Illegal (1955)

Illegal (1955)
is a court-room thriller exposing the tentacles of corporate evil, and the massive protections afforded to the new class of criminal emerging in the boardrooms of America.

Edward G. Robinson plays superstar District Attorney Victor Scott, on fire in the courtroom, a wit and a showman, able it appears to convince any jury of his case.

Illegal opens with a salacious murder which is quickly executed, codified, examined and tried; much to the amusement of anyone who has ever enjoyed the television series, Star Trek; for the hapless hero in this vignette of justice and its flaws, is DeForest Kelley.

That's one reason alone to check in with this rather interesting variation on an increasingly important theme. 

It's coming - - it's behind you! From the bowels of film noir, the vulnerable woman became an increasingly popular theme. Illegal (1955)

Lewis Allen, director of many a fine film noir, as well as director of some noirs of dubiety, made Illegal at the bone end of the cycle; telling a new tale and a tale that emerged from the bowels of film noir itself: the story of corporate crime.

Murder in the bathroom in Illegal (1955)

DeForest Kelley - innocent but proven guilty in Illegal (1955)

The corporate crime movie was very much a product of the era; the result of the gangs of the 1930s, the trials and doubts of the war; the newer kind of crime, and the infused paranoia of HUAC and its communist hunts through society and the film industry; to present a new kind of psychopath; the untouchable businessman.

Edward G. Robinson in Illegal (1955)

Edward G. Robinson in Illegal (1955) - an excellent portrayal of a drunken decline from high powered lawyer to Skid Row

This is the eventual landscape of Illegal; the businessman in the flavour of The Big Combo; the rising industrialists of the dark side first found their expression in noir; even as far back as the manias of Charles Foster Kane, the powerful were at work, emerging from the darkness of the criminal soul, embedding wealth in impregnable areas; buying politicians; buying the police; buying the press; buying the dames; buying the lawyers, as here.

Hugh Marlow in Illegal (1955)

Like the overwhelming majority of film noir movies, Illegal is a fantasy. To be clear about what that means, this is not to say that the script contains what are considered in cinema in general to be fantastic elements. What 'fantasy' here means instead is that despite the realism of the actors and the scenery, we are always from the off working in an imagined dream world, a fantasy created specifically to frighten and entice. 

Film noir does both frighten and entice, simultaneously. Most of all film noir is world in which murder is fairly common, and acts as a solid base from which threat and insecurity are evolved across the script.

The storyline of Illegal is similarly pure fantasy, especially insofar as when considered in the light of day, out with the cinema hall, events follow a strangely consistent and direct path to one or several ends. Consider this plot from the first half of Illegal, in which Edward G. Robinson almost magically experiences a professional and personal collapse, only to rise again, really in the space of about ten to fifteen minutes of storytelling time.

Although the opposing attorneys, the jury, and the judge performed their respective duties in accordance with the law, the death of an innocent man greatly disturbs Scott (Edward G. Robinson); he resigns and falls into an alcoholic haze and is shunned by many former allies. While appearing in court on his own charge of being drunk and disorderly, he meets a man accused of a death in relation to a huge brawl and decides to defend him in court. He challenges a prosecution witness, a very large man, Mr. Taylor (Henry Kulky), whom Scott says was knocked out during a brawl and could not have witnessed the crime. When the man says a man the size of the defendant's size or Scott's size could not knock him out, Scott sucker-punches him with an obscured roll of nickels (that act like brass knuckles), knocking him down and, briefly, out. The case is dismissed and Scott has a new career as a defense attorney.
Everything in this vignette within the movie Illegal speaks of fantasy; the rapid decline, the chance encounter, and the miraculous defeat of fate and return to power.

Albert Dekker, a splendid corporate crime lord in Illegal (1955)

Power is a huge theme too, in the film noir of the 1950s. In many ways they tried to warn us. They tried to tell us that while the criminal gangs still operated in the world, and always would, there was yet a new kind of combo; the corporate combo.

Film noir tried to warn us, but by 1960, classic film noir had all but played out and the theme of corporate corruption and all out communist witch-hunting has become somewhat side-lined. The truth was perhaps that by the 1960s, these elements had all but consolidated their power and the connections between the governmental and legal systems, and consolidated and booming corporations had all but cemented into the immovable and powerful force it still is today.

As an aside, Edward G. Robinson owned a considerable contemporary art collection that was used to decorate the set of Illegal (1955). It's worth looking out for impressionist works by Gauguin, Degas, Duran, and Gladys Lloyd. 

At the same time, Robinson was the subject of investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and this was reportedly the reason why the film Illegal (1955) was of a lower budget and maybe even lesser quality than his previous films.

More excitingly, Illegal (1955) offers a rare serious performance by the future sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield.

Jayne Mansfield, who turns up late to the noir cycle, puts in a couple of appearances here and there during the movie, but not to significant effect, even though the plot ultimately hangs on her at the crucial juncture. 

Jayne Mansfield's stardom is of an awkward style, and performances throughout her life were generally reduced to one thing. There are elements of that here and so she consequently has little character, appears rather dim-witted and flounces back and fore, albeit under the rather splendid name of Angel O'Hara. What to be aware of here, is the birth of the sex symbol, another triumph of 1950s Hollywood.

Angel is not exactly a character in the film however, more of a prop; as if the more complex and hugely varied offerings made for actresses in film noir was on its way out, and on its way in instead is the all-importance of the sex-symbol.

This is a huge shame, because throughout the 1940s film noir provided many of the best roles for women. By 1955, this was changing for the worse.

Jayne Mansfield as Angle O'Hara in Illegal (1955)

This would continue for decades, certainly for all of the 1960s, which seemed to forego in their entirety the ideas of interesting and powerful roles for women. Just upon the crest of the mid 1950s, this is when this all took off. 

The kind of publicity stunts and the private lives exploded and publicly explored around Jayne Mansfield in particular, were enough to kill several female actors in the era. But in a system that began to generate many such stars, the whole notion of cinema began to be more unforgivingly sexual in its output. 

Everything around such actors as Jayne Mansfield became a focal point in the industrial creation of dreams, with everything leading to key sexual images, broadcast so far and wide that the entire culture of the western world became predicated on pictures, moving and still, and a constant feed of media stories. It is hard ultimately to define both sexual liberation and sexual repression, when both become functions of the other.

The term blonde bombshell points us quickly out of the film noir era and into something else, however.  The women in classic film noir are not there to explode like bombs, but more likely to be metaphorically setting the bombs. And the military connotations of that title, here applied to Jayne Mansfield, or those let us say of ordonnance, are not to be ignored, either.

Nina Foch - actor not bombshell - in Illegal (1955)

It may seem that the term bombshell in fact well-connotes the nuclear era, really coming into its own in 1955 in fact, the year of Illegal. The women the term connoted were Marilyn Monroe, for example; Jayne Mansfield of course; and Mamie Van Doren.

However the first 'bombshell' was said to be Jean Harlow, because of her role in the film Bombshell of 1933. That said, the term became more apt than ever during World War 2, achieving supremacy when it was able to link attractive women to the nuclear weapon that still shadowed the world. 

What is even more surprising about Jayne Mansfield's body, is that it is the body of woman nursing. Dying at the age of 34, and having had five children in her short life, viewers of her body, certainly male ones, would not have exactly clocked that she was in nursing mode; but would have found it attractive nonetheless, without really knowing why.

The presence of the bombshell however unfortunately tends to indicate we are not in the film noir paradigm, not in its scope, and not in its world which is in fact sexually innocent relative to the power of the bombshells.

Illegal (1955) is perhaps for some not entirely classable as film noir, but it does have several noir hallmarks, even if it pulls away from the style in other areas. To cast an eye over the positives, the downfall of Edward G. Robinson's character DA Victor Scott is thoroughly appropriate for the style of film noir; an innocent man fries, and the DA turns to alcohol, shunned by his friends, and providing some of the best material in the film.

The erroneous conviction and the downfall of Edward G. Robinson's character are thorough going film noir; the drunk scenes are fantastically realised, and as in many corners of the style, we take dark enjoyment in the slide to perdition; from the bars and fights, through the drunk tanks of LA and back into court.

The intrusion into urban life of the corporate criminal is also a theme of film noir; certainly this big combo style respectable gangster is one of the end points of the style.

On the contrary however, the reduction of female lead to the blonde bombshell is decidedly un-noir. Film noir is a landscape rich in clichés and tropes, it's true; but the majority of the clichés and tropes around women are richer than the notions that the bombshell suggests.

On top of this, no effort is made to delve too psychologically into the characters in Illegal; it is a functional and well-crafted drama, but spends a lot of time in the courtroom; and no time at all in the shadow realms. There is the character of the assassin, an enjoyable side-line into the dark; but this is really an Edward G. Robinson film, and his character is both warped and yet sympathetic, and this is the drive that keeps Illegal (1955) alive.

All things Illegal (1955)

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