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The idea that there are two kinds of justice in the United States one for the rich and quite another for the poor is not a new one. Neither is the plot device of the innocent man falsely accused. Alfred Hitchcock would base most of his films on this theme, including The Wrong Man (1956) starring Henry Fonda. For Fonda, it must have felt like dj vu, as he had starred in a similar film Let Us Live! (1939), nearly twenty years before.
Carlos Clarens in his book Crime Movies wrote that Let Us Live! was "full of glowingly photographed prison walls, and it is obvious that [director John] Brahm's writers had closely studied [fellow German director Fritz] Lang's films: there was even a Langian 'miracle' a bullet lodged in an apple to send an upright police detective (Ralph Bellamy) in search of the real culprit. The film was all the more derivative for the typecasting of Henry Fonda as one of two cabdrivers wrongly accused of murder Fonda alone in Hollywood, seemed capable of convincingly delivering lines like, "We haven't a chance, us little people" and "The law can't admit being wrong." The last line might explain why Let Us Live! was ultimately trimmed and released as a B-picture. The script (by Anthony Veiller and Allen Rivkin) was adapted from a magazine story, "Murder in Massachusetts" written by Joseph Dinneen and published in Harper's in March 1936. Dinneen's story was too true to be good for the legal image of Massachusetts. Two years earlier, two Boston taxi drivers had been identified by seven of eight witnesses as participants in a theater holdup in which a bill poster had been killed. The two men were indicted for murder and were heading for a certain conviction when, in the third week of their trial, two notorious gangsters, Irving and Murton Millen, were arrested in New York and admitted to the robbery among other crimes. The cabbies were exonerated, and the Millen brothers and an accomplice were executed in 1935."
The screen rights to Let Us Live! had originally been purchased by Samuel Goldwyn for a film to star James Cagney, but the then governor of Massachusetts, James M. Curley, had filed suit against both Harper's and writer Dinneen for libel. This was due to a follow-up article Dinneen had written for the magazine which hinted at corruption by both the police and the district attorney's office and undue influence being placed on witnesses by both departments in order to convict the cabbies. As a result, Goldwyn was afraid to touch such a controversial topic. The same could not be said of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, although, as Clarens wrote, "the state of Massachusetts advised Harry Cohn's lawyers at Columbia that the studio refrain from suggesting that these events, although a matter of public record, had taken place in a specific community. The state further advised that it would bring legal action against Columbia if the studio implied that the Boston police had acted rashly or that the courts had been inefficient. Among studio heads, Cohn had the most reason to avoid a legal fight which would have brought certain dealings into the open. Let Us Live! was not shelved, but it became a B-picture overnight."
Variety was not overly impressed with the film, stating it had "limited appeal for those who like to delve into serious problems of our present legal machinery and the handicaps which persons of moderate means face when proving innocence of criminal charges. As a preachment, it serves a purpose, but falls short of providing sufficient audience appeal for general entertainment. [...] What merit it has is the result of deft direction and capable performances by Miss O'Sullivan and Fonda. Story is slow and rather ponderous, with ending obvious as soon as Fonda is picked up as suspect."
Frank S. Nugent praised the film in his New York Times review on March 30, 1939, calling it "a taut and strongly played drama which Columbia presented at the Globe yesterday with such anonymity that the credits refer only to "a story by Joseph F. Dinneen," not even mentioning its title, "Murder in Massachusetts." The unofficial explanation from Hollywood was that the Commonwealth preferred not to be reminded of its near-miscarriage of justice and had threatened action of a vague but unpleasant nature if the film so much as implied any inefficiency or harshness to its police, its prosecutor or its courts in the case of the unfortunate cabbies. [...] At this late date it could hardly be called a daring theme or an indictment of anything or anyone-except, usually, of the script-writers and players for the routine treatment the plot normally gets. But Let Us Live! is a notable exception. Under the goad of John Brahm's forceful and eloquent direction, it explores its familiar theme with anything but contempt. Mr. Brahm is as alert as any director of Class B melodrama to his opportunities for swift and exciting action, to the inherent suspense in a death-house deadline when a clock is ticking away the swift last hours of an innocent man's life, to the frenzy of the condemned's sweetheart as she tries to convince officialdom that justice has not been done. But, instead of stopping there, Mr. Brahm has underscored his physical drama with the psychological. What, after all, must happen to a man who finds himself victimized by a legal machine which he always had regarded as his protector? That is the essence of Mr. Brahm's drama, the quality which raises it above the death-house thriller class and gives it dignity and maturity."
"Although it is the film's direction that has made it good, if not great, Mr. Brahm must share his credit with Allen Rivkin and Anthony Veiller for a splendidly turned script, and to Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ralph Bellamy, Alan Baxter and the others for the incisive performances all good directors seem able to extract from their players. Let Us Live! is not exactly a novel theme, but it is news when so old a theme has been handled so well."
Producer: William Perlberg
Director: John Brahm
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin, Anthony Veiller
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: Karol Rathaus
Cast: Maureen O'Sullivan (Mary Roberts), Henry Fonda (Brick Tennant), Ralph Bellamy (Lt. Everett), Alan Baxter (Joe Lindon), Stanley Ridges (District Attorney), Henry Kolker (Chief of Police).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens
Variety February 15, 1939
The New York Times March 30, 1939
The Internet Movie Database