Sunday, November 14, 2010

That's Petro-CHELLI

Producer Brad Dexter (who acted in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE) originally planned to make a docudrama based on the sensational murder case of Ohio physician Sam Sheppard, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1954. Ten years later, Sheppard was granted a new trial, mainly because his first trial received so much publicity that it was believed the jury was tainted. At his new trial in 1966, represented by F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard was acquitted.

The Sam Sheppard murder case was obviously the inspiration for THE FUGITIVE, the television series with David Janssen as an Indiana physician convicted of killing his wife, but escaped custody and spent four seasons pursuing the one-armed man who really did the crime. Sheppard was later played on television by George Peppard (1975) and Peter Strauss (1998) in TV-movies.

Sheppard died in 1970, the same year Paramount released THE LAWYER, a brash courtroom drama that bore a great resemblance to the Sheppard case, but concentrated on the suspected killer’s attorney, rather than the Sheppard stand-in. Why Dexter and Furie decided not to dramatize the Sheppard case directly, I don’t know, though writers Furie and Harold Buchman certainly had more dramatic flexibility when crafting the screenplay.

Wilma Harrison (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) is beaten to death in her sleep, the recipient of 34 blows to the head. The detective in charge, Moran (Warren Kemmerling), arrests her husband, Dr. Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), who claims he was awakened to the sound of Wilma being murdered, but was knocked unconscious before he could see who did it. Harrison’s attorney is not F. Lee Bailey, but root-beer-guzzling Harvard grad Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman), who displays a flagrant regard for authority and traffic laws. Petrocelli drives a camper and lives in a mobile home with his wife Ruth (Diana Muldaur).

THE LAWYER’s small-town setting leads to some unusual moments, such as a coroner’s inquest staged at the grandstand of the local fairgrounds, complete with a jeering crowd and hot dog vendors. The carnival atmosphere that permeated the Sheppard case is faithfully duplicated by Furie, which really puts Harrison in a hole.

To give the mystery some variety and pacing, Furie and Buchman tell the story using flashbacks that may or may not represent what actually happened in the Harrison bedroom. Argyle Nelson’s sophisticated editing, as well as dollops of frank talk and nudity (THE LAWYER received an R rating from the MPAA), help provide the whodunit with extra tension. Harold Gould as the state’s attorney is excellent and a strong opponent for Newman. Furie stages most of his cross-examination of Colbert in one long take that shows off his performance.

Newman, a relative screen newcomer, became something of a cult actor for his car-chase performances in VANISHING POINT and FEAR IS THE KEY. Hotshot Tony Petrocelli fits Newman like one of those natty suits he wears, and the star brought the character to television in 1974 in the series PETROCELLI, which ran two seasons on NBC and earned Newman an Emmy nomination.

THE LAWYER was never released on VHS or DVD, so it has been difficult to see since its theatrical release. Thankfully, Paramount has made it available through Netflix instant streaming. The R-rated material is intact, but the print is full-frame.

Here is the opening title sequence to PETROCELLI with a shaggier-haired Newman and some footage from THE LAWYER:

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