The first act of the 1951 crime picture The Unknown Man plays out like a classic courtroom drama with a social commentary heart. Walter Pidgeon is big business lawyer Bradley Mason, “the best civil lawyer in town and one of the finest in the country,” in the words of Joe Bucknor (Barry Sullivan), our narrator and conflicted District Attorney. Brad is coaxed by an old law school buddy into defending a young man (Keefe Brasselle) with a long criminal record who is on trial for murder. Mason is no criminal lawyer but he reveres the law and, afraid that this inarticulate, hotheaded young man may be railroaded into a conviction for a crime he didn’t commit, he takes the case. That’s just the beginning of Mason’s story, however. Questions linger in his mind after the case and he discovers just how nave he is when it comes to the reach of crime and corruption in his city.
Though it’s not exactly your typical crusading attorney story, The Unknown Man circles back to courtroom drama for the climax. By then, however, the road to justice has taken some complicated detours into the shadows of film noir territory. The syndicate became a presence in urban crime films after World War II and here it looms over the story, invisible but powerful and run by an unknown mob boss who may or may not even exist. Our moral, honest hero Bradley Mason is determined to find the truth.
Plays on Sunday, August 3 on TCM