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An Act of Murder

An Act of Murder(1948)


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teaser An Act of Murder (1948)

Hollywood produced movies about many difficult issues - rape, racism, miscegenation, anti-Semitism, addiction, problems of returning veterans, and more - during the post-World War II boom in social-problem pictures. Among the bolder and more unusual items was An Act of Murder, a 1948 drama dealing with euthanasia.

Although it initially opened under the title Live Today for Tomorrow, the film's permanent title is exactly right for it, marking the legal ambiguity between an "act of mercy" and a "murderous act." The film explores that ambiguity through the story of a family compelled to deal with it in a frighteningly urgent way. It's a smart and sensitive drama with a top-notch cast, and while Edmond O'Brien fans might be disappointed that he appears in only a handful of scenes, he's every bit as effective as Fredric March and March's real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, in their more central roles.
,br>An Act of Murder conveys some crucial facts about March's character, Calvin Cooke, before the opening credits are over. He's a judge in Pennsylvania, and he prides himself on running a dispassionate, emotion-free courtroom. Some of the locals see him a bit differently, though, and the nickname they've given him - Old Man Maximum - sums up the dour side of his reputation. At home, he has a loving wife named Catherine (Eldridge) and a sprightly daughter named Ellie (Geraldine Brooks) who wants to marry David Douglas, an idealistic defense lawyer played by O'Brien with a finely tuned blend of earnestness and congeniality.

The picture begins with conflict in Calvin's courtroom. A murder defendant's life is at stake, and the judge is going by the book. As the defense attorney, though, David calls for mercy, arguing - unsuccessfully - that the lawbreaker's motives and intentions should be considered when punishment is decided. The main storyline comes into focus that evening, when Catherine gets dizzy and momentarily loses control of one of her hands. Calvin is welcoming a dinner guest and doesn't see the incident. But the dinner guest happens to be Walter Morrison, the family's trusted physician, and Catherine intimates to him that she's been suffering from such spells for many months. The next day Walter examines her in his office, and later he calls Calvin with alarming news: Catherine has an incurable illness that will inflict severe, intractable pain before killing her.

Calvin refuses to accept the diagnosis at first. Walter has already sent the results of his exam to specialists in other cities, though, and all concur. The prognosis is so grim that the doctor has nothing to offer except a prescription for a powerful painkiller, so toxic that it must be taken very sparingly. He also beseeches Calvin not to tell Catherine what's in store for her, insisting that ignorance will allow her greater enjoyment of what little time she has left. Calvin reluctantly gives out the lie that nothing's really wrong with her, and she responds with relief and joy.

But shortly afterward Catherine and Calvin go on a second honeymoon together - they've just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary - and she stumbles on the awful truth. Her immediate reaction is to tidy up family affairs, such as talking Calvin into accepting David as a potential son-in-law despite the differences in their legal philosophies. Then her pain kicks in for real, bringing panic and despair to her and her loved ones.

In recent decades, Hollywood has dealt with euthanasia in excellent movies like Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004) and disappointing ones like John Badham's Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981). Back in 1948, however, the Production Code censors were in firm control and their conservative ethics ruled the studios. While mercy killing wasn't specifically mentioned in the Code, censors felt it was simply murder in disguise, which meant it could be treated only in ways that showed unequivocal respect for conventional moral standards.

As if this issue weren't delicate enough by itself, An Act of Murder also touches on suicide, which both Calvin and Catherine consider as a way out of their misery. Suicide wasn't explicitly named in the Code either, but studios were required not to "lessen regard for the sacredness of life," so extreme caution was required if a script called for a character to end it all. Here again An Act of Murder pushes the envelope, making suicide a key element in the story's climax.

Perhaps distracted a bit by these balancing acts, the movie falls back on coincidence more than once to propel the narrative or drive home a point. The family physician shows up just as Catherine's symptoms start to escalate, for instance, and exactly when Calvin starts brooding about her condition, he witnesses a cop putting an injured dog out of its misery. The resolution of the plot is a textbook example of what the ancient Greeks called a deus ex machina, resolving the story's profound moral issues with a plot twist that's too opportune for comfort, and adding a simplistically "uplifting" final speech to pacify the Code office. Inevitably and predictably, the judge must be shown to have acted honorably and to realize now that motives and intentions matter as much as the letter of the law.

If the movie is plausible, involving, and intelligent despite these lapses - and it is, most of the time - credit goes largely to the terrific actors who bring it alive. March brings conviction and dignity to Old Man Maximum, making him interesting and sympathetic even when he's being stubborn or dogmatic. Eldridge is utterly believable in the physically and psychologically demanding role of Catherine, and O'Brien makes David an able adversary for the judge and an amiable suitor for the judge's daughter. Kudos also go to John McIntire as the no-nonsense jurist who presides over the court proceedings that conclude the picture.

An Act of Murder is less candid and persuasive than it might have been if made 20 years later, but its boldness is remarkable by the standards of its day. It holds up very well as a family drama, a courtroom drama, and a tale of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges as best they can.

Director: Michael Gordon
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort and Robert Thoeren; based on Ernst Lothar's novel The Mills of God
Cinematographer: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
With: Fredric March (Judge Calvin Cooke), Edmond O'Brien (David Douglas), Florence Eldridge (Catherine Cooke), Geraldine Brooks (Ellie Cooke), Stanley Ridges (Dr. Walter Morrison), John McIntire (Judge Ogden), Frederic Tozere (Charles Dayton), Will Wright (Judge Jim Wilder), Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Russell), Francis McDonald (Mr. Russell), Mary Servoss (Julia), Clarence Muse (Mr. Pope)

by David Sterritt

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