Pros:the trials and the old-pro actors (plus Fay Wray)
Cons:prison that is too good to be true and the setting for too long
The Bottom Line: A case of considerable importance to the American legal process, clearly dramatized with some outstanding performances.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
This 1980 made-for-tv movie shows a landmark court case (Gideon v. Wainwright) that established the right to legal representation in criminal trials. It is based on a superb book by Anthony Lewis (long-time New York Times writer about the judiciary) that I read once upon a time. The reason I wanted to see it, however, was a cast including four Academy Award winners plus Fay Wray (who, decades earlier was King Kong's love interest).
Playing the part of Clarence Earl Gideon as a very stubborn semi-educated Florida man, a four-time loser who managed to get the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court, was Henry Fonda. He received an emmy nomination for his performance, one that is quite compelling. Fonda is as stubborn, though not as eloquent, as he was as the hold-out juror in "Twelve Angry Men." The Florida penitentiary to which he is sentenced for five years for larceny he did not commit is portrayed as a sort of summer camp for adult males. I'm pretty sure that the real one was a hell-hole in comparison. Be that as it may, the film Gideon goes about his work as a mechanic and seeks out law books in the prison library.
His hand-written appeal to the Supreme Court for having been refused legal counsel by a judge who was following Florida law at the time is read and the court decides to hear the case and consider overturning its precedent.
John Houseman (who won his Academy Award for playing an intimidating Harvard Law School professor and produced this film) plays the Chief Justice without any discernible attempt to impersonate Earl Warren, who presided over the real case. Other justices include Dean Jagger and Sam Jaffe.
Representing Gideon in his appeal and committed to establishing a right to counsel was future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who is played very well by Josť Ferrer. When a Florida attorney who has never before argued a case to the U.S. Supreme Court appears, Fortas notes the irony that the man who had to try to defend himself against a lawyer this time has the more experienced and savvy advocate.
The court unanimously votes to overturn the conviction. Gideon who has already served two years in prison for a small breaking and entering that he did not commit is not pleased to have prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court and stubbornly maintains that it is "double jeopardy" to try him again. I guess that this shows that his self-education in the law remained inadequate even if his petition was granted by the highest court.
The judge from his earlier trial lets him have the local lawyer he wants, a sharp attorney masquerading as a Southern good old boy, played by Lane Smith (who played the DA vanquished by Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie). The difference between the line of questioning of the lawyer in the second trial and that of Gideon trying to defend himself in the first trial is considerable. Gideon's lawyer establishes that Gideon had keys to the bar he supposedly broke into, and the viewer is left believing that the sole supposed witness was the actual criminal.
Fonda, Ferrer, and Smith are outstanding. The case is clearly illustrated. Visual aspects are OK. I think the prison scenes go on too long (in addition to being sugarcoated) but the courtroom scenes (both the Florida court and the deliberations of the nation's high court) are compelling. The pats of Fay Wray and Dean Jagger are, alas, small. (Although Josť Ferrer is not longer around to play him, the story of Abe Fortas's rise and fall strikes me as one that would make for an interesting drama.)
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