Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Tonight's Movie: An Act of Murder (1948)

Mercy killing is the topic of AN ACT OF MURDER (1948), a somber yet engrossing film with an excellent cast.

Fredric March plays Calvin Cooke, a by-the-book judge confronted with an agonizing dilemma when his beloved wife Cathy (Florence Eldridge, March's real wife) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

Medication is unable to control Cathy's unbearable pain, so Judge Cooke somewhat impulsively commits what he intends as an act of murder-suicide, driving his car off the road on a rainy night while Cathy is obliviously sleeping.

Cathy dies, but the judge survives, and when he's physically recovered he turns himself in on a murder charge. A dedicated defense attorney (Edmond O'Brien) dating the Cookes' daughter (Geraldine Brooks) is appointed by the judge (John McIntire) hearing the case to represent Judge Cooke.

An autopsy raises the question of whether the judge actually killed his wife after all...but even so, he meant to do it.

I had expected that the film would focus more on the courtroom drama aspect of the story and was a bit surprised that the majority of the film is domestic/medical drama, with the courtroom sequences a bit rushed, almost tacked on as an afterthought. This was especially disappointing given that it limited screen time for O'Brien and McIntire, a pair of really interesting actors. I would have preferred if the pathos-filled personal story were condensed and the legal and ethical debates took center stage; it remains a relevant topic decades later.

Judge Cooke's closing speech on the importance of seeing into men's hearts and intentions being as important as following the law is also an opinion ripe for deeper consideration than it receives here.

Another interesting aspect of the film, Brooks' frequently fraught relationship with her father, is also somewhat pushed to the side. Judge Cooke doesn't approve of his daughter's boyfriend and refuses to open up to her when dealing with his personal dilemmas before and after his wife's death. A little more depth and resolution would have been welcome here.

I'd been curious to see this one, especially given my liking for O'Brien, Brooks, and McIntire, and despite my reservations I'm glad I watched it. It was an interesting and well-acted film, though I can't say it will lend itself to repeat viewing given the difficulty of watching a terminally ill woman suffer.

An interesting aspect for me was that some of the medical aspects are unintentionally amusing -- or troubling -- to a modern viewer, such as the doctor (Stanley Ridges) lighting up a cigarette in the middle of conducting extensive medical tests looking for a potential brain tumor. Later he pushes a cigarette on the emotionally reeling Judge Cooke. Similar scenes appear in other movies but they never lose the capacity to make me shake my head in wonder.

The doctor cheerily reassures his patient she's fine, then has the x-rays copied and overnighted to three nationally known specialists; once the verdict is in from his fellow neurologists, the doctor conspires with the husband to keep the truth of her condition from his wife. The husband protests that she has a right to know and plan the remainder of her life, but the doctor orders the husband to lie and then makes sure he cooperates by calling the wife to tell her she's fine! (Eldridge's radiance immediately after this news is both hauntingly beautiful and crushing. It's a fine moment for the actress.) It's hard to imagine the lawsuits the doctor's behavior would engender in modern times.

The supporting cast also includes Will Wright as another judge who's a family friend. Also in the film are Don Beddoe, Clarence Muse, Ray Teal, and Virginia Brissac.

With this film I've seen all of the seven films Geraldine Brooks made from 1947 to 1949, a most enjoyable group which includes EMBRACEABLE YOU (1948) and THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949). She was in a couple Italian films released in 1950 and after that mostly worked in television, an exception being STREET OF SINNERS (1957) with George Montgomery. In 1962 she reunited with Edmond O'Brien for an episode of his SAM BENEDICT TV series. Brooks was an interesting actress I wish had had a longer film career.

AN ACT OF MURDER was directed by Michael Gordon and filmed in black and white by Hal Mohr. The screenplay by Michael Blankford and Robert Thoeren was based on a novel by Ernst Lothar. The film runs 91 minutes.

AN ACT OF MURDER is available on DVD in the Universal Vault Series. The print is mostly fine although there were a few scenes with lines in the picture. The sound quality was good.

May 2020 Update: Kino Lorber is releasing AN ACT OF MURDER on Blu-ray as part of their three-film Dark Side of Cinema IV Collection. It will be released in July 2020.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

As much as I admire Florence Eldridge's performance in this film, that is how much I resent the attitude that I pray is no longer prevalent, of keeping the truth from "the little woman". A brave attempt to focus on an important subject was watered down in the last act to avoid offending with a controversial subject.

7:03 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I may be mistaken, but I do not believe that an outright distortion of t he truth was ever considered ethical conduct. Certainly not flat out lying. There isn't a thing about this nearly insane product righteousness that makes a bit of sense. Not from a story telling point of view, or a moral component. Laura, in the review you expressed disappointment that more wasn't done in and about the courtroom. You were so right. March kills his wife to protect her and then his trial proceeds, covering all aspects. But the doctors do not now, nor ever, I hope, tell someone with fatal condition that all is well. They try to relieve pain and provide hope. The are not either naïve or I insane. Not for long, anyway.

8:22 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

A personal note. I have had experience with this situation. Years of it, and at no time was Claude told she was well, when she was not. She face multiple surgeries, and they were all successful, but she died anyway over an extended time period. The one thing the doctors did do, was relieve her pain, and she had I believe, time for pleasure and fun. I take An act of Murder's premise personally. And for an old man I am pretty fit. Fit enough to want to kick the daylights out of the production team.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, keeping the truth from patients was done quite often. There are several old books I read which talked about this conduct. I don't know if it was always done, but it apparently happened quite frequently. So I don't think it was because she was a woman.

Of course this is absolutely crazy. I'd also like to know how this would work in reality. People who have a terminal illness suffer horribly. How can you tell someone in constant pain that everything is alright and hope to be believed? Wouldn't anybody know something is wrong?

6:29 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Margot -- you do not tell them it is alright. You offer them encouragement and keep them comfortable. also, you do not tell them they are dying. No one actually knows when, or how, but we all share the process. A true story. The last time Claude was in emergency I was asked to sign a do not resuscitate order. But, I was her husband for forty years, I had Power of Attorney, and was available. Two days later I got an emergency call, they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, 'save her.' And they did. She lived another six months. I wouldn't take that away from anyone.

8:20 AM  

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