Town on Trial


1h 35m 1957

Brief Synopsis

When an attractive young girl is murdered, suspicion falls on several members of the local tennis club. It falls to Police Inspector Halloran to sort out all the red herrings, and finally after a confrontation at the top of the local church spire, arrest the culprit. Another fascinating look at what life was like in Britain during the 50's,

Film Details

Also Known As
The Case of the Stocking Killer
Genre
Crime
Mystery
Release Date
Aug 1957
Premiere Information
London premiere: 22 Jan 1957
Production Company
Marksman Films, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Britain, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
10 reels

Synopsis

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.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Case of the Stocking Killer
Genre
Crime
Mystery
Release Date
Aug 1957
Premiere Information
London premiere: 22 Jan 1957
Production Company
Marksman Films, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures Corp.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
Britain, England, Great Britain; London, England, Great Britain

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Film Length
10 reels

Articles

Town on Trial - TOWN ON TRIAL - John Mills & Charles Coburn in 1958 British Thriller


"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.

To order Town on Trial, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold
Town On Trial - Town On Trial - John Mills & Charles Coburn In 1958 British Thriller

Town on Trial - TOWN ON TRIAL - John Mills & Charles Coburn in 1958 British Thriller

"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. To order Town on Trial, go to TCM Shopping. by Jeremy Arnold

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The working title of this film was The Case of the Stocking Killer. The film opens with a sequence in which a handcuffed man is taken to police headquarters and recounts the events that led up to his committing murder. Throughout the sequence, the camera focuses only on the actors' torsos, avoiding their faces so that the murderer will not be revealed until the end. Similarly, the killings are shown from the murderer's point of view, concealing his identity from the audience. Although onscreen credits read "and introducing Elizabeth Seal," Seal had previously appeared in the 1954 British film Radio Cab Murder. The Variety review notes that Seal achieved prominence through her performance in the 1956 London production of The Pajama Game.
       An August 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that the film was originally to be produced by Todon Productions, Inc. According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the film was produced by Marksman Films, Ltd. for Columbia release. According to an August 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, Ella Raines was initially to play the role of "Elizabeth Fenner," but had to bow out because of an illness in the famly. Peggy Cummins and Dawn Adams were then considered to replace her. The Variety review misspells actor Alec McCowen's name as "Alex." Although oscreen credits list Oscar Quitak as the actor playing "David," the Variety review mistakenly names him "David Quitar."

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1957

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1957