A kiss that ends in a killing!
Another lost gem from the past comes our way this week in the form of Warner Brothers’ 1950 noir-esque film This Side of the Law. It isn’t a film you’ll find on TCM- at least not too often, anyway. The best chance to see it is to either get the disc from Warner Archives or stream it through them. I recommend either as it’s a taut and relatively effective ‘high B’ picture.
We are presented with vagrant David Cummins (Kent Smith), whose spotted in court while on a vagrancy charge by lawyer Philip Cagle (Robert Douglas). After bailing him out, Cagle presents Cummins with a proposition- impersonate missing millionaire Malcolm Taylor. Taylor’s been missing for almost seven years and his estate of $3 million is about to go to his heirs.
Cummins dons Taylor’s clothes and head over to the estate, where he finds his spiteful brother Calder (John Alvin), his sister in law Nadine (Janis Paige) and his wife Evelyn (Viveca Lindfors). Immediately he figures out that these people all hate each other, including him. They’re all after the estate and are dismayed by his sudden reappearance.
As we move a bit further (though not too much as the entire film is only 70 minutes) we learn that Malcolm’s fidelity was, should we say, questionable to say the least. He’s had several affairs of which Evelyn is aware, resulting in the frost between them. But he’s also had a fling with Nadine which Evelyn isn’t aware of, though his brother is. Yes, it gets rather tense rather quickly.
Nadine quickly discovers that Cummins is an impostor rather quickly after trying to rekindle their romance. Afraid of being exposed to the entire family, Cummins calls Cagle and all hell breaks loose. In relatively short order Nadine ‘falls’ off a convenient cliff and Cummins finds himself in an abandoned well- after first signing over his estate entirely to Evelyn.
After discovering the real Malcolm Taylor’s skeleton in the well, Cummins manages to rather creatively escape and save the day, exposing the plot and becoming reunited with Evelyn. Though she know now that he isn’t Malcolm, she seems smitten with him anyway as the curtain falls. Perhaps not actually being Malcolm but looking like him worked out.
There are some flaws in the picture, but nothing overly alarming. Greatest among these and shared with all pictures involving impersonation is the impersonation itself. Regardless of whether Cummins looks like Malcolm or not, his speech, vocabulary and body language would give him away in moments. Thankfully here he’s exposed fairly quickly here, but still well after reality would allow.
There’s also a bit of reliance on already cliched motifs from previous noir films. There’s that cliff along with a relatively heavy reliance on matte paintings. These two are really pretty minor and are easy to ignore; plus we know going in this isn’t Citizen Kane. Production values are still pretty high given the type of picture this is.
It’s hard to say too much about This Side of the Law, as there isn’t much to it. The plot is somewhat standard but extremely well executed. Kent Smith as David Cummins is effective (and probably should have been first billed) as the typical every-man suddenly finding himself in over his head in a situation he can’t control that is so typical of noir films.
Viveca Lindfors gives a believable performance as Evelyn, the tortured wife who slowly comes around to her new Malcolm. She’s not on screen as much as you’d think but what’s there is well done. Janis Paige is really effective as the spurned lover Nadine. It’d be nice to see the story fleshed out a bit more but these rather flat characters are typical for these lesser pictures.
We’ve included the trailer below (sorry for the hard coded timing) which actually lays out pretty much the entire picture for you, but still watch the feature if you can.