You Can’t Get Away with Murder is a pre-film noir from 1939 directed by Lewis Seiler. This film is based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes that originally opened in 1937. Lewis is an interesting story, he was the Warden of Sing Sing from 1920 through 1941. He took the stories of his inmates and used them for a radio show, books and plays, some of those stories turned into a number of films in the 1930’s, this being one. Lawes used some of his proceeds from his entertainment ventures to improve the prison.
This film stars an up and coming star that would be become a pretty big deal in the years to come, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart does what he does best here, he is a gangster who is tough as they come and pretty smart too.
This story starts with Frank Wilson,played by Bogart, taking Johnnie Stone under his wing. Johnnie is a young impressionable kid from the neighborhood who looks up to Wilson. Johnnie is played by Billy Halop from the Dead End Kids. Johnnie’s sister is Madge, played by Gale Page, who wants to get Johnnie on the straight and narrow. Madge is dating a cop, played by Harvey Stephens, who is also trying to help with Johnnie.
Johnnie and Wilson hold up a gas station and get away with it. When they get back to town they meet up again. When Johnnie steals the cop’s gun one night when the cop is out with his sister, he ends up giving it to Wilson. Wilson robs a pawn shop, when a struggle ensues Wilson shoots the owner with the cop’s gun. He leaves the gun to frame the cop, but Johnnie knows the truth. Wilson turns himself and Johnnie in for the gas station robbery to take the hit off of the murder. While the duo is in Sing Sing, the cop is convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.
Can Wilson keep Johnnie quiet about the murder? Will Johnnie be able to tell the truth and save his sister’s boyfriend?
Look for Henry Travers as Pops, the prison librarian and Johnnie’s friend while in Sing Sing. Travers would join Bogart again the next year in High Sierra, playing Pa. I would guess Travers may have been type cast.
This film is very noir in story if not style, with Johnnie being stuck in the middle, basically innocent and in way over his head. With out giving away any spoilers, let’s just say Johnnie may be doomed from the beginning like all good film noir protagonists. Bogart of course adds to the noir feel of the film as well. This will not make any top ten Bogart film lists, but if you are a fan you will enjoy this film. This is a good B movie film noir, even if it was made a year too early. A short film worth your time.