This Side of the Law from 1950 with Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Viveca Lindfors, Janice Paige and John Alvin
Movies can hold together, even be classics, with convoluted stories and unbelievable twists. But to do so, the characters must be incredibly engaging, so much so, you don't care about all the unbelievable stuff because you just enjoy seeing the characters do their thing.
Many of Hitchcock's classics worked this way: does To Catch a Thief really make sense? Who cares because Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, with big assists from John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis, are so engaging as cat burglars, heiresses, nervous insurance agents, etc. that you don't even have time to notice all the plot holes and other silliness going on until you've seen the movie a few times.
This Side of the Law needed more engaging characters to overcome its convoluted story and unbelievable twists, but unfortunately, you only kinda care about some of its characters and, then, only some of the time.
The elements of a good 1950s-style "gothic" mystery are here in This Side of the Law including a creepy old mansion (with a cool, foreboding name, Sans Souci, meaning "without care") set on a high cliff, an unexplained missing patriarch, a bunch of sardonic relatives hanging around for a will/estate to be settled, a threatening dog and a polished family lawyer. But the story doesn't really hold together.
At the opening, with actor Kent Smith narrating in a desperate and defeated tone, we see Smith struggling to escape from an old and deep cistern. Through flashbacks, he explains the events that led him to his present precarious position.
It started when Smith, after being arrested for vagrancy, is approached by a lawyer - the lawyer for the family from the mansion - played by Robert Douglas. Seeing that Smith is a doppelganger for the family's missing patriarch, Douglas hatches the incredibly crazy plan to have Smith impersonate the man.
Douglas tells Smith he's doing it so that the missing man's wife (and presumed widow), played by Viveca Lindfors, will inherit the estate that her husband's brother and sister-in-law (played by John Alvin and Janice Paige) are trying to steal.
Our first clue as to what is really going on is that honest lawyers don't operate this way. Yet off Smith goes, as the missing patriarch, to the creepy mansion where he is, surprisingly, immediately accepted as the long-lost relative.
Smith, then, struggles to put the pieces of the story together as his estranged wife, Lindfors, wants nothing to do with her now-returned husband, his effete brother, Alvin, hates him and his viperish sister-in-law, Paige, clearly up to no good, wants to resume the affair they were having before the man Smith is impersonating disappeared.
With that convoluted and unbelievable set up, the human chess game is on as Alvin and Paige maneuver for control of the estate with Smith, as the patriarch, now back in the picture. At the same time, Douglas, through his occasional communications with Smith, tries to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Douglas clearly wants to get his hands on the estate's money.
Smith begins to fall for the aloof and hostile Lindfors, one, because she's arrestingly beautiful and, two, because she seems to be the only decent person in the family. But he's got the cunning sister-in-law coming on to him, his feeble but angry brother lurking in the background and conniving Douglas telling him what to do.
The climax - with a few murders and attempted murders driven by the evil sister-in-law, the weak brother and the greedy lawyer - at first leaves Smith in the cistern and later brings in the police and a too-easy and too-ridiculous resolution.
This Side of the Law could have overcome its plot-hole-filled story if the viewer had become truly vested in any of the characters. Smith, an excellent actor in supporting roles, is not strong enough here to carry the picture as the lead.
Douglas and Paige as the villains never become people you truly and deliciously hate; they are just off-the-shelf bad guys saying dialogue. Although, Paige does have a good moment or two of chilling on-screen nastiness.
The real opportunity lost here is Swedish import Viveca Lindfors. She has a sympathetic screen gentleness that, along with her quiet beauty, should have had us rooting for her. But her role is too small and her best scenes come too late for us to really engage with her character. One wonders why she didn't, eventually, have a bigger Hollywood career.
This Side of the Law has too many plot flaws and too many unbelievable twists - especially the ease with which Smith is accepted by a family that would know him intimately - to be a truly engaging movie, especially with a cast that is only okay.
Despite its many flaws, though, This Side of the Law is an entertaining enough seventy-two minutes, but you can't help seeing that there was a better movie here with a stronger lead, some thoughtful editing/rewriting of the script and a director who brought more of the story and character development forward.