For Reel

Guilty Hands (1931)
April 20, 2012, 1:35 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Just after completing A Free Soul, the film which earned him his only Academy Award (he was also nominated for Best Director for Madame X in 1929), Lionel Barrymore went into production on Guilty Hands, a “perfect murder” thriller that sees him face off against Kay Francis in one of her best pre-Warner Brothers roles. Director W.S. Van Dyke – a reliable enough asset at MGM who famously shot his pictures at an impressive speed – begins the picture in a darkened train car as Barrymore, a former district attorney, argues that, “in certain cases, a murder is justifiable.” The inciting cause for his eventual crime comes when a wealthy client reveals that he intends to marry Barrymore’s daughter, whom the DA clearly has feelings for that are beyond paternal. In the simple device of allowing the audience in on the identity of the perpetrator, screenwriter Bayard Veiller (most famous for directing the important starring vehicle for Norma Shearer, The Trial of Mary Dugan, in 1929) initially forces the audience to root for the charismatic Barrymore as he out-thinks those that might incriminate him. While the element of mystery is absent, the suspense is just as pronounced as the genre demands – in one brilliant, moody sequence, Francis traces Barrymore’s steps on the night of the crime. With Veiller’s script – rife with infidelity, incest, and murder – and the game performances, Guilty Hands satisfies as a Hitchcockian thriller, a precursor to Shadow of a Doubt.

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