Sunday, June 29, 2014

Guilty Hands (1931)

Barbara (Madge Evans), the young daughter of former prosecutor, now lawyer and part-time cynic Richard Grant (Lionel Barrymore), has put it in her head to make a horrible mistake in marrying middle-aged, vile and rather ugly yet apparently – if you believe the script and not your eyes – sexually magnetic playboy Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray).

Grant knows Rich quite well as a client for his particular sexual tastes that see the women he’s involved with thrown away like broken toys once he had his way with them, or even mysteriously falling out of his apartment window. As a lawyer, Rich is the kind of person Grant is willing to live with, but as a father, he’s completely set against the marriage, going so far as to privately threaten Rich with murder. Neither Rich, who really just wants to marry Barbara so he can fuck her and is perfectly willing to go back to Marjorie West (Kay Francis), the only woman he always goes back to, afterwards - or in between, for that matter - , nor Babs, who for some inexplicable reason can’t control herself when it comes to Rich, are dissuaded any by Grant’s dissent.

So Grant does what any good insane father would do in his place and goes through with his plan for the perfect murder, making Rich’s death look like a suicide. And what do you know, the people in the mansion where he committed his murder think he’s just the man to solve the case before calling in the police!

If you’re of the disposition to be able to enjoy mysteries as cynical little demonstrations of the amorality of the forces of law and order, and if you’re willing to overlook what might be one of the worst film endings I’ve ever seen or just one that mocks films that see things put right through the hands of fate by letting the hands of fate move in absolutely preposterous ways, W.S. Van Dyke’s deeply pre-Code film should be quite the find for you.

I, at least, enjoyed myself immensely. There are several reasons for that enjoyment that come together to form one rather astonishing and very lovely movie. Firstly, there’s Bayard Veiller’s script about amorality putting itself in the service of morality in the worst possible way, tightly paced with many a nasty little aside, full of dialogue that does sharp as well as it does melodramatic.

Then there’s Lionel Barrymore’s central performance, utterly gleeful, showy, and shameless in the most delightful manner, yet also with enough subtlety to actual sell the idea we’re witnessing the acts of a man who truly loves his daughter, how little human sympathy he shows for anyone else. Barrymore’s character here is quite close to our contemporary charming sociopath (Dexter Morgan, to the red courtesy phone please), though probably not influenced by much clinical knowledge (which wasn’t exactly large at that time anyway, and certainly not in Hollywood), and in that sense not far away from the sort of thing Bette Davis was up to in her pre-code films, just here in other class and gender guise.

While Barrymore is quite magnetic here and certainly the film’s centre, Kay Francis’s Marjorie turns out to be as close to an actual antagonist as Richard has. Francis does a remarkable job of standing up to Barrymore acting-wise, making clear how horrible Richard is by contrasting his gloating amorality with the deeply human fragility, confusion and anger of a woman confronted with the death of the asshole she inexplicably loved (and of whose true character she was well aware), and her life falling apart with the death.

Given the script and the core performance(s), director Van Dyke does the most logical thing – particularly inside the technical constraints of his era of movie making – and puts himself fully in service of his actors and his writer, a directing approach that never grants a director much applause yet surely is the right choice here. At the very least, I find it impossible to argue with the resulting film.

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