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This film's relentless plotline marches straight-ahead forward as you squirm, fascinated, in your chair. The story is the familiar one about the onset of terminal illness within a solid American family of the 1940s. Never mind that it delves into MGM-style sermonizing; the great real-life husband/wife team of Fredric March and Florence Eldridge portray the couple whose once-comfortable lives are now being separated by an unstoppable and fast-advancing disease. The helpless husband, the uncomplaining wife, and their final attempt to recapture happier days with a doomed weekend outing is the stuff of deep film drama indeed. The sense of onrushing darkness is tangible through the film-noir camera shadings of Hal Mohr (Captain Blood, Phantom of the Opera , The Climax), and Daniele Amfitheatrof's rich musical score. "An Act of Murder" makes a profound statement on the value, and the fragility, of life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As Stanley Ridges says in An Act Of Murder what is hopeless today,
might be curable on Wednesday such are the advances of medicine. And
certainly we can treat and even cure more brain tumors today, even the
type that Florence Eldridge has in this film.
But in 1948 cancer on the brain was a certain death sentence. At this time young Johnny Gunther was going through the same kind of struggle which his father would chronicle in Death Be Not Proud. Also the public remembered the premature death of George Gershwin from such an illness. Certainly Fredric March's character would also have been aware of these things, most definitely about Gershwin.
An Act Of Murder casts March and Eldrige as a small town Pennsylvania judge and his wife with Geraldine Brooks as their daughter. March is a rigid by the book judge known as Old Maximum because of the harsh sentences imposed. March has cross swords with defense attorney Edmond O'Brien in court so he's not real thrilled with Brooks going out with him, but Eldridge supports her daughter.
But when after having some dizzy spells, Eldridge goes to see their doctor Stanley Ridges, he finds out that she's got a terminal brain tumor and her suffering will increase exponentially. He's got a real crisis on his hands. Mercy killing is an option he considers and true to his rigid code, March confesses to killing her to relieve her suffering and is put on trial for it. Guess who gets to defend him?
Even with the Code parameters strictly enforced at this time, euthanasia was a daring subject to tackle in 1948. The ending which I won't reveal is a cop out, but they could have done little else at the time given the censorship restrictions.
March, Eldridge, and the rest of the cast are brilliant. An Act Of Murder raises questions still hotly contested today.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is like the forgotten good film in Fredric March's career. People
talk about ANTHONY ADVERSE, DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE, THE BEST YEARS OF
OUR LIVES, INHERIT THE WIND, or THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN, but AN
ACT OF MURDER is rarely recalled because of it's odd story. At a time
when American film audiences wanted to forget World War II and the
death and destruction it entailed, March and his wife Florence Eldrich
appeared in the only film where their roles were equally important
where the subject was euthanasia. It was well told, with March as Judge
Cooke, a fiercely strict jurist who rarely showed a drop of mercy
towards a convicted defendant. He finds his beloved wife is dying of an
incurable, and slowly debilitating disease. While she slowly declines
(and very visibly shows her own suffering) the Judge grimly determines
to kill her by a convenient car accident. But after the accident the
Judge confesses, and faces conviction in his own courthouse. Only at
the last moment is he saved from the unforgiving penal code he is
It is well acted (Edmond O'Brien giving good support as a liberal-minded attorney who is romancing March and Eldrich's daughter). But the best part is watching the chemistry between March and Eldrich. Only their joint appearances in ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST and INHERIT THE WIND come close to this, but Eldrich's parts in those films is not as essential as her role in this one. And the subject matter is rarely tackled (certainly not in the 1930s or 1940s). If the end is a bit of a cop-out (the trial reveals that March is not guilty) it still is a brave subject to have tackled at all.
"An Act of Murder" is a gripping and deeply emotional story about a
tough judge, Frederic March, who learns from the family doctor, Stanley
Ridges, that his wife, Florence Eldridge, has a fatal, inoperable and
painful illness of the brain. This is kept from Eldridge until she
accidentally discovers it, and then she doesn't let March know that she
knows. Meanwhile she is experiencing a lot of pain and disability.
Edmond O'Brien plays a lawyer who is going with March's daughter, Geraldine Brooks. That sub-plot eventually ties in with the main plot through a trial sequence in the last part of the movie.
The acting of everyone in this movie is phenomenal. Florence Eldridge is so good that she made me nervous. The director had to be good to get such a uniform excellence from his cast. He was Michael Gordon, whom I had never before noted. But now looking at his work, we can see that he directed a succession of very good films, indeed.
I'd seen this movie before, but its worth was lost on me the first time around. "An Act of Murder" appears in film noir lists. It is a social-noir or a morality story-noir or family-noir primarily, with crime coming into it. There are tough crime-laden noirs like "Raw Deal". There are very dark ones that involve morality like "Act of Violence" and "Reckless Moment", and these get into family life but the psychological darkness of one or two people really prevail in the drama and mark it. And there are other noirs that mostly involve family life like "Pitfall", "No Man of Her Own", and "A Stolen Life" that are, in some sense, more having to do with family or a moral issue in a family. "An Act of Murder" is more in the latter set.
The concept of tempering legality with compassion is a daring, slippery
slope. It is today as it was in 1948 when this challenging film was
Fortunately, this drama has the great acting team Florence Eldridge and Fredric March in the lead roles, lending both power and sensitivity to their characterizations. While conceding that the law must by its nature be clear and committed, one can also empathize with the human challenges faced in the case of a terminally ill loved one who is in great pain and suffering.
Where does one draw the line in such cases, especially when a spouse accused of murder emphatically pleads guilty? It's a tough situation created here, and one that must either tread the path of legal justice or find extenuating circumstances to help relieve the inevitable sentence.
"An Act of Murder" manages to walk this tightrope with considerable balance, thanks to an outstanding cast and some petty talented writers. The film also may be considered a "lost work," despite the pairing of Mr. and Mrs. March in the lead roles.
It's also interesting to see only a single bona fide professional review in the IMDb, as though this subject may have been (and still may be) too tough to handle. The most complete review (by Bosley Crowther of the NY Times) expresses the critic's general reaction without declaring a firm stance on the controversial subject of euthanasia. And perhaps this is the best we can ever get, for the topic may be too challenging for us mortals to ever definitively solve.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a rather masterful film with, I think, one flaw.
First, considering it was made in 1948, the topic of euthanasia was not one often the topic of a motion picture. This film is definitely before its time (if we're even really at "that time" now). And, for the most part, the director handled the topic in a sensitive manner.
The acting here is superb. Although Fredric March is not a name many younger moviegoers may be familiar with, when it comes right down to it, there were few more dependable actors during Hollywood's golden age...and all the way from silent pictures to 1973! My personal favorite is his role in "Inherit The Wind" opposite Spencer Tracy. He doesn't let us down here as a stern judge who commits (or did he) euthanasia. His wife here is played by his real wife -- Florence Eldridge (who appeared as his wife, and not, in several other pictures with him, including "Inherit The Wind". A very fine performance in both films, here as a wife facing a excruciatingly painful death. The third key player here is Edmund O'Brien, a terribly underrated actor, here playing a young lawyer who has come up against the stern judge, but who defends him because he is dating the judge's daughter.
Stanley Ridge, as the doctor, and Will Wright have fine roles. I was not particularly impressed with Geraldine Brooks as the daughter, but no significant criticism. There are other character actors you will recognize, as well. Overall a very good cast.
I mentioned that I thought there was one flaw, and it is the sole reason I won't give this film an "8". It's a very compelling story, and then in the very last scene -- March's mea culpa for planning to kill his wife to put her out of her suffering -- seems a little sappy, and perhaps whipped together to bring about a quick end to the film. And, it was pretty clear from the beginning that the stern old judge would learn compassion during the story. But aside from that, a truly fine film, and one I'm thinking of adding to my DVD collection when it again becomes available.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I recorded this film last night on TCM and I am watching it now. I
think it is rather well made, with some extraordinary performances, but
a few things do not work for me.
First, I want to discuss the scene where she experiences wincing pain and breaks the mirror in the bedroom while she is packing. We get this quick dramatic scene and then it is not mentioned again. Of course, the filmmakers are letting us know, by foreshadowing it, how fatal her prognosis is. But how did she explain to her husband the mirror getting broken? And even if she had it fixed without his knowledge, wouldn't she know at that moment that there is something terribly wrong with her? People having good days do not go around smashing bedroom mirrors.
Second, and this plot point might seem minor, but why is it that when they pack to go on their trip he takes the note explaining her full medical condition? Obviously, the filmmakers have neatly included it in his suitcase so that she can find it and learn about her situation. But wouldn't he have have left this information in his office or already sent it on to the local physician?
And third, now this is what bothers me most, because it is certainly not addressed-- but when he gets behind the wheel during the raging storm with his wife in the passenger seat-- how does he know that his plan to kill her will be successful? What if he kills himself in the process, too? Can we assume that he was not only homicidal but suicidal as well? Yet, did he ever take into account the possibility that he may not survive the wreck but his wife could? If so, what good would that accident have done? Obviously, in the very next scene we see that his plan apparently succeeded and the only visible evidence that he was even in a serious crash is the cane he walks with for the rest of the picture. He has no disabilities or scars (not even a bruise or scratch) while his wife conveniently (and mercifully?) experienced a much more final outcome.
Finally, another thing that didn't make sense to me is: when did she figure out he was giving her something stronger than aspirin? And how was she to know how toxic it was? So was her overdose intentional or accidental? This is not really explained, even later at the trial. It seems a bit hard to believe that she would have put the drugs into her purse without him realizing that she had taken them.
What seems to be happening at one turn after another in this picture is that the filmmakers are trying to dramatize a philosophical thesis about mercy killing. But because they have fully worked out all the plot details, we are left to wonder if this could have been a better film than it is and if the points could have been made more smoothly and convincingly. As it is we are left with an artistic statement about a difficult decision regarding the quality or end of life, but we are given it in uneven terms and in a scope that is overshadowed by contrivance instead of the social realism they may have been striving to attain.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Opens most promisingly with sweeping tracking shots through courtroom
corridors, but all too soon this courtroom drama inventiveness makes
way for a more conventional weepie with mercy killing overtones.
Nevertheless, it is superbly photographed by Hal Mohr, and brilliantly
acted by the entire cast from the star roles so convincingly
characterized by Fredric March and his real-life wife, Florence
Eldridge, down to support players like Stanley Ridges and John
McIntyre. As the daughter, Geraldine Brooks, gives such a warmly
realistic performance, I wondered what happened to her. It seems this
was her fourth film. She made her debut in Cry Wolf (1947) in which she
was billed third. In Possessed, she was fourth; for Embraceable You
(1948), only the number one star, Dane Clark, was billed above her.
After Act of Murder, she achieved fourth billing in The Younger
Brothers (1949), co-starred with James Mason and Joan Bennett in The
Reckless Moment, and then played the female lead in Challenge to
Lassie. Geraldine Brooks then made a far-reaching decision by accepting
the lead role on TV in a Ford Theatre episode, The Farmer Takes a Wife
(1949). Second-billed Dane Clark played the farmer. After making two
Italian movies, including Volcano (1950), she returned to Hollywood and
spent the rest of her life in TV roles except for The Green Glove
(1952), Street of Sinners (1957) and Mr Ricco (1975) finishing with
three episodes of Executive Suite (1976). She died at the young age of
51 on June 19, 1977.
Anyway, getting back to Act of Murder, the various title changes aptly convey the desperate attempts of the film's producers to sell it to an indifferent box-office. The theme is controversial enough, but hardly the right formula for postwar escapist entertainment. Of course, there was a fledgling art house circuit, but any chance it might have had with ethically committed moviegoers is somewhat negated by the way the plot neatly side-steps many of the moral, legal, ethical and medical questions it raises. Yet, despite this narrative slickness, the atmosphere of Act.../Case.../Live.../I Stand... remains uncompromisingly bleak.
Here Fredric March plays criminal court judge Calvin Cooke who has a
reputation as a sort of "hanging judge" so that he has earned the
nickname of "old man Maximum". Edmond O'Brien plays a defense attorney
arguing a case before the judge. While O'Brien's character looks at the
spirit of the law, Judge Cooke looks only at the letter of it and it is
obvious from the opening court scene that the two do not like each
other. What do they have in common? They both love the judge's only
Now this doesn't mean that the judge is a bad guy. He likes his community, adores his wife of twenty years (Florence Eldridge as Catherine Cooke), and loves his daughter.
But more trouble is afoot than just a suitor for his daughter's hand that the judge dislikes. His wife Catherine has been having headaches, dizziness, and has been dropping things due to numbness in her hands. She confides in a friend who also happens to be a doctor that she has "a friend" with these symptoms, and the doctor sees through her ruse and says that she should come to his Philadelphia office the next day for a check-up. She does that, but lies to Calvin and says she is going shopping.
This is where I do some head scratching. The news is bad - Catherine has a type of inoperable brain tumor that means a certain and painful death. The doctor tells Catherine that everything is fine. Who does he call? After sticking a cancer stick in his mouth to relieve the stress (????) the good doctor calls Calvin, her husband and tells HIM the truth. They both decide to not tell Catherine, the ACTUAL patient, the truth. Later when Catherine finds out, she decides not to talk about it either, even though by the way she found out she must know that her husband knows. Why isn't anybody talking to anybody about this woman's illness? Everybody just goes on pretending. Maybe this is the way it was 60 years ago, and that is one reason I love classic film - it gives you real insight into a bygone era about how people handled life, in this case illness, the fact that doctors routinely smoked, that grown daughters lived at home and pretty much went from the custody of their fathers to their husbands, and that it was acceptable for a policeman to shoot a dog that had been run over by a car in plain view of the general public - a mercy killing. This last incident happens as the judge is walking down the street to get pain medicine for his wife that just isn't doing the job. The implication is that mercy killing is on the mind of "old man Maximum" too. How will all of this work out? Watch and find out.
Even though all of the characters in this film are basically "good people" with good intentions, you could almost classify this one as a noir, because there are no easy answers, no possible way to a happy ending. I've seen a restored version of this film on Turner Classic Movies in the last year, so I wish Universal would find some way to get it out to the public. The questions the film raises are still relevant today. Highly recommended.
Caught this tough 1948 drama on TCM, which seems to have been out of circulation for a while. It's about a tough, by-the-book judge (Fredric March) who discovers his wife (Florence Eldridge, March's real-life spouse) has a fatal, painful disease, and rather clumsily plots a mercy killing. This means that for much of the film's length we have to watch Eldridge suffer, suffer, and it's quite uncomfortable viewing. There are plot conveniences that one other poster lists, and also the debatable position posed by the family doctor (Stanley Ridges, also good) that Eldridge should be lied to about her prognosis. Hal Mohr's photography thrusts itself deep into the Marches' anguish, and plot and subplot are contrivedly merged when Edmond O'Brien, as the liberal attorney who's romancing the Marches' daughter (Geraldine Brooks), injects himself into March's murder trial. Then there's some unconvincing, unsolvable philosophizing about euthanasia, and fadeout. I find a number of faults: Daniel Amfitheatrof's hyperactive musical score, which needlessly underlines everything, and was there ever a less appealing juvenile than pudgy, charmless Edmond O'Brien? But the issues are real, the debate is tense, and Mr. and Mrs. March are superb. Now if only TCM would find a way to show their other excellent co-starring vehicle from back then, also Universal and also directed by Michael Gordon, "Another Part of the Forest."
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