Fredric March gives one of his finest performances, as Judge Calvin Cooke in the sensationally titled An Act of Murder (the title of Moravian-Austrian author Ernst Lothar’s source novel translates as The Mills of God), a conservative judge who feels that the facts of a criminal case should be the sole determinants of a defendant’s guilt and punishment, not motive or “extenuating circumstances.” However, he is humbled into a more elastic, compassionate view of the law by a life-changing event: his wife Catherine’s pain-racked terminal illness, which moves him in the direction of a “mercy killing.” As Catherine, Florence Eldridge is nearly as brilliant as spouse March is as the judge.
Michael Gordon has directed beautifully. The passage where Catherine is lost in an amusement park labyrinthine hall of mirrors wonderfully conveys her state of mind and the degree to which her pain, along with the illness’s assault on her perceptual integrity, has unwomanned her. But it is the film’s opening and closing that commend Gordon’s filmmaking most of all. Following two brief establishing shots of the courthouse where Cooke sits, two older gentlemen converse in front of the courthouse, one convincing the other to join him in the courtroom where Cooke, known for his harshness, is presiding. This conversation and the men’s journey into the courthouse and, then, the courtroom is all recorded in one sustained, point-of-view tracking shot. Once the two men have completed their service of chaperoning us into the courtroom, the camera slightly shifts, losing the pair forever, and the shot still continues all the way up to the bench. Finally, a cut gives us a clear view of the judge’s face. The bravura introduction of Cooke, along with the cut and the medium closeup, visually establishes his confidence and integrity, and suggests the long journey that has taken him to this point in his life and professional career. In this scene, by the way, Cooke is battling the defense attorney who wishes that Cooke would extend his rulings beyond the letter of the law to admit the emotional shadings of human behavior. The film’s final shot is also a long one, but here Cooke is the defendant, and his attorney—his daughter’s beau—is the defense attorney with whom he had locked horns in the earlier sustained shot. Pronounced “legally innocent” though “morally guilty,” Cooke is permitted to explain his change of philosophy—the outcome of his personal growth. In this instance Cooke is standing and the camera is fixed; in effect, this shot undoes the earlier shot, as correlative to Cooke’s shift in stance. March contributes as well a significant shift in demeanor. On his feet rather than snugly, some would say smugly, seated behind his judicial desk, facing the judge rather than being the judge, Cooke has made another long journey, the culmination of which is this resting-spot in his life. “If I am allowed to remain a judge . . . .”: he is no longer encrusted in by-rote certainty. Rather, there is a road ahead as well as behind him, and literally behind him we see his daughter and his attorney joining hands. Considerable intelligent thought on Gordon’s part relates this shot to the earlier one.
This is a good film to see.
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