This film’s slogan was “Sometimes murder is just a way to pass the time.” A better way to fill up those empty minutes would be to watch this film. The film is based on a highly publicized real life case out of Chicago. A play was produced in the 1920’s. A book would also be written by Meyer Levin, which is the source material for this film. The story would not end there. It would be made at least twice more, including Hitchcock’s first color film, Rope. The case was perhaps made famous as much for the presence of Clarence Darrow as the defense attorney than for the senseless act of violence it represented.
A college classroom philosophical discussion opens the film and sets the stage for the crime. Judd Steiner (Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Dillman) are intrigued by the Nietzchean concept of a superman. We’re not talking Clark Kent here. The idea is that a man of superior intellect could, and perhaps should, move through the world acting without the constraints of remorse or common law. These two guys see themselves in this role and commit a brutal murder as a sort of experiment. There really isn’t much of a whodunit. The prosecution soon stumbles upon a pair of eyeglasses that ultimately bring the two men down. Enter world renowned lawyer Wilk (Welles). He quickly finds he can’t argue innocence, so he diverts his attention to keep the young boys away from the gallows. It is in the trial version of the film that interest mounts. Welles delivers one of his best and yet most subtle performances here. The role is akin to Marlon Brando’s in A Dry White Season. His passionate closing statement is likely one of the cinema’s longest monologues.
It’s obvious the film intends to make a social message here. Its anti-death penalty rhetoric is not guarded at all. Still, I found the picture works on a variety of levels. The cast is simply magnificent. The film is also paced well. Even Welles’ long courtroom speeches will hold your attention. The opening theme music is misleading. The bright comedic brass music leads you to think this is a light film, but it is everything but. It’s a dark study into simply evil brutality and lack of conscience. This is a powerful film.
The black and white 2.35:1 transfer is very nice indeed. Contrast is spectacular. Definition is razor sharp. Defects in the print are almost non existent, and certainly nothing that would spoil your viewing experience. Black levels are very good. Consider that this film is nearly 50 years old, and you will be impressed by the transfer.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 track is a bit of an anomaly. I’m not really sure what effect was intended with this odd format.I really could not discern any serious separation, and the original print is certainly in mono. The dialogue is clean at all times. Welles keeps his voice quite low at times. His delivery is really the exceptional part of his performance. Fortunately this soundtrack does justice to each little vocal nuance. Some of the brass score distorts in the upper ranges.
A trailer and a teaser are all you’ll get.
I love good courtroom dramas, both in television and in the cinema. I found the last 30 minutes of this film to be among the better examples of the genre. In the tradition of classics like Anatomy of a Murder and Inherit The Wind, this trial sequence doesn’t rely on surprise witness revelations or dramatic theatrics to make the point. While I do not find myself in agreement with the sentiment, I found the presentation of the argument to be refreshing and succinct. Sure, it seems like I like this film and highly recommend it, but “that doesn’t mean I’ve reached any final conclusions”.