“The Public Defender” (1931)
by A.J. Hakari
Stop me if you’ve heard this one already. A man uses his identity as a wealthy playboy to cover up his crime-busting exploits, and…what’s that? Sounds an awful lot like Batman, you say? If so, then you’d be right on the nose — and if the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Shadow, the Phantom, or Zorro also came to mind, well, congrats, because you just scored gold in the Nerdalympics. Yeah, folks went ga-ga for the whole costumed avenger conceit long before superheroes as we know them became a thing, but while The Public Defender‘s eponymous do-gooder may not have a distinctive outfit to be remembered by, he still gave the audiences of the time a form of escape that really hit the spot. Released in the midst of the Great Depression, The Public Defender was an outlet a whole mess of people needed, a clever and exciting melodrama that allowed viewers to take vicarious revenge on those institutions that put one over on the little guy in the worst ways.
To the world, Pike Winslow (Richard Dix) is a spoiled, vaguely-dopey rich kid. He’s perfectly content to whittle away his family’s fortune on women, classy dinners, or any sort of extravagance that happens to tickle his fancy. But by night, Winslow acts as the Reckoner, a figure who preys upon criminal types hiding out in high society and exposing them for the dirty-dealing dogs they are. He keeps a vigilant watch with the help of two assistants, Doc (Paul Hurst) and the Professor (Boris Karloff), who make sure the Reckoner’s escapades are executed with the utmost precision. However, Winslow’s latest case hits uncomfortably close to home, as the father of his childhood sweetie (Shirley Grey) is accused of running his company into the ground. But Winslow knows that the sneaky snakes on the man’s board of directors are to blame, and with his associates in tow, he’ll use the mantle of the Reckoner to bring them to justice once and for all.
It’s amazing how contemporary a movie of over eighty years and change like The Public Defender can feel. It isn’t just that modern cinema has picked up and ran full bore with the superhero genre it helped inspire, but the film’s very look has transcended the decades. The images of calling cards warning crooks of impending doom and the shadows in which peacekeepers covertly operate are as beloved as the characters themselves. All of this and more is present and accounted for in The Public Defender, but what this picture has over many of the similarly-structured ones that followed it is a noticeable lack of cynicism. No winks or knowing nudges are exchanged here, for the movie has its mind committed solely to seeing justice served. The film wants nothing more than for good to be done, to see those in positions of power to be held responsible and answering for their misdeeds. It’s a pretty cut-and-dry mentality, yet at the same time, its simplicity is very refreshing, since Winslow doesn’t contemplate whether he should be pulling such dirty tricks in order to ensnare the cheats of the world but instead just goes after the rotten bastards.
Of course, for modern viewers accustomed to a bit more complexity with their crime-fighting chronicles, this angle may not make The Public Defender seem all that interesting. When I say that the Reckoner tangles with bad guys just because, that’s really all there is to it. Other than the goodness of his heart compelling him to do so, we’re given no motivation for why Winslow is so dedicated to doing what he does (although he’s apparently been at it for a while before the plot kicks in, so he’s not selfishly rushing into the hero biz once his friends land in trouble). But Dix provides us with a shrewd yet noble performance all the same, winning our respect and our grins through the wily ways with which the Reckoner entraps his dastardly quarry. Karloff and Hurst (the former of whom would find stardom with Frankenstein later in the same year) are first-rate second bananas, eager to help out Winslow either by serving as distractions or straight-up knocking out thugs. The flick’s antagonists do leave a little to be desired, but they get the job done, coming across as plenty despicable without turning into cartoonish, boo-hiss baddies.
I’m surprised that between its pulpy premise and Karloff’s presence in the cast, The Public Defender isn’t talked about more nowadays. Though it’s hard to tell exactly how much of a direct influence (if any) the film had on the superhero genre that would make itself known in the coming years, many of the traits we’ve come to associate with it can not only be found here, but they’re used to quite an entertaining effect, to boot. The Public Defender may have a little wear and tear itself, but it proves that old-fashioned heroics and derring-do will never go out of style.
(The Public Defender is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)