1948’s An Act of Murder has a kernel of an interesting idea. What happens when a hanging judge decides he can’t let his wife suffer any longer from an inoperable brain tumor?
Fredric March plays the judge, dubbed Old Man Maximum for his tendency to dole out maximum sentences. He also disregards any and all extenuating circumstances in the cases he oversees. We see this in an opening scene where a lawyer played by Edmund O’Brien fails to get leniency for his client.
Outside of the court, March is kind and loving husband and father. Turns out he is unaware his daughter, played by Geraldine Brooks, is dating O’Brian. So, guess who’s coming to dinner?
A far worse surprise is in store for him. The first hint of this is when we see Florence Eldridge, as his wife, knock over a cocktail glass she tries to pick up. A doctor friend of the family (Stanley Ridges) happens to be there and she discusses with him some things that have been bothering a “friend” of hers. He has her come to Philadelphia the next day to run some tests. Afterwards, he tells her she has nothing to worry about. As soon as she’s out of the room, he sends the results to three top specialists in their fields.
One big problem I had is Ridges only discusses the real nature of Eldridge’s condition with her husband. I realize that may have been standard operating procedure at the time, but I was still appalled a doctor would conceal a patient’s condition from them.
March tries his best to keep Eldridge happy and distracted, though I also fault him from hiding from her the extent of her illness. They go to a lodge somewhere where there is a carnival nearby. At a ball toss game, she wins a live baby pig. I didn’t know that was ever a thing. What did people do with the pigs they won? What does she do with the prize pig? We never hear any mention of it again.
The doctor warns March it is easy to overdose on her pain medication. One would think a judge could remember the simple instructions for those meds, yet he has in his suitcase an instruction sheet, which Eldridge inevitably finds when he goes out for a newspaper. She also finds a letter from the doctor where he informs March her illness is fatal. Since we saw the doctor communicate this to March in person, I’m not sure why the letter was necessary, let alone why the judge kept it in his suitcase.
At the same time, March witnesses an accident which puts an unfortunate idea in his head. A car strikes a dog outside the shop but doesn’t kill it. March is crossing the street when he hears a police officer lament he can’t let the poor thing suffer. He then shoots the dog while a crowd of onlookers watch. I don’t know which was worse back then: the bloodlust of the public or their lack of entertainment options.
Anyhoo, the judge starts considering the possibility of ending his wife’s torment via mercy killing. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, “will he / won’t he” until he, in a curiously spontaneous moment, drives off the road with the intention of killing them both. If he had not been so impatient, perhaps he would have considered the possibility that only he might have been killed and she’d been left alive. What a kick in the teeth that would be.
Instead, she is the one who dies. Everybody chalks it up to it being an accident, as it was a dark and stormy night when the incident occurred. But March has such a strong obligation to justice that he walks to the district attorney’s office and demand he be charged with his wife’s murder.
Representing himself, March pleads guilty in court, but O’Brien asks the judge to consider a California case when defense was provided despite protest from the defendant. The judge agrees and so O’Brien comes to represent a client who is determined to punish himself and who is being accused by a D.A. who didn’t want to bring the case to begin with. It makes for a strange legal drama, which isn’t my favorite genre to begin with.
So anyway, court stuff, blah blah blah, until the body is unearthed and an autopsy is finally performed on it. The results of this were a genuine surprise, but I was simply waiting for the feature to end by that point. Then we get a heavy-handed statement from the presiding judge, followed by what is supposed to be an inspiring speech by March. At least I assume that was the intention, given all the close-ups of upturned faces around the courtroom.
An Act of Murder was on one of those Kino box sets of film noir. I definitely wouldn’t put it in that genre, but I guess it could be argued it is noir-adjacent. Really, it is a melodrama with its heart in the right place. Still, it is ham-fisted enough it wouldn’t get Kosher approval. Which is OK, because I really hope that cute little pig she won never became dinner.
Dir: Michael Gordon
Starring Frederic March, Edmond O’Brien, Florence Eldridge, Geraldine Brooks
Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IV blu-ray box set