The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.
As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.
Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.
It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.
Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.
Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.
If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.
And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.
Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.
That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.