Cast & Crew
In the Pennsylvania court of Calvin Cooke, a rigid "letter-of-the-law" judge, attorney David Douglas loses a murder trial when he fails to prove that the accused's state-of-mind is critical in determining guilt. Unknown to Calvin, David, whom the judge dislikes because of his liberal interpretation of the law, is dating his daughter Ellie. Later that day, Ellie complains to her mother Catherine, who is preparing for her twentieth anniversary dinner, about her father's obdurate nature. That evening, Cathy experiences a severe wave of pain and dizziness which she conceals from Calvin and Ellie. Before dinner, however, she manuevers to be alone with longtime friend and family physician, Walter Morrison. Upon describing her symptoms to him, Walter asks her to come to his Philadelphia office the following day. Cathy keeps the appointment secret from Calvin and Ellie and the next day is subjected to a battery of tests. Although Walter is optimistic with Cathy, as soon as she leaves, he arranges for the test results to be submitted to several specialists around the country. In court the next day, Calvin gets an urgent message from Walter, who later tells him that Cathy is suffering from a fatal illness that will develop rapidly and with great pain. The only help Walter can offer are pain relief pills that are highly toxic. He recommends that Calvin keep the information from Cathy and try to make her remaining time as pleasant as possible. Unwilling to confide in Ellie, Calvin decides to take Cathy on a second honeymoon trip, during which the two happily if briefly re-experience their early days together. While in an amusement park house of mirrors, however, Cathy is stricken by a violent headache, blurry vision and dizziness and pleads to return to the hotel, where she continues experiencing great pain. Calvin gives her the prescribed amount of the pain reliever, telling her it is aspirin, but Cathy passes most of the night in excrutiating agony. Calvin fleetingly contemplates giving her more medicine, but reconsiders. The following morning Cathy awakens to find a note from Calvin saying that he has gone for the newspaper and while searching for more aspirin, comes across Walter's pain medicine prescription and diagnosis. Meanwhile, Calvin has telephoned Walter, distraught over Cathy's suffering and talks of suicide and relieving her torment. When he returns to the hotel, Cathy says nothing about discovering the prescription and asks to return home to Ellie. On the drive back in the midst of a rainstorm, the car develops engine trouble and Calvin is forced to pull into a roadside garage and café. While Calvin helps the mechanic, Cathy, sitting in the café, realizes her condition is worsening and calls Ellie. On the road again with Cathy dozing beside him, Calvin is overwrought and intentionally drives the car over an embankment, killing Cathy. Some time later, after he has recovered from the crash, Calvin goes to the district attorney and turns himself in as Cathy's murderer. Despite Ellie's pleas, Calvin refuses to defend himself, believing his motives in no way justify his actions. During the trial, David asks to be appointed to the defense at Ellie's urging, and insists Calvin be found not guilty due to the extenuating circumstances of Cathy's illness. When premeditation and mental instability are suggested, David asks for an autopsy to confirm whether Cathy may have died before the crash. Calvin, meanwhile, experiences doubt about whether his actions were as selfless as he intended. The autopsy proves Cathy died from an overdose of the pain pills which she had filled at the hotel and taken at the café without Calvin's knowledge. Calvin is found not guilty but realizes he remains morally guilty and that the reverse holds true, that a man may be be guilty in deed, but morally innocent.
Paul E. Burns
Eda Reiss Merin
Ethyl May Halls
Jack A. Bolger Jr.
Robert F. Boyle
Russell A. Gausman
John F. Sherwood
Laurence M. Weinberg
An Act of Murder -
Although it initially opened under the title Live Today for Tomorrow, the film's permanent title is exactly right for it, marking the legal ambiguity between an "act of mercy" and a "murderous act." The film explores that ambiguity through the story of a family compelled to deal with it in a frighteningly urgent way. It's a smart and sensitive drama with a top-notch cast, and while Edmond O'Brien fans might be disappointed that he appears in only a handful of scenes, he's every bit as effective as Fredric March and March's real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, in their more central roles.
,br> An Act of Murder conveys some crucial facts about March's character, Calvin Cooke, before the opening credits are over. He's a judge in Pennsylvania, and he prides himself on running a dispassionate, emotion-free courtroom. Some of the locals see him a bit differently, though, and the nickname they've given him - Old Man Maximum - sums up the dour side of his reputation. At home, he has a loving wife named Catherine (Eldridge) and a sprightly daughter named Ellie (Geraldine Brooks) who wants to marry David Douglas, an idealistic defense lawyer played by O'Brien with a finely tuned blend of earnestness and congeniality.
The picture begins with conflict in Calvin's courtroom. A murder defendant's life is at stake, and the judge is going by the book. As the defense attorney, though, David calls for mercy, arguing - unsuccessfully - that the lawbreaker's motives and intentions should be considered when punishment is decided. The main storyline comes into focus that evening, when Catherine gets dizzy and momentarily loses control of one of her hands. Calvin is welcoming a dinner guest and doesn't see the incident. But the dinner guest happens to be Walter Morrison, the family's trusted physician, and Catherine intimates to him that she's been suffering from such spells for many months. The next day Walter examines her in his office, and later he calls Calvin with alarming news: Catherine has an incurable illness that will inflict severe, intractable pain before killing her.
Calvin refuses to accept the diagnosis at first. Walter has already sent the results of his exam to specialists in other cities, though, and all concur. The prognosis is so grim that the doctor has nothing to offer except a prescription for a powerful painkiller, so toxic that it must be taken very sparingly. He also beseeches Calvin not to tell Catherine what's in store for her, insisting that ignorance will allow her greater enjoyment of what little time she has left. Calvin reluctantly gives out the lie that nothing's really wrong with her, and she responds with relief and joy.
But shortly afterward Catherine and Calvin go on a second honeymoon together - they've just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary - and she stumbles on the awful truth. Her immediate reaction is to tidy up family affairs, such as talking Calvin into accepting David as a potential son-in-law despite the differences in their legal philosophies. Then her pain kicks in for real, bringing panic and despair to her and her loved ones.
In recent decades, Hollywood has dealt with euthanasia in excellent movies like Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004) and disappointing ones like John Badham's Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981). Back in 1948, however, the Production Code censors were in firm control and their conservative ethics ruled the studios. While mercy killing wasn't specifically mentioned in the Code, censors felt it was simply murder in disguise, which meant it could be treated only in ways that showed unequivocal respect for conventional moral standards.
As if this issue weren't delicate enough by itself, An Act of Murder also touches on suicide, which both Calvin and Catherine consider as a way out of their misery. Suicide wasn't explicitly named in the Code either, but studios were required not to "lessen regard for the sacredness of life," so extreme caution was required if a script called for a character to end it all. Here again An Act of Murder pushes the envelope, making suicide a key element in the story's climax.
Perhaps distracted a bit by these balancing acts, the movie falls back on coincidence more than once to propel the narrative or drive home a point. The family physician shows up just as Catherine's symptoms start to escalate, for instance, and exactly when Calvin starts brooding about her condition, he witnesses a cop putting an injured dog out of its misery. The resolution of the plot is a textbook example of what the ancient Greeks called a deus ex machina, resolving the story's profound moral issues with a plot twist that's too opportune for comfort, and adding a simplistically "uplifting" final speech to pacify the Code office. Inevitably and predictably, the judge must be shown to have acted honorably and to realize now that motives and intentions matter as much as the letter of the law.
If the movie is plausible, involving, and intelligent despite these lapses - and it is, most of the time - credit goes largely to the terrific actors who bring it alive. March brings conviction and dignity to Old Man Maximum, making him interesting and sympathetic even when he's being stubborn or dogmatic. Eldridge is utterly believable in the physically and psychologically demanding role of Catherine, and O'Brien makes David an able adversary for the judge and an amiable suitor for the judge's daughter. Kudos also go to John McIntire as the no-nonsense jurist who presides over the court proceedings that conclude the picture.
An Act of Murder is less candid and persuasive than it might have been if made 20 years later, but its boldness is remarkable by the standards of its day. It holds up very well as a family drama, a courtroom drama, and a tale of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges as best they can.
Director: Michael Gordon
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort and Robert Thoeren; based on Ernst Lothar's novel The Mills of God
Cinematographer: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
With: Fredric March (Judge Calvin Cooke), Edmond O'Brien (David Douglas), Florence Eldridge (Catherine Cooke), Geraldine Brooks (Ellie Cooke), Stanley Ridges (Dr. Walter Morrison), John McIntire (Judge Ogden), Frederic Tozere (Charles Dayton), Will Wright (Judge Jim Wilder), Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Russell), Francis McDonald (Mr. Russell), Mary Servoss (Julia), Clarence Muse (Mr. Pope)
by David Sterritt
An Act of Murder -
What is incurable today is curable next Wednesday.- Doctor Walter Morrison
Working titles of this film were The Judge's Wife, I Stand Accused and The Case Against Calvin Cooke. The film was copyrighted under the title Live Today for Tomorrow and reviewed under that title by New York Times, but all other references to the film are under the title An Act of Murder. The film marked the second time that real-life husband and wife Frederic March and Florence Eldridge played a married couple onscreen.