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Trial (DVD Review)

22 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated
Stars Glenn Ford, Dorothy McGuire, Arthur Kennedy, John Hodiak, Juano Hernandez, Rafael Campos.

Ever since they came out roughly six months apart when I was 8 years old, I’ve always linked Blackboard Jungle and Trial together in my mind. Both were MGM hits in black-and-white CinemaScope and also edgy for their day; both further teamed Glenn Ford with the then young Dominican Republic actor Rafael Campos. And to sub-divide, both are movies among several in which Ford seems to be having an on-screen nervous breakdown exemplified by tics and mannerisms that most actors of the era with short haircuts didn’t display. Ford was one of those who sometimes managed to overact in low-key fashion. He isn’t nearly as good here as in Jungle, but there are good performances to be found elsewhere, as well as one really great one.

Modified a little from screenwriter Don Mankiewicz’s Harper Prize novel, it’s set in 1947 and deals with a racially charged murder case involving a Hispanic teenager (Campos) and a white girl who dies in his presence following what he claims was at most flirtatious kissy-face at a beach where he was not even supposed to be, given the prejudices of the day. His attorney, played by Ford, though a legal scholar, has never actually tried a case and is given what amounts to a baptism-by-napalm kind of assignment after his college informs him it can’t renew his contract due to a lack of hands-on trial experience.

A minor sub-theme here, though it isn’t emphasized, is to beware of gift horses. No one in town wants to give Ford a chance until a grade-‘A’ charlatan played by Arthur Kennedy does — a trap in the making. While novice Ford is doing some legal heavy-lifting handling a case where the defense doesn’t have a whole lot of ammo, Kennedy is out raising money from predominantly Communist fronts in ways that mark him as something between a true believer and a cynical exploiter. This doesn’t go down too well with Ford or even an assistant played by Dorothy McGuire in one of her best performances, which goes beyond what’s on the script’s printed page.

Self-described as a onetime fellow traveler, she also had an affair with Kennedy, who is still her boss. This caused some problems with censors of the day, as did the fact that it’s heavily implied that she and Ford later spend a night together. No one ever talks about this in terms of the breakdown of the Production Code, but this kind of behavior was still taboo. And within a couple months, Otto Preminger would be giving the Code his second major another kick (post-The Moon Is Blue) with The Man With the Golden Arm, and the industry policemen would soon have to begin setting up their pencil stands on street corners, figuratively speaking, for all they mattered.

The director was Mark Robson, who did several big pictures in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s, even though he (like Martin Ritt) couldn’t even rate an entry in Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema. Robson had a tendency to hit a lot of scenes too directly on the head, and he does so here, which is why this movie is only a sometimes thing. On the other hand he was undeniably adept with actors and guided Kennedy to four of his five Oscar nominations in a period from 1949-59 (Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running was the other one) with Champion, Bright Victory, Peyton Place and … this. Kennedy also won a supporting Golden Globe here for a performance that’s totally electrifying, though God knows what caliber of clientele was voting in those days.

Kennedy’s best scene is also the best in the movie: a mammoth New York rally using the Campos case as a political football from which to raise funds from predominantly Communist sympathizers. According to the AFI Catalog, it was shot in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium with a couple thousand extras, spectacle that really shows on the screen as Kennedy out-Pat Robertson’s Pat Robertson when it comes to bilking people out of their money — cutting off Ford’s mic in the process when the latter goes public in the arena about his disillusionment over what the evening has become.

As the defendant’s mother, Katy Jurado isn’t given much to do other than go heavy on the histrionics; her roles were better developed earlier in the decade with High Noon and Broken Lance (the latter getting her an Oscar nomination). On the other hand, Juano Hernandez has some strong scenes as a black judge assigned to preside — a plot twist that at first sounds contrived yet one that proves to be germane because the more or less “friends of the Klan” who run the town’s power structure figure that if a judge of color rules in a case they intend to railroad toward a conviction, no one will be able to cry foul.

The other casting note is, as the district attorney, John Hodiak — who died instantly at 41 of a heart attack while shaving a dozen days after Trial opened. This is back when a lot of people who were 41 looked as if they were approaching middle-age, and Hodiak is no picture of health here while bringing a tiny bit of extra something to a sketchy role. MGM dodged a bullet here (Hodiak had a barely completed follow-up picture at Fox in the can), but a few months later, Louis Calhern dropped dead of a coronary on the set of MGM’s The Teahouse of the August Moon and had to be replaced by Paul Ford. It must have been tough in those days to be in the front office.

Somewhat to my surprise, Trial was a fairly big hit, though the Blackboard Jungle connection couldn’t have hurt. Even if you don’t trust Wikipedia and its claim of more than a half million in profits, I can tell you that it got held over for a second week at a 2,800-seater in my hometown. And without a co-feature, though the local crazy bookers of the day would likely have paired it with a Frankie Laine musical or something.

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