For the Defense (1930)

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“Ten o’clock? What do you think I am—a milkman?”
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US / 63 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: John Cromwell Scr: Oliver H.P. Garrett Story: Charles Furthmann Cine: Charles Lang Cast: William Powell, Kay Francis, Scott Kolk, William B. Davidson, Thomas E. Jackson, Harry Walker, James Finlayson, Charles West, Bertram Marburgh, Ernie Adams, John Elliott, Syd Saylor, Billy Bevan.

So successful is New York City defense attorney William B. “Bill” Foster (Powell) at getting his clients off, by fair means or foul—usually foul—that the DA, Herbert L. Stone (Davidson), is moved to describe him to the Bar Association as the greatest single threat to the city’s law enforcement. A cop named Daly (Jackson) has made it his life’s work to catch Bill perverting the course of justice and put him behind bars.

Daly (Thomas E. Jackson) on the trail.

We see Bill’s technique in action early in the movie when, defending palpably guilty Eddie Withers (Adams), he throws to the floor the key piece of the state’s evidence, a bottle supposedly containing nitroglycerine: when it doesn’t blow the courthouse to smithereens, the prosecution case is regarded as void. (This argument does not, of course, hold water but, hey, it’s Hollywood.)

Eddie Withers (Ernie Adams, hands in pockets) in the lineup.

Despite this moment of high drama, the first half of the movie is pretty slow-moving as it lays out the setup for the main story, which fills the second half. There’s one glacially slow comedy cameo in a speakeasy with Billy Bevan as a sheepish drunk; what should have been light and fast is instead cumbersome and leaden. The movie’s kept afloat by some of Powell’s trademark wisecracks—in fact, the persona he presents here is so like Nick Charles of the THIN MAN movies that you keep expecting him to peck the cheek of Myrna Loy, not Kay Francis.

DA Stone (William B. Davidson) in court action.

Bill has for years been an item with showgirl/actress Irene Manners (Francis), who wants to marry him; he’s not interested in marriage, though, because he’s not the marrying kind and, besides, he reckons tying the knot would make them both unhappy. Anyway, they already have, nudge nudge, all the advantages of marriage; if you’re salaciously looking for Pre-Code sauciness, though look elsewhere, because this quick allusion to the fact that grownup human beings could have nonmarital sex lives without incurring the wrath of God is all you’ll find of it.

Irene (Kay Francis) and Bill (William Powell) at the Speakeasy.

So Irene is open to persuasion when fabulously rich young heir Jack Defoe (Kolk) presses his suit. They’re out one night driving at the terrifying speed of 45mph—she at the wheel because he’s been at the bottle—when, reluctantly, she agrees to marry him. He impulsively reaches for her, the car swerves, and a pedestrian is knocked down and killed.

Terrifying speed.

In order to protect Irene’s reputation from being destroyed by the public revelation of her two-timing her long-term lover with him, Jack pretends that he was the driver of the car. Since there’s booze on his breath, the next thing he knows he’s up for vehicular manslaughter.

Jack (Scott Kolk) and Irene (Kay Francis) after the accident.

Though initially reluctant to touch the case with a bargepole—“Manslaughter? Did he beat some husband to the punch?”—Bill lets Irene persuade him he should defend Jack, even though he detests the younger man and suspects Irene is not entirely immune to his advances . . . a suspicion Irene resolutely denies. But Bill’s case is fatally weakened by the fact that everyone can see quite clearly his client’s lying to cover up someone or something. In desperation Bill clumsily bribes a juror, Parrott (Finlayson), and the cop Daly pounces . . .

There can be no happy ending here, although at the last moment the plot shifts to allow an ending that’s not as unhappy as it could have been.

Bill (William Powell) tries to persuade himself Irene (Kay Francis) is telling him the truth.

Where the movie’s first half was a comedy of manners that, through something of a failure of wit, was unable altogether to cohere, the second is a surprisingly tight piece of human drama, with Powell portraying the inner steel of a character who keeps himself together, beneath the veneer of sophisticated charm, by staying constantly half-slewed, and Francis matching him in artistry through her depiction of a woman who is—and, yes, I thought of the song—torn between two lovers, who lets her integrity briefly slip but very soon regains it . . . it and her sense of priorities. She’s absolutely convincing in this role; the only aspect of it that stretches credulity is that she should be drawn to the unspeakably smarmy drip who is Kolk’s character. I don’t recall seeing Kolk in anything else, so I have no idea if this is the character’s or the actor’s fault.

All in all, then, a movie of two parts. The first is well done but rather weak; the second more than makes up for that weakness.

The part of Bill Foster was apparently based on real-life defense attorney William J. Fallon (1886–1927)—“The Great Mouthpiece,” as the press dubbed him—a completely corrupt lawyer who did very much the sort of thing that Bill does in the movie, albeit without the redeeming laconic humanity. Fallon’s business partner was one Eugene McGee; Bill Foster’s business partner, played by John Elliott, is called Joseph McGann.

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5 thoughts on “For the Defense (1930)

    • It’s by no means a great classic, but it’s certainly very watchable — especially in the second half. And you’re right: Powell is always good value for money.

    • You’re right that he probably never gave a bad performance. On the other hand, I’m not sure how often he moved far out of his comfort zone as an actor. In my experience of his performances, he’s always recognizable as himself; the role seems almost secondary.

      • Well, I’m not sure I completely agree – I mean, it’s interesting how earlier in his career he often played cads and need-do-wells and after THE THIN MAN he did, admittedly, pretty much hone a particular type. His best though just might be MY MAN GODFREY. Also I admire him for being one of those actors, like Cary Grant, Gene Hackman and Randolph Scott, who retired gracefully and had an apparently very successful time away from the movies! (Let’s see if Daniel Day Lewis sticks to his word)

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