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TATTERED DRESS, THE (director: Jack Arnold; screenwriter: George Zuckerman; cinematographer: Carl Guthrie; editor: Edward A. Curtiss; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Jeff Chandler (James Gordon Blane), Jeanne Crain (Diane Blane), Jack Carson (Sheriff Nick Hoak), Gail Russell (Carol Morrow), Elaine Stewart (Charleen Reston), George Tobias (Billy Giles), Phillip Reed (Michael Reston), Edward Andrews (Lester Rawlings), Alexander Lockwood (Paul Vernon), Frank Scannell (Cal Morrison), Floyd Simmons (Larry Bell), Edward C. Platt (Reporter, Ralph Adams); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Zugsmith; Universal-International; 1957)
“A tawdry courtroom film noir drama directed in a workmanlike but uninspiring way by Jack Arnold.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A tawdry courtroom film noir drama directed in a workmanlike but uninspiring way by Jack Arnold. New York criminal lawyer James Blane (Jeff Chandler) is famous for never losing a case and for being arrogant and unethical in how he presents his cases. Blane takes on a murder case in the small resort town of California’s Desert Valley solely for the high fee, even though he despises the accused wealthy murderer Michael Reston (Reed) for being a deviant. The accused in a fit of jealousy gunned down the would-be lover of his wife Charleen (Elaine Stewart) when she came home with her fancy night gown dress tattered. Larry, the dead man, was a popular local football hero and was best friends with the powerfully connected Sheriff Nick Hoak (Jack Carson), also a former gridiron hero.

Blane wins the case by undermining the testimony of the sheriff and showing the victim to be a womanizer who was kicked out of college for going on a panty-raid. As a result Blane wins the case for his guilty client, and gloats about it. But the sheriff is humiliated that he was made a fool of on the stand and gets his revenge by framing the lawyer. Blane lost $5,000 to card sharks in a game Hoak set him up in, and that money was given to a juror named Carol Morrow (Gail Russell) as a bribe to find the accused innocent. He’s indicted by the grand jury as the one Morrow says bribed her and hires a defense lawyer named Rawlings to protect his reputation in court. He also wishes to make up with his wife Diane (Jeanne Crain), whom he’s separated from because of his workaholic schedule and his interest in other women.

When Blane’s defense lawyer questions his innocence, he fires him and decides to defend himself and thereby employs the help of Billy Giles (George Tobias) to track down the card sharks in nearby Las Vegas. Giles is his best friend, and is the once famous nightclub comedian who in a jealous rage killed his wife and lover but was defended by Blane and was found not guilty (for which he’s forever grateful). When he locates the card shark (Scannell) dealing in a Vegas casino, he returns to tell Blane. The sheriff is notified by the dealer that he’s been spotted, so Hoak waits for Giles by the highway and forces his car off the ravine. Giles dies in what’s called a highway accident.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Blane realizes that his reputation as a slick New York lawyer will condemn him to a long prison term, so he goes into a long one-note delivered spiel by coming clean about the dirty tactics he used to win cases and how he now regrets it. He also tells his life story of his rise from poverty and how he got so twisted that he defended known criminals because he enjoyed winning and getting big fees. The jurors buy into his corny closing argument and find him not guilty. I found that astonishing, as his pompous argument was not only poorly delivered but laughable as a defense argument against bribery. As a result of the innocent verdict, the vengeful sheriff can’t live with Blane going free and attempts to plug him while he comes down the courthouse steps, but his jilted girlfriend Morrow plugs him instead as he waits to fire on Blane from the side entrance of the courthouse.

It was hard to warm up to the arrogant Chandler, even when he’s rightfully fighting for his life as a victim of the frame. Also, the film was poorly scripted by George Zuckerman. There were many plot holes in it that could not be repaired. The bribery should have been immediately reported and a mistrial should have been declared. The bribery charges should have at least aroused the judge’s curiosity to look further into the trial. In any case, it’s fuzzy thinking to believe an innocent verdict was gotten from Morrow when she knew the sheriff wanted the lawyer to lose the case in order for him to redeem his reputation.

This modest film is pleasant to watch, in a manner of speaking, but doesn’t offer much of a challenge. Its film noir qualities are marginal and are based on how Chandler gets the wind kicked out of him when he realizes that he loves his wife and two small kids and has strayed too far from them to chase after fame and riches–things he no longer values as much as family. I never found any of this believable. The only thing the film accomplishes that is credible, is comparing the desert locale with the empty lives of the film’s subjects.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”