Trial, a solid if somewhat meandering look at not only a courtroom case, but the sinister, sniveling grab for power in the background far from the court.
A law professor at a California university, David Blake (Glenn Ford) is in a jam. He's never actually had a court case so his superiors demand that if he wants to keep his job he must get some actual courtroom experience. Every lawyer and firm in town slams a door in his face except one, that of Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy) who takes him on for an upcoming controversial murder case. A Mexican teenager, Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), has been accused of murdering a white teenage girl, and things don't look good. Looking for experience and genuinely believing in the boy's innocence, David takes the case only to discover there's much more to the judicial system than knowing a law book.
What impressed me most about this Mark Robson-directed courtroom drama is that for much of its 105-minute running time, 'Trial' is less than interested in whether or not Angel actually committed the crime. His guilt or innocence is almost secondary. This is a story about the inner-workings of the system, how things get done not by what's right, but by who is able to tweak the system to their advantage. While obviously dealing with different subjects, 'Trial' reminds me in tone of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Not quite as dark -- especially in the ending here -- it still has a cynical, dark and jaded look at the people involved, at the individual and how simple and easy it is to manipulate the system.
Maybe in 2012, none of this should come as a surprise, but Robson's film is at its most effective in those very moments. When we meet Kennedy's Barney, he seems like a genuinely good guy willing to fight for the underdog and give this inexperienced lawyer a shot. Yeah, not even close. Everything in this world is a selfish, me-first type attitude. Robert Middleton's A.A. 'Fat Stamps, the county sheriff, will say and do anything that helps him get re-elected. Supremacist groups make the possible murder into a race riot, not a simple encounter gone wrong. Barney stirs up the masses wherever he goes, almost making Angel into a martyr before his guilt is decided. He manipulates Angel's mother (Katy Jurado) to embrace her Mexican culture for a sympathetic plea. The actual guilt or innocence steps to the forefront late, but the movie is at its best leading up to that.
Unfortunately a little more than halfway through 'Trial,' a big old curveball is thrown at us as an audience. It's timely for 1955, but overbearing and heavy-handed now. Yes, you guessed it. COMMUNISM!!!!! I won't go into specifics here as to how communism is involved, but there are ulterior motives working all over the place, all of them hamstringing an otherwise very solid courtroom drama. The last 45 minutes are slowed down significantly as communism rears its ugly head. We get it, Red Scare, Stalin, evil Russkies, but it feels overly forced here. On top of that, the ending forces a nice, happy conclusion on us, one that seems far-fetched for the story and out of left field.
Thankfully through all that craziness, the cast is uniformly above average. Chalk up another positive part for Glenn Ford, his David Blake an idealist who believes and has faith in the judicial system. When he sees it for what it really is? He's not naive anymore, just pissed. Like most of his roles, it comes across naturally, a tortured individual weighing all his options. His relationship with Barney's assistant, Abbe (Dorothy McGuire), is a bright spot too. Kennedy does what he does best, sneers and snivels and is generally as slimy as humanly possible. John Hodiak is Armstrong, the district attorney primed for bigger and better things down the road, making the most of a smaller, one-note performance. Along with Jurado and Middleton in supporting parts, Juano Hernandez is a scene-stealer as Judge Motley, an African American judge presiding over the case who must deal with prejudices and assumptions of everyone around him, especially on a racially charged case like this.
I've got mixed emotions about this movie. The parts I did like, I really liked. Ford and a deep cast are very watchable are solid throughout, even the portions of the movie that are too timely for their own good. In the end, the negatives prevent it from reaching its potential. Still a very worthwhile movie to seek out, but it never quite reaches the heights it could and should have.
Trial <---TCM clips (1955): ** 1/2 /****