Monday, June 25, 2018

The Woman Under Oath

The Woman Under Oath. Florence Reed as the novelist Grace Norton, the sole woman in an all male panel.

Il verdetto / Den edsvurna.
    Director: John M. Stahl. Year: 1919. Country: USA.
    F.: John K. Holbrook. Int.: Florence Reed (Grace Norton), Hugh Thompson (John Schuyler), Gareth Hughes (Jim O’Neil), David Powell (Edward Knox), Florida Kingsley (signora O’Neil), Mildred Cheshire (Helen), May McAvoy (Edith Norton), Harold Entwistle (il giudice). Prod.: Tribune Productions Inc. 35 mm. L.: 1693 m. D.: 61’. Bn.
    Print from BFI National Archive.
    Digital piano played by Donald Sosin.
    Introduce Pamela Hutchinson hosted by Ehsan Khoshbakht.
    Viewed at Cinema Jolly with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato (Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl), 25 June 2018

Pamela Hutchinson (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "“Is a woman temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case?” With this intertitle, The Woman Under Oath announces itself as both topical and provocative. In Stahl’s lurid courtroom melodrama, Gareth Hughes plays Jim, a young man accused of shooting his repulsive former employer Edward Knox, played by David Powell. Florence Reed plays Grace Norton, a novelist sensationally elected to the jury at Jim’s trial. In the film she is the first woman in New York to do so, although it wasn’t made legal in the state until 1937."

"Via flashbacks and meaningful glances across the courtroom, Stahl deflects and then reveals the story of Knox’s death. Notable sequences include Jim’s harrowing interrogation by the police, including a decidedly unethical trick designed to terrify a confession out of him, and Grace’s tormented visions in the jury-room, where she holds out against her peers’ assumption of Jim’s guilt."

"“Exhibitors’ Herald” dismissed The Woman Under Oath out of hand as “comically serious, amateurish and altogether disappointing”, adding that Reed’s close-up-heavy performance in the lead role “does not redeem the picture”. The review in “Wid’s Daily” was more positive: while baffled by the flashbacks, it praised Hughes’s “forcefully excellent portrayal of accused youth” and the film’s restrained use of intertitles, calling it “a quite good picture of its kind” despite being “none too wholesome in certain respects”. Ultimately the topical question posed at the outset was the hook, with “Wid’s Daily” commending the film to female audiences, more specifically progressive households where “woman suffrage is a popular topic with the women”."

"Contrary to those contemporary views, The Woman Under Oath emerges an accomplished and compelling film, by a director with a sterling career ahead of him. Stahl would continue to make more female-led melodramas, and returned to a version of this plot when he produced 1929’s early-talkie Painted Faces." (Pamela Hutchinson)

AA: This film starts puzzlingly with the intertitle quoted by Pamela Hutchinson above, posing the question whether a woman is temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case. A good question only if posed to men and women equally.

The topical interest of this film is as a study of a woman in a man's world, a continuing theme in the oeuvre of John M. Stahl. The solitude of the sole female juror on an all male panel: these images are striking and memorable.

Also David Powell's performance as the brutally predatory Edward Knox is topical in our age of the Harvey Weinstein trial. The murder mystery revolves around the coincidence that two persons with a motive and intent to kill visit Knox almost simultaneously. When the second one comes Knox is dead already. Both killers / would-be killers are there to defend their sisters.

In the dramatic jury sequence the truth is revealed but for the jury only. The jury deems that Edward Knox got the punishment he deserved.

In this tale of poetic justice the screenplay is weak and the plot full of holes. The potentially magnificent character of the brave female juror and novelist Grace Norton is diminished.

There are dynamic passages of dramatic medium shots and occasional moments of overacting.

The best part of the movie is the electrifying flashback to what really happened. Events already presented are now seen in a bigger picture, and there is a memorable shot showing the two doors. From the left door the murderer exits, and from the right door the other avenger arrives while Edward Knox is already lying dead on the floor.

The visual quality of the print is variable, often heavily duped. At the speed selected the film is moving fast. It's ok but could be a bit slower.

P. S. Geoffrey O'Brien in The New York Review of Books (16 August 2018) writes that the novelist was perhaps modeled on Edith Wharton.

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