Counsellor at Law (William Wyler / U.S., 1933):

The Depressionís deco waiting room, all marble floors and glass chambers. (The window is there to showcase the New York skyline, and for people to jump out.) William Wyler has a single outdoors shot, panning upwards to take in the Empire State Building, before diving into the claustrophobic bustle of the cityís most dramatic law office. Anchored by Isabel Jewellís stylized squeakiness at the switchboard, the hardboiled ant farm accommodates faithful secretaries (Bebe Daniels), blonde molls (Thelma Todd), black widows (Mayo Methot), errand boys, Irish bulldogs, Yiddish scrappers, and the assorted wisecrackers and moaners of Elmer Riceís Broadway hit. John Barrymore is the star attorney everybody waits for, zipping from case to sensational case until his scandal-wary wifeís (Doris Kenyon) complaint brings him to a standstill: "I donít see why you canít practice law like a gentleman." Keeping "those boys from the Mayflower" at bay is the Jewish lawyerís daily challenge, an impending disbarment suit and familial affairs provide the main crises. The cost is the sting of being tagged a "cheap prostitute" by the young Communist proselytizer (Vincent Sherman) who, when not seething at the smug Ritz brats in the reception room, accuses Barrymore of political and cultural betrayal. A swift, captivating record of Ď30s theatrical tropes, comings and goings, doors swinging this way and that, a veritable concerto of speeches, Girl-Friday sighs, ethnic accents, clanking typewriters, switchboard buzzes. Barrymore vibrates throughout -- the slick fixer in full flight, finally crumbling inside a three-piece suit in a dark office. Wyler combines hard rectangles and a roving camera, one diagonal composition (Shermanís bandaged head in the foreground while Barrymore gets his shoes shined) is just waiting for deep focus. Reportedly a favorite of Kenji Mizoguchi: Might the spatial arrangements and capitalism-entrapped protagonists of Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion bear its marks? Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. With Melvyn Douglas, Onslow Stevens, Clara Langsner, John Hammond Dailey, Robert Gordon, John Qualen, Malka Kornstein, and Richard Quine. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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