Edward G. Robinson was one helluva a good actor. He even makes this exercise in the absurd and perfunctory a crime drama you can watch, even enjoy at moments. Often found in film noir collections, it isn’t noir. In a way, it’s screwball comedy without the humour.
Directed by Lewis Allen
The first act of Illegal plays like a kind of executive summary as it quickly lays out exposition and sets up the story. It goes by so briskly and so summarily it feels like point form.
It’s brusque in the way it goes from short scene to short scene. You get the feeling director Lewis Allen had a pressing appointment he had to get to.
A district attorney (Edward G. Robinson) prosecutes a case.
He’s very good as he prosecutes cases almost like serving up templated hamburgers at a fast food restaurant. In the process, an innocent man (DeForest Kelly) is convicted and executed for murder.
That goes by so fast poor DeForest Kelly gets just one line, as I recall, a simple, “I’m innocent, you know,” as he’s led to his death.
Discovering he is responsible for a wrongful conviction, the formerly blasé D.A. quits his job and quickly becomes a drunk. Almost as quickly, he recovers and finds a new enthusiasm as a lawyer on the defense side of things.
But he is all about law and the process. It’s the game he enjoys and he remains enchained by his guilt over the case he wrongly prosecuted. So he tosses his high moral ground aside and doesn’t care about the guilt or innocence of clients, just the law.
And he finds himself “retained” by a mobster who wants him to defend his gang members when they are arrested and tried.
He does. He gets them off. They are all guilty, but he doesn’t care.
As you might guess, this is a B movie, one that goes through the story motions in almost paint by numbers fashion. The proper descriptor is brusque. Scenes come up and vanish almost like targets on a shooting range.
It does, however, manage to slow its pace enough and get into a more compelling storytelling approach once its first act is over, though it continues to move through plot points speedily. In the end, it’s not a particularly good movie, even within the context of hardboiled crime stories, but it does have one redeeming virtue.
Edward G. Robinson makes it watchable, even enjoyable, despite all the film’s faults. (The largest fault being the story is pretty ludicrous. Perhaps DeForest Kelly lucked out by getting to exit the movie so early.) Robinson even makes the film almost credible at times with his performance.
The movie is notable for a few other things, the most interesting perhaps being the screen debut of Jayne Mansfield as a piano-playing, singing gangster’s moll. Also, IMDb tell us,
(Gangster) Frank Garland’s impressive collection of Impressionist art actually was loaned to the film by collector Edward G. Robinson. Included are works by Gaugin, Degas, Duran, and Robinson’s wife, Gladys Lloyd.
Sometimes classed as a noir, this movie really doesn’t fit the bill. It doesn’t have the feel, there is really no femme fatale and there is no strong romantic element running through it. Illegal is a crime film, a kind of a melodramatic thriller. But it is not noir.
Lastly, IMDb also indicates that Illegal is a third remake of a story/play by Frank J. Collins, the first being The Mouthpiece (1932) and the second was The Man Who Talked Too Much (1940).