Tuesday, May 19, 2009


As part of TCM's look at Latino Images in Film, they are showing the underrated Glenn Ford movie Trial at 9:30 PM ET tonight.

Ford plays a professor at a law school. The dean has some funny ideas, though; namely, he believes that the professors ought to have practical knolwedge. And Ford's been teaching so long that it's been years since he's actually practiced law. So, the dean tells him to spend his summer working at a law firm somewhere. Eventually, Ford is hired by Arthur Kennedy, whose firm is handling the defense of a Mexican-American adolescent accused of murdering a teenage girl from a wealthy Anglo family.

What Ford doesn't realize, until it's too late, is that the defense is being paid for by a Communist front organization. They don't really give a damn about the kid; they just want to show capitalist America to be an iniquitous country rife with racism. In fact, it might help their cause if the kid is convicted. Worse, the district attorney (John Hodiak) doesn't like those nasty commies, and there's even an unseen McCarthy-like committee in the state legislature investigating suspected Communist activity. (The movie was made in 1955, by which time Josephy McCarthy was a household name, but was set in 1947, which is before the senator really got going.)

Trial is an ambitious story, and one that's a bit complex in that it tries to do a lot. It doesn't quite succeed in doing all that it sets out, especially because it's got an ending that's a bit too neat. However, the movie is filled with outstanding supporting performances. Ford is his usual sturdy, sympathetic self, but he's almost leading an ensemble cast here. Kennedy received his third Oscar nomination for his role as Ford's manipulative employer. Rafael Campos, who plays the young defendant, is quite good, and the boy's mother, played by Katy Jurado, is even better. Perhaps the most outstanding of all the supporting roles is that played by Juano Hernandez, a Puerto Rican-born man who, because of his dark skin, is playing an Anglo black here -- the DA specifically got a black judge empanelled so that Ford couldn't complain about biased decisions from the bench. (The fix was obviously in.)

Sadly, Trial isn't as well-remembered as it should be. A lot of that probably has to do with its strongly anti-Communist stance. Thanks to the excesses of Joe McCarthy, the anti-anti-Communists gained sway in Hollywood in the 1960s and beyond, and any criticism of Communism is seen as nothing more than propaganda. In fact, the real-life Communists were about as bad as they're depicted as being in this movie, using whatever political issue of the day they could to their benefit, and having no compunction about throwing people overboard when their usefulness is up. Trial also tackles the anti-Communists (who, despite being largely unseen, don't come off in such a good light themselves), as well as issues of race. (Note how movies get criticized for being too bluntly anti-Communist, but never seem to get criticized if the bluntness of their anti-racism detracts from the story.) Trial is one of several movies from the 1950s with strong anti-Communist themes that has not been released to DVD but deserves to be seen.

No comments: