Release Date(s)1938 (October 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: F
[Editor's Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]
Edward G. Robinson established his career playing tough guys, beginning with Little Caesar and continuing for years in Warner Bros. gangster flicks. In 1938, on loan to Columbia Pictures for I Am the Law, he had the chance to play against type in a crime story with twists.
Robinson plays John Lindsay, beloved and respected professor of law at a prestigious university. His sabbatical is due and he expects to go on a cruise with his wife, Jerry (Barbara O’Neil). After learning that racketeers are taking over the city, however, he attends, uninvited, a meeting of the Governor’s Civic Committee and hears that none of the racketeers are being prosecuted because no one has accepted the job of special prosecutor.
Committee member Eugene Ferguson (Otto Kruger), whose son Paul (John Beal) was an honor student of Lindsay’s, arranges to have Lindsay appointed as special prosecutor. Eugene, ostensibly a legitimate businessman, actually runs the protection racket that’s intimidating small business owners in the city. Frankie Ballou (Wendy Barrie), a former journalist who is now Eugene’s secret lover and lives off his considerable largess, aids and abets his involvement in illicit activities.
Because the mob has planted spies among the City Hall staff of the newly-appointed prosecutor, the racketeers are able to thwart Lindsay’s every move and his lack of results causes him to be fired. Determined to bring the brazen thugs to justice, Lindsay decides to take them on as a private citizen, and recruits an army of lawyers from among his former students to help.
Though it follows a predictable narrative, there’s a lot to like about I Am the Law. From Robinson’s spirited Big Apple dance with Barrie in a nightclub to his fist fight with a loan shark to prove he’s not merely a bookish academic, the film has its smile-inducing surprises.
Some of Lindsay’s methods, such as planting a camera and microphone in an apartment without first obtaining a court order, nowadays seem beyond appropriate and even illegal. Once in the role of prosecutor, he appears to have unchecked power, which instills fear in the bad guys but induces head-shaking in today’s viewer. Still, since his heart and intentions are in the right place, we’re in his corner. Also from a contemporary perspective, women don’t come off especially well. Among Lindsay’s students, there’s not a single female, and when Lindsay needs someone to take dictation and answer the phone, the job falls conveniently to his dutiful wife, Jerry. The only other major female role is Eugene’s kept woman, Frankie.
Director Alexander Hall moves the film along briskly. Jo Swerling provides Robinson with some sharp dialogue as a man devoted to the law who jumps at the chance to take on the mob. Robinson brings some of his gangster swagger to the role of Lindsay but makes him more thoughtful and less impulsive. Lindsay is a smart cookie who knows not only the law, but also human nature.
I Am the Law was shot by director of photography Henry Freulich on 35 mm black-and-white film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The Region Free Blu-ray release by Imprint Films is sourced from an older master supplied by Sony Pictures. The picture is clear and sharp with no scratches, surface dirt, or emulsion clouding impairing images. Blacks are deep and rich, and grayscale is quite good. Details such as patterns in clothing, items in room decor, trees and bushes on the university campus, and individual strands of hair are nicely delineated. Lighting is mostly high-key. Opportunities are missed to cast dramatic shadows in scenes of corrupt officials and racketeers.
The soundtrack is presented in English 2.0 mono LPCM. English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is distinct and clear throughout. Sound effects include dance steps on a wooden floor, fists pummeling bodies, furniture being broken, an explosion, ambient sounds of students on the college campus, and ambient nightclub noise. George Parrish’s musical score heightens excitement in this dialogue-heavy film and never seems intrusive.
Unfortunately, there are no bonus materials.
I Am the Law is an amusing fantasy of academic life. An unexpected delight is seeing Edward G. Robinson do a pretty jazzy Big Apple with Wendy Barrie, even clearing the dance floor at one point. The plot is somewhat improbable, but Robinson’s first-class, energetic performance in an uncharacteristic yet tailor-made role keeps the whole film afloat.
- Dennis Seuling