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Guilty Hands - 1931

Guilty Hands - Released Aug 22, 1931. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke (and, according to some accounts, Lionel Barrymore)

An attorney (Lionel Barrymore) with a prestigious career behind him as both a private lawyer and a District Attorney, goes to meet an important client at the man's country home estate. We learn that the client (Alan Mowbray) is a wealthy fellow with a long history of paying off young women he has wronged (though the film never quite gets the blunt truth out, the man is apparently a rapist when the woman is unwilling) and Barrymore's lawyer is well aware of how the man has used money (and in one case, a convenient suicide of a sixteen year-old girl) to stay out of jail.

Barrymore, mindful only with what can be proved in court, isn't that concerned about the man's actual activities, though he finds it distasteful. Then he discovers something which alters his pragmatism considerably: without his knowledge, the wealthy man has finagled an engagement with the lawyer's beautiful daughter (Madge Evans). Lionel's attorney is soon to be "Papa" to a man he knows is a scoundrel, as they would say in 1931.

Also on screen is Kay Francis as a former girlfriend of the vile man, perhaps the most important girlfriend from the man's catalog, since she is in his legal will to inherit his money if he dies. This, of course, was about to be altered if the man marries. Then he is murdered.

The film story is told in the style of early silent and "talkie" mysteries: a large, dark and secluded estate full of suspects, a lot of lights going out unexpectedly and people with hidden agendas having their private activities brought to light. Guilty Hands is perhaps a superior version of this kind of tale (for 1931), with a thoughtful undertone showing up occasionally in which we examine the situational ethics of an attorney whose philosophy has placed him between a rock and a hard place, you might say. Pervading the whole story is a clash between what we know is right and wrong versus what 'the law' will view as legal or not (screenplay by Bayard Veiller), a problem that is fueling the lawyer's (Lionel) desperation and the ex-girlfriend's (Kay) demand for justice.

Lionel Barrymore carries most of the film, and only Kay Francis has anything close to the same importance to the camera, the other characters often shown in mid-distance with either carefully designed shadowy interiors framing them, or sparkling light-infused garden scenes (for Madge Evans, for example). But Lionel and Kay get down to business and make the rather stodgy pace pick up when they are baring their teeth at each other and trying to sort out who is going to get the blame for the dead body.

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Origina Page August 2016 | Updated April 2018

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