The People Against O’Hara (1951)
Directed by John Sturges
Produced by William H. Wright
Written by John Monks Jr.
Based on the novel The People Against O’Hara by Eleazar Lipsky
Cinematography by John Alton
Edited by Gene Ruggiero
Music by Carmen Dragon
(1:42) New to me - Borrowed from a friend
When Johnny O’Hara (James Arness, fresh off his role as the alien in the original 1951 version of The Thing) is accused of robbing and murdering a man, he knows he can’t tell the truth. He’s not guilty, at least not of robbing and killing anyone, but he does have a secret he can’t divulge, even though it would clear him of all charges: Johnny was out with Katrina Lanzetta (Yvette Duguay), the wife of a local mobster. You don’t exactly fess up about things like that…
In comes James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy), a retired criminal lawyer who believes Johnny - a boy he’s known from the neighborhood - and agrees to take his case. Curtayne also has a history of problems with the bottle, problems he hasn’t had since he stopped practicing criminal law. Both Detective Vincent Ricks (Pat O’Brien, left in previous photo) and District Attorney Louis Barra (John Hodiak, right in previous photo) know this well, and believe Curtayne is courting trouble. Things begin looking up when an eyewitness (Jay C. Flippen) comes forward, but can he be trusted? (Can Jay C. Flippen ever be trusted?)
The People Against O’Hara probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s got a large cast and mixes several subplots and storytelling devices. We’ve got a murder, a gangster element, a recovering alcoholic story, a police procedural, a courtroom element, corruption, deception, and a suspense-filled finale. Again, somehow all of these elements work. Much credit goes to the John Monks Jr. screenplay, which was nominated for an Edgar Award, as well as a cast that operates at a high level, particularly Tracy. At an hour and 42 minutes, the film is a bit long, but doesn’t feel like it drags in any way. The People Against O’Hara is generally underrated, but it’s worth discovering (or rediscovering) for the cast alone. (Don’t miss one of my favorite character actors, Emile Meyer, as well as a brief appearance from Charles Bronson.) The film is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Next time: Is hiding out in the Sierras during the winter ever a good idea?
Photos: DVD Beaver, RareFilm