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True story of Clarence Gideon's fight to be appointed counsel at the expense of the state. This landmark case led to the Supreme Court's decision which extended this right to all criminal defendants.Written by
Steve Walker <email@example.com>
In the first trial, when the bailiff is swearing in Lester Wade, he instructs him to "raise your right hand" [the audio of this is clipped]. However, Lester actually places his right hand on the bible and raises his left hand. On all other occasions in the movie, witnesses actually raise their right hands (and put their left hands on the bible) when being sworn in. See more »
[discussing a person's right to have an adequate defense during a trial]
What I'd like to say to the Court is: "Let's not talk; let's go down there and watch one of these fellows try to defend themselves".
See more »
Watching this flick I kept mulling over how many actors had played lawyers in other movies. Let's see. Lane Smith, of course, in "My Cousin Vinnie" (and "Nixon," I guess), John Houseman in "The Paper Trail," Dean Jagger in "Twelve O'Clock High," Jose Ferrer in "The Caine Mutiny" and "Blood and Orchids," and probably others that I've missed. I kept waiting for E. G. Marshall and John Williams to pop up. Henry Fonda, certainly, brought resonance to his role as well. He was the unjustly convicted Manny Balistrero in "The Wrong Man." And he, too, was a lawyer in "Young Mr. Lincoln."
This is pretty well done, both technically and thematically. It's an important story and is refreshingly free of stereotypes. The Florida court that convicts Fonda of burglary is a just one and operates under the law, as it then existed. And Fonda is no rabble rousing spokesman for the little man either. He's been in prison 5 times before, for crimes such as burglary and "possession of government property." (I'd like to hear more about that.) He's not doing this so that "all men will be free" or any of that bunkum. He's doing it because he's angry at having been denied a lawyer simply because he couldn't afford one.
As he labors over the law books in the prison library, he shows concern only over the fate of one other inmate, a black guy. This is one of those instances in which the story looks a little corny. Here, and where the writers give Clarence Earl Gideon the charisma of Cool Hand Luke with the other prisoners, an increasing number of them, following him back and forth to the mailbox and the warden's office and cheering loudly when the Supreme Court agrees to his request. (I don't believe they cheered for another man's success; I don't believe the writers ever met an inmate or saw the inside of a penitentiary.)
The production had a bit of a problem with the focus puller too. But, that aside, this is really pretty instructive. The Supreme Court evidently agreed to review his case not because they felt sorry for him but because they felt ready for a change in the existing rules about due process. Gideon was the right man in the right place. Luck had a lot to do with his success. Equally interesting is Fonda's performance. He was never a ham and was always minimally expressive. It works here because Gideon is played as a grouchy, angry, taciturn loner who minds his own business. A lesser script would have made him bombastic and articulate but this Gideon stumbles over words while reading aloud. The scene in which Fonda chokes up when he receives the news from Abe Fortas about the Court agreeing to review his case is as moving as it is because Fonda underplays it.
Dare I suggest that in this film, playing a skinny, tattooed, unfriendly convict, he does a better job than he did in his convict's role in Hitchcock's movie? Or even that this is one of his best performances, period? The photography and locations are pretty good too. The stale, almost empty courtroom during Fonda's trial, the silence and boredom of all involved, rather match the almost sensible heat of the Florida summer and the interiors baking under the sun.
Lane Smith, as Fonda's counselor in his retrial, is simply great -- sneaky and dark, almost villainous in the glee with which he attacks the prosecution's witnesses and frees Fonda. What a contrast to his performance as the affable prosecutor in "My Cousin Vinnie." Hallmark Productions are often soporific or -- let me say -- family oriented, but this one makes a few demands on a viewer, all for the good. Watch it if you have the chance. It doesn't seem to be on very often.
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