This post concerns a rarely seen film. A powerful film; which may explain why it rarely got shown since its release in 1955. New to home video, it dealt with a topical subject when made. And, sadly, the raw ugly truth it conveys about American life remains topical over 60 years later.
As noted thousands of years ago “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Specific issues may change, but society always remains the same, explosive powder keg awaiting a match, often applied by the very people who trick us into believing they want to help us or lead us. Left and Right will mean nothing if the powder keg blows up. And someone always profits from the blast.
In the film TRIAL, each extreme gets revealed as equally deadly when a town becomes a pressure cooker of conflict over a seeming murder.
The story seems deceptively simple: A sheltered law professor with no experience beyond a classroom gets caught up in the real world – and learns that he knows almost nothing about the real practice of law. If you think America today with its political opportunists who say one thing but do another, who spread racism for profit in new – this film from 1955 (though set in 1947) will show you that nothing has changed. Including those “tolerant liberals” who, inside, harbor just as much prejudice as any klansman.
All sorts of people get involved in a racially charged murder case for all manner of personal profit. We gradually discover that each character has a personal axe to grind: Holding on to a law professor job. Running for governor. Keeping real estate values high. Remaining police chief. Proving himself above racism. And, most deadly, changing society at any cost. As the story unfolds, each character willingly – eagerly! – turns up the heat under the pressure cooker to further his own needs.
This tension creates a crackling, powerful film about extremists of all sorts. Some elements in the film will seem quaint now, but substitute modern groups like the DNC – who want their way regardless of the consequences – and it still works. What kind of a group will gladly cause horrific damage just so they can proclaim “WE TOLD YOU SO” in order to raise money for themselves?
See what I mean? Still works today.
Opportunists willing to destroy everything and anyone to promote themselves have always operated freely among us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they get opposed successfully. But first we must know them when we encounter them; something not always so easy to see. When our passions get roused, when we believe that we can clearly tell the “good” people from the “bad,” then we make ourselves ripe for the picking. We blindly give those with ulterior motives the power to manipulate us.
As the lead character says early on: “I learned a long time ago that when someone says ‘decide right now’ that that’s the time to take your time.” He knows this. Does he do it?
Fundamentally, this film presents a cautionary tale about the difference between knowing the right thing and doing the right thing. Passion and certainty cloud the mind. Whether in the courtroom or the bedroom. This film could easily get set in today’s America, using any “populist” movement in place of that shown from the 1940s. As one character slyly notes, “never trust anyone”. Especially those you consider leaders. You may not really know what goals they have dedicated themselves to.
Little wonder TRIAL never made it to home video till 2014. It says things which even today most people just refuse to hear.
Over the years, Mark Robson proved himself a serious film director and the novelist/screenwriter Don Mankiewicz, son of Herman, had solid credentials as well. Mankiewicz lived a long life, till 2015, so he must have seen the situations in his story played out over and over and over.
TRAIL deceives. This film looks like one thing (another courtroom drama, though an excellent, realistic one) yet, like the events depicted, TRIAL really shows another thing. Glenn Ford performs at his best here as the Ivory Tower lawyer who gets, reluctantly, a taste of the real world. Katy Jurado again plays her patented “suffering Mexican mother,” Rafael Campos appears as the young man who might have… or perhaps not…
Of particular note to me: The cinematography of Robert Surtees. It heightens the proceedings with some genuine surprises. Juano Hernandez as the judge performs up to his usual high standards and excels as a man who faces heat from all sides. Arthur Kennedy snared an Oscar® nomination for playing the smartest man in the room. Perhaps too damn smart…
I consider TRIAL worth seeing to understand much of today’s events, for it presents a warning against extremism when it comes cloaked in virtue. Don’t all extremists believe they alone know the “truth”?
Always question. Always look deeper. Never call anything true for no other reason than it comforts you or reinforces your beliefs.
Do so, and you likely don’t know any more than the people who pull the strings on the puppets want you to know. Consider instead the very real possibility that you, yourself, represent the main puppet.
Keep your eye on the prize and you’ll always lose sight of everything else.