Saturday, May 6, 2017
THE JUDGE (1949)
This shoestring budgeted film is told with voice-overs through the eyes of a judge, Jonathan Hale, who has witnessed a defense attorney’s career rise and fall. The odd use of Gene Lanham's wordless a cappella choral effects instead of an instrumental score gives it an eerie, avant-garde science fiction feel...if it were the Sixties. To finish out the Forties with it is just weird. Couple the narration with the choral score, the opening suggests an early television Sunday morning inspirational film. Other than the opening melody a mixed vocal ensemble sets the mood with cued chords only. Like a macabre “Swingle Singers.” You might recognize the first few measures of the opening theme as sounding like a cross between, “The Adventures of Superman” television theme and John William’s “Superman” movie theme. Perhaps a bit ironic that John Hamilton (The Daily Planet's Perry White) is in this film as a police lieutenant.
Milburn Stone plays the noted criminal attorney whose practices are at least unethical if not illegal. “A waste of a mind misused,” so says the judge. He is infamous for his loopholes in the law, springing the guilty. This takes a toll on his conscience after seeing his picture beside the word “shyster” in the dictionary. He now wants restitution for his actions and for all those he has maligned in the process. Speaking of maligning, enter his disloyal wife, Katherine DeMille. She is having an affair with the county police psychiatrist, Stanley Waxman, in his first credited film. This is no secret any longer to Stone, whose performance sets him apart from his co-stars. He is compelling. DeMille is not, though adequately irritating.
The opening apartment scenes between a mental patient and a boy’s violin practice in the next room is disturbing. Continuity takes a hit in the early stages with the best bits past the halfway point with an oddly used flashback dream sequence near the film’s end. Perhaps a last minute idea to pad the film. While Stone lies unconscious on the floor from a blow to the head, he experiences a dream—nightmare—about his wife. In his mind, he settles the score on their psychic rift between them. At the end of this sequence is the funniest use of the chorus, when Stone is slapped across the face by DeMille. As soon as her hand makes contact we hear a rapid, “Whaah Ohh,” two-note eerie descending chord.
Stone’s unsettling use of a straight-jacket on his hired killer, played by “under the radar” actor, Paul Guilfoyle and Stone's implementation of Russian Roulette is pretty intense. He seems possessed by a demon at this point, with the viewer not knowing who might be killed, who wants to be killed or who will be framed for either. The ending resolve is both ridiculously rapid and implausible. Still, “The Judge,” is a unique seventy minutes of film though few would call it successful. The a cappella chorus is its defining element. “Honey, let’s go and see that film that uses only an a cappella score!”