Victor Scott (Edward G. Robinson) is a Los Angeles DA with a long track record of successful convictions. His latest case was against Edward Clary (DeForest Kelley), a man arrested for murder. Clary attempted to proclaim his innocence, but Victor remained convinced of his guilt, thanks to evidence dug up by investigator Ray Borden (Hugh Marlowe) and Victor’s assistant Ellen Miles (Nina Foch).
Clary is convicted and sentenced to death after Victor delivers a stirring argument stating, “The gift of life is our most precious possession, and the greatest crime in our society is ruthlessly to destroy that gift.” But little does Victor know, he’s committing that greatest crime. Clary truly is innocent, and by the time Victor realizes the truth, he’s too late.
Ashamed and struck with heavy guilt upon realizing his role in sending an innocent man to death, Victor begins drinking heavily and quits his job, opening a struggling private, civil law practice. Meanwhile, Ray and Ellen keep their jobs at the DA’s office with Victor’s replacement, Ralph Ford (Edward Platt).
Will Victor ever be able to rebound from the tragedy of Clary’s death, or will he let his errors and failures get the best of him?
Lewis Allen directs 1955’s Illegal. The film was written by W. R. Burnett and James R. Webb from a play by Frank J. Collins. Collins’ play, The Mouthpiece, was previously adapted in 1932 (with Warren William) and 1940 (with George Brent).
Edward G. Robinson played the “tough guy” many times in his career, and he’s tough as ever in this role of a district attorney with political aspirations… but tough in a different way. He’s not evading the law or busting knee caps, but rather building a reputation as a ruthlessly determined, hard-to-beat lawyer. When things go south for him, he becomes emotionally hardened. But throughout it all, when he’s successful and when he’s down-and-out, Robinson’s character is grounded by a center of goodness.
The despair he falls into following Clary’s death is driven by pure guilt. He may have been a tough DA, known for his ability to impress juries with his words and win convictions, but he didn’t want to unjustifiably ruin any lives in building his own status. He certainly didn’t want to take any innocent lives in the process, either. He gets into some complicated situations, but even in many of his darkest moments, it’s clear that he has no grim motives. Robinson’s performance is top-notch, giving the character more dimension than your average disgruntled, downward-spiraling lawyer.
I would consider Robinson’s performance to be the film’s strongest asset, a brilliant bit of casting that helps the film avoid falling into mediocrity. Plot-wise, there’s nothing too revolutionary going on here. Talented DA falls from grace, starts a small private practice, gets mixed up with criminals when he has trouble finding the civil-dispute clients he hoped to take on. The script is paced pretty well and has several very dramatic based-in-fact moments (like Victor drinking poison in court to make a point to the jury, a stunt pulled by an attorney named Bill Fallon according to TCM). These elements, along with Robinson’s efforts, make for a good watch.
The supporting performances are fine quality as well. Nina Foch does very well as Ellen, a character whose life takes a strange and tragic turn by the end of the film. Jayne Mansfield also makes a small appearance as a gangster’s moll/singer, her second Hollywood role.
I would consider Illegal to be a must-see for Edward G. Robinson fans, the man delivering a fantastic performance in the later half of his career. Those who enjoy courtroom dramas will also find it to be a good watch. The score: 3.5/5