The People Against O'Hara is an MGM film noir starring Spencer Tracy.
MGM wasn't known for making noir, but the company did occasionally produce and release them. Some are fantastic: The Asphalt Jungle, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Side Street. The majority of their black-and-white crime thrillers (later to be known as noir) from the 40s and early 50s hit most of the notes required but are just a bit out of key. Cause for Alarm, The Lady Without a Passport, Scene of the Crime and The Bribe come across like a cover band – not the real thing. RKO and Warners were the studios that knew noir.
I'm happy to report The People Against O'Hara is (mostly) a film noir. It certainly looks like one. That's thanks to director John Sturges and (probably more so) director-of-photography John Alton. Alton – lensman for T-Men, He Walked By Night and Raw Deal – knew how to use light and shadow. Every scene in The People Against O'Hara has light coming from table lamps, Venetian-blinded windows... anywhere but from the ceilings. And they're all coming from low or sideways angles. The outdoor shots in New York City are chaotic, cluttered and strangely claustrophobic at times. The first five minutes of the movie showing the murder is all shadow – a blanket of dark. The light from a Brownstone doorway giving the only visibility of a shooting taking place across a city street.
Compare this movie to the independently-produced Vice Squad released a few years later. Vice Squad is so over lit it looks like a 50s Television show. Vice Squad suffers because of it. If it were shot by Alton – using techniques created in part because his lighting style was an inexpensive way to express tension – Vice Squad would probably be bearable. But it's not. It's one of many 50s Edward G. Robinson vehicles that just aren't very good. In my opinion, it's because of the way the film looks. But tough guy Edward G. Robinson belonged in crime thrillers. Tracy by the early 50s was carefully managed so he only appeared as a lovable family man. The People Against O'Hara was a bit of a stretch for him.
But only a bit.
Spencer Tracy – even though the film is peppered with fine supporting players and familiar noir faces – is the movie. It's all about him. It's a good thing he's so likeable because that may explain why everyone in the movie is trying to help him. It'd be hard to imagine anyone else in the part. He plays a lawyer – an indecisive drunk lawyer. And he pulls it off perfectly. Every player in the movie is pulling for him – the judge, the DA trying to prosecute his client, hell even the local bartender doesn't want him to fall off the horse. But he does. It leads to a ending that's not happy. Which was a welcome surprise and appropriately film noir as well.
It's also a bit refreshing to see the cops, DA and defense lawyers are all straight-as-an-arrow men out to serve justice honestly. And, again, it would all fall apart and probably cause lots of eye-rolling among noir purists if Tracy wasn't so convincing (it's clear that MGM pulled their punches many times in the script not just related to the DA's office, but Curtayne's drinking). The only shady dealings among lawyers is when Curtayne (Tracy) pays off a witness to change his testimony. But even that is forgiven because everyone knows Curtayne is just trying to do right by his client – the O'Brien in the title (James Arness).
I enjoy spotting supporting actors in noir. This film has some good ones. Pat O'Brien, Diana Lynn, and John Hodiak all appear. But unlike Tracy are almost completely forgotten.
O'Brien was a big star during the 30s gangster days --along with Bogart and Tracy-- but as he aged he couldn’t continue to match his contemporaries on-screen charisma. Demoted to second or third billed in the 50s he is unmemorable in this. To see O'Brien shine during the second half of his movie career seek out the amazing Riffraff. RKO- a studio who could risk having a fading star in the lead.
Diana Lynn plays Tracy's daughter. She looks a bit like Gloria Grahame in this one. She's so well erased today the Internet Movie Database has the wrong picture of her on her IMDB page.
John Hodiak is good but not given much to do. The mustached actor is better showcased in Lifeboat, Two Smart People, Somewhere in the Night and The Bribe. I did mention The Bribe earlier as a bit of an off noir, but it IS featured in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid so there's that.
And the rest.
Poor Regis Toomey (sans toupée) plays a radio operator for a couple of minutes. And they only shoot him from behind... in the dark. He was a cop in more noir than you could count – from cheap Bs like I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes to Warner Bros' The Big Sleep.
Eduardo Ciannelli (Dillinger, Johnny Staccato), Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night) and Arthur Shields (The Verdict) play the rogue's gallery of ethnic stereotypes. Ugly in looks to be sure. Ciannelli is Sol 'Knuckles' Lanzetta, Flippen is Sven Norson and Shields is Mr. O'Hara. If you imagined what their accents would sound like you'd probably be right. See if you can spot Emil Meyer and Charles Bronson too!
Warner Archive has just recently released the DVD and it looks fantastic.
Check out the trailer below. From the start – engraved cards on a silver platter “Mr. SPENCER TRACY... in His Valiant Struggle to Free an Innocent Man”– to its misleading gangbusters voiceover – makes it clear that MGM indeed didn't know how to market it in 1951. Today, let's just call it a decent film noir.