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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rush to Judgment, Part 2 (originally published 9/98)

We were looking last week at movies about characters who have been falsely accused, like Samuel L. Jackson's character in "The Negotiator." By appealing to our sense of outrage, such films tend to win our sympathy for their main character quickly and decisively, which no doubt accounts for their perennial popularity with filmmakers and with audiences. Here are some more classic frame-up stories to look for on home video.

"Fury" (1936). Like many of Germany's finest filmmakers, director Fritz Lang emigrated to the United States when the rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party turned conditions in his homeland suddenly and heartbreakingly ugly. Lang's experiences with the political thugs who now ruled Germany almost certainly informed his handling of his first directorial assignment in America, which was a wrenching cautionary tale about the horrors of mob violence and the evil that can result from people allowing their darker emotions to overmaster their reason. Spencer Tracy stars as a man who is arrested in a small town on suspicion of kidnapping. He's innocent, but the circumstantial evidence looks bad. Convicted without benefit of trial in the minds of the townspeople, the wrongly accused man finds himself the target of a lynch mob, with only the sheriff standing between him and the bloodthirsty vigilantes.

"They Won't Forget" (1937). Although it is most often cited as the film that set a young Lana Turner on the path to stardom, this film has much more to offer than Turner's relatively brief appearance. When Mary Clay (Turner) is found murdered at school while her southern hometown celebrates Confederate Day, suspicion initially falls on the black janitor who discovered the body. The ambitious district attorney, played by Claude Rains, decides however to pin the crime on Mary's typing teacher on the grounds that there's no challenge in convicting a black man in the South. The story was based on an actual case that took place in Atlanta in 1915 involving a murder victim named Mary Phagan and a defendant named Leo Frank. The story was told again in a 1988 TV movie called "The Murder of Mary Phagan," in which the actual names of the principles were used.

"The Talk of the Town" (1942). In general, wherever there's a premise that inspires absorbing drama, you can look at it from a different perspective and create comedy out of it. The plight of a wrongly accused protagonist is no exception. Lots of comic movies have been based on the premise; this gem from director George Stevens is one of the very best. Cary Grant plays Leopold Dilg, who has been framed for arson by a crooked local politician. He hides out at a house owned by Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur). The complication is that the house has been rented for the summer by world famous law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). Unwilling to turn Leopold in, Nora passes him off as the gardener, in which guise he strikes up a genial relationship with Lightcap. Eventually, when Lightcap learns that Leopold is a wanted man, he must decide between two equally unappealing alternatives. Should he obey his legalistic instincts by turning Leopold over to the authorities or should he follow his humane impulse to spare a man he has grown fond of?

"To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). Screenwriter Horton Foote's retelling of Harper Lee's novel of racial prejudice as seen through the eyes of a child may be one of the most skillful adaptations ever brought to the screen. The result seems so effortless that we tend to forget how difficult that book must have been to capture as drama. Foote's miraculous achievement is complemented by a dream cast in the form of Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch along with Mary Badham and Phillip Alford as his daughter Scout and son Jem. Brock Peters brings a quiet dignity to the role of Tom Robinson, the black man who is falsely accused of raping a young white woman. As we watch Atticus gamely trying to defend this lost cause in court through Scout's eyes, we are forced to the same wrenching conclusions as she about justice and prejudice.

We're not quite done yet with movies about the falsely accused. So far, I've left out the one director who made such stories a centerpiece of his career. Next week we'll look at some of his variations on that theme.

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