Edward G. Robinson is never not convincing. An authority figure, a drunk, a mob lawyer, he fits in. His D.A. character, Victor Scott, starts off contemplating running for governor after supposedly winning a big case. But he soon gets his comeuppance, as he gets the wrong man executed.
It goes without saying that there’s more than a few coincidences in Illegal. The guy’s executed just as Scott gets on the phone to try and stop it; he finds a client to jump-start his criminal defense career just as he’s appearing for his own offence; another, more promising client appears somewhat magically; his black-mailing strategy is nearly effortless, etc. Then there’s the courtroom histrionics: the hidden roll of nickels helping a knockout punch is one thing, but the self-poisoning ‘defense’ is just too clever. Not to mention slightly risky for the non-daredevil.
Thanks to the fully greased wheels of the plot, Scott is soon looking good. This is fine enough as melodrama, and the pacing and dialogue are pretty slick “everytime you sit there and have a thought, remember I sat there and had it before you” he snaps at the new D.A. (Edward Platt). But his descent from respectability was triggered by remorse and guilt. How can we buy that he’s suddenly without scruples?
Soon we get Garland (the redoubtably slimy Albert Dekker). “The study of flowers can be very rewarding” he observed. Not to be outdone, Victor’s loyal, gruff Hinkle (Ellen Corby) greets his old flame Ellen (Nina Foch) with “It’s nice to have at least one visitor who hasn’t committed a felony.” One character who’s truly conflicted, Ray (Hugh Marlowe), kind of Scott’s sidekick, has a parallel dive into the underworld.
His death automatically brings Scott his good name back, presumably because he’s defending Ellen’s role in it. The courtroom maneuvering this time is really a maze fit for a year’s worth of Perry Mason episodes. The ultimate ploy: Scott getting shot, exposing the bad guys (Garland, etc.); and, of course, getting Ellen off the hook just before he croaks.
Definitely a great cast, and very good performances all around. Jayne Mansfield, as Garland’s ‘dame’, is superb. Illegal is plenty entertaining, but strains suspension of disbelief a bit much.