Courtroom Dramas

The Murder Man (1935)

The Murder Man 1935When J. Spencer Halford (Theodor von Eltz), a business man known for his shady dealings that have swindled lots of people out of their money, is found murdered in his car, it’s exactly the kind of story local newspaper reporter Steve Grey (Spencer Tracy) is best at handling. His reputation for writing about murder cases has earned him the nickname of “The Murder Man.” At least, this would be the perfect story for Steve, if his other coworkers could find him; he also has a reputation for being a hard drinker who often wakes up in places that aren’t his home.

When he’s found and gets to work, he comes up with a theory that Halford was killed by a shot fired from the shooting gallery across the street and that Halford’s business partner Henry Mander (Harvey Stevens) killed him to collect on his insurance policy. Enough evidence is found to support that theory, Mander is put on trial, and Steve is one witness to testify against him. His testimony is enough for him to be found guilty and Mander is sentenced to death.

Although this should be a victory for Steve, he feels awful about it. His boss and his girlfriend Mary (Virginia Bruce), the newspaper’s advice columnist, both convince him to take a vacation, but that doesn’t do much good. Just before Mander is set to be executed, Steve’s fellow reporter Shorty (James Stewart) convinces him to do the final jailhouse interview with Mander. It should be an explosive story, but after meeting with Mander, Steve can’t write the story. He knows Mander is innocent and knows who really killed him and must tell the truth before it’s too late.

The Murder Man is an absolute gem. A very tightly-told crime story with a great twist at the end. I usually find most plot twists to be rather predictable, but I liked this one. It’s also noteworthy for being a major film milestone for two film legends — Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. This was the first movie Spencer Tracy made while under contract to MGM; he went on to work for the studio for 20 more years. He certainly made the most of his MGM debut, he was great in it. This is also the first featured, credited film role for Jimmy Stewart. Since it’s an extremely early role for him, he’s not given a whole lot to do, but it’s still just fun to see Jimmy Stewart in his first featured role. Virginia Bruce rounds out a great cast as the sympathetic, likable girlfriend. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of it before today, but I sure am glad I decided to watch it. As much as I find it ridiculous that a real reporter would have this much power over a murder investigation, these types of 1930s newspaper movies sure are entertaining.

The Unknown Man (1951)

The Unknown Man 1951Brad Masen (Walter Pidgeon) really has it all. He’s a highly respected attorney, known for his dedication to upholding the law. He has a lovely wife Stella (Ann Harding) and his son Bob (Richard Andersen) is about to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, too. But it all starts to fall apart when Brad’s friend approaches him about defending Rudi Wallcheck (Keefe Brasselle), who is facing a murder charge. Since Brad doesn’t handle criminal cases, he initially turns the case down. But after thinking it over and meeting with Rudi, he changes his mind since he believes Rudy is sincerely innocent and wants to help him.

Despite his lack of experience with cases like this, Brad successfully convinces the jury that Rudi is not guilty. But it isn’t long before Brad realizes that Rudi is nothing more than a good actor. In reality, he was a known thug who was indeed guilty. Horrified at his failure to uphold the law, Brad immediately starts doing everything he can to right his wrong. He does some investigating and finds out Rudi has been involved in a crime syndicate that shakes down local business owners for “protection money.” Even worse, it turns out the syndicate is run by Brad’s friend Andrew (Eduard Franz). When Andrew realizes that Brad knows what he’s doing, he starts cautioning Brad about what getting tangled up with him could mean. In a rage, Brad stabs Andrew to death using a knife he had taken from Rudi’s apartment.

Since the police find Rudi’s fingerprints all over the gun, he immediately becomes the top suspect. But even in a situation like this, Brad is still deeply committed to the law and doesn’t want Rudi to be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Brad represents Rudi in court once again, but can he save Rudi?

If I were to sum up The Unknown Man with one word, I would pick “adequate.” It’s likable enough, but not a movie to go out of your way for. It’s worth seeing if you’re a big Walter Pidgeon fan as he’s quite good in it. But the rest of the cast doesn’t rise above being simply sufficient (Ann Harding’s role is fairly small). The story had potential, but other pieces of the puzzle aren’t strong enough for the movie to become as good as it could have been. There are certainly worse ways you could spend an hour and a half and it’s the sort of thing I might watch again if there isn’t anything else on, but it’s just an average movie.

Town Without Pity (1961)

Town Without Pity PosterWhen sixteen-year-old Karin Steinhof (Christine Kaufmann) is brutally raped by four drunken American soldiers — Sergeant Chuck Snyder (Frank Sutton), Private Joey Haines (Mal Sondock), Corporal Jim Larkin (Robert Blake), and Corporal Birdwell Scott (Richard Jaeckel) — the residents of her hometown of Neustadt, Germany are horrified.  The Army is outraged, Karin’s father Karl (Hans Nielsen) wants the death penalty and so does the prosecutor.  Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas) is brought in to serve as defense for the rapists.

Garrett knows perfectly well that his clients are guilty and tries to enter a plea bargain to get their sentence reduced to hard labor.  However, he’s not just thinking of his clients.  Garrett has a great deal of sympathy for Karin and knows that if the case goes to trial, he will be forced to relentlessly cross-examine her and he doesn’t want to have to do that.  But the prosecutor rejects the plea deal and the case goes to trial.  As the trial progresses, Garrett tries to convince Karin’s father to stop her from testifying, but he refuses.  The only way the rapists would get the death penalty is if she testified and that is what he still wants.

The time comes for Garrett to cross-examine Karin and as predicted, the process is too much for Karin.  She collapses on the stand and is unable to go on with the trial.  The rapists are dishonorably discharged from the Army and sentenced to hard labor, but the consequences of the trial are far harder on Karin.  It’s put a lot of strain on her family and her reputation in town has been destroyed.  Garrett tells Karin’s boyfriend Frank (Gerhart Lippert) the best thing he could do is take her and leave town.  Frank tries, but to get the money he needs, he forges a check and the police stop them before they get very far.  Just before he is to leave town, Garrett hears that Karin has committed suicide.  Garrett is devastated and quietly leaves town, seemingly one of the few people in town genuinely affected by the news.

I was very impressed by Town Without Pity.  This is a movie that pulls no punches.  Gritty, brutally honest, and sadly, it’s a story that still rings true over fifty years later.  Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann deliver some excellent performances.  The score is great as is Gene Pitney’s title song, although the title song is used so many times during the movie that you’re sure to have that song stuck in your head for days afterward.  Overall, an excellent film that really deserves more credit than it gets.