Last week's installment, #5, here. Follow the links at that post to access the other prior films in the series.
Farber: "An adroit, scholarly example of sound storytelling that every Message Boy should be made to study as an example of how good you can get when you neither slant nor oversimplify. Also highly enjoyable for its concern about a 'static" subject—the legal profession as such—and the complete authority with which it handles soft-pedaled insights into things like the structure and routine of law offices; the politics of conviviality between cops, DA's, judges, attorneys; the influence of bar associations; the solemn manner of memorializing the wrench caused by the death of a colleague; the painful 'homework' of committing to memory the endless ramifications of your case, as well as the words you are going to feed the jury in the morning."
Yes; this picture works quite nicely as what you might call a "process film," a kind of sub-genre that achieved its apex with 2007's Zodiac (and I wonder, did Farber see that picture, and if so, what did he and his wife and critical partner Patricia Patterson think of it?). Beyond that, it's also a first-rate character study. Spencer Tracy plays James Curtayne, a veteran lawyer who's kicked both booze and criminal cases in the hopes of setting up a cozy dotage with civil work. His daughter Virginia (Diana Lynn) is living with him and keeping him in line, putting off a promising marriage to look after the patriarch. Curtayne's plans for a placid life get scrambled when clients from the old hardscrabble days appeal for help. The old O'Hara's (Arthur Shields and Louise Lorimer), a working-class couple of a particular Manhattan vintage, practically beg Curtayne to defend their son Johnny (James Arness, who appears in another Farber 1951 fave, The Thing From Another World, here playing an all-too-human dumb lug rather than a hulking interplanetary vegetable), who's been in and out of trouble all his life, from a charge that could well end his life: murder.
Curtayne doesn't want to do it, because, among other things, he tends to get too invested in such cases. They wear him down. They put him in a place of self-doubt that makes the bottle look like a mighty good fortifier. And sure enough, at a crucial point in the case, he opens up the liquor cabinet. It's a pretty staggering moment that I suppose carries extra resonance with those who know about Tracy's own real-life struggles with alcoholism.
Tracy plays the moment beautifully, neither soft-soaping nor overdoing it. Eventually Curtayne re-embraces the bottle fully, and the picture presents a very pithy example of how booze can be the father of all bad ideas, as when Curtayne gets the bright notion to try to bribe a venal witness (the usually reliable Jay C. Flippen, here forced to put on a rather ridiculous "Scandanavian" accent). After this—and after he blows the case as a result—the death of a colleague forces Curtayne to rediscover his purpose and his skill. But the picture doesn't turn into a sappy redemption tale as a result. Rather, it digs in its heels and becomes an ace detective story, filled with ever-more convincing detail. Here's Curtayne eying a bit of evidence he's gonna need a court order to get his hands on.
Later, Curtayne confronts a mobster who once expressed a particular interest in the case; although he's straightened out his act by this point, Curtayne has a drink with "Knuckles" Lanzetta (Eduardo Cianelli) to give the hood the impression that Curtayne is, yup, just a washed-up sot mouthpiece. There's a frankness in their washroom banter that's pretty raw and honest by studio standards of the time. (The picture was an MGM production.)
Screenwriter John Monks, Jr. adapted the picture from a novel by Eleazer Lipsky, who also wrote the source material for the 1947 classic Kiss of Death. It's no accident that what goes on in this picture feels almost as authentic as what you'd get in a George V. Higgins novel; like Higgins, Lipsky was a longtime practitioner of the law, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in the 1940s. Director Sturges was one of the most reliable journeymen of the day. Cinematographer John Alton doesn't walk on the same high-wire here that he did for his noirs with Anthony Mann, but he gives the picture a look of deceptively plain realism. And Tracy delivers one of his very best performances. The combination of these talents yields a film of remarkable solidity and briskness, and the ending is one of the most compellingly bleak of any film from any era. The People Against O'Hara isn't yet available on DVD, but it does tend to turn up on TCM with some regularity. Catch it when you can; it's a really special piece of work.