William Powell was a master of the double take. I can't think of any actor who used it more often or better for comic effect. In "Lawyer Man," he must have done a dozen or more double takes. They range from the obvious scene stoppers of a knowing look on his face and turn of the head, to more subtle light pauses with a stern or amusing look as if to catch a breath. We see the first big one in the opening scene when he is stepping out of his office building onto an open market street on New York's East Side.
An iceman is delivering a block of ice and is entering the building with it over his shoulder. Powell's character, Anton Adam, says, "Good morning, Jake. How's the ice business?" Iceman, "Not so hot." Powell pauses a second and turns his head toward the iceman who has passed him in the doorway. There's no way the audience could miss the humor of the dialog with Powell's double take that allows just enough time for it to sink in. One might say the double take multiplies (doubles) the comedy of the lines.
This movie isn't billed as a comedy, and one can see why. It's one of the earliest films about city machine politics and corruption, and shady aspects of a political justice system. But, this drama and crime movie has a good dose of comedy. It's mostly in Powell's character, rather than situations. This is the story about a New York East Side (of the 1930s) lawyer who makes good and moves up to Park Avenue.
Adam has been in the East Side defending the poor and the down and out for some years. He is well known and liked in the neighborhood, and by the cops and by others in his profession. He then tackles a case that beats the political machinery. That starts him on a rise and track of prominence. After a double-cross by the machine connections, his reputation is hurt among the high-class set. So, he starts over defending low-life criminals and others. But now he takes some shady cases and charges them accordingly. He has become a shyster, in his own words. There's nothing in the film that indicates he did anything illegal himself, but that he was defending a lot of people who were shady operators and getting them off. He wins and builds himself back up.
When he gets appointed assistant district attorney, he comments about being back on the right side of the law. Indeed, Anton Adam's character seems to have high ideals about justice. In a very early scene, he turns down a case from a man who he says must come to justice. When the man leaves and Adam's secretary comes into the office, Adam says of the guy, "Just a small-time mouse trying to be a big time rat."
Joan Blondell is Olga Michaels, Adam's long-time and faithful secretary and confidant. She's crazy in love with the guy, but keeps her composure, and he doesn't know it until toward the end of the film. Adam has one weakness, which we see in his glances at pretty women. It's likely more in his head than in practice, though, because when he gets with an attractive stage performer, he is shy and awkward.
Olga knows his weakness, and some of the humor of the film is when she brings him up short for it. An exchange between the two sums up the situation. Olga, "I worked for a successful man once, and you know why he was a success?" Anton, "Sure, because you worked for him." Olga, "No! 'Cause he left the dames alone." After the double- cross, Olga says to Anton, "That's what happens when a smart lawyer gets mixed up with a dumb blonde."
The supporting cast in "Lawyer Man" are all very good. David Landau is especially good as John Gilmurry who runs the local political machine. Alan Dinehart plays Granville Bentley, the Park Avenue attorney whom Adam beats in a big case and who then invites Adam to be his partner. Claire Dodd is very good as Virginia St. Johns and Allen Jenkins plays a usual heavy or hooligan role as Izzy Levine.
This is a very good film that most adults should enjoy. Here are a couple more favorite lines from the movie.
Olga, "Who's gonna take your case?" Anton, "I am. I know. I have a sap for a client."
Olga, "Remember, I told you about taking these cases against those big uptown lawyers. They got too much pull." Anton, "Yeah, well I got a lot of push."
On a historical note for younger generations, the iceman was a common site in America before the mid-20th century. In the years before electric refrigerators, the iceman delivered blocks of ice to homes that had iceboxes. The lady of the house would use an ice pick to chip the ice block into pieces to fit in the top of the icebox. The term "icebox" continued to be used for decades, referring to the refrigerator. More than a few early crime movies had murders committed with ice picks. I doubt if one could be found in a 21st century home.