AN ACT OF MURDER
US, 1948, 91 minutes, Black and white.
Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Edmond O' Brien, Geraldine Brooks, John Mc Intyre.
Directed by Michael Gordon.
A very well made drama of the late forties. It stars Frederic March and his wife Florence Eldridge along with Edmund O' Brien and the team that made Lillian Hellman's Another Part Of The Forest in the same year at Universal. March and his wife also appeared in the British Christopher Columbus at this time.
The focus of the film in mercy killing. A severe judge is faced with a personal dilemma, has the intention of killing his wife and asks to be tried for murder. There is some ambiguity in the ending but the point is made about intention for morality as well as the object of the act. In a final, perhaps over melodramatic, speech of pleading, March makes the point about the heart being important for the administration of justice as well an the head - a valid point at any time.
The film was based on a novel called The Mills Of God by Ernst Lothar. Mercy killing was incidental to the James Stewart character in Cecil B. de Mille's Greatest Show On Earth and was the topic of a 1980 tele-movie, significantly called Act Of Love, starring Ron Howard.
1. The focus of the title? (the American title - Live Today For Tomorrow and its impact?). A satisfying character drama, drama of social issues? Its impact in the late forties, now?
2. The cast and its strength? Black and white photography, authentic atmosphere of the American way of life? Medicine, law? The musical score and its melodramatic style, especially for Kathy Cooke's illness?
3. The title and its reference to the letter of the law? Its relationship to the administration of justice? Questions of legal guilt, moral guilt, conscience? The importance of both head and heart in the administration of justice? Motives and intentions? The significance of the special pleading at the end - how persuasive in content, style? In view of the story enacted before us?
4. The character of Judge Cooke - the old men during the credits going in to see his severe sentence? The hearing of the Novak case? The judge's strict interpretation of the lay? His doodling and writing twenty years and the use of this scribble later? David Douglas and the emphasis on intention in the Novak case? Clash with the judge in court? The judge and his severe stances in judicial administration? The clash with David Douglas at home and the discussion about the legal book? The judge's fairness in admitting the cause for a retrial of the Novak case? The screen play presenting an initial stance of justice and an opposing point of view? The audience taking a side?
5. Calvin Cooke an husband - twenty years of happy marriage, his love and devotion to his wife? The anniversary dinner? The fact that he was busy and unable to go on holidays? The discovery of the truth about his wife's illness, his grief and being so disturbed? The plans for the holiday? The re-enactment of their arrival twenty years earlier at the hotel - and the changes (for the worse) in twenty years with the ironic comments of the owner? The day at the carnival and the happy reliving of the past? Kathy being better than Calvin at hitting the target? His growing concern about Kathy's pain, the administration of the drugs? His consulting of the doctor and his feeling suicidal? How well did Fredric March make the transition from severe, impersonal judge to benign husband and father to anxious husband?
6. The balance of Calvin Cooke as father - his love for his daughter, having no time to talk to her, his antipathy towards Douglas? The importance of Ellie's reaction to her father and her mother's defence of him?
7. Kathy and her charm, the sequences with Ellie and her support of her, her good manners to David? Twenty years of happy marriage? Her devotion to her husband and not wanting to know about his court work? The vividness of her illness, the turns, the breaking of glasses and the smashing of mirrors? Her discussion with the doctor? The collage of her visit - with the doctor's continued talk about medicine and improvements? Her not being told the truth? Her telling her husband about the visit to the doctor? Her joy in going away, the going back to the hotel, the enjoyment of the day at the carnival, the tunnel of love, hitting the target? The dramatic impact of her being lost in the maze and suffering pain? The growing agony, her not being able to focus, her wanting to go home? Her discovery of the truth and that Calvin knew it? her death in the accident? A persuasive portrait of a charming woman and her illness?
8. Calvin and his concern, the administration of the drugs, his encounter with the dog run over and the policeman shooting it? The phone call to the doctor? The phone call to Ellie? The decision to crash the car?
9. The issue of the act of murder? His recovering from the accident, his declaration to the District Attorney? His time in prison? His presence at the trial, his plea of guilty? The judge's respect for him but the insistence on the law? David and his use of the law for defending him? The cross-examination of the doctor about mercy killing? The testimony that Calvin Cooke was not in his right mind? Moral responsibility for Kathy's death?
10. The suspense of the autopsy, the question of the accident killing Kathy? The irony of the information of her taking an overdose of drugs? The testimony supporting this?
11. The change of plea, Calvin Cooke's being legally free? The judge's summation and the issue of mercy killing? The point of view of the doctor and his discussion with Calvin? Calvin Cooke's intention and his being legally free but morally guilty? His acceptance of this and speech in the court? His resolve to use heart and intention in administering justice?
12. Medical ethics, illness and pain, remedies and people waiting for them to be developed? People's right to live or to be killed? Ellie and her using of this argument to employ David to defend her father? Themes of compassion, law, morality?