Film Reviews: ‘Trial’ and ‘Desperate Hours’
These two films are both thrillers, both are technically excellent, and in both the acting is first-class. They part company, however, in that Desperate Hours sets out merely to entertain, whereas Trial moralises about American law and justice, and about the corruptness of the Communist party. The moralising is rather tortuous, for apparently the film-makers have tried to demonstrate that although the American legal system is harmful and corrupt, the corruptness and ruthlessness of the Communist party is even worse, and that American democracy and freedom always triumph on the end, anyway.
The story is set in a small township in Idaho, where there is a Mexican minority. A young white girl dies of heart-failure while with a Mexican boy on a beach, and the boy is charged with murder on the legal principle that if someone causes a death while committing a felony, then he or she is guilty of murder (the alleged felony in this case being indecent assault).
The hero of the story is an idealistic law lecturer (Glenn Ford) who, threatened with expulsion from the University unless he obtains some first-hand legal experience, is taken under the wing of an unscrupulous Communist lawyer (Arthur Kennedy). The boy’s trial becomes a matter of political capital for both the prosecutors and the Communist party, both of whom decide that the boy must die, the first because public opinion demands it, and the other because they need a martyr for their political ends. The tension of the film is admirably built up and the trial scenes are extremely effective, but unfortunately, the ideological inconsistencies of the film make it almost implausible. The film tries to lead one to the conclusion that there is always someone to protect American justice and democracy (although why it should be necessary to protect it is not made clear) and in this case it is left entirely to the young idealist to find a legal loophole after the boy has been found guilty. Apparently this vindicates the crooked politicians and lawyers and American justice generally and, to point the moral of the story, the Communist lawyer gets 30 days in jail for contempt. However, this isn’t really good enough for it requires only a moment’s thought to appreciate that this situation can rarely arise, of at all, so far as the Communist party is concerned, whereas the occasions when politicians and policemen need a conviction to safeguard their office, must be very common.
The picture that is given of American legal methods is both convincing and disturbing, and the account of how money is raised for “fighting funds” and the like is almost horrifying. In this kind of detail the film is extremely good, but when it ventures out into the realms of politics and morals, it becomes bogged down. The Communist party, of course, gets scathing treatment, and to a certain extent this is justified by their “tactics” but I do not think that this film does give an accurate picture of the way in which the American Communists behave. In particular, the speech of the girl (Dorothy McGuire) in which she recounts how she became caught up in the Communist party, and her subsequent disillusionment, is quite unconvincing and almost laughable.
It may well be that the makers of this film considered that their implied criticisms of American law and justice would be made more acceptable to the film-going public by the addition of the anti-Communist propaganda and the melodramatic ending, but if so, they have defeated their object, because the film gives the satisfying impression that justice has been done, and all is well with America, after all. What the film does not do, of course, is to show the cause of the corruption and the basis of the laws that are enforced, i.e. the protection of private property. But that is rather too much to expect from Hollywood.
Desperate Hours is also a thriller, but this time in the more conventional sense. It has no political axe to grind or moral in the way that Trial has, although it also gives a disturbing insight into American police methods. It is a straightforward story of three escaped convicts who find an ideal hideout by terrorising a household and holding the wife and young son hostage while the other members of the family are forced to carry on their normal lives. Here again the tension is well built up, and the principals (Humphrey Bogart as the leader of the three convicts and Fredric March as the father of the family) give splendid performances.
Surprisingly enough, it is the very fact that there is no social moral to the story that gives this film its biggest advantage over Trial. There is no sermonising and the film sets out merely to entertain, and it certainly fulfils this object as well as any thriller can. The finale of the story is both inevitable and expected, but nevertheless one’s interest is held until the end. This film is an adequate demonstration of the way in which thrillers can be made without either the story being trite or the characters unconvincing, and is certainly well worth your shilling or two.
A. W. I.