Guilty Hands (1931)

The Toronto Film Society presented Guilty Hands on Monday, September 30, 2013 in a double bill with In This Our Life, as part of the Season 66 Monday Night Film Buffs Series.

Film Notes

Guilty Hands Poster Guilty Hands (1931)

Run time: 69 min
Rating: 6.8
Genres: Drama | Crime
Director: W.S. Van Dyke, Lionel Barrymore
Writers: Bayard Veiller, Bayard Veiller
Stars: Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis, Madge Evans
Richard Grant is a lawyer who believes that murder under certain circumstances is justifiable. Richard’s daughter, Barbara, takes her dad to a dinner party hosted by Richard’s old friend, wealthy playboy, Gordon Rich. Gordon tells Richard that he and Barbara plan to marry. Richard threatens Gordon’s life if he marries Barbara. Richard is unaware that Barbara has no plans to marry Gordon, and she’s in love with Tommy Osgood. Richard enraged of the thought of Barbara marrying Gordon goes into Gordon’s room, undetected, and kills him…Has Richard committed the perfect crime? Written by Kelly
Release Date: 22 August 1931 (USA)

4 responses to “Guilty Hands (1931)”

  1. rgkeenan says:

    The opening sequence is stylish, unusual, disorienting. We don’t know where we are or what is going on for a few minutes, and that reflects the film’s morally disorienting territory. The premise is excellent. Barrymore is not "hammy" but commanding in a very natural way; he’s playing a successful lawyer who is used to declaiming his arguments for an audience. The script employs daring ambiguities: we partly want to see the rich man murdered and Barrymore get away with it, yet Barrymore is clearly not a moral character himself, and the woman who insists upon justice for the man she loved is a "tramp" mistress who would have been willing to carry on her affair with the scoundrel after his marriage. What a crew! The magnetism of Barrymore and Francis in their moral contradictions keeps us riveted even through the parts that are like any other old-dark-house mystery. The ending is both preposterous and brilliant. You can look back and see how they set it up, yet it’s very difficult to predict!

  2. rgkeenan says:

    Can Lionel Barrymore commit the perfect crime, for the sake of his daughter’s honor, and get by with it? That’s the question posed in this fine film which is NOT a "whodunit". Almost forgotten by nearly 7 decades of bigger, splashier movies, fans of crime films will not want to miss this little gem. Tightly plotted and suspenseful, GUILTY HANDS (yes, the title is important) rewards the thoughtful viewer.

    Barrymore is great, as always. Kay Francis is a shady lady with too much past. Alan Mowbray – in a welcome departure from his comic butler roles – is suave and evil. Madge Evans, Polly Moran & Sir C. Aubrey Smith round out the supporting cast.

    And what a great ending – unexpected and appropriate.

  3. rgkeenan says:

    Thank God that Turner Classic Movies plays these forgotten early films. Using an innovative gimmick, the film starts in the dark with three men discussing the possibility that a truly clever man could get away with murder. And former district attorney Lionel Barrymore should know – he’s prosecuted dozens of murderers, but he is soon considering the other side of the law. SPOILERS: Cast against type, Barrymore is a lawyer (soon to be a murderer) working for a spoiled playboy played with intense villainy by Alan Mowbray (also out of his usual element of pompous comedic roles.) Barrymore goes to Mowbray’s private island to collect pay-off checks for ex-girlfriends/victims of Mowbray’s, to keep them from causing "trouble." Fiendishly, Mowbray explains he’s preparing to marry a girl because that’s the only way he can "have" her. And he surprises the attorney with the shocking news that it is Barrymore’s daughter (Madge Evans) that will soon be his bride conquest! Barrymore seethes with anger and threatens Mowbray with murder. Mowbray counters with "You may but I’ll come back from the grave to accuse you." Hours pass with charming scenes of dinner guests oblivious to this hidden war with the likes of C. Aubrey Smith and frumpy Polly Moran filling in the background. But eventually, late that night the deed is done. Will Barrymore outsmart everyone? Will Mowbray have covered all his bases to get revenge, will it appear as a suicide to Barrymore’s police buddies or will Kay Francis be the fall-girl? Seeing these two actors play characters opposite for what they are known for could be a risk except the director(s) are no less than W.S. Van Dyke and Barrymore himself! Sexy Kay Francis was the reason we started to watch the film and she is fascinating, but not the only beauty. Madge Evans parades her golden locks, long lashes and a wears a see-through negligee. This pre-code murder mystery comes with an ending that will remind some of THREE ON A MATCH. I recommend you watch it during a thunder storm with the lights down low…

  4. rgkeenan says:

    Lionel Barrymore gave such an unforgettable performance as the alcoholic lawyer in "A Free Soul", that, not only was he given the Academy Award, he was quickly rushed into another "angst ridden" role in "Guilty Hands", filmed only a couple of months later. "Guilty Hands" was one of the better "perfect murder" movies and both the film and Barrymore won widespread acclaim at the time.

    In his 10 years as District Attorney, Richard Grant (Lionel Barrymore) has sent more than 50 men to the electric chair – "Now that I've returned to private practise, I've kept a hundred of 'em out of it". He starts to believe that such a brilliant mind as his could commit the perfect murder. When Grant learns that his daughter is planning to marry a notorious womaniser, Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray), who has hired Grant to draw up his will – Grant decides to put his theory to the test.

    Barbara's (Madge Evans) cast off boyfriend, Tommy (William Bakewell) is distraught and tries to make her see what Gordon is really like, as does her father – but she will have none of it. At a dinner to announce their engagement, Richard makes his feelings clear – another guest who also does – with looks alone (but oh what looks!!) is Marjorie West (stunning Kay Francis), one of Gordon's former lovers. Kay Francis' fame was fast rising and she bought an intensity to her part that was becoming a characteristic of all her roles. From the time she entered "Guilty Hands" both she and Barrymore had no trouble in upstaging all the other players.

    Later, that night, Gordon is found dead from a "self inflicted" gun shot wound to the head (or so it looks) – only Marjorie is convinced it is murder. After a dramatic showdown between her and Richard, she steals to his room and finds evidence. She finds a cut out figure fastened to a slowed down gramophone (his defence was that he had been pacing his room for most of the night). When Marjorie confronts him Richard launches into a speech "Have you ever seen a murder trial…Well, sit down and I'll show you yours!!!". Richard plans to frame Marjorie if she persists in saying that Gordon's death was foul play. Barrymore is magnificent and it is almost as spellbinding as his speech in "A Free Soul". Although the ending seems improbable, it is logically explained in the movie. "Guilty Hands" was director W.S. Van Dyke's first venture into the mystery genre, although it definitely wasn't his last – "Penthouse" (1933), "The Thin Man" (1934), "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934) and "Hideout" (1934) proved he would become a master of the genre.

    Highly, Highly Recommended.

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