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Setting the Scales of Justice
on 29 August 2016
Elia Kazan wanted to make socially-realistic drama on stage (on the New York stages in the company of Lee J.Cobb and Arthur Kennedy) and, later on film. He was keen on location filming too, probably being influenced by the neo-realists which brought to his later films like 'On the Waterfront' and 'Panic in the Streets' a great sense of involvement in the action.
The film concerns itself with how politics can get in the way of justice,especially when there seems to be an almost incestuous relationship between the authorities - the politicians - who are elected to run the city and the enforcement arms of the law - the police and the District Attorney. In a democracy,the two should be separate but here,, as in many noirish thrillers, they are enmeshed, with the politicians having undue influence. This forms the background of a police procedural/courtroom drama which begins with the shooting of a priest in the street one evening. Of course, the crime shocked the community and witnesses queue up to give their rendition of what they saw, or, as it turns out later, what they thought they saw. A veteran from the war is' identified' , extradited from Ohio and subjected to an ordeal of interrogation by the Chief of Police (Lee J.Cobb) and his sergeant (Karl Malden) ; it appears that the modern basics (a) of demanding a lawyer (b) pleading the fifth (c) being kept awake for the interrogation in methods akin to the Gestapo were not current at the time. So desperate are the police to get the killer to throw him to the baying hounds of the Press and the corrupt politicians they forget the human right to access justice.
District Attorney Harvey ( Dana Andrews) seems to have an open-and -shut case. He has a 'confession' which the veteran later denies after getting some sleep; he has the revolver which allegedly was the murder weapon and a psychiatrist's provision of a motive in which the veteran is bitter because his return from the war was marked by unemployment. A Coroner's court makes the decision to rule that the priest's death was murder in the first degree. The baying hounds in the coroner's courtroom get their first taste of 'justice' .
The next section really shows how the District Attorney could be railroaded by a corrupt politico who wants to be elected to prevent his utter ruin as he is the secret owner of a corporation which is going to build a charity facility. The D.A.'s wife, is also involved and the D.A. is threatened with dire consequences if he does not drop his obvious misgivings with the case. The Judge at the preliminary hearing cannot understand why a prosecuter does not appear to be prosecuting and also threatens him in chambers to proceed with a malfeasance suit which would disbar the D.A.The next day, The D.A. continues his 'prosecution' by the perfectly legal manoeuvre of questioning the witnesses again, in the cause of truth. In a very short time, he demolished all their statements mainly because his team had been out and about to test them. The most telling was the fact that the gun was fired from behind at a peculiar lofty angle; the D.A gets the judge to load the gun and hand it back to him. A colleague fires the shot from the same angle as the alleged shooter and nothing happened as further ballistics tests by outside experts found a faulty firing pin. The 'evidence' was inferior. Tjhe corrupt politician metes out his own form of justice on himself when an investigative reporter finds out about his little financial peccadillo. Eventually, due to honesty and gritty resolution, justice was done.
The film was gripping from beginning to end as Kazan raised the tone of the piece beginning with a folksy 'Our Town' type of delivery, raising the volume to crescendo in the courtroom scenes before the calmness of a clear conscience, uncorrupted by self-serving pillars of the community. brings everything back to where it was before. The elements of noir were certainly in evidence, especially in the staccato dialogue between the reporters and the police. The story was based on fact, apparently, and the killer in real life was never found. The film extolled the virtues of never quitting when one's gut tells you that a man may be innocent ; the pressures to convict to suit a lynch mob mentality and the ambitions of shady but outwardly 'upright' civic leaders were very well drawn and voiced by Dana Andrews. This was a positive film with an eternal message.