Saturday, September 24, 2011
Town Without Pity (Mirisch/United Artists, 1961)
by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Town Without Pity, which was made in 1961 by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists release and produced and directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, son of the legendary German stage director Max Reinhardt (who fled the Nazis in 1933 because he was Jewish, settled in the U.S. and restaged his famous German-language production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English on stage in 1934 and on film for Warner Bros. in 1935) and father of Stephen Reinhardt, the U.S. federal appeals judge in charge of the three-judge panel currently hearing the Proposition 8 appeal. It was based on a novel called The Verdict by Manfred Gregor which was “adapted” by Jan Lustig and turned into a screenplay by George Hurdalek and Silvia Reinhardt (whose precise family relationship to Gottfried isn’t specified on imdb.com — his wife, I presume, since the site acknowledges that she was three years older than he and born in New York City in 1910 under the name Sylvia Hanlon).
It’s a tale centered around a U.S. military base in West Germany, and the action kicks off when four U.S. soldiers, frustrated when the local Florida Bar’s barmaids haven’t yet arrived (it’s 6 and they don’t come to work until 7), go walking through the woods and come upon a couple of young German adolescents, Frank Borgmann (Gerhart Lippert) and Karin Steinhof (Christine Kaufmann, billed as “introducing … ” in her first film for a U.S. producer; on her next film, Taras Bulba, she would fall in love with co-star Tony Curtis and he’d leave his wife, Janet Leigh, and marry her). They’re more or less necking in the woods — in a reversal from the way this sort of scene is usually presented, she’s pressing him to become more sexually aggressive and küss mir in the way she really wants to be küssen — and she ultimately denounces him as a mama’s boy (a woman narrator — who’s actually a character in the film, though we don’t know that until later — tells us that he and his mother live alone because his dad was killed in World War II and he has no other family).
He dives into the lake on whose shore they’d been necking, and the four G.I.’s — Jim Larkin (Robert Blake, whose casting as a criminal here as in In Cold Blood is now unintentionally a bit chilling given that he was actually tried, though acquitted, of the murder of his wife), Birdwell “Birdie” Scott (Richard Jaeckel), Chuck Snyder (Frank Sutton) and Joey Haines (Mal Sondock) — come upon her and gang-rape her. Needless to say, the town where the base is located is in an uproar and Karin’s father, Karl Steinhof (Hans Nielsen) — who looks for all the world like all those clueless middle-aged bureaucrats with German names who inhabited the cast lists of the later Universal Frankenstein movies and regularly got killed off by the monster — is especially pissed. Though (West) Germany didn’t have the death penalty, the U.S. military did for crimes committed by its personnel under its jurisdiction, and the townspeople, led by burgomaster [mayor] (Egon von Jordan), demand it. The base commander assigns Col. Jerome Pakenham (E. G. Marshall, who would later play an attorney on the other side of the bar in the TV show The Defenders) to prosecute the case and brings in Major Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas) to defend it.
Most of the rest of the movie takes place in the local high-school gym, which the burgomaster has made available to the Army so the court-martial can be held in public, and Garrett — whose “outsider” status has been made clear when he’s seen making his entrance driving onto the base in a Chevrolet convertible with the film’s theme song (written by Dimitri Tiomkin — who also did the background score and based virtually all the music on the melody of his song — with words by Ned Washington, and sung by Gene Pitney, the sort of high-voiced falsetto male singer who was popular then; one critic dissed him by saying, “Gene Pitney hits notes so high only dogs and recording engineers can hear them”) — is assigned the defense. The trial gets underway, and Garrett alternates between dodging interviews with Inge Körner (Barbara Rütting), a reporter for the German magazine Globus who (it turns out) is the owner of the narrator’s voice we’ve been listening to off and on since the film began; representing his clients as best he can — mainly by savaging the reputation and the morals of Karin, the complaining witness — and trying to get the trial to stop by asking Karl to agree to a plea bargain that will spare the four soldiers the death penalty, in exchange for which Karin won’t have to testify and face the withering cross-examination he intends to give her, since under some legal quirk in the proceedings the soldiers can only be sentenced to death if Karin testifies and undergoes cross-examination.
Karl says he isn’t interested in any deal — Karin isn’t involved in the decision herself partly because she’s 16 and partly because she’s spent most of the movie in hospital (in a large, rather dowdy building called “Stadt Krankenhaus,” which simply means “City Hospital”) and has emerged only to testify — and so Garrett goes ahead with his cross-examination and so effectively tears away at her morals she ends up looking like a common slut/whore. The military judges sentence the defendants to prison terms ranging from 6 to 25 years, and Frank (ya remember Frank?) decides to flee the “town without pity” and take Karin with him — only he decides to finance the trip by forging a check on his mother’s account, and mom catches him, turns him in and has him arrested. Karin kills herself from the shame, and Garrett drives away again, presumably sadder and wiser from the experience, though given that Kirk Douglas has played virtually all his role in that spitting-his-lines-through-clenched-teeth manner he used to express extreme emotional anguish, it’s kind of hard to tell.
The parallels between this movie and Paths of Glory — which also cast Douglas as an officer mounting an unpopular defense of enlisted-man defendants in a controversial court-martial — are all too obvious; we’re evidently supposed to read the Douglas character’s moral dilemma (do I destroy the credibility of a rape victim on the witness stand or do I risk letting my clients fry?) as equivalent to the situation in Paths of Glory (in which the Douglas character is trying to hold his superior officers to account for a suicidal attack they ordered, and are now prosecuting and threatening to hang three soldiers as scapegoats to cover up their own arrogance and idiocy), but we don’t buy it. As Charles pointed out, all too much of Town Without Pity seems to have been constructed to take advantage of the gradual weakening of the Production Code to the point where you could now say “rape” in a movie instead of covering it with the euphemism “criminal assault” (we recall one unintentionally funny moment in a movie in which a woman’s body is found with so many knife wounds she might as well have been a pincushion, and one of the cops says, “Any sign of criminal assault?” “No,” replies his partner, and Charles said, “Right, she just accidentally walked into a meatgrinder”) and could depict its consequences for the victim and her family with at least some degree of accuracy.
Charles said that dated the movie, but in some ways the freedom of the Douglas character to bring up Karin’s previous history to destroy her credibility on the stand dates it even more; this film shows just how vicious a rape prosecution could get for the victim before feminist activists won changes in the law that set limits on the ability of defense attorneys to use the sorts of slimeball tactics with which Douglas’s character wins his case in the film. Town Without Pity also suffers from an excess of melodramatic intensity — it’s the sort of movie that, on a one-to-10 scale, starts at 11 and gradually ratchets it up to the low 20’s — and from an unintentionally funny musical score that stays so resolutely on the melody of That Song that it seems as if it’s the only piece any musician in town actually knows. We hear it arranged in all sorts of fashions, from the vocal version by Gene Pitney to a more-or-less conventional film-music style with strings to a jazz version with sleazy saxophones to a rather haunting knock-off of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans big-band records. It’s a good song (it actually won the Golden Globe award for best song over “Moon River”!) but we get awfully tired of it after a while — though at least it steered Dimitri Tiomkin from the overwrought 1,001-strings style with which he usually wrote film scores.
Also, as Charles pointed out, from the way the film is written and staged there’s utterly no reason for it to take place in Germany — it could happen virtually anywhere there is a U.S. military base, including any U.S. state that didn’t have capital punishment. The writers utterly fail to suggest any lingering antagonisms from the fact that less than 20 years earlier the U.S. and Germany were fighting a war against each other — which in a real-life situation like this would have to have colored their attitudes towards having the U.S. military there at all and especially towards having U.S. servicemembers being put on trial by U.S. authorities for a crime committed against a German — especially with the further irony that the reason the U.S. maintained bases throughout Germany at the time was presumably to defend it against the Soviet Union, which had been a U.S. ally against Germany in World War II. Town Without Pity is decent (or slightly indecent) entertainment that aspires to be much, much more and falls short of its higher aspirations and of the films that had blazed this trail before — not only Paths of Glory but also Anatomy of a Murder, which had depicted rape honestly (and under its real name) two years earlier and considerably more effectively.