Town Without Pity, a little-remembered 1961 courtroom drama with Kirk Douglas, inspired a much more familiar song of the same name. But what of the movie asks Kim Newman.
Many 1950s/1960s movies are remembered today mostly for spin-off hit records. Everyone can hum ‘Theme from A Summer Place’, even if you can’t remember its title, but few bother with the once-popular 1959 Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue movie it comes from. You could be forgiven for thinking the Nat King Cole hits ‘Smile’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ originate with the 1975 and 1986 films which use them as title songs, rather than Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and the obscure Captain Carey USA (1950). Though The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is merely decent by Alfred Hitchcock’s standards, the song Doris Day introduced in it (‘Que Sera Sera’) was an instant classic.
Other standards which eclipsed movies they were written for include ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, ‘That’s Amore’ (from The Caddy), ‘Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing’, ‘Never On a Sunday’, ‘Days of Wine and Roses’, ‘Born Free’ and ‘The Look of Love’ (from the first Casino Royale). ‘Unchained Melody’ may be ‘that Ghost song’, but it was first heard in Unchained (1955). Even ‘Alfie’ and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ are probably better remembered as songs than Alfie and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are as films.
These standards have all been covered, sampled, remixed and recycled to this day, as has Gene Pitney’s haunting, paranoid, melodramatic ‘Town Without Pity’, introduced in this seldom-revived, very interesting 1961 Kirk Douglas courtroom drama. Pitney, who also had a hit with ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (a theme song not heard in the film which inspired it), croons about persecuted young love on the run with a masochistic, melodramatic abandon (‘yes, it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can doooooo …’).
Like ‘Smile’, ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘Town Without Pity’ joins the hit-list of ditties written for one movie but used in another: it’s the end credits music for Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat). The music and lyrics are by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, who also wrote the High Noon ballad — another the-whole-community-is-against-us song, as it happens. As was often not the case, the song is used well in the film itself — blaring from a jukebox in the opening scene, though eerily muted as the troublemakers leave the bar and drift through a quiet German town under the credits, then reprised orchestrally throughout, amping up sometimes talky drama, with apt bites of the tough talking lyrics (‘until this plain granite planet falls apaaaart’).
Based on a novel (Manfred Gregor’s The Verdict) inspired by an actual incident, Town Without Pity is an insistent statement of a theme — essentially, that a rape victim who takes the witness stand is raped all over again as the defence lawyer feels obliged to convince the court that ‘she was asking for it’ — that has been so often dramatised in subsequent film, TV and stage dramas that many countries have changed their laws. A US-German co-production, directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, this also has to deal with a particular set of legal circumstances: four GIs stationed in Germany in the early 1960s are tried for the rape of a local girl in an American court martial held before spectators in a local gymnasium.
Army-appointed defence lawyer Major Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas, in a situation surprisingly parallel to his military lawyer role in Paths of Glory) keeps suggesting to the girl’s indignant, pompous, self-deluded, bloodthirsty father (Hans Nielsen) that she be spared the ordeal of giving her side of the story in court, but this would mean the prosecution (headed by reliable E.G. Marshall, whose legal experience runs from jury duty in Twelve Angry Men to 132 episodes of the pioneering TV ‘lawyer show’ The Defenders) can’t ask for the death penalty — though, if the men were tried under German law, they would not face capital punishment.
Without being at all explicit, the opening sequence is effectively upsetting. It even has the feel of a miniature Last House on the Left, though it might well have been heavily influenced by Last House‘s direct inspiration, Ingmar Bergman’s rape-and-revenge picture of a year earlier, The Virgin Spring; the victims in Reinhardt’s and Bergman’s films are both called Karin, and other details are similar. On a hot, dull Sunday, four sullen, bored, off-duty Americans are disappointed to find the neighbourhood tarts aren’t waiting for them in a small-town bar, and wander off — that tune still playing — under the credits, looking for easy action. It’s unstressed, but obvious that these swaggering men represent an army of occupation — which later complicates the legal situation.
The gang consists of brooding thug Sergeant Snyder (Frank Sutton — US viewers find his presence jarring, since he played a similar character as a comic foil in the sit-com Gomer Pyle USMC); buttoned-down Corporal Scott, silly but serious in an Alpine souvenir hat (Richard Jaeckel, underplaying the good soldier/terrible human being role in the manner of Ben Gazzara in Anatomy of a Murder); tagalong goon Haines (Mal Sondock); and jittery, complicated foul-up kid Larkin (Robert Blake, whose testimony resonates through his career onscreen and off). In a sylvan, sexy setting, bikini teen Karin (Christine Kaufmann, scoring an ‘and introducing’ credit) has a tiff with mama’s boy beau Frank (Gerhart Lippert), swims across a river, takes off her wet costume and poses discreetly nude to taunt Frank (these details come back to torment her later) and is assaulted.
Reinhardt uses a few tactics which would become stock horror film material a decade later — the shifting perspective of a peeping tom (a prurient old lady who shows up as a witness who plays for laughs in a ghastly spell) observing the youngsters from behind the bushes, with the viewpoint then taken by the approaching rapists, plus the Wes Craven-like contrast of the sunny outdoors and the horrible deed. Also used is that bit which became an instant cliché in Halloween — a character grabbed by the neck and lifted off the ground so her feet kick in the air like someone on the gallows — it’s especially disturbing as the tiny, frail Kaufmann dangles from Sutton’s meaty grip. Frank tries to intervene, swimming against the current to cross the river, but is felled with a single blow. Later, Larkin tries to soothe the whimpering girl and covers her with his shirt, which is the piece of evidence that leads to the foursome — who get to say very little for themselves — to the brig, and the courtroom.
This being a Kirk Douglas movie, the centre of the agony is the star. Nagged by a local reporter (Barbara Rutting) who serves as external conscience and narrator (the film uses the odd practice of often having the narrator paraphrase dialogue heard in German into English in voice-over), Garrett makes it plain he hates having to do this job, but has no other course of action if the authorities and the father insist on the death penalty, since he is unconvinced that Larkin participated in the rape, even if he claims he did (the kid has a screaming fit when Garrett introduces testimony that he’s impotent). No one does self-hatred like Douglas, who bulls intently through all his scenes as if digesting broken glass — he keeps trying to give Karin and her family an out, but also gathers enough dirt from nasty locals because ‘the ugly hate the beautiful and the poor hate the rich’ to depict the girl (who fudges details in her testimony to avoid saying she was naked when attacked) as a ‘sex-mad brat’.
Town Without Pity has powerful scenes in and out of court, between slightly hectoring and obvious ‘best-seller’-type issue-raising contrivances (Rutting — later a regular in those wonderful German Edgar Wallace crime movies of the 1960s — gets stuck with stooge duties), and carries its story through to a grimmer conclusion than a straight-up Hollywood movie might have done. It is much more credible than The Accused, in which the hero lawyer (Kelly McGillis) puts the victim (Jodie Foster) on the stand in a set-piece that counters the she’s-a-slut-so-why-is-she-complaining argument, but that scene is a triumphant, Oscar-winning vindication rather than a cruel, public humiliation.
Garrett — essentially the girl’s fifth rapist – destroys the victim on the stand, which gets his clients guilty verdicts and long jail terms but not the gallows; a townful of nasty, prurient, envious or twisted folks get to leer at and feel superior to the victim; Frank is prevented by his small-minded mother from following the lawyer’s advice and get the girl out of town; and now-outcast, ridiculed Karin commits suicide (admittedly, this hews to a prevalent Hollywood tendency that rape victims need to die later in the film). It’s unusual — in comparison with the better-known, admittedly all-round better Paths of Glory and To Kill a Mockingbird — in that its accused actually are guilty, though it has less trouble finding a moral centre than Anatomy of a Murder.
In the end, the song is the most memorable thing about the movie — but it’s a strong, involving, angry and potent picture by itself.