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I was baited and switched into watching this film..
... , being the highlighted film on a night of films on Turner Classic Movies starring Gene Hackman who is nary to be found, but I'm OK with that because it was very good. The central figure is a newly appointed Hispanic judge in New Mexico, just twelve years after the territory has become a state. George Maharis plays that young judge, Ben Lewis. He is generally accepted by the legal community, but they have some doubts, some voiced some not, somewhat because of his inexperience, and somewhat because he is of Mexican heritage.
The central legal case has to do with a local real estate salesman found crying next to his recently murdered wife. (Earl Holliman as Brian Talbot). He is arrested for the crime, and although the evidence is completely circumstantial and Talbot never waivers in his declaration of innocence, he is convicted. The only penalty the law allows is death, and thus the older judge, who has been presiding, sentences him to hang, which is the only sentence he can give him. Ben can't help thinking that Talbot's past behavior, the fact that the whole town knew he gave his wife an STD that caused her to have a hysterectomy, the fact that she punished Ben for this by being openly promiscuous for years, was the real reason for his conviction.
The older judge then goes off on a fishing jaunt, thinking the work is done. What he doesn't know is that things are about to really get tricky. When Talbot is hauled to the hangman's noose, and I mean as in kicking and screaming, he makes Daffy Duck look like a profile in courage. He is crying and struggling all of the way, and then in his attempt to avoid that noose on the scaffold he falls off, taking the hangman with him. The hangman hits his head on a rock and then dies. Talbot is alright. So now they have to wait until the next day for another hangman.
In the interim the real murderer writes out a confession and commits suicide. Now the town needs a judge again, to absolve Talbot of the original crime, and to deal with the fact that he did cause the death of the hangman in clear view of two dozen people, and what penalty or charge should be attached to that action. With the older judge out of town and unreachable, it falls to young judge Ben Lewis to handle a case that might make the supreme court scratch their collective heads. After he receives briefs from both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, he is off to study case law, read the attorneys' briefs, and even discuss the case with legal scholars. Oh, and then there is that pesky conscience of his too.
I think this was supposed to be a film about the death penalty, about its finality and its justice, as viewed from the eyes of a man who has made it to the office of judge but is still not given his dues because of lingering prejudice. And that prejudice does not stop with the white community. Katy Jurado as Ben's mother is ultra traditional, very unhappy with Ben's current blue eyed blonde girlfriend, and wants him to marry a Mexican girl. I think Ben rightly sums it up when he says she wants to continue to rule over the house even after his marriage and knows an Anglo girl won't take being bossed around.
I'd give this film an eight if not for so much of the injection of Ben's love life into the film. I know this was 1967 and that Hollywood was just so excited that they could finally show couples in bed together, but Ben's behavior with women ultimately made him look like a
well not Tom or Harry, the other guy. And his ultimate decision in
his love life had me going "What the...?". It just went against everything he had been saying and doing up to that point.
This film supposedly got Gene Hackman noticed, at least the TCM host said that it did, but I don't know why because he has few lines and plays his part like the supporting role that it is.
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