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teaser Illegal (1955)

Illegal (1955) was the third adaptation of Frank J. Collins' play The Mouthpiece, previously filmed in 1932 (as The Mouthpiece) with Warren William, and again in 1940 (as The Man Who Talked Too Much) with George Brent. For this go-around, a looser adaptation, Warner Brothers cast Edward G. Robinson as Victor Scott, a Manhattan DA who resigns when he realizes he has sent an innocent man to the chair. After losing himself in drink for a while, Scott becomes a criminal defense lawyer, using his unsavory yet legal courtroom methods to defend a hoodlum played by Albert Dekker.

Robinson's character, like William's and Brent's in the earlier films, is a composite of several real-life lawyers, but he is most prominently based on the colorful William J. Fallon, an assistant district attorney in Westchester County who actually did resign his seat in the 1910s because he had convicted an innocent man. He went on to become a defense lawyer and represented drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps and assorted underworld characters including Arnold Rothstein. (Fallon successfully defended Rothstein in court in the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series scandal.) Bill Fallon was as intelligent and charming as he was immoral and self-indulgent, and he was probably best embodied on the big screen by Warren William. Edward G. Robinson still does a fine job, however, single-handedly preventing Illegal from being just an unmemorable urban melodrama.

The mid-1950s were a period of routine B-movie assignments for Robinson. The McCarthy hysteria had led to allegations of Communist affiliation for him, and while he was not blacklisted, the offers for top roles evaporated and he had to make do with minor films like Illegal. Robinson later wrote, "I was doomed, both by age and former political leanings, to a slow graveyard." Finally Cecil B. DeMille came to the rescue and cast him in The Ten Commandments (1956). Robinson was eternally grateful: "Cecil B. DeMille returned me to films. Cecil B. DeMille restored my self-respect."

Robinson turns in a very relaxed performance in Illegal, demonstrating an impressive professionalism and relishing some opportunities to talk tough and act wily. He's a natural while slugging a witness in court (to make a legal point), or drinking poison to make a jury think it's really not poison -- and then when a recess is called, rushing away to get his stomach pumped. Both sequences are based on real incidents, by the way.

Also in the cast are Nina Foch, emanating warmth and sympathy, 35-year-old DeForest Kelley as a condemned man, and sultry 22-year-old Jayne Mansfield as a gangster's moll. Contrary to some opinions, Illegal was not Mansfield's debut film; she had already appeared on screen in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) and had filmed a small role in Female Jungle, which was shot in 1954 and released in 1956. Illegal was, however, her first substantial role, and she exudes stunning sex appeal while turning in a perfectly serviceable performance. Her next film would be one of her best, Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956).

Illegal didn't score many points with critics. Variety called it "lackluster... Picture never seems to decide whether it should play itself for straight melodramatics or for hokum laughs."

For a minor film, Illegal boasts a top composer in Max Steiner and also the talented cameraman Pev Marley, a real pro whose credits extended all the way back to 1923's The Ten Commandments.

Some final tidbits: Illegal was produced by Frank Rosenberg, and in one scene, a movie theater marquee touts a coming preview of Miracle in the Rain (1956) -- Rosenberg's next picture! Edward G. Robinson was a famous Impressionist art collector, and several of his paintings -- by Degas, Derain, Gauguin and others -- can be seen here lining the walls of his office or Dekker's home.

Producer: Frank P. Rosenberg
Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: W.R. Burnett, James R. Webb (screenplay); Frank J. Collins (story)
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Thomas Reilly
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Victor Scott), Nina Foch (Ellen Miles), Hugh Marlowe (Ray Borden), Jayne Mansfield (Angel O'Hara), Albert Dekker (Frank Garland), Howard St. John (E.A. Smith), Ellen Corby (Miss Hinkel), Edward Platt (Ralph Ford), Jan Merlin (Andy Garth), Robert Ellenstein (Joe Knight).

by Jeremy Arnold

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