For hard-hitting, even harrowing pre-code crime drama, look no further than MGM's Night Court. If the film had been made in the '70s, it would have been directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader. (In the aughts, it could have been written by Neil Labute and directed by James Foley).
Walter Huston plays a relentlessly corrupt judge, so contemptuous of justice that he attempts to obliterate an innocent family just to suppress the mother's (Anita Page) inadvertent knowledge of his bank accounting!
I'll refrain from giving the details of the plot of a film that goes in some surprising directions. This severely overlooked film deserves the same company as Beast of the City and other early '30s crime dramas which have stood the test of time.
Night Court really has an all-star cast. It also features Lewis Stone, John Miljan and Jean Hersholt.
The now forgotten Phillips Holmes (he died in a mid-air plane collision in WWII) gives an interesting performance as Anita Page's husband. It's not a subtle one, but has a raw, emotional tinge that must have struck audiences at the time. In fact, some of the scenes in the film have such a spontaneity that it makes me, perhaps, rethink the work of the director, W.S. ("One-take-Woodie") Van Dyke, whose quick directing here has a freshness that a more fussy director may not have achieved.
Night Court also benefits from co-writer Mark Hellinger who, as a journalist at the New York Daily News and Hearst's New York Daily Mirror, had a better view of the New York criminal underworld than most Hollywood writers and was friends with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel.
Night Court isn't available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.