Town Without Pity (1961)
I’ve always been at odds with my overall view of this Kirk Douglas effort that sees him back in a military court of law four years after the magnificent Kubrick film, Paths of Glory. Again Kirk and his cleft chin will be defending men from the gallows. In this case four soldiers who have clearly raped a young woman in occupied Germany following WW2. I say I’m at odds because hidden in this adaptation of Manfred Green’s novel is a powerful story but it’s overall execution is lacking which hurts the film. That and the fact that I’m not what you’d call a fan of Gene Pitney’s high pitched voice covering the title song.
Filmed in black and white by producer/director Gottfried Reinhardt, the story begins with four soldiers leaving their military base looking for women and trouble at a local pub. The word prostitution is never spoken but it’s clear what they have in mind. Not finding any evening gals on duty, they stumble upon a young and very healthy looking Christine Kaufmann in some river side brush who has stripped off her bikini before putting dry clothes back on. The assault leads to screams resulting in her boyfriend rushing to her aid only to be beaten unconscious by the largest man in the foursome.
The four men are portrayed by Frank Sutton, Richard Jaeckel, Mal Sondock and Robert Blake. It’s Blake who will wrestle with his conscience for the balance of the film.
“Personally I hate your guts but I have to defend you.”
Douglas is called in as a military lawyer going head to head with the army’s prosecutor, E.G. Marshall. Kirk knows full well where this case is headed and the damage it’s going to do to the fragile Christine if the army pushes ahead with the death penalty for these men. It means a full scale public trial and Christine’s taking the stand to be cross examined. Kirk’s pushing to have the case settled out of court at 20 years for each man other than Blake who he isn’t entirely sure participated in the rape. It’s Blake who left the girl covered with his own shirt and attempts to plead guilty to the charges and commit suicide in his cell.
Kirk’s main opponent will become Christine’s father played by Hans Nielsen. Not surprisingly, he wants his pound of flesh even if it means destroying his own daughter’s respectability on the stand to get it. As the title points out, this is indeed a town without pity and though the young girl may be the victim, that doesn’t stop tongues wagging about the village concerning her sexual conduct prior to the rape. The elderly women of the community think she got what she deserved while the men now look at her as someone easily had. It is indeed a cruel world.
Douglas knows where this is all headed and it’s a dirty job he’s forced to confront and carry out. One that is carefully filmed during the cross examination as the boundaries of what was to be shown in movie houses continued to broaden. To be truthful, this film for me attempts to capitalize on both the success attained and the limits pushed by Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. That doesn’t mean that Kirk Douglas hasn’t shown up with his “A” game though. For the most part the film is well acted and the leading players are polished professionals. Both Blake and Jaeckel had been in movies since the 1940’s. Jaeckel would even guest on Blake’s popular 1970’s cop drama, Baretta on network television. Frank Sutton may be a military brute here but he’d play that up for laughs when he signed on to play opposite Jim Nabors in Gomer Pyle USMC on tv in the mid 60’s.
E.G. Marshall returns to the courtroom on film though not as a juror as he did in the Sidney Lumet classic, Twelve Angry Men and despite being in a number of German language films, Christine Kaufmann scores an introducing credit at the beginning of Town. It wouldn’t be long before she found her name in the tabloid headlines after marrying Tony Curtis whom she would meet and work with on Taras Bulba in 1962.
I guess what irks me on the overall end result is the use of a narrator that doesn’t quite come off. The film is being told to us through the eyes of a female reporter looking for a story played by Barbara Rutting. She’ll even serve as a possible romantic interest to our Hollywood icon. The direction seems rooted in a television style from Gottfried and that gives it a sloppy presentation in more than one scene. Then there’s that guy Gene Pitney I like to complain about. Let me explain…………
I come from a house where singers like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones are Kings of country music. Men who are to be revered for their contributions to the industry. These were my musical heroes growing up along with a couple others and still are today. In the early 1960’s, Gene Pitney was paired with George Jones for a couple of albums and for my money are the worst albums of Jones career and it ain’t because of the songs or Jones. He nails his parts on the songs but Pitney for me is embarrassingly bad on these records. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time but Pitney isn’t cut out to be a classic country stylist as Jones or if you prefer “The Possum” was for the better part of 60 years on country radio.
Enough with the negative, see this one for the subject material at a time when Hollywood was stretching it’s boundaries if you like or to notch up another performance from one of the screens all time great leading men. Though the film may not be in Kirk’s more memorable list of titles, this original one sheet is dynamite and is easily one of my favorites among the many Kirk originals I have here in the vault at Mike’s Take. A good eye should have spotted I’ve been photo bombed once again.