Classic Movies

Happy birthday, Edmond O’Brien: An Act of Murder (1948)


The photo above is a still from a 1947 noir entitled The Web, a great little suspenser starring Edmond O’Brien—who celebrates a birthday today, and you can read about it at Radio Spirits—as an attorney hired by criminal no-good Vincent Price to be his bodyguard…but ends up in much more trouble than he bargained.  (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave William Bendix is also in the movie, as evidenced by the still, as well as Ella Raines.)  The Web has yet to be released on legitimate DVD—there are a few places around the web (well, you have to admit, the pun is certainly apropos) where you can get a bootleg copy—truth be told, I can’t even remember the last time I saw it on broadcast TV.  I do recall the first time I saw the movie; it was on the once-proud AMC, which will give you an idea of how long that’s been.

I still wistfully recall the time when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ first began transmissions…and the reaction by AMC (which was still going by American Movie Classics at that time) was that they weren’t threatened—one of their execs stressed that there was room enough for two classic film channels.  It didn’t take long for folks to realize that that statement was going to turn up in a future edition of The Giant Book of Big Stinky Lies because there wasn’t—since TCM owned their own film library and AMC did not, something would eventually have to give…and it came in the form of commercial interruptions during their movies, followed by “Well, what is a classic movie anyway?  Predator?  That’s a classic, innit?”

The downside to all this is that a lot of good movies that made the rounds on AMC pretty much disappeared down a rabbit hole; The Web is one of them, as is Another Part of the Forest (1948)—which also features today’s birthday boy.  Both of these features were made at Universal International, and unless TCM has a vested interest in leasing either one (again, they have their own film library thank-you-very-much) fans probably won’t see them any time soon (you would not believe the number of people I’ve come across who’ve not seen Forest, the entertaining prequel to 1941’s The Little Foxes).  AMC, in the meantime, is busy with their shows about zombies and people manufacturing meth for fun and profit.

But enough of the AMC rant (and believe me, I could go for days on end about this).  Last month, as part of Tee Cee Em’s Summer Under the Stars, the channel dedicated the 27th as the day to feature movies with Ed…and one of the movies (a TCM premiere, as it were) was An Act of Murder (1948), a film that had been on my radar screen for some time now.  O’Brien isn’t the star of the movie; he plays the secondary role of a dedicated attorney, but the movie was mentioned in Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward’s film noir encyclopedia…and here at TDOY, an unseen noir is like a hot fudge sundae, baby.

Fredric March in An Act of Murder (1948)

Fredric March plays Calvin Cooke, a stern Pennsylvania judge who’s just won a legal tussle with O’Brien’s legal eagle David Douglas.  Cooke is a strict “letter-of-the-law” jurist (his nickname is “Old Man Maximum”), while Douglas harbors some of those liberal legal theories that unfortunately can’t get his client off for murder.  Douglas is getting the last laugh, however; he’s dating Cooke’s daughter Ellie (Geraldine Brooks), also a law student…and no doubt filling her head with a lot of that fancy-schmancy nonsense.  Judge Cooke learns of David and Ellie’s coupling at an anniversary get-together at his house that evening, where he’s celebrating twenty years of being manacled to his devoted wife Catherine (Florence Eldridge).

Catherine has been experiencing bouts of pain and dizziness of late, which she’s successfully concealed from her husband and daughter up till now—but she makes inquiries about her condition to a family friend (though it’s hinted that he was also one of her old flames) and physician, Dr. Walter Morrison (Stanley Ridges).  Dr. M has Catherine in for some tests…and the prognosis is negative.  She’s suffering from one of those fatal movie diseases that will only bring about further pain—not even the medication Morrison will prescribe will alleviate her suffering as the disease progresses.  The doc decides not to tell Catherine about any of this: instead, he confides in Calvin…who then decides that in order to take her mind off the pain he’ll take Catherine on a second honeymoon at a resort area that the two first visited as newlyweds.

“I wonder if it was the french fries that made me nauseous?”

Calvin and Catherine experience delirious fun together…but Catherine succumbs to yet another bout of pain, and it is excruciating.  As Calvin races home, the two of them are stranded in a roadside garage/diner while a mechanic (Francis McDonald) attempts to fix their car and his wife (Virginia Brissac) does what she can to alleviate Catherine’s attacks.  Back on the road during a rainstorm, Calvin is torn up at seeing his wife suffer so…and makes the decision to drive over an embankment.  He survives the crash—Cathy does not.

When he’s finally mended to the point where he’s able to return to the bench, Calvin instead presents himself in the office of the District Attorney; he confesses to Cathy’s murder, and demands to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  In court, Calvin refuses any legal help but at Ellie’s insistence, David is able to convince the judge to let him defend Cooke in a most controversial case.

The subject addressed in An Act of Murder is mercy killing; whether or not the deliberate taking of the life of a person that’s suffering from something like terminal cancer is morally/legally wrong.  After all, we wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a horse with a broken leg, or put a pet who’s past his prime to sleep—but should this principle apply to humans?  I won’t dwell too much on this only because I’m hesitant of giving away too much of how Murder approaches the subject; I loved the movie, you understand—it’s extremely well-written by Michael Blankfort and Robert Thoeren from Ernst Lothar’s novel The Mills of God, and features top-notch direction from the soon-to-be-blacklisted Michael Gordon.  But its ending is a tremendous cop-out—though it almost had to be, considering the tenor of the times.  (It’s possible to enjoy a movie even if the ending makes you do an eye-roll; my friend Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence submits Suspicion [1941] as Exhibit A…and I would throw in both The Woman in the Window [1944] and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry [1945] as well.)

The strengths of Murder lie in its casting; March and Eldridge are phenomenal together as the Cookes, possibly explained by the fact that they were husband-and-wife in real life.  (Though the two appeared in a number of movies together, only a few of those feature them as married to each other like the aforementioned Forest and Inherit the Wind [1960].)  The two thesps make such a wonderful couple that I was kind of hoping Murder would drop the mercy-killing angle and just feature them settling down in some small town somewhere—maybe Judge Cooke could take up his law practice again.  For Murder’s plot to work, you have to really be convinced that watching his wife suffer is so unbearable to Calvin that he’d entertain the idea of putting her out of her misery (despite his deep-seated beliefs)…and March, so help me, pulls it off with effortless aplomb.  This is not meant to slight Eldridge, however; she’s equally sensational (as she always is).

March, Geraldine Brooks, and Edmond O’Brien

Both O’Brien and Brooks are shunted to the background for the most part—which as well as it should be, since it’s Calvin and Cathy’s story, not theirs—though O’Brien does figure in a subplot in which he challenges a ruling by March’s judge by suggesting he presided over a case with a prejudicial mind.  Plenty of familiar character faces show up in this one: I enjoyed seeing OTR veterans John McIntire and Will Wright as fellow judges, and spotted Don Beddoe, Renie Riano and Ray Teal in bit parts.  One of my favorite character thesps, Clarence Muse, has a dandy bit as a man who sells flowers outside the courthouse, and March’s Cooke has a ritual in which he purchases one in the presence of his wife.  The first day back after the accident, March is at a loss for words to explain to Muse why he won’t need the posies anymore.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this was the first and last time we’ll see An Act of Murder (or as it is also known, Live Today for Tomorrow) on TCM (though I pray I’m wrong about this)—so if you missed it when it was on…you missed it.  You might have to track down somebody who made certain to DVR it…why is everyone looking at me all of a sudden?


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