Hollywood in the fifties was going through a transition. The moguls were losing control of the medium. Actors were becoming independent. Audiences were evolving. Sure, scandals still happened that were hushed up. The argument, the evidence, the testimony and the final sound of the gavel hitting wood can all be bought or controlled. This was the moment in time that ILLEGAL (1955) was produced by Warner Brothers, the studio that often took stories from “today’s headlines” continued to do so.
Edward G. Robinson at his cynical, fast talking best as lawyer Victor Scott. The script benefits from W.R. Burnett and James Webb. W. R. Burnett provided the original stories in novel or short story form for some of the seminal gangster and film noir classics that included Little Caesar (1929), The Beast of the City (1932), The Asphalt Jungle (1949) and High Sierra (1941), plus countless screenplay collaborations.
Director Lewis Allen worked on such pictures as APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and SUDDENLY (1954). Add in a top cast of new for the time players like Hugh Marlowe, Nina Foch, Edward Platt, and Albert Dekker . Newcomers like Jane Mansfield, Deforest Kelley, Henry Kulky, Ellen Corby and others populated the screen with taunt action.
Shades of the Warren William repentant lawyer picture THE MOUTHPIECE from 1932 with a gritty fifties edge emerge. District Attorney Victor Scott ( Robinson) delivers an impassioned speech to a jury invoking biblical wrath that sends Edward Clary (A young DeForest Kelly) to the electric chair. cott has the highest conviction rate of anyone previous as he plays to win. A reporter badgers him, asking if he will run for Governor and saying that he is “too ruthless.” Scott waves his comments off as him being good at what he does.
New evidence comes to light in the form of a deathbed confession by an accomplice, taken down by investigator Ray Borden (Hugh Marlowe), proving Clary innocent . Scott makes a frantic phone call to the prison: too late to stop the execution. Wracked with guilt, Scott goes on a drinking bender in seedy bars. He is nursed somewhat back by his associate Ellen Miles (Nina Foch), whom he gave her first job in the legal profession because her father gave Scott his start. Scott tells her to marry Ray Borden and to “get out,” which hurts her deeply. Scott slowly passes out in a chair, telling her that it’s “father’s orders” that she marry.
Victor Scott resigns the District Attorney post and goes into lowly criminal law. The fees are not so big as he has a playful debate with his loyal office person Miss Hinkel (Ellen Corby) as she wants to buy something that he cannot afford now. Film noir is full of changes and that sets up a chain of events involving associates working for others. A big boss, Frank Garland (Albert Dekker), becomes involved in a payoff and a murder. Victor Scott’s business now booms as he gets back his wealth and prestige by employing theatrics in the courtroom such as swallowing poison, getting his client off in the court and then rushing to a doctor to have a stomach pump.
The picture proceeds through Frank Garland’s involvement and corruption that begins to influence events. Garland controls companies and has been with many women; even one that one of his men brings to one of his parties. Garland remarks that he is acquainted with her and gallantly gives her a carnation and smile, much to her escort’s disappointment.
The cast is wonderfully sleazy with a shine in ILLEGAL (1955). Many moments by soon to be television actors like Ellen Corby (THE WALTONS) as the all- suffering Miss Hinkel who sets things right.
Henry Kulky, who played Chief Curly Jones in first season of the television series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, plays a prizefighter on trial for beating up a man that is bettered by Victor Scott in a rather one punch way.
Deforest Kelly had a long career in theater and films, mostly Westerns, plays the accused killer Edward Clary at the film’s beginning. Kelly went on to be immortalized as Dr. Leonard McCoy in the television series STAR TREK and its accompanying film franchise.
Ed Platt, who plays Scott’s replacement Ralph Ford, exudes authority with his voice and stature during the courtroom scenes. Victor Scott puts him in his place when he tells him “Just remember when you get a thought sitting in that chair. I have already had that thought.” Investigator Bordon (Hugh Marlowe) unknowingly does a final bit of irony to Platt’s character when he calls him “Chief” in a bar scene. Edward Platt would go on to play Chief in the multi-award winning spy comedy television series GET SMART beginning in 1965.
ILLEGAL (1955) moves fast with Edward G. Robinson and others clipping the dialogue. The picture has been compared to The Asphalt Jungle (1950), due to W. R. Burnett’s presence and the similarity between the Jayne Mansfield role of Angel O’ Hara and the Marilyn Munro role as Angela Phinlay. Mansfield is acceptable in this role as she does her best with her presence and tight fitting gowns, while speaking in a Munroe like voice, plus singing a song in a dubbed voice. It was an attempt to do a similar launch by Warner Brothers for Jayne, much like it was done for Marilyn. ILLEGAL (1955) stands on its own as solid acting and a different story with worthwhile twists and turns.