Let Us Live is based on a March 1936 Harper’s magazine article by Boston Globe crime reporter, Joseph F. Dinneen, called Murder in Massachusetts. Dinneen’s true story focuses on two taxi cab drivers identified by almost a dozen witnesses for killing a man during a Lynn, Massachusetts movie theater robbery. The real killers, arrested about three weeks later were small time Jewish hoods Abraham Faber and brothers Irving and Murton Millen. The real killers’ story is rather fascinating in itself. Abraham Faber seemed like an unlikely individual to become a hoodlum. Faber attended MIT, graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering. The Millen brothers were thugs. Small time hoods who hauled illegal booze during the prohibition days. The threesome apparently knew each other from days gone by growing up in Roxbury, Mass. Unemployed during the Depression, Abraham Faber reconnected with his childhood friends and the trio began a small time crime spree. In January, 1934 they graduated to murder when they shot a man during the Paramount theater robbery in Lynn, Mass. One month later, they robbed the Needham Trust Co., killing two police officers and wounding a fire fighter in the process. About three weeks later in New York City two of the men were arrested and confessed to the crimes. The third man was arrested in Boston. The taxi cab drivers arrested for the first murder were released. The Farber-Millen gang were convicted and executed in June of 1935.
Let Us Live is a powerful indictment against the legal system. The police and the D.A. are strictly bureaucrats, all just doing their job to the narrowest letter of the law; there’s no room to allow for human error on their part. Eyewitnesses identified taxi driver, Brick Tennant (Henry Fonda) and his friend, Joe Linden (Alan Baxter), as two of the killers in a recent robbery, and that was that. Everyone was unconvinced innocent men could end up in such a position. The 12 person jury seemed just glad to accept the prosecutor’s words and were happy to have these “dangerous criminals” off the streets. All were certain the legal system works. One decent man after another assumed so. It was up to Mary Roberts (Maureen O’Sullivan), Brick’s bride to be, and Lt. Everett (Ralph Bellamy) the only cop on the force who is not completely convinced of the two men’s guilt to find the real killers. The clock ticks away, only days and eventually hours remain before the two men will face the electric chair.
With Henry Fonda in the lead role of an innocent man convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, this 1939 film brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s better known and similar themed work, The Wrong Man. Like the character in Hitchcock’s film he cooperates with the police, since he has nothing to hide, only to find himself arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit.
For Henry Fonda, in this film, like in many of his other films (You Only Live Once, The Grapes of Wrath, Fort Apache, The Wrong Man, Firecreek) death or the fear of death, his or others, is always along for the ride. Brick and his friend are eventually cleared of the charges thanks to Mary, just in time. However, Brick’s faith in the system is completely shattered. Justice has failed. He leaves prison a bitter man. Like in other movies about the wrongly convicted (I Was a Fugitive for a Chain Gang, Fury, They Won’t Forget) justice isn’t always correct or fair.
Henry Fonda does a convincing job as a young idealistic man who believes the system will prevail. They could not possibly find him guilty of a crime he did not commit. Here, like in many other films he convincingly portrays the common everyday guy who has all the cards stacked again him. At first an innocent, he transitions convincingly from this naïve young man to one of bitterness filled with acidic hatred for the system. Maureen O’Sullivan, who got top billing when she was loaned to Columbia from MGM, does not fare as well. She is too shrill, practically hysterical most of the time in her frustration as she battles a callous uncaring system. Ralph Bellamy is a bit too hammy in his role as the cop who helps O’Sullivan prove Fonda’s innocence.
Let Us Live was John Brahm’s fifth film. At this point, he was still developing his moody, subjective noir like style that would flourish a few years later in works like The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Locket and The Brasher Doubloon. That said, the death row scenes with only hours left before Brick’s execution are tense and very well done. John Brahm never caught the eye of the auteur crowd like Edgar G. Ulmer or Joseph H. Lewis did, and remains best known for the first two films mentioned earlier in this paragraph. In the 1950’s, Brahm drifted into television directing episodes of Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, M Squad and Naked City, among many others. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard provides some nice photographic touches that enhance the visual look of the film. Look for long time character actor Charles Lane in a small role as a car salesman.
Overall, Let Us Live is not on the same level as Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, and some of the performances are below what you’d expect, but it’s worth watching for Fonda’s performance as a man caught in the middle of a system that does not work.