Friday 18 September 2020

Movie Review: You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939)

A straightforward morality tale, You Can't Get Away With Murder is a prison-set drama as obvious as its title suggests.

In New York City, bubbly Madge Stone (Gale Page) and her boyfriend Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens), a security guard, excitedly make plans to get married and relocate to Boston. But Madge's younger brother Johnny (Billy Halop) is falling in with the wrong crowd, idolizing small-time criminal Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart). Frank and Johnny hold-up a gas station, then Johnny steals Burke's gun and Frank leaves it at the scene of a pawn shop murder when the next robbery goes wrong. 

Frank and Johnny are arrested for the gas station job and incarcerated at Sing Sing prison. Burke is wrongly convicted of the pawn shop murder based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to die. Johnny knows the truth but struggles with his conscious while serving his sentence, caught between ratting out Frank or letting Burke die. Elderly prisoner Pop (Henry Travers), in charge of the prison library, tries to help Johnny sort through right and wrong.

A standard Warner Bros. crime and punishment film, You Can't Get Away With Murder is only 79 minutes long but feels much longer. Once Frank and Johnny land behind the walls of Sing Sing and Burke is convicted of murder, director Lewis Seiler has another 40 minutes or so to burn, and the film drops into a tiresome and repetitive loop. With Johnny stuck agonizing over his predicament, all other characters and events freeze at the same note until the final climax.

The script by Jonathan Finn and Lewis E. Lawes (adapting Lawes' play Chalked Out) attempts to add vibrancy through the assorted characters populating the prison system. The most prominent is Henry Travers as Pop, a sick and aging seen-it-all prisoner who senses Johnny's conflict and attempts to nudge him to the side of light. The rest of the riffraff is less successful, including a prisoner who loudly recites recipes (?) and another who runs a gig betting on death row inmates.

The acting is of the grim straight-ahead variety, with Bogart stuck in another thankless reinterpretation of the sharp-tongued small time criminal. Gale Page is overly theatrical, Harvey Stephens is bland, but Billy Halop effectively evolves his Dead End Kids persona.

The photography is slick and Seiler creates a viable prison environment, but You Can't Get Away With Murder gives away its message in the banner, then makes hard work of trudging to the waiting cell.

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