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Counsellor at Law (William Wyler) 1933


    Though William Wyler’s stupendously entertaining legal melodrama Counsellor at Law, was based on a stage play, and takes place entirely in one large lawyer’s office, it has an undeniably rich sense of atmosphere. Wyler uses the opening scenes to establish the location that the eventual drama unfolds in before he introduces George Simon (John Barrymore), the legal eagle whose fear of disbarment forms the picture’s dramatic core, into that tumultuous environment. These scenes, with their rapid-fire dialogue and rather quick cutting, feel like an especially impressive plate-spinning act for Wyler to orchestrate, but he never misses a beat while accumulating ambiance. Without ever overlapping the dialogue or connecting the rooms in the office with tracking shots, he manages to create an Altman-esque sense of space and chaos. Events and interactions continue to occur with such speed that their interconnectivity becomes completely believable. By the time Wyler finally introduces the main plot elements, roughly a half-hour into the picture’s 81-minute running time, we understand just how much depends on Simon, even if Barrymore’s wisely restrained performance isn’t often willing to reveal that his character is aware of it.


    Once the plot of the film becomes apparent, the atmosphere-building stunt ends, but the mood that has been created doesn’t go away. The emotional attitude shifts a bit, but the hectic, frazzled feel of the film hardly lets up. The comic touches that dominate the earliest scenes of the film grow more and more infrequent, but they’re replaced with dread and anxiety. Wyler begins cutting less often and sometimes uses a zoom shot to punch up certain dramatic moments, and that lack of visual ostentation allows the performances of the excellent ensemble to shine. Barrymore’s self-control in the lead role anchors the rest of the cast, forcing them to tone down their mannerisms a little, so that even the less thoroughly envisaged roles have a bit of credibility.


    Simon’s crisis isn’t really a moral or ethical one since he regrets nothing he’s done. Mostly, he's just afraid of the consequences that would arise if his misdeed was made public. Simon's actions, though technically illegal, are wholly sympathetic, but that makes his situation a bit less compelling than it might otherwise have been, even as it allows us to root for him. Still, there’s not enough breathing room in the film for things to grow the least bit moldy. Since it zips by as it does, perhaps the audience would never have been able to find a moment to ponder issues such as morality anyway. Since Counsellor at Law is as compactly conceived as it is (the film never sets foot in a courtroom), though, one can’t rightfully complain about what it isn’t. As a specific, direct adaptation of a better than average play, it could scarcely be more efficient.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman