The Tattered Dress is a 1957 noir-slash-courtroom drama. And it’s an excellent little movie.
The opening scenes show a smiling woman in a torn-up dress waltzing home, not particularly concerned about this, but, in a nicely framed sequence (the camera remains outside the house, looking in through the opulent glass doors, without sound), the wind gets taken abruptly out of her sails when her husband grabs a gun. They ride back into town, and her husband coldly shoots down the man who ripped her dress.
Enter Jim Blane, a hotshot trial lawyer from New York (the setting is small-town Nevada). He’s damn good and he knows it. When the Restons (the couple from the opening scenes) wanted the best damn sleazeball criminal lawyer they could get, they went out and got him. But Jim, for better or worse, is isn’t merely a total heel, only mostly one. The next twenty-odd minutes are Blane setting up for the trial, making the acquaintance of the avuncular-but-way-smarter-than-he-looks Sheriff, Nick Hoak, making the much closer acquaintance of Mrs. Reston, and dodging the verbal jabs of his old friend/nemesis, a reporter who Has A Conscience and doesn’t mind tweaking Jim’s a little. (pwahaha, sometimes these old movies are adorable.)
Jim, an attack dog on the stand, interrogates Sheriff Hoak mercilessly, and manages to create enough of a doubt about Hoak’s credibility and the deceased’s character. He gets the Restons off, and wow, he’s worth every penny they paid him, because that was textbook first degree murder.
Nevertheless, this is when the trouble really starts. See, Nick Hoak wasn’t pleased to be made a fool of on the witness stand. He’s especially not happy to have it done by an out-of-towner whom he made friendly overtures to earlier in the picture. He’s probably also not happy that the murderer of his friend got off scot-free, but mostly, it’s just the dent to his own prestige and power that smarts. A grand jury has subpoenaed Jim for bribing a juror–and with Hoak on the team doing the investigating, it seems incredibly unlikely to turn up any exculpatory evidence. Jim, to put it bluntly, is screwed unless he can (spot the irony) find a really good lawyer to defend him.
Spoiler: You know that old saying about a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client? Yep. Jim’s closing statement (after his aggressive tactics blow up in his face…twice) boils down to a naked plea to the jury: “Yes, I am a slimy criminal defense lawyer. I know it. I’m not proud of it. (Anymore). Also, I’m not guilty of the crime I am accused of, and you guys know it; please don’t put me in jail just because I deserve it on account of my other actions.” Another reviewer pointed out that he probably got off only because everyone in town knew how crooked the Sheriff was already. Nevertheless.
This is a movie driven by its performances: Jim, a mostly-heel who gets the wind knocked out of him and is forced to confront who and what he is, is well-portrayed by the chiseled Jeff Chandler (also see: Sign of the Pagan, Flame of Araby, Female on the Beach, although come to think of it, he’s a heel in all of those. I believe Chandler was somewhat more heroic in his Westerner roles). He’s someone who has enormous gifts, who has worked for them, and takes their rewards for granted–until they get him into trouble and there is no sign of them getting him out.
Nick Hoak (Jack Carson), the genial and corrupt ex-football player Sheriff is really good.–he’s exactly the mix of good-ol’-boy playing dumb, geniality, and concealed nastiness to make it clear from the outset that he’s way smarter, way tougher, and way more dangerous than he seems.
The third outstanding performance in this movie is by Jeanne Crain, as Diane Blane, Jim’s estranged, long-suffering wife. She won’t stand for her husband sleeping around on her, but she will stand with him to protect his future and their children’s. She’s really an excellent example of what Caroline Furlong designated a Type 3 heroine (click through for discussion on types 1-2 also): one whose power is in her emotional strength, and whose influence on the plot comes indirectly through her influence, rather than directly, through her actions (or action scenes.) Diane keeps Jim’s ego in check, encourages him, and gives him hope and strength when he needs it.–and does it all without sacrificing a shred of her self-respect, or once raising her voice or her hand. (At one point, Jim, hoping he’s going to get lucky, reminds her that they are still legally married. Diane matches his bedroom eyes and murmurs calmly back: “Did that stop you with Charleen Reston?” Burn unit, stat.) And, if that still sounds like faint praise, let me add that the proof might be in the viewing. I ended the movie with a resounding admiration for Diane Blane, because she is one strong, classy lady in a way you don’t often see.
Also playing her part quite well (but with only a few scenes to do it in) is Gail Russell (also see: Wake of the Red Witch), who mostly has to look frightened, and then also to look (spoiler!) murderous. Also of interest: the trampy Mrs. Reston was played by Elaine Stewart, who played Audie Murphy’s good-girl love interest in Night Passage. Okay, maybe not that interesting, but interesting that’s a good little movie, too. It also has Dan Duryea and Jimmy Stewart. Man, we used to have actors, didn’t we…
Rated: Five rigged poker games out of five.