Sunday 24 August 2008

I am the Law (1938)

The benefits of TCM's Summer Under the Stars are much the same as its drawbacks. Every day in August is dedicated to one star, which is a great concept. It's a great way to catch up on the work of that star, but it's not a lot of use when you've already done a lot of catching up. After a few years of doing exactly that, it's become a mixed bag. I find myself waiting to see who's going to get picked, then switch quickly from joy to annoyance: joy when I see names like Peter Lorre and Edward G Robinson, then annoyance when I realise that I've seen almost all the films that have been selected for broadcast.

I got one Lorre and three Robinsons out of this year's Summer Under the Stars, and the Lorre didn't even record because my DVR screwed up. However three Edward G Robinson films is nothing to sniff at. Even if they're not great films, as they may well not be, Robinson himself is almost guaranteed to be a joy to watch. This one makes 38 of his films for me and he hasn't done anything less than shine in every single one of them. Luckily I have 57 more of them to find and maybe next year's Summer Under the Stars will net me more than just there.

The title notwithstanding, he doesn't play Judge Dredd here, though that would have be an interesting casting. He's John Lindsay, a law professor about to start on a year's sabbatical, which seems to be the standard thing every seventh year, but Lindsay doesn't have a clue how to do anything else. He's dedicated to his work, he appears to be very good at it and he thinks the only time a man should begin a leave of absence is after rigor mortis sets in, but his wife is set on a long awaited holiday. Lindsay would do anything to avoid it and find something to do and it lands right in his lap. His town is full of corruption, run by gangsters and nobody will do anything about it. Lindsay takes the job.

Robinson was awesome in Little Caesar, one of the key early gangster movies, and so was an obvious and easy candidate for typecasting, something that he tried his utmost to avoid. He managed to cleverly appear in a number of gangster films that went completely against that typecasting and this fits in that category well. He's a lawyer and he's on the other side to the gangsters, but he proves himself as tough as they are. There's a great scene here where he decides to emasculate the mystique of the gangster as tough guy by fighting three of them, one after another, in his own living room, with journalists and photographers there to capture it all for the front page.

There are subplots and twists and all the usual here, as Lindsay struggles to get his campaign against crime moving and the decent citizens on his side as active participants, and the leads flesh all this out well. The only real catch is that Robinson excluded, everyone plays the sort of role we always expect them to play. Lindsay's assistant Paul Ferguson, a hotshot lawyer that he graduated, is played by John Beal; his father Eugene, the real man behind the rackets, is ever suave but sinister Otto Kruger; and his supportive wife is Barbara O'Neil.

Most impressive of the supporting cast is Wendy Barrie as the femme fatale of the show, a former newspaper reporter who found her way into the rackets and who Eugene Ferguson sends to manipulate Lindsay. However even she doesn't have a particularly deep role to play, depth not being the point here. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film while being no great classic, and beyond Robinson's excellent performance, it's worth watching for his dancing scene. Unlike the other great screen gangster of the era, Jimmy Cagney, Eddie G is a fish out of water on the dancefloor but he acquits himself surprisingly well doing the big apple.

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