Combining lurid subject matter with an offbeat protagonist, The Lawyer tells the story of a sensationalistic murder trial in a brisk fashion, with plenty of humor and surprises to keep things lively. Since the film does not relate a real-life incident, one could argue that a few of the story’s myriad episodes could have been jettisoned in order to shorten the piece (The Lawyer runs a full 120 minutes), but nearly every scene has something amusing or colorful or trashy to offer. Barry Newman, an energetic leading man of the early ’70s whose career never caught fire, stars as Tony Petrocelli, a slick attorney from the East Coast who now works in the Southwest. (The picture’s a little fuzzy on how he ended up in this unlikely milieu, but his backstory is incidental to the main narrative.) A cocksure overachiever, Petrocelli comes on strong in every aspect of his life, driving his beat-up camper like a maniac, slithering his way past parking restrictions, and valiantly defying the local powers-that-be. Petrocelli’s latest client is Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), a handsome lawyer accused of brutally murdering his wife. Harrison contends a stranger broke into his home while Harrison was incapacitated, and that the stranger committed the homicide. Because the killing occurred in a small town, the ensuing trial becomes a media circus, so Petrocelli must face not only his wily courtroom opponent—deceptively folksy prosecutor Eric Scott (Harold Gould)—but also a prejudicial jury pool.
Director/co-writer Sidney J. Furie employs a quick-cut visual style that echoes Petrocelli’s rat-a-tat verbal approach, so the movie shifts locations frequently and utilizes a broad supporting cast. The best scenes involve detailed depictions of Petrocelli’s flashy legal technique, whether he’s guiding his aides through hours of arduous research or dueling in court with Scott, and Newman plays Petrocell with an appealing brand of seen-it-all snark. The picture also includes sexy flashbacks to the night of the murder, which are told, Rashomon-style, from several different perspectives; these vignettes have more blood and nudity than one might expect. The supporting performances are generally just okay, thanks to smooth professionals including Diana Muldaur (playing Petrocelli’s wife), though Gould steals the movie at regular intervals. While his aw-shucks country-lawyer shtick is unoriginal, Gould blends charm, sarcasm, skepticism, and wisdom into a tasty stew. Elements like Gould’s performance ensure that The Lawyer is consistently entertaining, despite the fact that the picture is never more than a solid programmer. FYI, Newman reprised his resourceful character several years later for the short-lived TV series Petrocelli (1974-1976), nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the show. The stand-alone TV movie Night Games (1974), with Newman as Petrocelli, was a de facto pilot that immediately preceded the weekly series.
The Lawyer: GROOVY