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Monday, September 1, 2014

'Trial' DVD: Race and Politics in the American Judicial System

Trial (1955)
The recent Warner Archive DVD release of the aptly titled 1955 Glen Ford legal drama "Trial" provides both a fascinating look at the not-so-enlightened views of that era and the fact that we have not come very far in the following 60 years. In fact, a few scenes and statements are frighteningly similar to news footage of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Another notable aspect of "Trial" is that it earned co-star Arthur Kennedy an Oscar-nomination for his role as Barney Castle, the ethically challenged attorney who manipulates both Ford's David Blake and the client of the pair.

The social commentary begins early on with Blake facing the non-renewal of his job teaching criminal law. This decision reflects concern regarding Blake lacking any experience practicing law.

The subsequent door-to-door quest of Blake for the equivalent of a summer associate position at a law firm results in Castle taking him on. Castle then taking on the representation of Angel Chavez, a 17 year-old Mexican-American boy charged with the murder of a teen-age Caucasian girl, effectively puts Blake in the hot seat as the person defending Chavez in court.

The Chavez case predicatbly soon becomes a cause celebre for groups at both extremes of the political spectrum. Conservative folks are convinced both that Chavez is guilty and that that offense supports segregation; those on the left who support Chavez want to use him as an example of the bias that people who are members of a minority experience in the American judicial system. In other words, Chavez cannot win no matter how his trial comes out.

In typical Ford fashion, Blake merely wants to prepare the best possible defense and to ensure that Chavez receives a fair trial. Legal secretary (and love interest) Abbe, played by the always terrific Dorothy McGuire, is the partner of Blake in his quest for truth, justice, and the (properly) American way. A scene in which Abbe shows who really is the brains of any law firm is one of the best in "Trial."

The fact that the titular court proceeding does not commence until nearly 1:15 into the film further emphasizes that "Trial" is about the significance of the circumstances of the underlying events, rather than the allegedly unbiased determination of the guilt or innocence of the suspected young offender.

Competing powerful scenes involve a lynch mob that literally is prepared to blow the doors off the building in which Chavez is being held and a rally in which Castle manipulates (and gleefully steals from) the masses as effectively as any dictator or evangelist.

These elements combine to make a compelling drama that relies on an excellent script and good performances, rather than himbos or bimbos and/or multi-million dollar pyrotechnics.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Trial" is encouraged to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.