Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932). The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.

Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.

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Scarface (1932)

This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon being hosted at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog.

There are famous shootouts and violent episodes in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. But I’d have to say they don’t come anywhere near the relentless violence of Howard Hawks’ powerful gangster movie Scarface. From the arresting scene near the start where Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is seen in silhouette gunning down his boss,  Big Louis, the film seems to be riddled through with machine-gun fire.

I do have some mixed feelings about the film and think there are problems with it, which I’ll come on to later, not least Muni’s terrible Italian accent – but it’s second to none in showing the devastating effects of gang warfare in the streets.  

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Spoilers below cut

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