Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Last week the subject of Beverly Young Nelson’s yearbook came up between hands at the bridge table.  Much was being made of the so-called “forgery” by my Republican acquaintances, to which I replied, “Witness for the Prosecution.” None of them knew what I was referring to. Actually, this was the second time I had made that reference, though at a different table against different opponents on a previous occasion.  It was in regard to the woman who told reporters at the Washington Post that she had been impregnated by Moore when she was fifteen, which led to her having an abortion.  It turned out to be a sting operation, apparently by orchestrated by Project Veritas.  My allusion to Witness for the Prosecution likewise met with blank stares. Well, the movie was made in 1957, which was sixty years ago, and not everyone is as much of a movie fanatic as I am, so that failure on the part of my friends to know what I was talking about is hardly surprising.  But the allusion is so apt that I feel compelled to do in this essay what I was unable to do at the bridge table.

In the movie, Tyrone Power has been romancing a lonely widow, who is in her fifties. Shortly after changing her will and leaving her fortune to him, she is murdered. Power claims he knew nothing about her will.  He says he is innocent, that he had been wooing the woman only in hopes that she would advance him a loan so he could develop and promote his invention, an eggbeater that not only beats, but also separates the white from the yolk. Charles Laughton, a barrister, believes him and agrees to defend him in court against a charge of murder.  There is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Power, however, and it is more likely than not that he will be convicted, even though his wife, Marlene Dietrich, would be willing to say he was home on the night of the murder. Laughton figures an alibi provided by a wife would not be worth much, so he decides not to call her as a witness for the defense.

Much to Laughton’s surprise, however, she appears as a witness for the prosecution. She testifies that her husband was not home at the time of the murder, that he came home with blood on his sleeve, and that he confessed to killing the widow. It looks as though Power is doomed.  The court recesses, and somewhat later, Laughton gets word that there is a woman willing to sell some letters that will be helpful to the defense, letters from Dietrich to her lover.  In one of them, Dietrich tells her lover that she will soon be free of her husband, because she intends to make up a story incriminating him, instead of telling the truth, which is that he was at home on the night of the murder.

The next day, with the letters as evidence, Laughton successfully impeaches her testimony.  The result is that Power is acquitted by the jury.  It is then, after the trial is over, that Dietrich tells Laughton that she was the woman he met in the bar to buy the letters from (she had once been an actress and was good at disguises and accents). She said she knew her husband was indeed guilty, and that only by arranging to have her truthful testimony “proven” to be perjury was there any chance for an acquittal.

In other words, if she had testified that her husband was at home on the night of the murder, the jury would have discounted her testimony, and Power would have been convicted on the evidence.  But when she was able to make it look as though her incriminating testimony was perjured, the jury then discounted all the legitimate evidence and found him innocent.

This was clearly the idea behind the woman from Project Veritas.  She would bring forward an attention-grabbing accusation against Moore, and then allow herself to be exposed as a fraud.  Logically, there would be a distinction between her fabricated testimony and the evidence of the legitimate accusers. But more fundamental than reason is the association of ideas, a form of thinking even the lower animals possess. Once the Project Veritas woman had been exposed as a fraud, so the plan went, the accusations of all the other accusers would have acquired the taint of fraud too.

That attempt failed, but then there is the case of Beverly Young Nelson.  After accusing Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was sixteen years old, she produced her high school yearbook with an inscription in it by Moore.  She added a note underneath, stating the date and place of the entry, along with the letters “D.A.” after Moore’s name, a perfectly reasonable thing for someone to do.  Not only that, it is so obviously written in a different handwriting that no one could reasonably suppose it to have been penned by Moore.

Unfortunately, in bringing forth that piece of evidence, she made two mistakes. First, she did not state up front that she had added the note, but rather waited three weeks before admitting that that part of the note was hers. Even though the hyperbolic charge of forgery by Fox News was later retracted, the delay in announcing that that part of the note was hers has nevertheless undermined her case. Second, she allowed Gloria Allred to be her attorney. This mistake may well have been more damaging than the first. Nelson should have hired a local attorney that no one has ever heard of. For a Republican politician in Alabama, being accused of wrongdoing by Gloria Allred is like the rabbit being thrown in the briar patch.

The end result is that these two mistakes on Nelson’s part not only undermine her testimony, but they also, by that primitive association of ideas, undermine the testimony of all the other women.  Had Nelson not come forward, all the emphasis would be on Leigh Corfman’s story.  But now all the stories have become sullied.

In Witness for the Prosecution, Dietrich says early on in the movie that her husband would probably be acquitted, if the jury was composed solely of women, the idea being that Power was so good looking that jurors, especially those who were women, would be looking for any excuse to acquit him.  In a similar vein, many Republicans in Alabama were looking for an excuse to vote for Roy Moore with a clear conscience, and Nelson, acting as an inadvertent Witness for the Prosecution, may have provided them with one.

None of this will help me at the bridge table, if ever I again allude to Witness for the Prosecution, but at least I have been able to say my piece here.

Oh, I guess I shouldn’t leave you dangling about the movie. After being acquitted of murder, Power thanks Dietrich for getting him off, and then tells her he is leaving her for a younger woman.  She stabs him with a letter opener. Laughton says he will defend her against a charge of murder, saying she only executed him.

Whether electoral justice will be served on Roy Moore remains to be seen.

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Compulsion (1959)

There are a lot of movies featuring a character who is an atheist, but movies in which the atheist is a follower of Friedrich Nietzsche are in a special category.  Most such movies are based on the Loeb and Leopold murder, which shocked the nation in 1924.  Two men in their late teens, geniuses who had already graduated from college and who came from wealthy families, committed a coldblooded murder of a fourteen-year-old boy.  Richard Loeb was primarily interested in committing the perfect crime; Nathan Leopold wanted to prove that they were Nietzschean supermen, whose superior intellect freed them from the moral restraints that ordinary men were expected to adhere to.  Now, most scholars would agree that Nietzsche would never have sanctioned such a coldblooded murder, but the fact that some people, like Loeb and Leopold, interpret Nietzsche that way is undeniable.

Occasionally, a movie will not refer to Nietzsche directly, but his influence is implied, as in the movie Strange Cargo (1945), where the villain is referred to as “superman.”  And in the movie The Fountainhead (1949), one almost gets the sense that each of the major characters feels compelled to announce which version of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power he or she represents.  But mostly, movies with Nietzschean atheists are based on the Loeb and Leopold case.  And of those, the best of the lot is Compulsion.

The names were changed to allow some latitude for the sake of storytelling.  Richard Loeb is Arthur “Artie” Straus (Bradford Dillman); Nathan Leopold is Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell); and Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who defended them, is Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles).

One of the great ironies of the story is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect murder for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another.  One of the most damning pieces of evidence was Judd’s glasses, which he accidentally dropped where they disposed of the boy’s body.  It had a special hinge that only three people in the area had purchased, and the other two were easily eliminated as suspects.  After Artie and Judd have finally confessed to their crime, Wilk is hired as their lawyer, with much reluctance on the part of their parents, however, because he is an “atheist.”  Actually, the real Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic, as does Wilk in the movie, but one suspects that people who did not like Clarence Darrow preferred the more pejorative term “atheist,” refusing to mince words on the subject.

Artie and Judd never characterize themselves as either agnostic or atheist, but it would be hard to believe that they were anything but atheists, given their admiration of Nietzsche and their willingness to commit a horrible murder just to prove that they were superior.  Regardless of what the final words actually were between Darrow, on the one hand, and Loeb and Leopold, on the other, it was still necessary in 1959 for movie agnostics and atheists to make amends:  the agnostic, by indicating that he still regards the existence of God as a genuine possibility; the atheist, by recognizing that he has been wrong in thinking that God does not exist.

We see both in the final scene.  After the judge rules that Artie and Judd will not be executed for their crime, but will spend the rest of their lives in prison, which was the only outcome Wilk could reasonably hope for, the following dialogue takes place:

Artie:  “So we sweat through three months of misery just to hear that.  I wish they’d have hung us right off the bat.”

Wilk:  “I wasn’t expecting you to fall down on your knees and thank God for deliverance.”

Judd:  “God?  That sounds rather strange coming from you, Mr. Wilk.”

Wilk:  “A lifetime of doubt and questioning doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve reached any final conclusions.”

Judd:  “Well, I have, and God has nothing to do with it.”

Wilk:  “Are you sure, Judd? In those years to come you might find yourself asking, if it wasn’t the hand of God dropped those glasses.  And if he didn’t, who did?”

To that question, Judd hesitates, and then has a look of fear and bewilderment.

Now, it is hard to take the suggestion that it was the hand of God who dropped Judd’s glasses.  I mean, as long as God was going to get involved, why didn’t he prevent the little boy from being murdered in the first place?  But some people would say that that way of thinking is typical of an atheist like me, who just doesn’t understand that God works in mysterious ways.  So, even if I think Wilk’s suggestion is absurd, most people watching this movie in 1959 would have found it perfectly reasonable.

Alternatively, one might go all Freudian and say that Judd had an unconscious desire to be caught.  That would seem to be the significance of the last question, “And if he didn’t, who did?”

Personally, I think it was just an accident.  We don’t need God or Freud to explain that.  But the main thing is that for those in the audience who needed to see the atheist realize that there might actually be a God, Wilk’s first hypothesis about the hand of God dropping the glasses would have been the preferred interpretation.

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Inherit the Wind is a reasonably faithful rendition of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which John T. Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in a public school, contrary to state law.  However, the fact that the names are changed is an indication that the producers of this movie wanted to take a few liberties.  In particular, the Scopes character in the film is Bertram Cates (Dick York); Scopes’ defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy); William Jennings Bryan, who participated in the prosecution, is Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March); and H.L. Mencken, the famous reporter who covered the trial, is E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly).

While the town in which the trial takes place is full of minor characters who are fervent fundamentalists, there is another major character with strong religious views in addition to Brady, and that is Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).  In what is clearly a Hollywood contribution, Brown’s daughter is Cates’ fiancée, and she is torn between her love for Cates and her desire to please her father.

Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic.  It can be debated whether H.L. Mencken was an atheist or an agnostic, but he seems more the former than the latter.  Part of the problem lies in the evolving connotation of the word “agnostic.”  In the early part of the twentieth century, it had a harder edge to it than it does today.  By the late 1960s, it had already come to sound a little wishy-washy, and it is even more so today.  For example, in the novel Brideshead Revisted, published in 1945, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  In the 2008 movie version of this novel, however, Ryder explicitly denies being an agnostic, saying he is an atheist, just the opposite of what was in the novel.  Why would the producers of this movie make this radical change?  I suspect the reason lies in the shifting sense of the word “agnostic.”

In any event, as far as the movie is concerned, neither Drummond nor Hornbeck refers to himself as either an atheist or an agnostic.  Drummond is referred to as both by others, and Hornbeck is referred to as neither.  However, one gets the sense that Drummond is an agnostic while Hornbeck is atheist, which corresponds to what we suspect about Darrow and Mencken.

Ordinarily, there would be nothing remarkable about that.  Atheists and agnostics do not typically go around announcing which word more accurately applies to them.  But for a long time, it mattered in the movies.  Any character that acknowledged being an atheist would be required to affirm the existence of God before the movie was over.  An agnostic, on the other hand, would not be required to capitulate.  He already admits that there might be a God.  All he would have to do is admit it just a little bit more in the final reel.  And if there is no definite assertion by the character as to the nature of his doubt or disbelief, he might be able to get by without having to do either.

Had this movie been made shortly after the Scopes Monkey Trial, Drummond and Hornbeck would have been made to seem superficial and arrogant, while Brady and Brown would have been treated more sympathetically.  By 1960, however, evolution had become mainstream, and fundamentalism had been marginalized.  As a result, Brady and Brown are made to look ridiculous.  Of course, it is hard to portray anyone who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis as anything but ridiculous.

Brown is portrayed as a man who will not hesitate to assert that someone is going to Hell.  Saying it about Drummond would be expected, but we find out that he said the same of a little boy who drowned without having been baptized.  And then he damns his own daughter to Hell while giving a fiery speech before a crowd.  Of course, the Bible says most people will go to Hell, so that is to be expected from a fundamentalist.  But saying such about a little boy or one’s own daughter seems especially cruel.  In short, Brown exemplifies the idea that someone can be so religious as to be evil.

Brady, on the other hand, who actually comes to Brown’s daughter’s defense during that speech, admonishing Brown for saying such things, is negatively portrayed in a different way.  In Brady’s case, we see an intelligent man destroyed by his insistence on the literal truth of the Bible as the word of God.  A less intelligent man can hold such views without any difficulty, but the cognitive dissonance he experiences during the trial proves to be too much for him, especially when Drummond puts him on the stand as an expert on the Bible.  The movie even suggests that the strain kills him, since he collapses on the floor of the courtroom right after the trial has ended.

It almost seems like shooting fish in a barrel to hear Drummond challenge Brady as to how some of the stories in the Bible could be literally true, such as Cain taking a wife, when up to that point, Eve was the only woman that existed.  And the ultimate comes when Drummond asks Brady how long the first day was, the implication being that since the sun was not created until the fourth day, there would have been no way to measure the length of the first day.  In short, the first day might have been the equivalent of millions years.

Unfortunately, this is preceded by a misunderstanding on Drummond’s part.  He asks Brady how all the holy people in the Bible could be holy when they were doing all that begetting.  Drummond says, “What is the biblical evaluation of sex?  It is considered original sin.  And all these holy people got themselves begat through original sin.  Well, all that sinning make them any less holy?”

I have never heard that one before.  The original sin was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden.  God never forbade sex within the confines of marriage.  Brady should have known that.  And it would have been his chance to put Drummond in his place by pointing it out.  Maybe the actual Darrow and Bryan thought the original sin was sex, or maybe it was just a misconception on the part of the people who made this movie.  But whatever the case, this is one of the weaker scenes in the movie.

There is another scene that is weaker still, and once again, Drummond opens himself up to a withering criticism that Brady simply fails to take advantage of.  Drummond is questioning one of the students in Cates’ class.  In an effort to show that science and technology are not intrinsically evil, Drummond says, “You know, Moses never made a phone call.  You figure that makes the telephone an instrument of the devil?”

Brady interrupts:  “Your honor, the defense makes the same old error of all godless men.  He confuses material things with the great spiritual value of the revealed word.  Why do you bewilder this child?  Does right have no meaning to you, sir?”

Drummond responds:  “Realizing that I may prejudice the case of my client, I must tell you that right has no meaning for me whatsoever. But truth has meaning, as a direction.  But it is one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time that we place a grid of morality upon human behavior so that the action of every man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and a longitude of wrong in exact minutes, degrees, and seconds….”

So right and wrong have no meaning, only truth and falsehood.  In other words, all that matters is whether it is true that one man murdered another man, not whether it was wrong for him to do so.  Is it “arbitrary” that we say it is wrong for a man to rape a child?  It is a common stereotype of the atheist that he is amoral:  God is dead, so all is permitted!  Why this movie plays right into that stereotype, I do not know.  The real Clarence Darrow did not hold such a view.  He believed that man had emotions that told him whether something was right or wrong, what most people would call a conscience.  In the Loeb and Leopold case, he argued that the defendants lacked those emotions.  But in this movie, we almost get the sense that it is Drummond who lacks those emotions when he suggests that the difference between right and wrong is arbitrary.  In any event, it is even more startling that Brady does not seize upon this opportunity.  He could have argued that by Drummond’s own words, without God there is nothing to restrain man, that we would all end up acting like animals.  But he fails to take advantage of Drummond’s stance that morality is just a fiction.

I already noted above that Brady is demeaned as a man whose intellect collapses under the strain of trying to reconcile reason and common sense with the myths of the Bible.  But it is worse than that.  Leading up to the final day of the trial, Brady is infantilized.  Now, it is not uncommon for a married couple with children to start referring to each other as “Mom” and “Dad.”  So, the first time Brady addresses his wife as “Mother,” we think nothing of it.  Furthermore, lovers often call each other “baby” as a term of affection, so we normally wouldn’t think much of that either.  But after Brady is put on the stand and subjected to a grilling by Drummond, he becomes almost pathetic, saying to his wife, “Mother, they laughed at me.”  She holds him in her arms and says, “Hush, baby.”  Then he says, “I can’t stand it when they laugh at me.”  She continues holding him and rocking him, saying, “It’s all right, baby.  It’s all right.”  He whimpers, “They laughed.”  And she continues, “Baby, baby.”  In the old days, this is the kind of humiliation that an atheist in a movie might have been forced to undergo.

But that does not mean that the movie atheist is off the hook, for it is in the last scene that movie must finally make amends for all the irreligion that has come before:  the agnostic must display an affinity for religion, and the atheist must be put down and disparaged.  As they debate whether Brady was a great man or a bigot, Hornbeck accuses Drummond of being a hypocrite and a fraud, an “atheist who believes in God,” saying, “You’re just as religious as he was.”  Drummond in turn tells Hornbeck that he pities him, telling him his life is meaningless, because he doesn’t need people or love.  “You poor slob.  You’re all alone.”  Well, gosh!  That’s telling him.  Of course, the real H.L. Mencken was married at the time of this trial, and he loved his wife.  But the need for the movie atheist to be put down must take precedence over reality.  Actually, one might think of this as progress.  By the late 1950s, it was no longer necessary for the atheist to acknowledge the existence of God, although it still did happen in some movies.  Rather, the atheist could remain an atheist, but he had to be disparaged.

Anyway, after a few more words along those lines, Hornbeck leaves the room.  Drummond puts Darwin’s Descent of Man together with the Bible, smiles, and walks toward the camera as the movie ends.