Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Imperfect Necessity

The Talk of the Town
The Ox-Bow Incident
A Soldier’s Story

Justice is a necessary and frequently misused – intentionally and unintentionally – concept that requires society to remain constantly aware of its flaws and unrelenting in attempts to minimize undesired consequences. It is a concept that is often plagued by prejudice, hatred, self-serving motives, ignorance of the facts, appeals to emotions, and an array of other problems that prevent justice from being achieved. The movies discussed here examine some of these flaws and the people who try – successfully and unsuccessfully – to expose them before they lead to disaster.

The first film – The Talk of the Town, released in 1942 in black and white – is a romantic comedy that focuses on a love triangle between Leopold Dilg, a man who escapes from jail after being falsely charged with arson and murder; Nora Shelley, a teacher who has known Dilg since they were kids in the town of Sweetwater and believes in his innocence; and Michael Lightcap, a well-respected law professor who is nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. For purposes of this discussion, the love-triangle subplot will be ignored.

The unpopular Dilg, who has been considered a rabble rouser since his youth, is believed to have set fire to a mill that caused the death of the mill’s foreman, Clyde Bracken. After Dilg injures his leg while escaping from the police, he hides in the attic of a house owned by Nora’s family that is going to be rented to the professor, who is coming to Sweetwater to teach at the law school. After Nora discovers Dilg in the attic and agrees to let him stay there for the night, the professor shows up a day early. Nora talks the professor into allowing her to stay the night and, the next morning, into hiring her to be his cook and secretary.

After the professor has his breakfast, he begins dictating notes about the practice of law to Nora. Dilg then sneaks downstairs to get something to eat and while listening to the professor’s dictation, the opinionated rabble rouser interrupts with his own thoughts on the matter. The quick-thinking Nora tells the professor that Dilg is a gardener named Joseph. Although both men have very different ideas about the law, they become friends with deep respect for each other.

Meanwhile, Dilg’s lawyer, Sam Yates shows up and tries to talk the professor into helping prove his client’s innocence. Yates, who has known the professor since they attended law school together, tells the professor that almost all of the townspeople have a very negative opinion of Dilg and his client’s safety could be in danger. But the professor, who has been approached by Sen. James Boyd and told that he will be nominated by the president to the Supreme Court, refuses Yates’ request. The professor tells the lawyer that he would rather examine the principles of justice than the actual application of those principles.

Eventually, the professor learns his gardener’s true identity and after informing the police, Dilg is again on the run and again manages to elude the police – eventually returning to the attic, unknown to the professor. Nora, however, figures out that the attic is the most likely place where Dilg would hide.

The professor, who has grown very fond of Dilg, and can’t believe that his friend is capable of committing such a crime. Then Nora criticizes the professor for not helping Dilg, calling him an unfeeling man who hides behind his beard. This apparently moves the professor, who decides to conduct his own investigation – and to shave off the beard. During his investigation, the professor discovers that Bracken is still alive and hiding in Boston. As he prepares to go after the foreman, Dilg comes out of hiding and tells the professor he is willing to turn himself into the police. On the way to the police station, however, the professor, Nora and Dilg, who is in the back seat, are stopped by a roadblock. Dilg lies down on the floor as a police officer gets in the front seat, hitching a ride to the next roadblock. During the ride, the officer tells the professor and Nora that the police have an ominous plan to let the townspeople take care of dispensing justice to Dilg. After they drop the officer off, the professor and Nora decide to take Dilg with them to Boston.

The trio finds Bracken in Boston and then return to the professor’s Sweetwater house. As the professor is calling the police, Bracken makes his escape, leaving the professor and Dilg knocked unconscious. When the police arrive, they arrest Dilg and take him to jail. The professor, worried for his friend’s safety, figures out where Bracken is hiding, recaptures him and brings him to the courthouse just as its being overrun by an angry mob bent on taking justice into their own hands. Everyone is stunned to see Bracken alive and to learn that Bracken was the one who set fire to the mill. Bracken also admits that he was acting on orders from the mill’s owner, Andrew Holmes, who wanted to collect the insurance money on the dilapidated building – and who wanted to blame Dilg because the rabble rouser had often publicly criticized him for putting his workers at risk by having them work in the mill. With the case solved, the professor goes on to become a Supreme Court justice.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, b&w) is a similar tale with a very different ending. Set in Nevada during the late 1800s, it’s about a town that becomes outraged by news that Frank Kincaid, a popular rancher, has been killed by three men who stole his cattle. While the sheriff goes to investigate, the townspeople form a posse led by Major Tetley, a former Confederate officer who still wears his uniform although the war is long over. The posse includes, among others, Tetley’s son Gerald, a timid young man who is considered a coward by his father; Ma Greer, an old woman with a firm conviction that mob rule is an appropriate form of justice; a black preacher named Sparks; and Gil Carter, a drifter who tags along to bear witness to the posse’s actions.

The posse eventually finds sleeping three men – another rancher named Donald Martin, an off-his-rocker old man and a Mexican – with cattle bearing the brand of the rancher who was reportedly killed. Martin claims that he bought the cattle, but he doesn’t have a bill of sale. The overly suspicious posse refuses to believe Martin and plans to immediately lynch the trio before being talked into waiting until sunrise. During the wait, the rancher writes a letter for his wife and son. At sunrise, the posse – over the objections of the preacher, Gerald Tetley, Gil Carter, his sidekick Art Croft and a few others – hang the three men.

As the posse is riding back to town, the sheriff intercepts them and tells them that his has caught the rustlers and that Kincaid is alive and will recover. The sheriff also tells the posse that those who participated in the lynching with be held responsible for their actions. When the posse returns to town, Gerald is highly critical of his father’s actions. Major Tetley then goes into another room at their home and shoots himself.

Down the street at the saloon, Gil Carter, who winds up with Martin’s letter, reads it aloud so that the rest of the posse can hear it. After reading the letter, which talks about the nature of justice and the affects its miscarriage can have on the conscience, Gil and Art ride off to deliver the letter to Martin’s widow.

A Soldier’s Story focuses on the investigation of the murder of a black sergeant, named Vernon C. Waters. The sergeant was shot just outside an Army base for black soldiers in the Deep South during World War II – when the U.S. military was just as segregated as the rest of the country. The official investigation is conducted by Capt. Richard Davenport, who is sent from Washington, D.C., and is the first black officer any of the soldiers at the base have ever seen. All the other officers on the base are white.

Sgt. Waters was a veteran of World War I and fondly remembers the time he was stationed in France. However, he is an extremely hard taskmaster who constantly rides the men in his company, who are baseball players that have played in the Negro Leagues. The team is very good, winning 19 straight games – just one victory away from earning a chance to play against the New York Yankees. The star of the team is a big carefree, uneducated, guitar-playing private named CJ Memphis, who Sgt. Waters both admires and detests. Sgt. Waters was raised to believe that people like CJ were preventing the black race from achieving the greatness of which it was capable.

After winning their 19th straight game, Sgt. Waters interrupts the team’s celebration and lays into CJ with a flurry of disparaging insults. Although CJ is willing to just take it and expresses sympathy for, and understanding of, the sergeant’s meanness, Pfc. Peterson takes offense. Peterson is a well-spoken, college-educated soldier who on one level agrees with Sgt. Waters but, on another level, just hates the way the sergeant treats CJ. Sgt. Waters plays on Peterson’s anger and manipulates him into a fight, in which the sergeant badly beats the private.

Then, Sgt. Waters stages an incident involving gunfire and arranges to have a gun planted under CJ’s bunk. Despite protests from everyone in the barracks that CJ couldn’t have been involved, Sgt. Waters has CJ taken to the brig. But CJ is claustrophobic and can’t stand staying in his small cell. Distraught by his confinement, CJ hangs himself. After CJ kills himself, Sgt. Waters goes off the deep end, drinking heavily, exhibiting self-loathing and questioning his beliefs about himself and the righteousness of his convictions. Additionally, the team intentionally throws its next game – an act of defiance against Sgt. Waters and respect for CJ.

Although most of the soldiers had believed that Sgt. Waters was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, Capt. Davenport’s investigation leads him in another direction. Davenport also learns that two white officers were involved in beating up a drunken Sgt. Waters the night he was killed and the information was suppressed by the base commander, who didn’t approve of the idea that this black captain should conduct the investigation and insisted the investigation be concluded within a couple of days. Davenport immediately suspected these two white officers and he was supported in this belief by Captain Taylor, the white officer who conducted the initial investigation. But after interviewing the two suspected white officers, who were of a lower rank and were very unhappy with having to answer a black man’s questions, Capt. Davenport also ruled them out as the murders.

After looking at all the facts, Capt. Davenport figures out who the murderer is. The reason the white officers were eliminated from suspicion was because on the night of the murder, the base was under orders that no one was allowed to have live ammunition – except those soldiers who were on sentry duty – and Sgt. Waters had been shot by ammunition from the base. As Capt. Davenport comes to realize who the murderer is, two of the soldiers who were on sentry duty the night Sgt. Waters was killed go AWOL. They are caught and returned to the base, where they are confronted by Capt. Davenport and the murderer, Pfc. Peterson, confesses.

In all three films, innocent people were initially blamed for crimes they did not commit. And in all three films, a rush to judgment placed lives and careers in jeopardy. In one of the films, the revelation of the truth tragically came too late. When I began this discussion, I listed a series of problems with the criminal justice system. Each one of those problems can be exacerbated by the desire to quickly find someone to blame for the crime. And while constitutional law requires that suspects be afforded a speedy trial, all too often we rush headlong into courtrooms and hand down bad verdicts based not on facts but rather on the incomplete and/or inaccurate gathering of information and appeals to emotions.

The television news magazine 60 Minutes recently ran a story about a woman who was raped and then identified the wrong man as the rapist. This woman said she carefully studied her attacker’s face and it was etched into her memory. But 11 years later, DNA technology proved that her eyewitness account was wrong. She and the falsely accused man met and have since become friends, as have their families. The accused and the accuser now travel the country together to warn communities about making a rush to judgment and to encourage criminal investigators to amend the way they conduct their investigations. These three films provide excellent examples of the importance of heeding the message of these two extraordinary allies.

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