|Rating: The Good – 78.3
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Gottfried Rheinhardt
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Barbara Rütting, Christine Kaufmann
From the opening scene, we know we’re in for something special here as four inebriated and aggravated GI’s, stationed in Germany, leave a bar to walk back to their base in the summer heat and Dmitri Tiomkin’s arresting title song (sung by Gene Pitney) erupts to fill every corner of our consciousness. In Town Without Pity, Kirk Douglas stars as a compassionate but tenacious defence council assigned to represent those same GIs as they’re tried for the rape of a sixteen year old girl which they committed on their way home that day. What unfolds is a mature, considered, and essential analysis of a cold hearted legal system which puts the victim of rape on trial in order to bring her “justice” and the veiled viciousness of the small townsfolk who use the trial to satiate their petty grievances. There’s no two ways about it, this film is damning and it needs to be. Every film which tackles this subject needs to be but few are.
Douglas continues to chose his roles with intelligence and social conscience and he embodies the moral dillema which burns at the centre of such legal drama. His Major Garrett sneers at his defendants as they explain their behaviour and at the town’s people as they cue up to help him besmirch the girl’s name. But he uses them to do what he has been charged to do. He doesn’t like it and he tries to spare the victim it but the politics of the town’s leaders, the military brass, and the girl’s father demand she be put under his ferocious scrutiny. It’s a perceptive piece of acting that is mirrored by Christine Kaufmann’s stunning turn as the victim who captures all the fear and confusion of a young woman in her position.
This is complex stuff and while compassionate in implication, it moves through the gears dispassionately (as is necessary). Based on Manfred Gregor’s The Verdict and adapted by Jan Lustig and George Hurdalek, the dialogue is piercing in both it’s subtly and extremity as the script moves unerringly from the former to the latter. Gottfried Rheinhardt’s direction was as daring as the subject matter. It eschews conventions for large parts of the film employing an impersonal style not quite documentary but not nearly as subjective as is traditional. There are some beautifully lit and staged scenes too which complement the dark themes with a classic noirish look.
As a Swiss-US co-production, Town Without Pity gives off a strong independent vibe which is most clearly identified in its atypical use of sound. The German dialogue isn’t subtitled or dubbed but translated through one of the reporters who follows the case and whose reports narrate us through the film in a wonderfully cynical voice. Who the target of that cynicism is remains murky and so it perfectly reflects the moral quagmire which the film’s themes run through. To accentuate this, the conversations between characters occur at a pitch which makes us feel like we’re overhearing a gossipy conversation while in the backdrop, Tiomkin’s magnificent title track fades in and out throughout the film just as his seminal piece did in High Noon. Few compositions had the ability to direct a movie as his songs did and when accompanying the acting and striking screenplay in Town Without Pity, it makes for some compelling cinema.