Friday, August 29, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "AN ACT OF MURDER" (1948)

Anyone who tells you that present-day Hollywood movies are more mature than ever should seek out An Act of Murder. Really, I'd like to see a writer pitch an idea involving a middle-aged couple and euthanasia. "Are you crazy?" would come the reply. "A middle-aged couple?!"

Calvin Cooke is a hanging judge, following the letter of the law like a senator follows a Gallup poll, sentencing criminals to 20 years when 20 days would be more appropriate. His straight-arrow attitude is put to the test when his wife, Catherine Cook, is diagnosed with a fatal disease found exclusively in studio sound stages. Her doctor informs Calvin of her illness, while keeping Catherine in the dark. The Hippocratic Oath, as we know, states, "First, tell no truth."

Unwilling to let his wife suffer as she deteriorates, Calvin makes a split-second decision to kill her and himself in a car crash while returning from vacation. He survives, however, and, rather than taking it on the lam with a cutie-pie half his age like anyone else would, turns himself in for murder. (Remember, this is a movie.) His future son-in-law, David Douglas, whom he loves like a lice-infected cavity, volunteers to take on the case.

In 1948, this was normal. Today, audiences
would throw up.
Other than all those alliterative character names, An Act of Murder is an adult movie that would put most of today's releases to shame. What strikes you almost immediately is that there was a time when mature (i.e., older-looking) actors took the leads in A-pictures. Fredric March and Florence Eldridge look every bit their ages -- 51 and 47 respectively -- and then some. Way then some. (To put it in perspective, Brad Pitt is 51 and Sandra Bullock is 50. And don't tell me about good genes, unless you're talking about those belonging to their plastic surgeons.)

Can you think of any actor, other than George Clooney, who doesn't appear to be in arrested development?  Or an older-looking actress who isn't relegated to character roles? This couple is in love, and you get the feeling they still get it on once in a while. Perhaps that's because March and Eldridge were married in real life, which must have given their on-screen situation a little more charge. Hey honey, I've got a script for us where I kill you. No, really, you'll like it. Let's rehearse.


Judge Cook not only learns that his wife is dying,
the long-distance phone call isn't
considered a deductible, either.
As usual in old movies, the medical stuff is a little sketchy. Catherine's disease is never quite spelled out -- her doctor alludes to a "neuroplastic situation," admitting that any disease with several names is something medical professionals don't know anything about. You can trust this guy, right? Especially when his first bit of advice to Calvin when breaking the news is, "Have a cigarette." His colleagues' bedside manners leave a little to be desired -- like, oh, compassion -- telling Calvin during a conference call, "Surgery is useless" and "Death is indicated at any time." Don't forget to pay the receptionist on the way out! 

Following doctor's orders -- other than smoking cigarettes -- Calvin keeps the diagnosis from Catherine, in order to make her final days that much more peaceful. Like dropping coffee cups, falling into mirrors, and going blind are peaceful. Calvin gets a prescription of Demorine to give Catherine when necessary, with the warning that
"Let me get you a flower for your funeral --
I mean, corsage!"
more than two every 12 hours could be fatal. I Googled "Demorine," and the only thing I found was someone on Facebook, so that must be another of those only-in-Hollywood medical things.



But Calvin can't stand to see his wife suffer. An idea is planted when a medical advertisement reading, none too subtly, KILL THE PAIN catches his eye in a drugstore. A moment later, that idea blooms when a dog who's been hit by a car is put out of his misery by a friendly cop. Muttering, "Well, we can't let him suffer," he pulls out his gun and blows its head off. Paws up, don't shoot!

The Judge is up for murder, but he's just pissed-off
his daughter is sleeping with his lawyer.
Watch enough old movies, and you get to appreciate actors you took for granted on TV in later years. In An Act of Murder, that would be Edmond O'Brien as David Douglas, the lawyer who believes there's more to justice than law. Or the other way around. Only 33 but looking 50, he doesn't quite appear the ideal suitor for Cook's law-studying daughter, Ellie, played by 23 year-old Geraldine Brooks. (Everybody looked older then.) And talk about different times -- Calvin doesn't blink an eye when Ellie casually smokes in front of him, like it was normal.  Which it probably was back then.

It's Ellie who gives David an idea that leads to An Act of Murder's twisty climax, which I won't reveal. However, Fredric March's closing lines still resonate today, if only accidentally. Realizing that intentions can be as important as legalities, he admits that a person must be "judged not just by the law but the heart" -- words similar to those used by Barack Obama when nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. That guy really does have a thing for Hollywood.

Can you imagine a studio today
backing a major movie with this
couple in the lead roles?
Even during a time of grown-up movies, An Act of Murder probably stood out. It was, in fact, nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize. It holds up quite well, still packing several punches, with Fredric March giving his usual classy performance (something else sadly missing from most actors today). Like its leads, An Act of Murder is a mature piece of work -- one that continues to make profound statements on human nature and what really counts when judging a person's actions. Unlike, say, Transformers Part 3.

Pay no attention to the image of
a car driving off a cliff, folks!
But as with Freud 14 years later, Universal-International Pictures got a little skittish about the title, eventually re-releasing it as Live Today for Tomorrow -- what the hell does that even mean? -- which sounds like a homily you'd see hanging in somebody's laundry room. Adding insult to artistic injury, the one-sheet's design makes it look like a love story instead of, uh, an act of murder. For that alone, the head of the marketing department should have been force-fed a bottle of Demorine.

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