UNKNOWN MAN, THE
(director: Richard Thorpe; screenwriters: George Froeschel/Ronald Millar; cinematographer: William Mellor; editor: Ben Lewis; music: Conrad Salinger; cast: Walter Pidgeon (Dwight Bradley Mason), Ann Harding (Stella Mason), Barry Sullivan (Joe Buckner, DA), Keefe Brasselle (Rudi Wallchek), Lewis Stone (Judge Holbrook), Eduard Franz (Andrew Jason Layford), Konstantin Shayne (Peter Hulderman), Dawn Addams (Ellie Fansworth), Philip Ober (Wayne Kellwin), Mari Blanchard (Sally Tever); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Thomsen; MGM; 1951)
“A contrived morality lesson.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A contrived morality lesson is delivered by sentimental lawyer Walter Pidgeon, from a plot that is held together by social conscious issues alone. Richard Thorpe directs this capable but miscast cast (romantic lead Pidgeon is a fish out of water playing a lawyer, supporting actors Lewis Stone and Ann Harding seem stiff taking roles away from their usual comedy ones) in this bizarre and incredulous triumph of justice tale. It’s scripted by George Froeschel and Ronald Millar.
Warning: spoiler in the next two paragraphs.
Respected wealthy corporate lawyer Dwight Bradley Mason (Walter Pidgeon) is talked into taking a murder case when the defendant’s lawyer (Philip Ober), a law school classmate of Brad’s, convinces him that his client is innocent and would have a better chance defended by him despite his not practicing criminal law for a number of years (the bogus argument says something about it’s good to be inexperienced, as long as you have a reputation as a winner). It involves local hood Rudi Wallchek (Keefe Brasselle), a wise guy with a long record in crime since childhood, who is accused of knifing to death in a hold-up the 19-year-old son of locksmith Peter Hulderman. Though inexperienced as a criminal lawyer, Brad gets his client off on the mistaken testimony of a witness only to later find out he made a serious mistake–his client is not only guilty but a member of the syndicate extorting money from the scared merchants on Hulderman’s block. When Hulderman is suspiciously run over, Brad somehow gets the duplicate key Hulderman possessed to Rudi’s apartment and discovers there the unrecovered murder weapon–a long knife kept in a cane. The naive lawyer is anxious to make up for his error, but is told by the hard-nosed prosecutor Joe Buckner (Barry Sullivan) that Rudi can’t be tried again for the same crime but that there’s a detective following him in the hopes he can lead them to the mysterious syndicate head or maybe he’ll get caught in committing another crime. Brad then shows up at night in the home of Andrew Jason Layford (Eduard Franz), the prominent head of a citizen’s crime commission, and presents the evidence that Rudi committed the murder on orders of the syndicate. To Brad’s shock he finds Rudi visits Layford while he’s there and that Layford slips up to give himself away as the head of the syndicate. In a fit of uncontrollable rage, after Layford laughed at the law and boasted he controlled things in the city, Brad uses the murder weapon long knife to stab Layford to death. Rudi gets accused of the murder and is defended again by Brad, but gets convicted and is sentenced to death. When Brad admitted to DA Buckner that he was guilty, the DA believes justice has been served and ignores Brad’s confession. Brad then requests a prison cell visit with his client and confesses that he’s the killer, leaving the murder weapon on the prisoner’s bed as he turns his back on the hateful man. Rudi carries out Brad’s death wish, and in the lawyer’s twisted mind he is relieved of his guilt that he got away with murder.
The solution to this justice tale never makes sense, only the Barry Sullivan character seemed to still have all his marbles intact by the conclusion. I found Pidgeon’s obsessive love for the law above all else to be misplaced, and how an innocent man of high principles can be so suddenly driven to murder was too much for me to fathom (the sudden attraction of the stuffy Pidgeon to the world of crime after a life of avoidance was never satisfactorily established). The filmmakers tried their darnedest to say something relevant about corruption and justice affecting all citizens, but never satisfactorily connected the corruption part of the story with the justice part. By the end, everyone looked foolish with Pidgeon looking dead foolish. Pidgeon has the kind of ridiculous lawyer part where even someone as esteemed as Clarence Darrow couldn’t have played it convincingly; so I don’t blame Pidgeon for this misfire.
REVIEWED ON 3/2/2005 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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