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11 June 2016

Criminal Defense, Criminal Offense: The Man Who Talked Too Much

 (NOTE: this post is part of the Order in the Court! Blogathon -- be sure to click the link to check out the other fascinating entries!)

The sudden gunning of a roadster’s engine, the shriek of brakes — in 1932, these were all too often followed by the clattering roar of a “tommy” gun, the hand-held machine gun that was the gangster’s choice of weapons. While the Depression devastated the American economy, public confidence was also shaken by fear of organized crime and lawlessness, largely spurred by Prohibition, which had, predictably, led to a culture of lawbreaking. From 1930-1932 a major war was going on between organized criminal factions. Each day’s newspaper seemed to feature some high-profile murder, often by means of reckless drive-by shootings; there were literally dozens of these violent deaths, including those of “Legs” Diamond and “Mad Dog” Coll. Gangsters were responsible not only for robbery and extortion, but for turning the streets into war zones, endangering innocent bystanders. The problem seemed overwhelming and intractable, leading some to argue that martial law might be the only answer.
Hollywood reacted with stories ripped from the headlines; 1931 brought Little Caesar, The Criminal Code, City Streets, The Public Enemy, Night Nurse,  and Five Star Final, and 1932 was the year of Scarface, The Beast of the City, The Last Mile, American Madness, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and The Mouthpiece, a caution about the rapid rise and sudden fall of a mob lawyer. Warren William starred with his inimitable combination of charm and sleaze.

By the time of this 1940 remake, re-titled The Man Who Talked Too Much, organized crime was a different animal. Murder Incorporated had been taken down by New York’s crusading District Attorney, William O’Dwyer, and a long string of convictions for tax evasion, extortion, and racketeering made headlines. Criminals were still seen as preying on decent society, but the atmosphere of real fear was — for most people, anyway — gone. So when Warner Brothers decided to remake The Mouthpiece, they faced the problem of adapting a sensational story into one that would seem more nuanced and modern. Fortunately, Warner Brothers was a studio experienced in re-working their extensive back catalog of excellent screenplays, some of which (like Kid Galahad) had already been remade several times, and their expert team of re-writers knew just what to do.

In this version, George Brent plays the title character, Steve Forbes (all the character names have been changed from the original), a flamboyant, hard-driving prosecutor whose string of successes comes to an abrupt end when he convicts an innocent man, who is executed before evidence exonerating him is discovered. Steve is horrified by this, and quits to become a defense attorney, taking his devoted secretary (Virginia Bruce) with him. But his bare-bones practice doesn’t bring in enough to pay his younger brother’s law school tuition; so he sets his scruples aside and begins to accept clients who are not just guilty, but mob connected. His success attracts the attention of a slick crime boss, J.B. Roscoe (Richard Barthelmess). Soon he is on retainer, the go-to mouthpiece for thugs, extortionists, and other assorted crooks working for Roscoe. He’s got classy new offices and an expanded staff. His secretary has great reservations about what he’s doing, but she sticks by him.
Brent is excellent as a man embittered by his own actions; because as a prosecutor he was thoroughly convinced of his own rightness, the trauma of his fatal error never leaves him. You don’t see him turning on the charm here, but rather portraying a man who is in the grip of unyielding anger — against himself.

Richard Barthelmess is also fine as a ruthless gangster who maintains a normal facade. He seems almost like a conventional businessman, with expensive offices, a penthouse in the city, and an elegant though not flashy house in the country. (One sly scene has Steve visiting Roscoe first thing in the morning, and finding him breaking his fast with a chilled half grapefruit — this was the height of refined living at the time, and it was also a wink at the famous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy.) But there’s an undertone of insolence in everything Roscoe does; he can’t quite conceal his contempt for law-abiding “suckers.” He has a hidden agenda, and he assumes everyone else does, too;  his guarded dark eyes are always looking for chinks in the other guy’s armor. He also employs a high-value stable of thugs, led by George Tobias as the charmingly named Slug McNutt.
Virginia Bruce is lovely as Steve’s secretary, Joan, but I thought she was a little lacking in fire; I couldn’t help wondering if the character would be more compelling if played by a more emotionally available actress like Ida Lupino or Barbara Stanwyck (the wonderful Aline McMahon took the role in the 1932 version).

When Steve’s brother, Johnny (William Lundigan, always good), graduates from law school and arrives to join the firm, he is shocked to find Steve, whom he has always looked up to,  associating with criminals. Most appalling is the courtroom centerpiece of the film, when Steve, to prove his underworld client isn’t guilty, grabs a bottle of poison entered into evidence by the prosecution, and drinks from it in front of the jury; but as soon as a not guilty verdict is rendered, he is rushed to a hospital to have his stomach pumped. Johnny thinks this is next door to fraud.  Johnny and Steve argue about ethics with increasing anger, eventually coming to blows right in the office. There is an additional subplot with a romance between Johnny and a lovely young office assistant, the very beautiful, very young Brenda Marshall. 

Finally, Johnny, feeling that Roscoe’s influence must be removed, obtains some papers from the office that implicate Roscoe in tax evasion, and secretly turns them over to the government. But the gang figures out who is responsible, and Roscoe, seeking revenge, frames Johnny for murder; and despite Steve’s defense, he is convicted. Steve knows the gangsters, and he knows who is really guilty of the murder. In a race against time, despite threats from Roscoe, he gets a signed confession and rescues Johnny.

The first thing you notice about these two movies’ approach to the subject is that the earlier version has a lot more sex and violence. A couple of entire subplots have disappeared, including one about the protagonist’s hot romance with an innocent office worker; also, he has no brother — the young man in trouble is the young girl’s fiancee. The first film takes advantage of Warren William’s disreputable appeal, but essentially Vincent (his original name) is sort of a creep, and the only reason he becomes a defense attorney at all is for the money.  He is bumped off by his former clients at the end to pretty general applause. In 1940, George Brent’s Steve has gone off the straight and narrow for unselfish reasons, at least in the beginning, and he is able to redeem himself by catching the bad guy, saving his brother, and requiting Joan’s long-suffering love — and reforming himself, in the bargain. (Which will bring him back into American society just in time to lend a hand in the fight against Hitler, something that was always on the Warner Brothers’ mind in the late thirties.) I think this is progress, actually. The solution went from martial law to self-help in just eight years.

The next thing you notice is the unobtrusively stylish Warner Brothers production values, with Vincent Sherman directing with clarity and a fast pace, Art Direction by Hugh Retiker (who was moving up from B-pictures and would go on to work on Between Two Worlds and Humoresque), and Photography by Sid Hickox. No on-screen credit is given for lighting (as it usually wasn’t at this point) but as seen today, that is one the most striking elements of films of the 1940’s — the seemingly effortless establishment of mood and place through highlights and shadows. Just look at the shadows of Moorish-style lanterns on the walls in Casablanca; and this picture has a lot of venetian blinds' shadows. We are perhaps so used to these intelligently thought through design features that we hardly notice them, but they all add up to the 40’s “look.”

The Man Who Talked Too Much is an excellent example of Warner Brothers’ extremely professional production process, where everything co-ordinated to create successful entertainment. Budgets were under control, schedules adhered to, sets, costumes, and even stories re-used, and a raft of experienced supporting players were always available. This ensured that a Warners picture always had something going for it; you never see a Warner Brothers release that is absolute junk. And this is the system that occasionally — just occasionally — could produce an enduring classic.  The Man Who Talked Too Much is not one of them, but presents a lot of interesting features and can be appreciated on its own merits.

(ANOTHER NOTE: Here's a discussion of The Mouthpiece)


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