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Town on Trial

Town on Trial(1957)

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"Sony Pictures' Screen Classics By Request," an unwieldy label that doesn't actually appear on the packaging of this line of made-on-demand DVDs (a line also known as "The Columbia Pictures Classics Collection"), has proven so far to be a mixed bag. Matching the awkward label is, well, an awkward set of new titles every month that runs from outright bombs to films that could be called, at best, ordinary -- and certainly not worthy of the hefty price tag of around twenty dollars per disc. A recent slate of offerings, for example, included the stinkeroos Escape From San Quentin (1957), For Singles Only (1968) and Lovelines (1984).

However, sometimes mixed among such head-scratching titles are a few solid and desirable studio-era pictures, like Ladies in Retirement (1941) or 711 Ocean Drive (1950), or obscurities that are actually quite worthy of rediscovery, such as the recently issued The Missing Juror (1945) or Town on Trial (1957), the latter a British mystery and police procedural that seems to have come out of absolutely nowhere.

John Mills steals the show as a hard-bitten detective trying to solve the murder of the most beautiful young woman in Oakley Park, England (or as some villagers would call her: the town tramp). On the surface, the film simply follows Mills as he pokes around interviewing residents and examining crime scenes (there is more than one murder), narrowing the list of suspects down to a small handful. But the mystery of the killer's identity is the least interesting aspect of Town on Trial -- it's not a huge surprise when it's revealed, and the film overall is not particularly suspenseful until the climax.

Instead, what lifts the movie to something considerably more absorbing is the intelligent depiction of the town's residents and social dynamics. This prosperous little place ends up containing a host of tensions, secrets and interpersonal hostilities that belie its surface charm, and while the effect doesn't rise quite to the level of the best American melodramas and noirs of the 1950s, which delve beneath a surface of fake domestic tranquility to reveal deep societal unease, it does nonetheless serve as an engaging British variant of what was happening in '50s American filmmaking. One unspoken subtext is of course class, a subject that permeates seemingly every British film in one way or another. Issues of serious social etiquette and unwed pregnancy also come up, and there is even a touch of Rebel Without a Cause-like teen alienation and parent-teen anxieties.

Mills' relentlessly focused, no-nonsense detective (who seems like a British version of Glenn Ford) keeps these issues from overwhelming the movie and turning it into something too abstract and metaphorical. In the end, the balance is just fine, and the credit for this must go to director John Guillermin, who in later years would achieve fame for directing The Towering Inferno (1974) but also made notable films like Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), The Blue Max (1966) and The Bridge at Remagen (1969) along the way. He is extremely effective here (in a much less action-oriented film) with his dramatic use of locations, from a town church and a lake to a tennis club and a gas station (the setting for one of the best little scenes in the story). And the equal number of interior sets are as detailed as the exteriors are vivid.

Guillermin establishes the unseen murderer's point of view early on, as a police report narrates the killer's moves (the film then is told as a flashback); this opening device allows Guillermin to stage all the murder scenes from the killer's POV -- a chilling effect that quite closely anticipates Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) three years later.

Finally, Town on Trial is enjoyable simply as a showcase for a great cast of British actors including Mills, Alec McCowen, Geoffrey Keene, Derek Farr and Harry Locke, and a couple of Americans, too, notably 80-year-old Charles Coburn as the town doctor and a chief suspect. This was one of Coburn's last features -- the three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner would pass away just four years later.

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by Jeremy Arnold