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This was a very good film even though I initially had relatively low
expectations. Part of this is because just before this, I saw a
passable Henry Fonda film (SLIM) and I think it made me remember that
like any actor, Fonda could make mediocre films. But LET US LIVE! is
anything but mediocre, since it has a very thought-provoking script
that might just get you to re-evaluate what you think of the death
penalty. While I am generally in favor of it when there is absolutely
no doubt, this film strongly and competently makes the point that
innocent men CAN be convicted wrongly and that the system might be
rather indifferent to correcting this even when doubt as to the
justification for the conviction arises. Again and again throughout the
film, supposedly good men seem indifferent to the possibility that
Fonda and his friend could be innocent--and they convince themselves
that the system cannot make mistakes or that people must allow the
system to work everything out in the end! In spite of this
indifference, Maureen O'Sullivan and Ralph Bellamy work their darnedest
to prove that the men were wronged.
As I said, the plot is very well-constructed and thought-provoking. While at times the performances might seem a tad overly melodramatic, considering what's at stake, it was forgivable. An excellent drama and one that makes you think. About the only negative was that O'Sullivan's Irish accent seemed a bit out of place, though her performance and Fonda's were just fine.
This is a dark tale about two likable people. Well, three, if we count
Ralph Bellamy: He is tossed at us in medias res and is not convincing
as a police lieutenant.
The young lovers are Maureen O'Sullivan and Henry Fonda. He drives a cab. She works in a restaurant. He wants them to marry and is planning to buy a cab and maybe a few, to start a fleet.
Two decades before he starred in the Hitchcock film of this name, though, he is the wrong man. Not for the adoring (and lovely) O' Sullivan. No, he is erroneously arrested for a robbery -- and falsely identified by a pack of jackals who'd been at the crime scene.
One thing I noticed is the response O'Sullivan has when he takes her to look at some nice little homes. She's thrilled and grateful. It's amusing to contrast this to the scornful way the Audrey Totter character acts when Richard Basehart, her unwisely adoring husband in "Tension," takes her to see a little house in the suburbs he's picked out for them.
Lucien Ballard was a marvelous cinematographer -- here and always. This movie has the feel of German Expressionism, which includes a Weill-like musical score. But I'm not sure how much of the Expressionism is intended and how much is a matter of budget: For example, there are several scenes in which snow falls. The snow has a highly unreal look. It really LOOKS like soap flakes. And in an early scene when O'Sullivan humors a drunk at the restaurant where she works, the other diners laugh in the oddest way: We're meant to feel they take it in a goodhearted manner. But it sounds for all the world like a laugh track or the audience at a vaudeville show.
The change in Fonda is very impressive. I really empathized with his feeling at the start that everything is going his way; that the world is a wonderful place to be. If this were a musical comedy, a song to that effect would have followed. But Fonda didn't make musicals. It's pretty clear that he's going to be disabused of this notion; I've been there too. And he is indeed.
Borrowing Maureen O'Sullivan from MGM, Harry Cohn gave her top billing
over Henry Fonda in Let Us Live about a wrongly convicted man on Death
Row. There are two wrongly convicted men, Fonda and Alan Baxter both
cab drivers. But it's Fonda whose wedding plans get so rudely
interrupted when he and Baxter get arrested for a pair of robberies and
a homicide that resulted from one of them.
The callousness of the 'system' will really get to you after a while. Fonda and Baxter are picked out of a lineup by victims and they do bear some resemblance to two of the trio of robbers and Fonda who was at the scene of one of the robberies earlier with O'Sullivan said something in a jocular vein that was used against him later. Still when a trio of men committed another armed robbery with fatalities in the same manner it wouldn't have impeded justice any to have issued a stay of execution. At least that's what Ralph Bellamy who was one of the original investigating detectives thinks. But the District Attorney Stanley Ridges wants finality and Bellamy and O'Sullivan have to race against the clock to find the real perpetrators.
Fonda was cast in this film no doubt on the strength of his performance in Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once as a prisoner in a similar jackpot. Later on he would be in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man in yet another mistaken identity situation. But in Let Us Live with his musings about his situation he reminds me of one of his greatest roles that of Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath who if you remember was also an ex-convict.
But while Fonda muses, the film is taken over by O'Sullivan and Bellamy who are a resourceful pair and enlist the help of some pretty good juvenile detectives to find crucial evidence.
I'm not an opponent of the death penalty per se, but this film shows the callousness that it is sometimes applied and a judicial system devised by man is not perfect. Let Us Live is a real sleeper among the work of Henry Fonda and should be better known.
...are all examined here. Knowing that social relevance was important
to Fonda throughout his career, and with him being a free agent at the
time, I have to wonder if this is how Columbia persuaded such a big
talent to star in this project. It's based on a true story that
happened in Massachusetts, but in the real story matters don't get
quite so dramatic as they did here.
Fonda plays cabbie Brick Tennant who is in business for himself, looking forward to marrying his girl, waitress Mary Roberts (Maureen O'Sullivan), and buying a modest house financed by the newly formed FHA. Great time is spent building up what an optimist Brick is and how content he is with his middle class lifestyle. When Brick's down on his luck pal Alan Baxter (Joe Linden) shows up, Brick lets him bunk with him and offers him a job driving the second cab he has just bought.
Meanwhile, three criminals wander into town - two of which bear a resemblance to Brick and Alan. First they rob the local police exhibition of all of its weapons and kill the night watchman, then they pull off a daring daytime robbery of a theater and kill someone in that crime too. Since the criminals escaped in a cab, the police decide to pull in every cabbie in the city and alibi them. Brick and Alan are among those who do not have a solid alibi, so they are put in a lineup among the movie patrons who saw the unmasked robbers. At first, nobody speaks up, but then one person says "that's him!" in relation to Brick. Soon they are all saying the same thing. Since Alan was at Brick's apartment alone during the hold-up, and the only person who can alibi Brick is his fiancée, nobody believes them and the wheels of justice grind to their inevitable conclusion. Both Brick and Alan are convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Then a break. Normally a gang of criminals with somebody else convicted of their crimes would in these not so well information-connected times just move their show to someplace far away, assuming they are in the clear here. But although well organized they are apparently not that bright. They pull off a THIRD crime in the exact same town. This time it is a bank robbery, and they shoot it out with a cop in the street killing him. The lucky break - one of the bullets from the shoot out lodges in an apple that Mary buys for Brick to give to him during her visit at the penitentiary. She brings it to police Lieutenant Everett (Ralph Bellamy), and it is identified as a bullet from one of the same guns that were used in the other crimes.
Here's the dig. Nobody in authority thinks this is sufficient evidence to at least grant a stay of execution! Their excuse is that the third guy was never caught and he must have the gun. The prosecutor says his job is just to try cases - he's done that. The police say it is their job to collect evidence for open cases - there are none! You'd think that the possibility of two innocent guys being executed would be reason enough to break protocol. You'd be wrong. Only Everett, who sacrifices his career to do so, agrees to help Mary because that lone bullet makes him not so sure justice has been done. There is one more clue uncovered by Brick studying trial transcripts, but I'll let you watch and find out what that is and what happens.
Being released during the production code era, this film is rather surprising in its rather subtle indictment of the death penalty and not so subtle criticism of the sometimes robotic behavior of law enforcement, the follies of circumstantial evidence, and the reverse of the "bystander effect" in eyewitness identification. Maybe because Columbia was a small studio and there was no big build up of the film by the studio is the reason the censors did not react.
I'd recommend this one. If I have any criticism at all it is that Maureen O'Sullivan gives a rather shrill performance here. Maureen, the audience knows you are telling the truth and that time is running out, please calm down!
LET US LIVE (Columbia, 1939), directed by John Brahm, based upon the
story by Joseph E. Dinneen, is an underrated melodrama starring Maureen
O'Sullivan and Henry Fonda for the first and only time. Being one of
many social dramas involving an innocent man, in this instance, two
honorable citizens sent to prison for a crime for which they are
innocent, LET US LIVE certainly falls into the class of earlier, yet
stronger efforts of FURY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936) starring Sylvia
Sidney and Spencer Tracy, and THEY WON'T FORGET (Warners, 1937)
featuring Gloria Dickson and Edward Norris. Even the similar titled,
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (United Artists, 1937) where Sylvia Sidney and Henry
Fonda star as victims of circumstance, LET US LIVE falls closely to the
category of MGM's FURY, but without touches of mob violence and Fritz
Lang's dark and tense direction.
As with FURY, LET US LIVE starts off with amusing moments, character introduction and plot development before getting to the purpose of its title. Set in the town of Springdale, Mary Roberts (Maureen O'Sullivan), a cashier at a local luncheonette, is engaged to marry John J. "Brick" Tennant (Henry Fonda), an ambitious young taxi driver. Prior to their upcoming wedding, Brick buys his own taxi as a start for his new business, Tennant Transportation Cab Company. Because his friend, Joe Lindon (Alan Baxter), is out of work with no place to go, Brick not only offers him his apartment as a place to stay but a job working for him driving his taxi during his off hours. The next day, Brick takes Mary to church, awaiting outside during her time of prayer for her deceased mother. Nearby, a crime is being committed where a watchman is killed in front of witnesses. Three robbers, one of them named Joe (George Lynn), escape in a high speed taxi passing the church. As the chief of police (Henry Kolker) cracks down to solve the latest crime problem, various cab drivers are investigated and questioned, but only Brick and Joe are arrested and identified in a police lineup by key witnesses as the robbers. Regardless of Mary's testimony on the witness stand, the jury finds Joe and Brick guilty, with the judge passing sentence for prison time and execution. It's now up to Mary, with the help of Police Lieutenant Everett (Ralph Bellamy), to work tirelessly proving the innocence of condemned two men before it's too late.
Other members of the cast include Stanley Ridges (District Attorney); George Douglas (Ed Walsh); Philip Trent (Frank Burke); Martin Spellman (Jimmy Dugan); Charles Lane, Clarence Wilson, Harry Holman and Ray Walker.
Although John Braham is no Fritz Lang nor master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, this virtually unknown or forgotten director does provide some good touches of camera angles and dark visuals usually associated with themes of this category. The transformation of Fonda's character during the latter half of the story is realistically done. Of all the Fonda films in his entire career, LET US LIVE happens to be his shortest in length (66 minutes). With situations depicted that could happen to anybody, Fonda would play an innocent man wrongly accused and convicted once more, to better advantage, under Alfred Hitchcock's direction in THE WRONG MAN (Warner Brothers, 1957), another fact-based story. While the Mary role might have been played in the usual manner of Sylvia Sidney, who specialized in these character types through much of the 1930s, Maureen O'Sullivan demonstrates her ability in heavy dramatics, showing she's not just plain Jane from the popular "Tarzan" adventure series she did on her home base for MGM (1932-1942). Alan Baxter, who began his film career playing a tough hood, breaks away from such type-casting this time around, while Ralph Bellamy assumes the arm of the law rather than the guy who loses the girl as he so often did starting with the comedy, THE AWFUL TRUTH (Columbia, 1937) starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor.
Not as well known as Fonda's 1939 20th Century-Fox releases of JESSE JAMES, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, overlooking some lack of logic an/or unbelievable coincidences, LET US LIVE is certainly fast moving, to the point, and holds interest throughout. Aside from numerable cable television broadcasts in past years, Cinemax (1987); Turner Classic Movies and GET-TV (with commercial breaks), LET US LIVE is also available on DVD.(***)
"Let Us Live" (1939) is a snappy 67 minute noir, photographed by Lucien
Ballard, and directed by John Brahm. There's no mistaking it for
anything other than noir.
The movie explicitly indicts the criminal justice system. At one point, everyone from the D.A. down to the police chief insists they are doing their jobs. They are acting like perfect bureaucrats, following a narrow legalistic path or job description. But Ralph Bellamy tells them they're ignoring that they're dealing with human beings and specific cases, and following rules doesn't produce justice. Doing that has resulted in placing two innocent men, Henry Fonda and Alan Baxter, on death row. Only strenuous efforts of Fonda's fiancée, Maureen O'Sullivan, and cop Bellamy, solid as always, can possibly save them from a rapidly approaching electrocution. No appeals here that take up months and stretch into years. Stanley Ridges is the unbending D.A. and Henry Kolker is the self-constrained police chief.
Fonda does a nice job transitioning from a self-confident and optimistic cab driver to a man with doubts and finally to bitterness. O'Sullivan is not hysterical but she is extremely frustrated and becomes quite shrill or carried away at the mistaken identification of eye witnesses and the fact that her alibi for Fonda is so easily dismissed as the word of a biased woman who couldn't account for 20 minutes of Fonda's time while she was inside a church. Baxter begins a man behind the depression eight ball and his arrest and conviction only confirms it in his mind. He does get some courage, however, from seeing Fonda challenging the cops on death row as "cowards".
Arbitrary dates and films for when noir began simply do not create firm boundaries. "Let Us Live" is quite far from being the kind of film that's often called proto-noir; it was so classed at the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival. In it, noir images are not just frequent but predominate. The story pulls no punches in criticizing the police and court system. This movie is actually a film noir. The copy I viewed was from an excellent DVD source, whose origin I cannot recollect, with deep blacks and sharp images.
It's always good watching Maureen O'Sullivan before she went on to act in the 'Tarzan' films, and it is nice seeing her act alongside of Henry Fonda. It would've been good to see her in a film with Cary Grant. This film has shades of 'The Wrong Man' which Fonda would do seventeen years later with Hitchcock, but 'The Wrong Man' is the better film. Unfortunately, I don't think this is a good film even though it has a good cast. Whereas 'The Wrong Man' was cinematic, this film is not. Fonda didn't need to scream and shout in 'The Wrong Man' because you knew exactly what he was feeling through the music and Robert Burks' cinematography. Here, Fonda has to scream and shout to let you know what he is feeling. That's not cinema. That's theatre.
Maureen O'Sullivan and Henry Fonda star in "Let Us Live," a 1939 film
also starring Ralph Bellamy. Fonda plays a cab driver engaged to
O'Sullivan. He and the friend who is staying with him are arrested for
a robbery/murder after being identified by witnesses in a lineup. They
are convicted at trial and sentenced to death.
It falls to the investigating detective on the case (Bellamy) and O'Sullivan to work to clear the two men. Meanwhile, the two innocent men rot in jail with the clock ticking quickly toward execution.
This has to be the fastest trip to the gas chamber in history - we've all read the stories of people languishing on death row for 18 years. It seems like these guys only had a couple of weeks before their execution date.
The idea behind this film, though, is solid: The police believe they have the perpetrators, the DA doesn't want anything rocking the boat (even a similar robbery while the two men were in prison), and refuses to stay the executions.
I can never get over how much Jane Fonda looks like her dad when I see Fonda in early films. He gives an excellent performance here, that of a bitter, angry man convicted of something he didn't do. I always felt that Fonda as an actor became more internalized as he aged - I prefer the more emotional performances of his. O'Sullivan is energetic and determined as his fiancée, and Bellamy is good in the supporting role.
A dark, sobering film about the dangers of rushing to judgment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Very dark early-noir about a man wrongly convicted of murder (Fonda, rather overdoing the nice-normal-guy routine at the start) and sent to Death Row. The whole premise is a little contrived, and it's hard to believe that so many witnesses would band together and falsely identify him. The plot machinery that clears him--involving his girlfriend, Maureen O'Sullivan, and an honest cop who quit the force, Ralph Bellamy--stretches the outer limits of credibility, too. But this is an interesting, strange little B, way more cynical and damning of the system than most studio product of the time. It convincingly argues that the law has an interest in upholding a verdict so severe that even incontrovertible contrary evidence wouldn't allow it to turn back, and its happy ending isn't really happy. Yes, he gets cleared and he gets the girl, but his faith in the system is ruined forever, and he's a social outcast. It feels a little like "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." And it's well shot.
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