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The first act of the 1951 crime picture The Unknown Man plays out like a classic courtroom drama with a social commentary heart. Walter Pidgeon is big business lawyer Bradley Mason, "the best civil lawyer in town and one of the finest in the country," in the words of Joe Bucknor (Barry Sullivan), our narrator and conflicted District Attorney. Brad is coaxed by an old law school buddy into defending a young man (Keefe Brasselle) with a long criminal record who is on trial for murder. Mason is no criminal lawyer but he reveres the law and, afraid that this inarticulate, hotheaded young man may be railroaded into a conviction for a crime he didn't commit, he takes the case. That's just the beginning of Mason's story, however. Questions linger in his mind after the case and he discovers just how nave he is when it comes to the reach of crime and corruption in his city.
Though it's not exactly your typical crusading attorney story, The Unknown Man circles back to courtroom drama for the climax. By then, however, the road to justice has taken some complicated detours into the shadows of film noir territory. The syndicate became a presence in urban crime films after World War II and here it looms over the story, invisible but powerful and run by an unknown mob boss who may or may not even exist. Our moral, honest hero Bradley Mason is determined to find the truth.
Journeyman filmmaker Richard Thorpe directed over 180 films in a long career that began in silent era. He was signed to MGM in the 1930s, where his reputation for efficiency and his versatility made him one of the studio's busiest directors, and he remained under contract with the studio for almost 30 years, which is surely a record of some kind. He made everything from westerns and crime films to comedies and musicals to lavish costume pictures and he had a reputation for bringing in his films quickly and under budget. After The Unknown Man, Thorpe was given the opportunity to make some of his best and most prestigious pictures, including Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor, The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, and Knights of the Round Table (1953) with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner, as well as the low budget cult classic Jailhouse Rock (1957) with Elvis Presley.
According to a news item in the Hollywood Reporter, Lionel Barrymore was originally cast in the film but was forced to withdraw due to illness. The notice doesn't specify the role but it was likely as the dedicated judge who presides over the two trials that bookend the story and serves as the model of jurisprudence in the film. Lewis Stone, who played Judge Hardy in over a dozen Andy Hardy movies, ultimately takes that place on the bench. This was the second of five pictures that Thorpe made with Stone. When Thorpe was promoted to more prestigious pictures, he cast Lewis in plum supporting roles and directed the lifelong MGM star in his final screen appearances before his death in 1953.
MGM contract player Richard Anderson has a small role as Brad's idealistic son, a law student finishing up his last year and preparing to join his father in the firm. Though he later appeared in Forbidden Planet (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), Anderson's career never really ignited until his MGM contract ended and he turned to TV. He joined the cast of Perry Mason in its final season and landed a major role in the finale to The Fugitive but he's still best remembered for playing Oscar Goldman, the government special agent who watches over both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Here is a chance to see the future authority figure as a wide-eyed young man.
By Sean Axmaker
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Mike Grost: The Films of Richard Thorpe (website)