Further Reading: Remember the Song, Remember Town Without Pity?

Kim unearths the 1961 Kirk Douglas-starrer.

by | December 11, 2008 | Comments

Further Reading by Kim Newman

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.

Town Without Pity

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’).

Town Without Pity

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.

Further Reading by Kim Newman

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.

Town Without Pity

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

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.

Tag Cloud

slashers Spectrum Originals Peacock nbcuniversal Comic Book Oscars Sundance Now dragons justice league Black Mirror comedies Endgame cooking war FX on Hulu Crunchyroll critics elevated horror kaiju boxoffice Dark Horse Comics TBS BET Awards razzies best unscripted Columbia Pictures HBO Go telelvision chucky Winners Rocky USA Network ViacomCBS Television Academy transformers streaming Spike Apple ABC Signature pirates of the caribbean IFC History Hallmark Christmas movies CMT thriller 2016 name the review kids Mary poppins streaming movies binge worst movies Legendary Chernobyl cinemax USA Black History Month Red Carpet Adult Swim Pride Month Comedy Central Drama Election monster movies batman independent 2018 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards 1990s Certified Fresh sequel mutant Nickelodeon Acorn TV rom-coms posters Netflix HBO Max Action historical drama Masterpiece WarnerMedia First Look Walt Disney Pictures hidden camera scene in color sitcom Sundance animated Nominations Epix 2015 casting OneApp adaptation X-Men AMC PaleyFest Disney psycho cats Classic Film Marvel Sci-Fi Brie Larson marvel comics documentaries zombies book Pet Sematary FX blockbusters stop motion Turner crime mcc sag awards live action Music richard e. Grant know your critic SDCC space blockbuster toy story high school king arthur travel Women's History Month spy thriller Cannes 2017 documentary Biopics classics twilight Disney+ Disney Plus rt archives Logo comic book movie FOX Opinion gangster international anthology harry potter Grammys Box Office DC streaming service 99% A&E Sony Pictures satire PlayStation Schedule game show E! godzilla Set visit Horror Bravo facebook Fantasy quibi Star Trek 2020 king kong Syfy discovery cars TV Valentine's Day legend Trivia indie slasher new york vampires American Society of Cinematographers Discovery Channel spanish HBO Tomatazos universal monsters Teen Musicals remakes halloween worst nfl james bond basketball Comics on TV El Rey GoT TCA Awards werewolf Awards Amazon Prime Video DirecTV YouTube Premium singing competition TV One theme song 21st Century Fox fresh NBA See It Skip It CBS All Access Freeform young adult series foreign based on movie deadpool films DC Universe Trophy Talk Toys 20th Century Fox Ghostbusters heist movie Starz SundanceTV social media Extras OWN 90s Infographic blaxploitation christmas movies dexter San Diego Comic-Con teaser 24 frames science fiction Film Festival criterion ghosts cancelled TV shows new star wars movies NBC hollywood Superheroe video on demand what to watch Apple TV+ Superheroes japanese Pacific Islander black YouTube Television Critics Association A24 olympics book adaptation spinoff canceled political drama rt labs Video Games Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt rotten all-time Tumblr true crime critic resources BBC America Winter TV Apple TV Plus nature biopic BBC One LGBT The Walt Disney Company Travel Channel spanish language RT History finale Lucasfilm E3 Disney Channel breaking bad rt labs critics edition robots Baby Yoda Mary Tyler Moore Watching Series crossover CBS TruTV Nat Geo witnail Pop TV Shudder LGBTQ Reality Competition golden globes football aapi 93rd Oscars Family women 71st Emmy Awards President MTV green book National Geographic CW Seed Interview Marathons Avengers DGA comic book movies Tokyo Olympics wonder woman docudrama Creative Arts Emmys Crackle crime drama Ovation dceu concert cancelled television Amazon Prime Mystery Ellie Kemper latino Rom-Com Cosplay a nightmare on elm street ESPN Kids & Family Lifetime Christmas movies WGN PBS medical drama comics marvel cinematic universe anime tv talk Best and Worst renewed TV shows ITV jamie lee curtis mockumentary Fox News YouTube Red italian screenings Song of Ice and Fire Lionsgate IFC Films Turner Classic Movies Awards Tour Anna Paquin Disney Plus VOD children's TV Calendar Fox Searchlight police drama fast and furious emmy awards hispanic heritage month movies aliens die hard superhero Country japan Amazon Studios Alien Cartoon Network Hallmark Hear Us Out Sneak Peek jurassic park Year in Review technology The Witch Film TV renewals Academy Awards Holidays Pirates VH1 target Universal scary movies Sundance TV Marvel Television Mudbound award winner indiana jones SXSW trailers popular comic GLAAD Musical action-comedy Rock royal family psychological thriller Exclusive Video Trailer asian-american venice romance supernatural Quiz franchise Amazon Mindy Kaling Netflix Christmas movies french Holiday biography Photos stoner TLC Rocketman Tarantino TCA 2017 sequels TCM FXX TCA Winter 2020 Reality suspense spain VICE ratings docuseries free movies Thanksgiving toronto Spring TV MSNBC Emmy Nominations comic books The CW dc Comedy game of thrones Heroines ABC composers diversity Broadway Western The Academy rotten movies we love period drama Arrowverse golden globe awards BBC Chilling Adventures of Sabrina TV Land TCA news First Reviews 45 spider-man parents New York Comic Con Super Bowl romantic comedy Fall TV dark Warner Bros. Polls and Games halloween tv Animation Esquire cults screen actors guild feel good TNT Britbox Pop CNN DC Comics revenge doctor who Wes Anderson 2021 comiccon Podcast zero dark thirty television The Purge prank miniseries superman Summer 73rd Emmy Awards boxing BAFTA Mary Poppins Returns Vudu ID Christmas lord of the rings Stephen King Star Wars Tubi Showtime Shondaland video 4/20 child's play stand-up comedy canceled TV shows south america Paramount Plus Marvel Studios The Arrangement Binge Guide reviews versus archives natural history The Walking Dead Image Comics GIFs laika cops Lifetime Food Network dramedy APB disaster adventure Captain marvel Countdown 72 Emmy Awards strong female leads politics obituary scorecard new zealand TV movies Pixar serial killer Elton John sports cancelled TV series Paramount 2019 cartoon cancelled NYCC Hulu hispanic kong RT21 festival Emmys Martial Arts adenture directors movie reboot Comic-Con@Home 2021 BET Funimation Writers Guild of America saw ABC Family debate talk show Premiere Dates 007 YA mission: impossible MCU joker festivals hist Disney streaming service australia TIFF Paramount Network crime thriller dogs zombie Character Guide