Lawyer William Powell is tough to beat in court until girlfriend Kay Francis gets into trouble.
In this 1930 film, William Powell plays a noted criminal defense attorney, one based on a real life lawyer William Fallon, who was also given the cinematic treatment in The Mouthpiece starring Warren William. Powell’s brand of courtroom magic is so highly respected by the underworld, that when his car is stolen the thieves drive it right back and beg his pardon when they discover he’s the owner. In court he’s unbeatable and in love unattainable; his longtime girlfriend, actress Kay Francis asks for his hand in marriage only to be brushed off. Kay has another suitor, an immature rich playboy (Scott Kolk) who would marry her in a heartbeat, but she loves Powell and keeps Kolk waiting. One night Francis is driving the drunken Kolk home when he grabs at her, she loses control of the car and kills a man.
Kolk tells her to disappear and he takes the rap. Francis goes to Powell to get him to defend Kolk, whom he despises. She somehow hopes to keep herself out of it and that things will just work themselves out. But Powell warns her that if he finds out she’s lying he’ll drop her completely. Powell is shattered when some stolen jewelry that was given him as payment, firmly places Francis in the car with Kolk, and confirming Powell’s long held belief that nobody is to be trusted. Powell then gets in trouble for bribing a juror, which he does to throw the case, and finds his career and freedom at risk, but stubbornly refuses help from Francis, who still loves him and remains faithful.
For the Defense was the third movie pairing for Powell and Francis, and they made a great, elegant couple, one of my favourite movie pairs. Here they were in the process of being promoted from secondary and usually villainous roles, with the support of David Selznick who saw in them and their chemistry much more potential as leads. Their picture is in the dictionary right next to the word swanky, but the key is that they also had a lot going on beneath the cool and glamorous, shiny-as-patent-leather surface. They played off each other very well, with similar approaches to lines and material, and were good at showing character flaws, their less than admirable qualities in a way that you could relate and still feel sympathy for them, and this movie is a great example.
Powell plays so corrupt and notorious a lawyer that the Bar and lawmen hold a meeting to discuss how to clean things up, if by things they mean him. Francis isn’t entirely a bad girl, she is honest about not cheating on Powell after all, but she gets a kick out of the dangerous rock star aspect of being with him. But when it comes to romance things are flipped a bit; Powell’s set up as the naive righteous fellow versus Francis as a two timing vamp who’s managed to screw it all up (or so he thinks). Through their estrangement and trials (pun intended) they both soften and he realizes her undying loyalty and love. The script gives the actors loads of ups and downs which they handle really well, and Director John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, Ann Vickers) gives the picture a dynamic, fluid look. There are many nice tracking shots and dramatic scenes, especially that last one in the rain when Powell finally has to own up to what he’s done. Great courtroom drama, and great showcase for this fine pair.