Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Him: “I’m shooting for the top. I want a wife who’s willing to do anything to get there.”

Her: “I think I know what you mean.”

For a time, fans of law-and-order champion Mr. District Attorney had their pick: an NBC radio program that aired 1939 to 1952; a DC crime comic that went 67 issues, 1948 to 1959; and a tail-end television series on ABC that ran from 1952 to 1953.During the war years, the anti-crime crusader also was lionized in a trio of Mr. District Attorney motion pictures released by Republic, and then in a post-war follow-up from Columbia Studios. The differences between the earlier and later productions showcase much of what film noir is about – and what it’s not.

Mr. District Attorney (1941), the initial Republic studios release, starred Stanley Ridges as intrepid D.A. Tom Winton and a young Dennis O’Keefe as his newly-minted Assistant, Prince Cadwallader Jones. The well-meaning but hapless Jones is keen to solve a stalled embezzlement case but finds himself running up against Terry Parker (Florence Rice), a nosey newspaper journalist who knows a good story when she sniffs one. But it’s Peter Lorre, in an appearance that’s perversely at odds with any of the rest of the film, who’s the best reason to watch it.

Shortly after, came Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), with Paul Harvey as the D.A. and James Ellison and Virginia Gilmore in the roles of Jones and Parker. This one is highlighted only by its surprise ending and luminous lighting set-ups by cinematographer John Alton.

Then came Secrets of the Underground (1942), featuring Pierre Watkin as the District Attorney and John Hubbard and Virginia Grey as the accidental partners-in-crime-fighting. It has its minor rewards, including a timely script by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, 1947; The Big Steal, 1949; The Tall Target, 1951). Additional titles had been planned but in the end Secrets of the Underground was as far as the Republic series was to travel.

Though the original Mr. District Attorney radio play opted for pure suspense, the Republic titles leaned more in the direction of the ‘mystery-comedy’ – a claptrap contrivance designed to offer ‘comic relief’ and let-up from the otherwise serious matters at hand. But by the end of WWII, audiences were tiring of its stagey bag of tricks: the bumbling heroes and fast-talking sidekicks (or the opposite), the double-takes and slapstick confusion. By the late ‘40’s, a flood of psychological thrillers and blood melodramas had largely swept all this away, save for a few creaky detective series like The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Bulldog Drummond or The Saint in their final appearances (crime-for-laughs would survive as a movie-going staple but one increasingly better-fashioned and fitted around the comedy).

Meantime, Columbia Studios decided to have other crack at Mr. District Attorney. The new version would star the venerable Adolphe Menjou as Craig Warren, D. A. and a more mature Dennis O’Keefe as Steve Bennett, Warren’s case-hardened Assistant. But the feisty female journalist character– always ready to pitch in to help out – was tossed in favor of a venomous spider woman (played with deadly conviction by Marguerite Chapman) out for absolutely no one but herself. This more ominous turn was no huge leap for Columbia, having had recent successes with films such as Gilda (1946), Framed (1947) and Dead Reckoning (1947) and B titles like Night Editor (1946).

That said, Columbia hedged its bets with a nod to the spirit of the earlier titles. There’s Menjou, ever the Hollywood dandy and stylized little man with his waxed mustache and aggravated manner, whose presence recalls a by-gone era;  also character actor Michael O’Shea as Harrington as Warren’s quick-as-a-quip investigator and smiley-face Jeff Donnell as the office girl and blessed soul of patience. However, any residual hokeyness doesn’t distract much from Mr. District Attorney as a gripping, sometimes chilling film noir.

With a screenplay written by Ian McLellan Hunter (who would later front for Dalton Trumbo until Hunter himself was blacklisted), Mr. District Attorney features a convoluted but well-secured storyline. District Attorney Warren is under the gun to bring down the courtly but cold-blooded gangster, James Randolph (George Coulouris), who has the local rackets wrapped up, along with a cadre of crooked business leaders and government officials. To help build the case, Warren hires a former defense lawyer, Steve Bennett who’d been serving as counsel to one of Randolph’s cronies but then quit both his client and his law firm after discovering he’d been taken for a chump.

Keeping a nicely-mascaraed eye out for Randolph’s interests is Marcia Manning (Marguerite Chapman), his glamourous personal assistant. We learn soon enough though that Randolph wants her to be more than simply the hired help. However, Manning wants to hear more from him than just sweet nothings, reminding him, “To me, love is a luxury… You want me to be romantic like the songs about living on love and pale moonlight...I know how it works. My mother tried it and by the time she was 35 she was an old woman left with nothing except pale moonlight, and that’s not going to happen to me.”

In fact, a lot has already happened to Our Miss Manning, including managing to beat a murder rap back in Kansas City. Warren knows this and figures that Manning might be the best and fastest way to get to Randolph. Manning, conversely, wastes no time in finding her way to Bennett and before long, she’s duped him into revealing information that sinks Warren’s case. Warren suspects his wide-eyed boy has been played for a sucker and sends Bennett out of the country on another investigation. He then brings in Manning and tells her to lay off Bennett or his office might revisit her legal problems. When Bennett returns and hears of this, he quits, only to later discover that Manning dumped him while he was gone. Bennett is furious but without a job, lets Manning coax him back into taking on some legal work for Randolph. However, as the plot thickens and bodies pile up, Bennett realizes that it’s Manning who’s really at the root of all evil and makes up his mind to do something about it. Manning, of course, has other ideas.  

The little-known Chapman grew up as a small-town tomboy in Chatham, NY.  Affectionately called “Slugger” by her friends, the beautiful brunette was encouraged by them later to try modeling. She went to New York and became a featured John Powers Girl and after she’d been on the cover of enough magazines, Hollywood came calling. Through 1940 to 1943, Chapman appeared in eighteen films, albeit minor ones. She later moved up several rungs on the studio ladder and became the female interest in several better Columbia features, including:  Destroyer (1943) with Edgar G. Robinson; Appointment in Berlin (1943) opposite George Sanders; and Counter-Attack (1945) with Paul Muni. After the war, there were a few more A features, notably Relentless (1948), a well-received western with Robert Young. But from there on, appearances became limited to supporting roles in movies and on television. By the mid-1960’s, she’d effectively retired from the screen to focus on stage work.

None of which is to say that Chapman couldn’t or shouldn’t have had a much bigger career in movies. The actress at one time or another had been singled out by scribes for everything from her “comeliness” to her versatility “spilling over”. However, her striking beauty and versatility appeared to work just as much against her as for her in that she was never able to establish a dominant screen personality. Like Ruth Hussey or Barbara Hale to whom she shared a resemblance, Chapman didn’t easily evince a strike-up-the-band sparkle, domesticated warmth, or relaxed sexuality.

Mr. District Attorney on the other hand takes advantage of what Chapman did have: a sophisticated charm and self-possession free of overemphasis or bossiness. She’s a woman capable of living in a man’s world without looking for concessions, including marriage which would happen only if and when convenient. 

Chapman also ups the ante as a femme fatale who never overplays her advantage. Like the most memorable femmes of classic film noir, Manning is knowable but, forever and fatally, unreadable. Though Messrs. Mejou, O’Keefe, and Coulouris all give it their best, the film belongs to Chapman.

Unfortunately, Mr. District Attorney wasn’t a movie of a size or sort that could deliver a breakthrough for any actor, no matter how impressive the showing. It’s even more unfortunate that there weren’t more opportunities for Chapman to be on screen what she obviously was meant to be. But sometimes things work out and sometimes they just never do. After decades out of the business, she suddenly was first-call for the coveted role of ‘Old Rose’ Dason-Calvert in the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, Titanic, but was prevented by ill-health from accepting. The part went to Gloria Stuart, who will be remembered forever for it. Chapman died two years later. 

Mr. District Attorney also was enhanced by cinematographer Bert Glennon, a confirmed but underappreciated visual stylist who was on camera for Juke Girl (1942), Shadow of a Woman (1946), The Red House (1947), Ruthless (1948), Red Light (1949) and the terrific Crime Wave (1954). Glennon’s mastery of the noir registry is on full display in Mr. District Attorney, starting with the film’s shocking opening scene, which as it turned out, would foreshadow the cold-blooded murder of its director, Robert Sinclair twenty-three years later. With its rich noir visualizations, smartly-plotted story, and industrious performances, Mr. District Attorney is a film noir worth watching, “straight down the line”.

Gary Deane

(A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Noir City, the online magazine of the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation)  

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