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This is the sort of thing that TV does rather well sometimes, a more or less true story with competent (but either over-the-hill or just-beginning) performers, no expensive special effects, and time enough for attention to detail if not one thousand takes per shot.
It's quite well done, a good example of the form. The cast is particularly good: Walter Pigeon as the somewhat biased judge, Martin Balsam as the raffish but sloppy defense counsel, David Spielberg as the waspy headline-grabbing prosecutor, Dean Jagger as an expert witness on carpentry, Cliff De Young as a cool, composed, remote Lindbergh (true to life, that is), and equally talented performers in multiple smaller roles. Anthony Hopkins is superb. He captures Hauptmann's brittleness and anxiety perfectly in a fine performance.
Did he do it? The movie doesn't tell us, although the final impression we're left with is that he is in fact guilty. His story of how he came by the marked bills in the ransom payoff is about as implausible as anyone could imagine, the worst Fisch story you ever heard.
Yet the prosecution's case was full of gaping holes and minor to major weaknesses, although the film doesn't make this clear. For instance, Colonel Lindbergh is called to a Bronx police station to listen to the members of a lineup shout out the kidnapper's words and try to identify the criminal. Lindbergh does so promptly and positively. Yet of the five men in the lineup, Hauptman is the only one with a German accent, which the police already knew the kidnapper had. And Lindbergh must identify the voice from the other side of a closed door. And the voice is one that he heard only from a distance, and two years earlier. Martin Balsam as Riley, defending Hauptmann, mentions none of this in his cross examination. The same is true for Joseph Cotton, who has never seen the kidnappers and who has earlier refused to identify Hauptmann's voice as that of the criminal. Two years is a long time to identify a muffled voice heard speaking only a few sentences on a dark night two years ago. And Spielberg's treatment of Hopkins on the witness stand is inexcusable. There were newsreel cameras in the courtroom at the time and Spielberg uses every dramatic trick in the book to influence the jury. What a performance! And afterward he does everything except face the cameras, flourish his cape, and take a bow. It's impossible to believe that such shenanigans could take place in a courtroom today, even the most lenient.
This was the original "crime of the century." Lindbergh was an icon. There were songs written about him ("Lucky Lindy") and dances named after him (the "Lindy Hop"). Hopewell, New Jersey, the scene of the kidnapping must have been a small quiet town in 1932 because it was still a small quiet town in 1972 when I lived nearby. The Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington however is almost unrecognizable. The building is the same but any view of it from the street is blocked by the shade trees that have matured since the movie cameras of 1934 captured it on film. Those same movie cameras show us a mass of onlooking, souvenier hackers, and journalists, screaming and swaying back and forth, a herd of African wild dogs savaging its prety.
The movie leaves one wondering about things like this: Dean Jagger's carpentry expert testifies that a board found at the scene of the crime was once part of the same larger plank that yielded a board built into the attic of Hauptmann's garage. Our technology is now so advanced that almost certainly more information could be gleaned from those two boards. I wonder where that evidence is now?
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