“You can’t stop what’s coming.”
Near the end of the 2007 neo-noir No Country for Old Men the homespun truism quoted above is shared with the lead character, a man seeking to make some sort of sense out of a world that is not only passing him by but practically speeding off over the horizon. That feeling of inevitability, of random and relentless occurrences that cannot be avoided but only faced and dealt with if or when they appear, is something which has fueled film noir right from the beginning. The People Against O’Hara (1951) is one of those fatalistic studies of the inevitable, where the unraveling of a crime goes hand in hand with the unraveling of a man’s life.
New York streets by night, rain slicked and neon drenched, a grizzled seaman contemptuous of the noisy jukebox drifts out of a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Out on the street he pauses by the kerbside and is startled by the sound of gunfire from across the way, where a killer and his victim are silhouetted in the glare spilling from a doorway overlooking the sidewalk. The identity of the dead man is soon established, and the forensics team are quick to quick to obtain evidence of who had been driving the car used for the getaway. There is no doubt about the name of the wheelman, but establishing who did the shooting may not be such a cut and dried affair. The prime suspect is the owner of that vehicle, Johnny O’Hara (James Arness). The viewer knows he can’t have done the deed as he is shown out of town trying to break up for good with a distraught and emotional girl. And there, in the words of a well-known prince of Denmark, is the rub: that clinging, desperate girl is the wife of a notorious gangland boss (Eduardo Ciannelli), a man known to visit unspeakable and horrific vengeance on anyone stupid enough to cross him. Under the circumstances, it should not come as any surprise to see O’Hara make a run for it when as yet unidentified but armed men approach him on his way home. Nor is it hard to understand his steadfast refusal to offer an alibi for the time the murder took place, not when he is charged, not when a blatantly crooked witness falsely implicates him, and not even when he finds himself on trial for his life.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation, one requiring deft legal skills if the accused is to have any chance of beating the rap and remaining in one piece. The O’Hara family’s hopes are pinned on one man, noted attorney James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy). However, this may be a distinctly shaky foundation on which to build anything, least of all the fate of a man facing a capital charge. Curtayne has retreated from criminal trial work, the pressures and strains of which had exacerbated his alcohol dependency. Still, it’s a rare Irishman who can cast off the cloak of sentimentality with ease, and the pitiful entreaty of old acquaintances fallen on hard times is a siren call that is hard to resist. The odds are poor though; the case, despite being shored up by a wall of deceit, is a tough one, the client is paralyzed by an unholy combination of fear and nobility, the D.A. (John Hodiak) is sharp and dedicated, and Curtayne knows he is slipping, that the ground is falling away beneath him while he is too weary and damaged to regain a firm footing. It’s that inevitability, a remorseless sliding sensation, one which although it cannot be halted may yet offer one last shot at a form of redemption.
The People Against O’Hara was the first of three films that John Sturges and Spencer Tracy would make together, being followed by the better known Bad Day at Black Rock and The Old Man and the Sea. It hails from that relatively early period in Sturges’ career when he was working in all kinds of genres. He would really be in his element within a few years as the widescreen process took off and he quickly became one of its top practitioners with a wonderful eye for composition and placement. The pictures he moved on to direct often afforded him the opportunity to incorporate landscapes and outdoor shooting in general into his visual toolkit, and The People Against O’Hara also features some excellent use of genuine Manhattan locations. Having John Alton as cinematographer practically guarantees a strong visual aesthetic. Equally adept in color or black and white (his work with Anthony Mann is justly celebrated but he created some terrific images for Vincente Minnelli too, for example) he effortlessly brings a classic noir look to Sturges’ movie. The opening and closing scenes in particular are bathed in impenetrable, stifling shadow, characters in the foreground having their attention drawn into and fixed upon what Alton has highlighted deep within the background, and the viewer is hooked and reeled in in exactly the same way.
When I think of Spencer Tracy in legal dramas I automatically picture him in a couple of late career movies for Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind & Judgment at Nuremberg) and I suspect I’m not alone in doing so. As such, the image of characters with strong moral convictions and a deep-seated personal nobility is conjured up. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to see him don a rather tarnished crown in The People Against O’Hara. Here Tracy is not so much the staunch and steadfast pillar of legal ethics as a compromised, if not quite crumbling, monument to former greatness. He’s playing a man running on the fumes of a reputation, someone we get to meet on the downside of his career, shaken by alcoholism and ill-health and all the insecurities and frailties that come along for the ride. It’s perfectly clear that his heart is in the right place, although his willingness to head back into the criminal courts may be motivated not only by old loyalties and a sense of altruism, but also by an undeniable hunger for the old battleground and the possibility of new, revitalizing victories. So the honor and nobility are there, but they have acquired a vaguely seedy quality, coated by a film of failure and uncertainty, and Tracy communicates all that so well in those courtroom scenes where his frustration at his own faltering efforts and foggy thinking leave him humiliated and desperate, witnessing his hopes disintegrating before his eyes yet fully aware of his own impotence in the face of catastorophe. It’s that encroaching despair that drives him back towards the bottle and poor judgment, and opens the door to the dangerous road he ultimately opts for in order to justify his client’s faith and redeem himself.
John Hodiak is quiet, competent and scrupulous to a fault as the D.A. whose professional life is, by contrast, following a very different trajectory. The easy option in a story such as this would be to have the D.A. detouring down devious or flat out dishonest legal byroads. However, the calm decency which Hodiak conveys so effectively emphasizes the crisis unfolding in the life of his rival. It is not only the clever writing though, the coolly underplayed performance makes what might have been just another clichéd role into something real and credible. Similarly, old pro Pat O’Brien portrays his veteran cop in a nuanced and sympathetic way, neither as saint nor thug but as a normal human being able to empathize with the flawed people around him. Diana Lynn’s turn as Tracy’s anxious and devoted daughter is attractively done too; her big scene confronting her father as he is on the point of crashing spectacularly off the wagon provided an opportunity to ramp up the drama and she hits the right emotional balance in those moments.
The trend in film noir in the 1950s saw a slow drift away from the dark personal dilemmas that had been commonly explored in the preceding decade towards the broader social malaise represented by organized crime. A movie such as The People Against O’Hara feels like something of a halfway house. The mob connection heavily impacts the lives of the characters but the main focus of the film remains on the trials of Curtayne, the literal one he’s fighting in the courtroom and the spiritual one being waged for his heart and soul. All told, it makes for an attractive blend. Mob related material has a tendency to lean into the showier side in general and one of the flashier performances comes courtesy of William Campbell’s cheap hood. He is all smirks and smarm, faux indignation jostling for position with sugarcoated insincerity, adding layers of slime and a sickening unctuousness. Considerably higher up the criminal food chain comes Eduardo Ciannelli. He brings real menace to his part, those saurian features hinting at medieval malice. Even little throwaway scenes like his sharp exchange with an apparent laborer careless enough to splash his expensive clothes, leading to him dismissively talking about this “paisano” and making cracks about cutting out tongues, before revealing that the pleading supplicant is in fact his own father carry a real chill. In support, Jay C Flippen’s broadly sketched Scandinavian sailor is a fun addition and there are small parts for Arthur Shields (who contributed many a telling and memorable moment in a number of films for John Ford among others), Richard Anderson and, in a practically “blink and you’ll miss him” role, a young Charles Bronson.
The People Against O’Hara was released on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of the Archive Collection a decade ago, and there is a Spanish edition on the market too. It is not a film that gets talked about all that often, probably getting lost in among other more celebrated titles in the respective filmographies of Spencer Tracy and John Sturges. I like it quite a bit as it hits a lot of the themes and motifs that draw me to the movies, and the quality of the personnel involved makes it undeniably attractive.