Thursday, September 5, 2013


You might think of Gottfried Reinhardt's courtroom drama as a cross between Anatomy of a Murder and Judgment at Nuremberg. Or since it's a Kirk Douglas movie, how about a cross between Paths of Glory and Ace in the Hole? These comparisons may help you remember the story, which has been overshadowed ever since by the titanic theme song composed by that rockabilly sensation Dmitri Tiomkin. The song got an Oscar nomination (it lost to "Moon River") and hit the Top 20, but few who might hear it on oldies stations may know, or ever recall, that there was once a movie attached to it.

Once again, Kirk is a military lawyer trying to save soldiers from execution, but this time we know from the start that they're guilty, and someone else is playing the disreputable reporter. Kirk's charges are Robert Blake, Richard Jaeckel, the sergeant from Gomer Pyle and some other guy. The film makes it pretty clear that this fearsome foursome raped a teenage girl somewhere in Occupied Germany (Christine Kaufmann is Introduced to American audiences here after several years' work in European films), and the Blake character (more honorable, some would say, than the man who plays him) will confess his guilt at the drop of a hat. The U.S. wants to prove to the Germans that their soldiers don't receive favorable treatment and can't get away with this crap, so E. G. Marshall is sent to seek the death penalty for all four men. Kirk is on the case because even guilty men are entitled to a defense. Since the case against them, between Blake's confession and Kaufmann's identification of all four, is open-and-shut, Kirk's task is to make sure these sad sacks don't hang. The way to do that is to raise just the slightest possibility that Kaufmann was asking for it in some way. The defense hangs, so the defendants won't, on such fine details as whether Kaufmann was wearing her bikini when the soldiers found her by a stream in the woods, after an argument with her boyfriend. The big courtroom showdown, probably still scandalous for some viewers at the time, has Kirk inspecting Kaufmann's bikini bottom to determine whether it may have been violently removed by the rapists, as she claimed, and tearing it in half in front of her to demonstrate how its intact condition until then proves her a liar. Her ordeal on the witness stand accelerates a downward spiral toward tragedy as the little town earns the film's title before Kirk moves on to new adventures.

Reinhardt is no cinematic stylist and alienates us from the start by having a narrator (who eventually becomes a character in the story) translate the German dialogue in the early scenes rather than give us subtitles to read or simply have the actors talk in English as they all will eventually. Once all the characters are in place, however, the actors take over and save the film. Kirk Douglas's lawyer is a conscientious cynic, well aware of the need to ruin a young woman's life to save four undeserving men and warning everyone to do whatever's possible to avoid his showdown with Kaufmann. To its credit, the film aims at an objective tone, clearly lamenting Kaufmann's fate yet not asserting that the four men would be better off hanged. They may have raped her, and Douglas may have humiliated her, but for what comes after the title tells us whom to blame. Of the other actors Blake is the standout in the showiest role, raging at a doctor who diagnoses him as impotent during the trial and later trying the Ariel Castro way out ahead of the verdict. He may be the most repentant and presumably the most sympathetic of the rapists, but he's also easily the craziest and most disturbing of them. By comparison, Douglas gives a tightly controlled performance that pays off with a reaction to the last news of Kaufmann that's profoundly minimalist by his usual histrionic standards. Town Without Pity was probably seen as pushing the envelope of frankness in subject matter 52 years ago, but the story and the performances have held up reasonably well long after the original shock value wore off.

Here's Gene Pitney singing the title song, as he did on the original soundtrack. This 1962 clip was uploaded to YouTube by Slim Ostner. The lyrics to Tiomkin's tune are by Ned Washington.


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