Two innocent men are wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The fiance of one of them convinces a police detective of their innocence, and together they try to find the real ...
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Two innocent men are wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The fiance of one of them convinces a police detective of their innocence, and together they try to find the real killer before the men's execution date. Written by
According to The New York Times review, the title of Joseph F. Dinneen's story was "Murder in Massachusetts," but it was not mentioned in the credits because of a vague threat by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which did not wish any implication of inefficiency of its police, prosecutor or court system. The story was based on the fact that two taxicab drivers were identified by seven of eight witnesses as two of the three men who murdered a man during a 1934 theater robbery in Lynn, Massachusetts. Their trial was in progress for two weeks when the real killers were captured in New York City and confessed; the taxicab drivers were released and two of the three criminals were eventually executed. See more »
Mass hysteria, entrenched bureaucracy, and the finality of the death penalty...
...are all examined here. Knowing that social relevance was important to Fonda throughout his career, and with him being a free agent at the time, I have to wonder if this is how Columbia persuaded such a big talent to star in this project. It's based on a true story that happened in Massachusetts, but in the real story matters don't get quite so dramatic as they did here.
Fonda plays cabbie Brick Tennant who is in business for himself, looking forward to marrying his girl, waitress Mary Roberts (Maureen O'Sullivan), and buying a modest house financed by the newly formed FHA. Great time is spent building up what an optimist Brick is and how content he is with his middle class lifestyle. When Brick's down on his luck pal Alan Baxter (Joe Linden) shows up, Brick lets him bunk with him and offers him a job driving the second cab he has just bought.
Meanwhile, three criminals wander into town - two of which bear a resemblance to Brick and Alan. First they rob the local police exhibition of all of its weapons and kill the night watchman, then they pull off a daring daytime robbery of a theater and kill someone in that crime too. Since the criminals escaped in a cab, the police decide to pull in every cabbie in the city and alibi them. Brick and Alan are among those who do not have a solid alibi, so they are put in a lineup among the movie patrons who saw the unmasked robbers. At first, nobody speaks up, but then one person says "that's him!" in relation to Brick. Soon they are all saying the same thing. Since Alan was at Brick's apartment alone during the hold-up, and the only person who can alibi Brick is his fiancée, nobody believes them and the wheels of justice grind to their inevitable conclusion. Both Brick and Alan are convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Then a break. Normally a gang of criminals with somebody else convicted of their crimes would in these not so well information-connected times just move their show to someplace far away, assuming they are in the clear here. But although well organized they are apparently not that bright. They pull off a THIRD crime in the exact same town. This time it is a bank robbery, and they shoot it out with a cop in the street killing him. The lucky break - one of the bullets from the shoot out lodges in an apple that Mary buys for Brick to give to him during her visit at the penitentiary. She brings it to police Lieutenant Everett (Ralph Bellamy), and it is identified as a bullet from one of the same guns that were used in the other crimes.
Here's the dig. Nobody in authority thinks this is sufficient evidence to at least grant a stay of execution! Their excuse is that the third guy was never caught and he must have the gun. The prosecutor says his job is just to try cases - he's done that. The police say it is their job to collect evidence for open cases - there are none! You'd think that the possibility of two innocent guys being executed would be reason enough to break protocol. You'd be wrong. Only Everett, who sacrifices his career to do so, agrees to help Mary because that lone bullet makes him not so sure justice has been done. There is one more clue uncovered by Brick studying trial transcripts, but I'll let you watch and find out what that is and what happens.
Being released during the production code era, this film is rather surprising in its rather subtle indictment of the death penalty and not so subtle criticism of the sometimes robotic behavior of law enforcement, the follies of circumstantial evidence, and the reverse of the "bystander effect" in eyewitness identification. Maybe because Columbia was a small studio and there was no big build up of the film by the studio is the reason the censors did not react.
I'd recommend this one. If I have any criticism at all it is that Maureen O'Sullivan gives a rather shrill performance here. Maureen, the audience knows you are telling the truth and that time is running out, please calm down!
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