Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Collateral Damage in the Justice System

I Confess (1953, black & white)
The Wrong Man (1957, black & white)

There’s nothing I like better than finding old movies that I have never seen. Actually, I didn’t find these two movies, they were given to me as a Christmas present from my stepdaughter and her husband ─ two of four movies that were part of a Turner Classic Movies bundling of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.

My initial elation was because of the stars of the films ─ Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. The main reason I like these two actors is that they both make the most of the understated intensity that they bring to their work. Then there is the Hitchcock factor. He has never made a movie that I didn’t like. But, as always for me, it’s the storylines that make these movies.

Both films are about innocent men who are accused of committing a crime. In I Confess, a priest is tried for a murder he didn’t commit. In The Wrong Man, a case of mistaken identity leads to having a musician charged with a series of robberies that he didn’t commit. As headlines in the past several years show, the reality of innocent men going to prison or facing execution is a familiar story in the American justice system. And while charges against both men are brought on rather flimsy evidence, that is not what I found most interesting about these stories. What did grab me was that although by movies’ end both are exonerated, the lives of their families and friends were negatively impacted in devastating ways.

In I Confess, the priest’s innocent meetings with a married woman who was once his girlfriend becomes the basis of the alleged motive for the killing of a blackmailer. At trial, the prosecution tries to portray these meetings in a most tawdry light ─ the first such meeting happening after the Clift character returns from war, before he learns that she is married and before he joins the priesthood. The woman, played by Anne Baxter, is forced to admit that she still loves the priest ─ an admission that one would expect should cripple her relationship with her husband.

As for the priest, he genuinely appears to have given his life totally to God. But public opinion prefers to believe the worst of the priest even after the jury finds him not guilty because the prosecution failed to place the murder weapon in his hand. But before the priest is finally proven beyond a doubt that he is innocent, the wife of the actual murderer is killed by her husband, who is trying to prevent her from letting his guilt be known. The real killer also kills someone else before a policeman’s bullet ends his life. As for the alleged paramour, when she sees that the priest has been exonerated, she and her husband go home, where we can assume they will work on repairing their marriage.

Financial problems plague the musician in The Wrong Man, which is based on a true story. The musician ─ who has a wife, played by Vera Miles, and two sons ─ walks into an insurance office to find out about taking a loan out on his wife’s policy to pay for some dental work. The insurance rep mistakenly identifies him as a man who robbed the agency a month earlier. The rep’s identification is backed up by the woman who had originally faced the robber, leading to the musician being taken into custody for questioning. Then, an error on a writing sample adds fuel to the fire and after being identified by the two women again ─ this time in a lineup ─ the musician is arrested.

Although the musician cannot make bail, his brother-in-law can and does. They hire a lawyer who they are afraid they can’t afford and begin to search for witnesses that will prove he was elsewhere at the time of the crimes. Unfortunately, two of the witnesses have died and they are having trouble finding the third one. I need to note here that the Miles character had been chastising herself for being a bad wife who has been unable to handle the family’s finances. Then when finding the witnesses become a problem, the wife blames herself for her husband’s arrest and shuts down emotionally and becomes unable to handle her normal responsibilities. She is taken to a psychiatric institution, where you get the feeling that she is glad to no longer be a burden on her family.

Eventually, the real perpetrator is caught ─ identified by the two women who were so sure the musician was the thief. Now, no longer under the cloud of prosecution and confinement, the musician goes to give his wife the good news. But her depression is inconsolable and it takes two years before she is able to rejoin her family.

The collateral damage done to the families and friends of these two innocent men, as well as to innocent bystanders, are an unfortunate part of our criminal justice system ─ and other that more diligent police work, I’m not sure what can be done about it.

What I can do, however, is recommend that you take a look at these two fine films.

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