Warner Bros. // 1939 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // February 23rd, 2012
"What can you expect from a kid that's grown up in this neighborhood? Poverty, cheapness, gangs -- that's all he's ever known."
Thanks to movies like You Can't Get Away With Murder, people around the country knew that New York's Hell's Kitchen wasn't such a hot place to live. Interestingly, the film gives a writing credit to Sing Sing Warden Lewis B. Lawes, co-writer of Chalked Out, the play upon which the movie was based. It's now available as a Made on Demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.
Policeman Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens, The Bat) wants to marry Madge Stone (Gale Page, Knute Rockne, All-American), but there's a problem: her brother Johnnie (Billy Halop, Angels with Dirty Faces) is hanging out with tough customer Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon). Johnnie and Frank commit two robberies together: a gas station holdup in which they leave their fingerprints, and a pawnshop stickup that leaves a dead body and Fred's gun (which Johnnie stole). Fred ends up on Death Row...and Frank wants to make sure there's only one way he can exit.
The title says it all: You Can't Get Away With Murder. If you don't know what's going to happen at every step, you haven't seen enough B-movies about gangsters and prison life. Check out a classic Jimmy Cagney flick or two and come back later. You could also watch the accompanying trailer, which tells viewers about "a killer hiding behind prison walls," and get the whole story in a couple minutes.
While it's thoroughly predictable, You Can't Get Away With Murder plays out better than average. Billy Halop balances innocence and cocky toughness well. One key scene finds Johnnie angrily knocking over a pile of books at the prison library, but kneeling to pick them up when he realizes what he's done, showing he's a hothead and a good kid at the same time. It also establishes the start of a friendship between Johnnie and Pop, the prison librarian who serves as Johnnie's conscience -- which becomes a recurring theme. In their grilling of Johnnie, the district attorney and Fred's lawyer come across more like voices in Johnnie's head than real people; even if it's not realistic, the concept works for the morality play the film becomes. Halop holds his own against Humphrey Bogart, which isn't easy -- even pre-Casablanca.
Bogart gets top billing, though his role is rather one-dimensional. His fast, tough patter is always entertaining, and hints at a conscience with expressions. Bogart's subtle mannerisms contrast well with Halop's broad, angry performance. A warm turn by Henry Travers (It's a Wonderful Life) as Pop, brings a quiet dignity to prison life, and helps the movie. Disappointingly, Harvey Stephens doesn't make much of an impression as Fred Burke.
With Lewis B. Lawes involved in the writing, prison doesn't come across too harshly. Guards and other staffers are sympathetic and interested in rehabilitating their charges, and chapel is an important part of their day. It sounds a little too good to be true, but doesn't draw focus from Johnnie's story.
Since the film was released at the tail end of the Great Depression, Frank takes a couple of verbal jabs at Wall Street bankers, showing what a good guy he is by paying his income tax. These could be amusing or annoying, depending on your income tax status.
Presented in standard definition 1.37:1 full frame, this black-and-white trnsfer is sharp, a big plus for a movie heavy on noirish shadows. There are a few flecks here and there, but nothing major. The Dolby mono soundtrack has a couple of minor drops in volume. The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer.
You Can't Get Away With Murder is good, but not a Humphrey Bogart career highlight. Newcomers to the Bogart filmography would be better off seeing The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre before delving deeper into his career.
While not a must-see movie, strong lead performances make You Can't Get Away With Murder one you'll likely enjoy. It's one of Warner Archive's better MOD releases, and a treat for Humphrey Bogart fans.
Not guilty. Let's hope it doesn't end up getting the chair.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated