott is allowed to stage courtroom antics such as decking a witness to prove his testimony could easily have been compromised by having been knocked unconscious. A chance client affords him the opportunity to meet underworld heavy-weight Frank Garland who, impressed with Scott’s abilities, would like to retain him for nefarious purposes. At first Scott declines but as he soon sees the underworld spawns most of his clientele, has the money and has the tallest blondes playing piano.

This entertaining picture weaves between courtrooms, backrooms and occasional pit-stops on the streets. It’s more of a drama than a detective-thriller with the question of morality as its centerpiece. The world of law, of guilty and innocent, is portrayed as a gray area based on perception and window-dressings, and Scott rides both sides of the fence unapologetically. This is not so say that he is amoral, just that his code of ethics is a very focused one.


Such delicate subject-matter buried under the surface of this deceptively simple story is well handled in Robinson’s capable hands. He’s a driven competitor in court and a sternly proud man outside; however he has no illusions about what he does professionally, treating his clients with the same contempt as when he was the D.A. Where his adoptive daughter Ellen (Nina Fochs) is concerned he’s an old softie with twinkling eyes, tender and loving. There is despair, there is redemption, there is anger and there is righteousness. A very full performance despite the efforts of all around him to doom the movie.

Fochs stalks the stage like a rattled antelope and is periodically possessed by a zombie, slack-faced and staring off into space. Garland is a stock caricature found in any number of gangster flicks and his sociopathic right-hand man licks the boots of Richard Widmark’s numerous performances. When the movie was originally released a big deal was made out of it being Jayne Mansfield’s first role and she handles her part as vacuously and out of place as Max Steiner’s periodic fits of score. The only talent worthy of Robinson’s screen time is Ellen Corby who plays Hinckel, Scott’s rancorous and matronly assistant. There’s no help from the director’s chair, the shots are perfunctory. The movie as a whole is imbalanced with only Robinson keeping the rubbish lid from clambering down entirely. It’s a masterful feat and well worth the time if you have some popcorn handy and an evening to kill.

The DVD I watched was a double feature which includes the Robert Mitchum picture “The Big Steal” and I assume it’s widely available. As my computer has been consumed by cockroaches I had to steal screenshots from Crooked Timber and the formatting is all fucked for some reason– I’ll blame my being on a crap PC at work.