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Town on Trial

Town on Trial(1957)

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At a social club in the small British town of Oakley Park, provocatively dressed Molly Stevens plays tennis as an appreciative audience of male club members and their seething wives look on. That night, as Molly is strolling through the woods on her way home, she encounters a man with whom she is familiar. Suddenly alarmed by the man's erratic behavior, Molly screams, then falls to the ground dead, with a woman's stocking wrapped around her throat. Superintendent Mike Halloran and his assistant, Sgt. Beale, are called in from Scotland Yard to investigate, incurring the enmity of the local police force. A search of Molly's rooms turns up a newspaper classified ad featuring a quotation from the Bible about wreaking vengeance for a lover's betrayal, a book of love poems with an inscription from tennis club member Peter Crowley and a photo of Peter, Molly and Fiona Dixon, the daughter of a locally prominent family. Halloran then goes to the Crowley house to question Peter, who admits that he quarreled with Molly the previous night. Their conversation is interrupted by Peter's mother, who interjects that Peter broke up with Molly because she was having an affair with a married man, Mark Roper, who serves as the club's secretary. Halloran proceeds to the club, where he asks Roper about his relationship with Molly. When Roper denies that he was involved with Molly, Halloran wonders how Molly, a girl from a lower class background, gained admittance to the socially prestigious club. Noticing the school tie that Roper is wearing, Halloran shows him a scarf in the identical pattern that he found in Molly's drawer. Roper responds that he lent Molly the scarf because she was cold, then states that he was with nurse Elizabeth Fenner at the time of the murder. As Halloran is about to leave the club, he sees a woman waiting in Roper's office. Halloran's next stop is to see the coroner, who tells him that Molly was two months pregnant. Puzzled why Dr. John Fenner, the physician who certified Molly's death, failed to note the pregnancy in his report, Halloran goes to question Fenner, who admits that he withheld the information because he knew that Roper was the baby's father. The woman from Roper's office then appears, and Fenner introduces her as his niece, Elizabeth. Elizabeth confirms that she was with Roper at the time of the murder, but when the head nurse contradicts Elizabeth's statement, Halloran wonders why she is covering for Roper. Halloran then returns to question Roper, who, after boasting of his heroic feats during World War II, challenges the inspector to prove that he was the father of Molly's baby. Following a lead from a matchbook found in Molly's rooms, Halloran stakes out a local roadhouse where he witnesses some drunken young revelers smash their car while swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle. Recognizing Fiona among the revelers, Halloran drives her home and on the way asks her about her friendship with Molly. When Halloran arrives at the Dixon house, Mr. Dixon, determined to keep the family's good name out of the newspapers, forbids Halloran to question Fiona and threatens to report him to his superiors. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the local citizenry and constabulary, Halloran distributes a questionnaire aimed at eliciting witnesses to the murder. Intrigued by Elizabeth, Halloran invites her out to lunch, but she insists on going rowing instead, and refuses to disclose any information about the case. Upon returning home, Elizabeth sees her uncle furtively hang up the phone. After she mentions that Halloran suspects that Molly's killer may be insane, Fenner abruptly drives off to the Crowley house. There, Fenner, who has been treating the mentally unstable Peter, interrogates him about Molly's murder. Hearing the distress in her son's voice, Mrs. Crowley orders the doctor to leave, and tells Halloran about Fenner's visit. When Halloran asks Fenner about Peter's mental state, the doctor asserts that he is schizophrenic. As Halloran is about to leave the Fenner house, Roper arrives. When Elizabeth hears the two men arguing, she begins to worry about her uncle's erratic behavior and goes to search the hospital files, but is interrupted by the hospital secretary. Notified by the secretary about Elizabeth's furtive search, Halloran informs her that he has read her uncle's files and has learned that the doctor left Toronto after his misdiagnosis resulted in a patient's death. Elizabeth then confides that she fears Roper is blackmailing her uncle, prompting the inspector to drive back to the club where he calls Roper a liar and a cheat and discloses that he discovered that Roper was dishonorably discharged from the army and is deeply in debt. Upon returning to the police station, Halloran is confronted by Assistant Commissioner Beckett, who says that Dixon has filed a complaint against him. Defending his methods, Halloran warns that the murderer will strike again if not stopped. Upset by Roper's infidelity, the club members demand his resignation on the eve of the big dance. After getting drunk, Roper decides to attend the dance anyway and forces his wife Mary to accompany him. Halloran sends Beale to the dance, then invites Elizabeth to join him at a pub. At the club, Roper becomes furious over a perceived slight by one of the musicians and attacks the man, prompting Mary to walk out in shame. Later, Halloran and Elizabeth passionately embrace in his room, while at the club, a drunken Fiona dances provocatively. During a walk in the woods to cool off, Fiona sends her date, David, back to the club to fetch her a drink. Once she is alone, a man steps out from the trees and strangles her with a stocking. After Fenner leaves the dance and drives off, Beale notifies Halloran that Fiona is missing. Fenner, unaware that Fiona's body is in the trunk, stops at a gas station to refuel, and when the attendant notices a woman's hand dangling from the trunk, he opens the lid and hurries to notify the police. As Fenner, realizes that a body is in his trunk and speeds off, Halloran learns of the attendant's call. Soon after, Fenner comes to the police station and announces that Fiona is dead. When a note found in Fiona's purse contains the same Biblical quotation as the one found in Molly's room, Halloran takes Fenner to the club and there sequesters all the guests. Escorting Peter, Fenner and Roper into a room, Halloran reads the quotation and instructs them to write it down. Although Peter misspells "judgment," the same word that was misspelled in Fiona's note, Halloran does not have enough evidence to arrest him. Once he is released, Peter wanders the streets in a daze, followed by two detectives. The detectives wait outside when Peter enters a church, and soon after, he climbs out the window and onto the belfry, where he threatens to jump. Halloran climbs the belfry to talk to Peter, and finally taunts him into confessing to the murders. Becoming dizzy, Peter loses his footing and Halloran stretches out his hand to catch him. Although Peter grabs onto Halloran's hand, he begins to slip just as the hook and ladder crew rushes to save him. The ladder reaches the belfry just in time to rescue both Peter and Halloran. His mission accomplished, Halloran is about to leave Oakley Park for good when Elizabeth asks him to come back to see her.