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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Twilight of Honor (1963)

Director: Boris Sagal
Stars: Richard Chamberlain, Nick Adams, Claude Rains, Joan Blackman, James Gregory and Joey Heatherton
While Twilight of Honor contains one of the last performances of veteran actor Claude Rains, a powerful and scenestealing one too, it's more important here as the introduction of a number of names to the big screen. Most obviously it's the first time Richard Chamberlain, as Dr Kildare the biggest TV heartthrob of the era, starred in a movie. He had appeared in two films before this, The Secret of the Purple Reef and A Thunder of Drums, but only in supporting roles and neither seem to have been particularly memorable. It's the debut appearance of Joey Heatherton, one of the quintessentially sixties blonde bombshells. A long way further down the credits and with just one line of dialogue is Linda Evans, also debuting on film with only a few episodes of TV series behind her.

Twilight of Honor is a courtroom drama. Ben Brown is on trial for the murder of Cole Clinton, though apparently it's a pretty open and shut affair: after all, his wife turned him in and he promptly confessed. The locals have already made up their minds about such an important local case, even heading out to the airport to see the man they are already convinced did the deed arrive in chains. They're thronging outside the Durango County courtroom too, meaning that David Mitchell has to fight through them to get in to be assigned by Judge Tucker as the defense attorney.

In such a case as this, where the murder victim was a much beloved local man, known by everyone, that would hardly be an easy task for an experienced lawyer. However Mitchell hasn't worked a case in three years and even then it was as a prosecuting attorney. He has no more than two days to prepare, which is far from sufficient. He's even up against a special prosecutor, Norris Bixby, appointed in the stead of the district attorney. He has very little on his side, even if we can believe that Brown didn't do it, which isn't even suggested. One is that Richard Chamberlain is far from hard on the eyes, with a grin that reminds of people like Dennis Quaid or Jan-Michael Vincent. Of course he had that grin first, by a long shot. The other is that he has a mentor to turn to for help.

Of course, this mentor is Claude Rains as Art Harper, a massively experienced and respected lawyer but one who has become too old and infirm to handle the case himself. It's only with Harper's help that Mitchell even believes he can make an attempt at Ben Brown's defence, and we're more than happy to see that help. Harper walks with a cane, his breathing is audible and he drinks vicariously, by watching other people do it and then sleeping it off himself. He also has a habit of undue excitement, which his doctors and his daughter Susan try their best to dissuade him from. He doesn't join Mitchell in court, at least until the last day, but they work through what happened there every night.

There are two very different takes on the story, though both begin and end the same way. Apparently Cole Clinton picked up Brown and his wife on the road, stopped at a bar for drinks and then put them up in a motel, even staying there himself as an old man tired after two long days on the road. And here's where the two versions differ. As Laura Mae Brown has it, her abusive husband Ben murdered Clinton in cold blood for his bankroll, bludgeoning him to death with a gun he took from Clinton's car. This is backed up by Brown's confessions, which the special prosecutor had reprinted on the front page of the local newspaper, and in his wife's testimony. Outside his confessions, which he says were cut before he signed them, Ben Brown says that he killed Clinton in self defence. He woke up and found his wife in bed with another man, who when he pulled her out, threatened him with a gun he'd already seen him use.
The biggest problem this film has is that it's set up to fail because the ending is almost guaranteed to be a disappointment. To avoid that would require a miracle on the level of the one Mitchell has to conjure up in persuading the jury, which is made up of the murdered man's friends and colleagues, that Ben Brown is innocent. After all, regardless of the intricacies of the story, which to be fair are superbly unfolded, we're watching from a completely different perspective from the characters in the film. They're asking whether Ben Brown is guilty or not. We're asking whether he's going to be found guilty or not. There's a big difference.

The townsfolk in the story begin with a guilty verdict because hey, everyone says so, including the papers, and so merely have to decide over the course of the testimony and courtroom theatrics whether there's anything there to make them change their mind. From our point of view, on the other side of the fourth wall, we begin with a not guilty verdict because Dr Kildare is the hero defense attorney and he's fighting for truth, justice and principle, so we merely wonder about whether Mitchell can work that miracle. If he succeeds then we need to be given a believable reason why, a reason that would be very hard indeed to deliver; if he fails then we're watching To Kill a Mockingbird and it would be a most ambitious film to try to outdo that on its own turf.

So, inevitably Twilight of Honor fails, but it has a joyous run until it does. While stars today flit back and forth between TV and film, that was hardly the standard back in 1963. Richard Chamberlain was trying to break that barrier and he gave it a good shot without huge success. He didn't appear on the big screen again for another two years and wouldn't really arrive as a film star until the 1970s. In the meantime he carried on as Dr Kildare, which series ran until 1966. Nick Adams, who is excellent as Ben Brown, was best known for TV too, having played Johnny Yuma for three years in The Rebel, but he had started out on film and had a number of supporting credits in notable movies behind him, including Mister Roberts, Rebel without a Cause and Picnic. He was Oscar nominated here, the only actor who was, but still two years later he'd be relegated to low budget genre movies like Mission Mars or Die, Monster, Die!, and kaiju flicks like Frankenstein Conquers the World and Godzilla vs Monster Zero.

Perhaps it's the presence in the cast of Claude Rains, who is as superb as he always was and he always picked up a cast, but the acting is solid throughout. Joey Heatherton is perfect for her part, and picked up a Golden Globe award as the Most Promising Female Newcomer for her work, though it doesn't seem to be much of a stretch for her. Joan Blackman channels some young Eileen Brennan to play Art Harper's daughter and of course David Mitchell's love interest. James Gregory is excellent here as special prosecutor Norris Bixby, though his work here isn't a patch on what he did a year earlier in The Manchurian Candidate. Of them all, I think I enjoyed Edgar Stehli as Judge Tucker most, because it was impossible to work out if he was the impartial judge he should be or whether he had an agenda, and if he had an agenda then whose side he might be on.

It's a shame these actors didn't have a story to work with that could have succeeded, because except for that inherent flaw it unfolds very nicely indeed. Director Boris Sagal, the father of Katey, was best known as a director of TV shows and presumably knew Chamberlain well having directed a number of episodes of Dr Kildare. While he was massively experienced in 1963, this was only his third film, after The Crimebusters and Dime with a Halo, hardly movies that had made a large impact. Similarly writer Henry Denker, who adapted the novel by Al Dewlen, mostly worked on TV, again with a number of credits to his name. This may well be the best feature film for both of them.

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