For the Defense stars William Powell as Bill Foster. Bill is a slick defense lawyer famous for using any technicality or loophole to get his clients an acquittal, despite their obvious guilt. He’s so well-respected in the underworld that, when his car’s stolen, the crooks return it after getting a look at the registration.
Bill’s seeing a showgirl, Irene, played by Kay Francis. Irene wants Bill to marry her, but Bill says he’s not the marrying kind. Irene’s also seeing another guy, Jack, behind Bill’s back. Jack’s a nice-enough guy, but he lacks Bill’s swagger. Jack wants to marry Irene, but Irene just strings him along, hoping Bill will change his mind.
Early one morning, Irene’s driving Jack home. They’ve been out all night and Jack’s pie-eyed drunk. Jack gropes at her, causing her to hit and kill a stranded motorist. Recognizing what being discovered with him at the early hour would do to Irene’s reputation, Jack insists she flee the scene. Jack stays and takes the rap for the death alone.
Irene persuades Bill to take Jack’s case. She doesn’t tell Bill she was there. Things look bad for Jack. As the evidence comes to light, Bill realizes Irene’s involvement. Soon, Bill must chose between Irene’s reputation and Jack’s liberty. Irene wants to take the stand to exonerate Jack, but Bill won’t let her. There’s another option, but it means crossing a line Bill vowed he would never cross.
As melodramas go, For the Defense isn’t a bad one. Early on, when Bill’s riding high, his urbane charm, affinity for alcohol1, and underworld connections foreshadow Powell’s famous turn as Nick Charles in the Thin Man series of films. Francis plays well opposite him and doesn’t overact her part.
But the film sees both of them delivering lines and, mid-sentence, turning to gaze at nothing in particular for dramatic effect. It’s an annoying affectation that mars an otherwise passable hour and five minutes.
Look fast for Gabby Hayes in an uncredited bit-part as a speakeasy waiter. ↩