Double feature 1950’s courtroom silliness

Happy Boxing Day. I watched a lot of black & white thrillers and chillers last week, and I’m gonna write about them here this week. I’m sorry I’ve been light on the comic strips, it’s cold here in Chicago and I tend to curl up on the couch to watch gangsters and mobsters and mean lawmen fight each other over femme fatales.

Today’s movies revolved around two lawyers who definitely skipped their ethics class.

Please Murder Me (1956)

The sensationalist headline Please Murder Me isn’t an instructional video, but instead a love triangle, or rectangle, between two TV detectives and their emotional punching bags being walked all over or played with while one plots to expose the other for their actual intention…for murder.

The leads were active but not huge stars just yet: Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury. Burr had a lot of film roles, often as crime movie villains, and Lansbury was active in musical theater with smaller film roles. The next year, Burr would bring Perry Mason to life on the small screen. Lansbury would be nominated for her third Academy Award for The Manchurian Candidate about five years later, and would remain busy with more movie and theater roles right up until she was offered a TV role in the mid-80’s, Murder She Wrote, which stayed on the air until 1996. (She is still appearing in movies and plays as of this writing.)

So, this movie? Instead of a pulp novel DOA style adventure, it’s got a long courtroom defense scene that is bookended by two love stories with the same woman and three guys. It starts off with Burr, a lawyer (no, not Perry Mason) buying a gun before heading into his office to dictate what almost feels like a confession. He recaps his friendship with a war buddy, only to reveal to his friend that he’s having an affair with his friend’s wife Lansbury. His friend, a rich developer, broods in his office and writes a letter, and then gives it to his assistant before heading home to confront Lansbury. He goes into their bedroom and closes the door, and we hear a shot, and Lansbury is put on trial, with Burr as his defense attorney.

Burr’s defense for Lansbury is that she was defending herself, because her husband knew she was having an affair and she was afraid she was going to be attacked. Burr then reveals that HE was the guy Lansbury was having an affair with, therefore…wait, why would you admit that? Why is the trial not stopped? Burr not recused? I’m not a lawyer. RwC Jesse IS a lawyer, but not that kind of lawyer, and I would only waste valuable seconds asking him about movie law.

Anyway, she’s acquitted because of the self-defense thing. Burr & Lansbury celebrate, but Burr is given that letter written by the dead husband, which clues Burr in to ANOTHER man in Lansbury’s life, an artist named Carl.

Because Lansbury can’t be tried for the same crime twice, Burr decides it best to befriend Carl, insert himself in Carl & Lansbury’s courtship by hiring Carl to paint his portrait and delay their wedding plans in Europe, and then basically hang around the two, driving Lansbury crazy. He asks her to stop by his office, which she does as he’s finishing up the story. He tells her that he has evidence that she plotted his friend’s murder, and she takes the gun and shoots Burr, not knowing that the tape is still rolling and that he also invited the District Attorney to stop by minutes later.

So, he knew that she’d kill him. Is that the plot? There’s a mess in this movie, and it’s the faultless men who blame the awful woman. “You’re having an affair with my best friend? Oh yeah? I’ll show you! I’ll write him a letter!” “You killed the man that we were lying to? And you let me defend you, and throw my reputation on the line as a lawyer who sleeps with his clients? How DARE you!” I’m just saying, Karmic retribution can take some time. You don’t need to set up some elaborate mouse trap that ENDS IN YOUR DEATH. But, I guess that’s the drama: Burr felt responsible for the events that took his best friend, and he himself had to be punished…by assuming (correctly, as the movie requires it) the conniving woman will kill him. Doesn’t seem like the most ironclad plan.

I guess it’s noir, but only out of stoic and principled incompetence on Burr the lawyer’s part. But we’re not done with incompetent lawyers just yet!

The File On Thelma Jordan (1950)

This one is a doozy, but it hits the right marks for an old timey crime movie, right up until the end. Wendell Corey is Cleve, the assistant district attorney, and the night we meet him he’s drunk and hiding out in a detective’s office because he doesn’t want to bother going to a fancy party hosted by his father in law. While there, title character Thelma, played by THE noir villain Barbara Stanwyck, walks in to report possible prowler activity in her wealthy aunt’s home. Cleve clumsily puts the moves on Thelma, and she gives in to his constant advances. And it’s clear he’s married, by the way. I guess the 5th or 6th unwelcome sexual advance is the charm, and the two begin an affair after that evening.

WELL, some nights later into their relationship, the two plan a getaway and Thelma leaves a note with her wealthy aunt. Wealthy aunt wakes up to some noise, grabs her gun, and goes to investigate. She heads into the living room off camera, and we hear a gunshot.

Thelma calls Cleve and he stops by and she’s like “my aunt was killed!” and Cleve is like “ugh I’m the assistant DA this is gonna be a wacky adventure.” No, actually what he does is sternly whisper orders to clean up the crime scene as they correctly assume that the house staff has heard the commotion and are on their way from the staff quarters to investigate. Thelma pretends to not know what is going on, but the police nod and wink to each other because c’mon, Thelma’s clearly a conniving gold digger who showed up out of nowhere and worked her way into her aunt’s will.

Cleve gives her advice about playing it cool, but then gets news of his assignment prosecuting her in court, as Thelma has chosen a lawyer related to the actual DA. Everyone around him is pretty giddy about this no-brainer court case and the spotlight attention that comes with it. Cleve pushes for the death penalty, which instantly makes him unpopular with the jury, and then…well I don’t know if he tries to throw the case, but if he’s not he does a great job of making an ass of himself when he freaks out in front of the judge because the defense lawyer doesn’t want to put Thelma up on the stand. Heck, I’m not a lawyer and I know that Cleve can’t put her up there if her lawyer won’t let her. Who is he, Alberto Gonzales? I didn’t even have to call RwC Jesse over this one. I did anyway, he told me stop bothering him with these questions.

Anyway, the jury acquits her. Before Cleve can sneak away from his loving family to unwisely be with her, which even she thinks is a bad idea, her boyfriend and sometimes crime partner shows up. Yup, they planned this whole thing, though probably not with the whole seducing Cleve part (that was on Cleve). They throw it in Cleve’s face, even though he threatens to expose the boyfriend and prosecute him for conspiracy for murder or some such.

Up until this point, this is an engaging noir drama, and it’s beautiful to look at, especially the aunt’s estate that seems vacant yet is watched by everyone. Cleve stupidly shies away from his family even while news comes in that Thelma may have ties to lowlifes across the country. Just as soon as Thelma and her partner are driving away, she attacks him in the moving car, causing them to crash.

From there, she dies in the hospital after confessing to the actual DA, leaving Cleve out of it. Well, the DA seems to know what’s going on, and tells Cleve, but Cleve says he’s going to quit being a prosecutor and deal with all the consequences as he walks out of the movie.

This is a pretty good one, although Cleve is an idiot on several levels. I know it’s the 50’s so a frustrated dame has to put up with a touchy feely powerful married man, who is the hero by the way. He totally gets p’wn’d by the criminal couple at the end. He’s screwed, and is just as ineffectual as a noir “hero” in that he can’t redeem himself at all other than quitting (and possibly charged with several crimes).

Like, why can’t Cleve set up an elaborate revenge plan to have Thelma incriminate herself while murdering him? I guess he’s a different kind of movie stupid.

Anyway, Wendell Corey was in a lot of stuff, but I recognize him from an 8th season MST3K episode, the weird spy “thriller” Agent For H.A.R.M.

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