Friday, March 10, 2023

Maybe you could if there weren't a Production Code

A few months back, when I posted on the movie Invisible Stripes for its airing in honor of TCM Star of the Month Humphrey Bogart, I mentioned noticing a movie poster for a film called You Can't Get Away With Murder. It turns out that one is a real movie too, also starring Humphrey Bogart. That one aired as well during Bogart's time as Star of the Month, so I recorded it and watched recently.

Although Bogart is the star, we don't see him at first. Instead we see pretty shop assistant Madge Stone (Gale Page), who is engaged to security guard Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens) and raising her kid brother Johnnie (Billy Halop) as the two apparently lost their parents, something that seemed to be not uncommon in films of the 1930s. Just think of Sylvia Sidney and the brother young enough to be a son in Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage. Madge worries that her kid brother might be hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Of course he is, and unsurprisingly, this being a movie in the early part of his career before Bogart got to start playing good guys, the bad guy Johnnie looks up to is Frank Wilson, played by Bogart. And Frank is quite the piece of work. He gets Johnnie to drive what is going to be a getaway car while the two head off toward Atlantic City, stopping to rob a gas station along the way. But things get worse when Frank says he needs a new gun for the next robbery, and Johnnie looks up to Frank enough to want to help Frank.

Frank, as you can probably guess, has no desire to help Johnnie. Johnnie has just the gun for Frank: Fred's gun. And when Frank shoots the gun in the crime, he kills a pawnbroker and drops the gun so that Johnnie won't be able to return it before Fred finds it missing. And apparently Frank didn't leave any fingerprints on the gun. He, and Johnnie, did leave fingerprints elsewhere, so they get arrested and convicted. But because it was Fred's gun and he doesn't have a good enough alibi, he gets sent to prison too.

Worse, Fred is sentenced to death because the authorities believe he was the one who pulled the gun. Frank or Johnnie could tell the truth, but there's no way Frank is going to do it, since it would sentence him to death. The question then is whether Johnnie is going to come to his senses and tell the truth. Thankfully, in prison he winds up with somebody better to look up to in the form of Pops (Henry Travers). Pops has been in prison long enough that it's the only thing he knows, although you have to wonder what Henry Travers could ever have done to wind up with such a long prison sentence.

Frank is trying to prevent Johnnie from telling the truth, while at the same time trying to organize a prison break, and it's that prison break that forms the climax of the movie, with Frank remaining slimy to the end.

You Can't Get Away With Murder is one of those movies that has as its problem the fact that it was made during the production code. Since we know who did and who didn't commit that crime at the pawnbroker's place, we know who has to pay for their crimes and who doesn't, which means there's really only one ending. However, Warner Bros. was always good at making this sort of crime programmer, and they have a pretty good cast to boot.

You Can't Get Away With Murder might not be as good as Warner Bros.' bigger crime movies from that era, but it's certainly watchable.

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