Mr. District Attorney (1941)
Issued by Republic Pictures, this murder mystery turns out to be not only an enjoyable 68 minute “B” but also injects a screwball comedy twist into the proceedings that sees Dennis O’Keefe as a young lawyer teaming with a sassy female reporter (is there any other kind) played by Florence Rice to thwart the plans of a crooked politician and a mystery man played by the most well known actor in the film, the iconic Peter Lorre.
From the outset the film takes a comedic tone when O’Keefe will continually cross paths with Miss Rice over the opening scenes of the film. He’ll bump into her in a hat shop, an elevator and finally in the D.A.’s office (Stanley Ridges) where he’s come looking for an apprenticeship and she’s come looking for a story. They both succeed though it’s Dennis who will quickly make an ass of himself in a courtroom where he ends up helping the defence by quoting all kinds of statutes to the judge who is clearly not impressed by the young man’s puppy dog like energy.
To keep O’Keefe out of trouble Ridges buries him in the files of a cold case involving a missing man and 100K. What O’Keefe doesn’t know is no one cares about it anymore and the assignment is purely a form of punishment. His gal pal Rice knows the truth and when she let’s him in on the joke, O’Keefe isn’t exactly amused. All that is about to change when Betty (clearly a hooker played by Joan Blair) comes into the story. She’s been stringing a bank teller for cash and the money he’s been bestowing upon her carry the serial numbers of the missing 100K. What about the man who was said to have made off with the money who’s assumed to be dead?
It’s at the 34 minute mark that Peter Lorre makes his appearance. He’s confronts the teller who had a duplicate key made to Lorre’s safety deposit box. The patsy in this case has fallen out of favor with Betty the Hooker and wants nothing more to do with her and of course promises Lorre he’ll say nothing to the police. Peter isn’t concerned with the poor fellow talking to the cops but does offer up a great one liner concerning the man’s love life. “We all begin hating them a little too late.”
And so Peter claims his first victim.
O’Keefe and Rice are now following the money trail against the orders of Ridges. O’Keefe’s looking to make good and Rice wants the exclusive to the story when it breaks. It appears as if Lorre may have had connections to a shady businessman looking to run for the D.A.’s office. Backed of course by organized crime. Before our crime fighting duo land the big fish they’ll have to contend with the armed and dangerous Lorre who wants his money and to quietly catch the first boat heading out of the country.
Close calls, a high speed chase and gunfire fill out the rapid pace of the final reel where good will vanquish evil as was to be expected by those who paid a ticket to sit in at their local theater to see the live action version of the hit radio show.
Based on a radio play and directed by William Morgan, this could have easily been turned into a long running mystery series in the vein of a Bulldog Drummond or any number of the ongoing adventures that saw the likes of Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan or The Saint running regularly in movie houses during the early 1940’s. There was a direct sequel that followed later in the year with the major roles being recast. James Ellison and Virginia Gilmore took over for Dennis and Florence. O’Keefe himself would basically star in what I can only surmise was a remake/reboot of sorts in 1947 under the exact same title from the same credited writer, Phillips Lord.
Billed in third place above the title, Lorre makes the most of his all too short role in a year that would also see him appear in the insta-classic The Maltese Falcon as Joel Cairo. Not having seen this before it’s Lorre that stirred my interest in acquiring a copy via a Forgotten Noir set from VCI. Miss Rice plays the somewhat cliched role of the female reporter that was a staple of the early talkies onward. That’s not to say she isn’t successful at, just that it’s a familiar plot device we’ve seen far too often from Fay Wray to Rosalind Russell and countless others in between.
With a quick look at The Films of Peter Lorre from Citadel Press found sitting on my bookshelf, the commentary notes on Mr. District Attorney point out that “the only known print of the film is outside the country; thus, reappraisal is virtually impossible.” The DVD copy seems to bear that statement out because prior to the Republic Pictures title card in the opening credits is the British Lion logo. Thankfully it has been put out on DVD for all to rediscover and enjoy once again. Especially those of us looking to see all things that Peter Lorre was involved in. Now if I could just get my hands on a copy of a subtitled The Lost One or Der Verlorene if you prefer. Peter’s one and only directorial effort from 1951.