An inside-out murder mystery, one in which you know who dunnit and watch only to see if he can get away with it, "Guilty Hands" gets right down to business, as it has to - this isn't the kind of material that can take much stretching. It's already a bit of a stretch. But in a good way.
At just over an hour, the film is essentially a programmer, never meant to be the main attraction of a night's entertainment. Exhibitors would pair it with a bigger picture, and add a couple of specialty shorts, choosing from among the available cartoons, song plugs, and travelogs. A night at the movies ca. 1931 set the pattern for a night around the TV-set in later decades. On that analogy, "Guilty Hands" is like a middling-to-better episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; it even sports an opening hook worthy of that show: a voice in the dark, talking of crime, says that a really clever fellow might commit a perfectly undetectable murder - and that under some circumstances, murder might be justified.
The dark room turns out to be the smoking lounge of a train passing through a long tunnel, and soon after we come into the light the speaker, a lawyer who has in his varied career both prosecuted and defended murderers, finds himself in a tight spot that practically invites him to put his theory into practice. Lionel Barrymore, as the lawyer, leads a cast who do nothing short of a good professional job of putting across the high and low mischief that ensues. Barrymore's target, a rich rotter played by Alan Mowbray, is so dried out with debauchery that it comes as a surprise how much fight he has in him when he knows he's a marked man - cussedness seems to get his juices flowing. Soulful-eyed Kay Francis, as Mowbray's lover and (she hopes) Barrymore's nemesis, moves with the right mixture of languor and ardor - her character is half vamp, half noble sufferer - but she's been directed in one scene into some hambone-pantomime attitudes of terror, a style of acting that was already terribly old-fashioned in 1931. She does it expertly, and she's so beautiful we'd want to go on watching her anyway; still, the fustian is unfortunate. Less lucky in their roles are Madge Evans, as Barrymore's daughter, and the lad who plays her ideal young suitor: both characters are so bland the actors can do nothing with them but say their lines and try not to look too foolish. They manage it, and the film doesn't linger over them.
Not lingering is the movie's best tactic for wriggling past its occasional weaknesses, especially the implausible motivation of that daughter character - she is possibly a watered down version of whatever the writer originally intended. The brisk pace comes from the makers' showbiz savvy; and if there was watering down, it was likely caution based on the same kind of wisdom about "what the traffic will bear." Those pre-code movies were seldom as daring as they're now cracked up to be; they were bent on entertaining, and a little bit of salaciousness could stir the plot - but they tried not to leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth.
Come now, what masques, what dances shall we have, to wear away this long age of three hours between our after-supper and bed-time? "Guilty Hands," plus a couple of shorts - and another, better movie, thanks.