Fish-market worker Johnny O'Hara (James Arness) is named as a suspect when his boss -- with whom he had a dispute the previous day -- is shot to death in an apparent robbery. When he's arrested, his family appeals to their old friend James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy), who was once a renowned criminal attorney but is now in civil practice. He resists their entreaties until he realizes that no decent attorney will handle the case properly; his daughter (Diana Lynn) watches with alarm, however, for we soon learn that Curtayne is an alcoholic, and that the major factor in his life that pushed him over the edge was the stress of having someone's life in his hands. He discovers soon enough just how much Johnny's life is in his hands when his client refuses to level with him about his real whereabouts on the night of the murder. He also realizes as the trial starts precisely how rusty he is in the courtroom, and the old stresses return -- and with them, his drinking. Curtayne not only manages to lose the case but destroys his career when he tries to buy off a larcenous prosecution witness. His client facing a death sentence and his own life and career in ruins, he's seemingly hit bottom, but then new evidence surfaces, of a nature that not even the ambitious prosecutor (John Hodiak) can ignore. Recognizing that his client was actually innocent and also acting in his silence -- however stupidly -- from the noblest of motives, Curtayne is willing to redeem himself by putting his own life on the line, confronting a killer who has taken more than one life without any compunction whatsoever, and who has no reason to spill anything.
The People Against O'Hara was a well-made, largely location-shot crime drama set in New York City, but it wouldn't have been nearly so prestigious a movie were it not for the presence of Spencer Tracy in the role of Curtayne. Ironically enough, he only agreed to do the film on the condition that his friend Pat O'Brien, who hadn't been in a major studio release in a couple of years, be given a large role, which he got as the lead detective on the case, and O'Brien and Tracy get a couple of really good scenes together. The film also includes an unbilled appearance by Charles Bronson, who was still working as Charles Buchinski in 1951, and is highlighted by a superb prominent supporting performance by William Campbell, who seems to quietly relish every nuance of his portrayal of a totally slimy character. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi