We're all kept "Hanging" in this suspenseful adaptation.
"Climax!" was one of the many anthology television series of the 1950s: supposedly with a narrower focus than most, since it allegedly dealt exclusively in tales of suspense, and was therefore in competition with 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents'. But 'Climax!' did not stay true to its mandate, and had some very non-suspenseful instalments ... including an excerpt from 'Huckleberry Finn', a biopic of Lou Gehrig, and a tribute to gossip columnist Louella Parsons!
This review is specifically for 'The Hanging Judge', a genuinely suspenseful episode from the second series of 'Climax!'. I was deeply intrigued to learn about this story's gestation. Adapted from Bruce Hamilton's novel 'Let Him Have Judgement', 'The Hanging Judge' was a stage play: the only play ever written by actor Raymond Massey, and the only stage play ever produced and directed (in Britain) by film director Michael Powell. Massey is in the cast of this tele-version, but he did not perform originally in his own play, which considerably alters the plot and focus of Hamilton's novel.
Sir Francis Britten (Cedric Hardwicke) is a London high-court judge who has sent many men to the gallows, and he has no qualms about this. He refuses to believe that an innocent man would panic or behave irrationally when falsely accused of a crime.
As is usual with such people, Sir Francis has a dark secret. More than twenty years ago, he had a sexual affair in Norfolk with a woman he did not intend to marry, resulting in the birth of a son out of wedlock. The son, Ted, proved to be sickly and mentally unstable, and Sir Francis has never acknowledged him. Ted and his mother lived in poverty in Norfolk, the mother eventually dying while Ted nurtured his resentment that Sir Francis, a wealthy and respected judge, has not deigned to help them.
Shortly after expounding his beliefs at the Adelphi Club in Pall Mall, Sir Francis makes one of his rare visits to his son, now an adult (Hurd Hatfield). But the demented Ted has planned his revenge. In Sir Francis's presence, Ted kills himself in a manner calculated to make it seem he has been murdered by Sir Francis. The judge panics; he tries to tamper with the evidence to clear himself, but only makes things worse.
Back at the Adelphi Club in London, Sir Francis tells a few ill-thought lies in an attempt to provide an alibi for his trip to Norfolk. But his lies backfire, only making his clubmates suspicious.
Eventually, Sir Francis finds himself charged with Fred's murder and standing in the dock in a Norfolk courtroom. He receives what he himself concedes is an absolutely fair trial ... yet he is falsely convicted on the evidence, and sentenced to death. Sir Francis now wonders how many of the men whom HE sent to their deaths were also falsely convicted.
There is, of course, a surprise ending.
There are several excellent performances here, notably from Raymond Massey as Sir George Sidney MP, a character not in Hamilton's original novel: a Parliamentary reformer who has long been Sir Francis's opponent, yet who now surprisingly aids him. Reginald Denny, cast against his usual type, is surprisingly good as a devious solicitor. Alan Marshal is excellent as the Javert-like Norfolk constable who pursues Sir Francis. John Carradine, who usually impresses me even in bad horror movies, merely goes through the motions here (with a bad accent) as a British colonel at the Adelphi Club. As the self-murdered man, Hatfield plays his role as the same neurasthenic degenerate whom he usually ended up portraying. Lumsden Hare is note-perfect as Major West, the Home Secretary who refuses to pardon the convicted judge.
Hamilton's original novel was largely introspective, taking place primarily in Sir Francis's mind and his conscience. This tele-adaptation, smoothly paced by director John Frankenheimer, opens up the plot splendidly. If all episodes of 'Climax!' were this good, that programme would surely have been one of the classic anthology series.
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