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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O'HARA (1951)

Director John Sturges moved to the A-list with this rather somber Spencer Tracy vehicle about an attorney who can’t quite wean himself off homicide cases or the bottle. It’s half courtroom drama, ginned up by Tracy’s alcoholic past, and half police procedural, with mob connections poisoning the investigation. Yep, it’s one of the 8 million stories in The Naked City that currently finds itself in competition with about 8 hundred cop & legal shows available 24/7. But if it’s now awfully familiar, it’s still neatly laid out, and with impressive noir flavorings from lenser John Alton, the Prince of Darkness, that merge nicely with the sprinkling of real NYC location shooting. (Though a big plot hiccup involving a bribable witness isn’t properly fleshed out.) Mainly, what holds your interest are the details Tracy gets across: a quietly devastating moment in court when he gets lost in the middle of questioning; a can’t-win argument with his daughter that ends with a slap and collateral damage to a bottle of whiskey; a quick show of temper to motivate his daughter’s fiancé. Sturges gets some innings in as well with a cleverly designed climax that’s played ‘blind,’ as Tracy, who’s wearing a wire, tries to get a confession that will redeem his client and himself. (The scene is a near template for the ending of Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL/’58 .) Pat O’Brien has little to do as a detective Tracy’s known for decades, but John Hodiak gives good weight as an ambitious D.A. And, with his hair flat on his head, looks just like the young Martin Landau.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sidney Lumet’s THE VERDICT/’82, with a Civil rather than Criminal case, puts Paul Newman’s lawyer in a somewhat similar bind. And what a lot of work they make out of it.

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