Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Trial (1955) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

TRIAL (1955) is one of several Glenn Ford films recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

Another Ford film released on the same date, the fine TORPEDO RUN (1958), was reviewed here a few days ago.

While I thoroughly enjoyed TORPEDO RUN, I found TRIAL to be an odd movie, an uneasy mashup of courtroom drama with ethnic conflict and Communist intrigue.

Glenn Ford plays David, a law professor at "State University" who is going to be let go from his teaching position because he lacks real world courtroom experience. He negotiates to keep his job if he can find a law firm which will let him practice in the courtroom over summer break.

David tries a number of alumni without success but finally finds a position with Barney (Oscar-nominated Arthur Kennedy), a criminal defense lawyer. Barney thinks David would do a great job representing his new client, a Latino teenager named Angel (Rafael Campos) who is accused of killing a young white girl after making out with her at the beach. Barney puts David to work in the courtroom while he goes out and does fundraising to pay the legal costs.

What David doesn't know is that Barney and his assistant Abbe (Dorothy McGuire) are Communists, news which is unloaded on David when he's asked to speak at a "fundraising rally." David also doesn't know that Barney has no desire at all for their client to be acquitted. He wants a guilty verdict which will foment racial unrest and supposedly help the Communist cause.

Part of my problem with the film was some of it seemed illogical. The "murder victim" had rheumatic fever, and the idea that she'd been murdered was dubious to start with, the theory being that if she'd died of a heart attack after a statutory rape, since she was underage, it was murder. The entire premise seemed odd, even if one grants that the "community" has unfairly picked Angel as an easy target.

And really, I wasn't buying the story as a whole. Sweet, smart Dorothy McGuire as a Communist? She says she fell into it at college and then couldn't reject it because the people were like family. All righty.

Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood, but the plot struck me as overwrought and a bit silly. The screenplay was by Don Mankiewicz (uncle of TCM's Ben), based on his book.

I have loved Arthur Kennedy in many films (i.e., BEND OF THE RIVER) and he may have been Oscar nominated for this, but I was left cold by his character. Surely, we see in the news daily that there is inexplicable evil in the world, but even so, some character motivation would have helped the film. It was a particular disappointment as going in I was really expecting to enjoy this fine cast in a courtroom drama.

All that said, there were three actors in TRIAL I really enjoyed, starting with Glenn Ford. He was excellent as the idealistic, "green" attorney thrown into the midst of simultaneous legal and political battles.

John Hodiak was likewise terrific as the honest, ethical prosecutor. I wished he'd had more screen time as he made every scene in which he appeared better. He only made one more movie before his untimely passing the month TRIAL was released. I think he would have evolved from leading man into a very fine character actor if only he had lived to have a longer career. A great loss to the movies.

The third actor who was excellent was Juano Hernandez (STARS IN MY CROWN), a Puerto Rican actor playing the black judge. It was quite refreshing to find Hernandez in this role in a film of the '50s, especially as his race for the most part is not made an issue. It does come up for discussion in a couple of scenes, including a nasty sequence with Barney at the end; I liked the moment where the judge gives David a stinging rebuke when David suggests the judge was assigned the case for political and racial reasons. When David late in the film tells the judge he's learned a lot during the trial, I felt that comment was, in part, an indirect apology for his earlier comment.

Unlike some films, the courtroom procedures seemed relatively on target and authentic. But over three weeks to choose a jury? Good grief. It did seem unlikely to me that a lawyer with no courtroom experience would be given a capital murder case to defend without a senior attorney present to supervise and train him, but hey, it's the movies. And I suppose one could read Barney doing that as evidence of his sliminess.

TRIAL was directed by Mark Robson and filmed in black and white by Robert Surtees. The film runs 105 minutes.

The supporting cast included Katy Jurado, Robert Middleton, Richard Gaines, John Hoyt, Paul Guilfoyle, Elisha Cook Jr., Whit Bissell, Barry Kelley, Frank Ferguson, and Frank Cady. Frank Wilcox, a familiar face from Westerns, has a blink and you'll miss him role as a lawyer early on.

For a fine alternative take on this film, please visit Jacqueline's 2012 post at Another Old Movie Blog. I think I enjoyed revisiting her well-written, entertaining post more than I liked the movie!

The Warner Archive DVD is a lovely widescreen print. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the nod, Laura. Arthur Kennedy is always fun to watch, I think. A good cast.

8:42 AM  
Blogger JIM DOHERTY said...

Just for explanation, the legal reasoning behind the charge of murder was absolutely correct. A death that occurs as a direct consequence of the commission of a felony, even if it's unintended, is a murder. The "malice aforethought" necessary to make it a murder is present in the malice behind the underlying felony that caused the death.

In a technical sense, because Angel enjoyed carnal relations with an underage girl, even thought it was consensual, and because that consensual act caused the heart attack that killed her, he is, in a technical sense, guilty of murder.

To the film's credit, Angel is not acquitted. He is found guilty, but, as Ford suggests, if the letter of the "felony murder" rule can be applied to Angel, the letter of the "youthful offender" law can also be applied to him, and, in consequence, he is given an extremely light sentence.

7:12 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, I believe Trial to be exemplary in all points and detail, certainly including the reason and manipulation of the Judge being a man of color. In any case, this is all around us and the gorge Floy saga just a more overblown variation of things going on in many, perhaps most, of our metropolitan communities. As for performances, and you nailed Hodiak, but all are on the mark, with Dorothy McGuire shining brightly in her somewhat underwritten role.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all very much for the comments! And you're very welcome (belatedly!), Jacqueline!

Barrylane, this film might be a good candidate for me to take another look, especially as I also appreciated Jim's insights on the legal reasoning. I find it valuable to sometimes revisit films I was iffy on -- just this week I rewatched THE WALKING HILLS and liked it much more on Round 2 than my first watch. Given your high regard for TRIAL I will definitely keep it in mind. It does seem as though it would be particularly relevant viewing these days.

Best wishes,

6:28 PM  

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