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

USA VICE kids Cartoon Network MCU revenge Lionsgate Amazon Prime Video Acorn TV Pet Sematary TV One Netflix crossover canceled TV shows movies finale disaster trailers Animation Amazon Superheroe batman Anna Paquin period drama Reality Competition parents transformers gangster Image Comics sports Star Wars Celebration rom-coms Awards debate political drama Cosplay CW Seed historical drama renewed TV shows leaderboard james bond dramedy ratings golden globes Hallmark Mystery black AMC Nat Geo Teen comic OneApp streaming Marvel Studios cults MSNBC Travel Channel LGBT cinemax Marvel Television strong female leads Extras 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards cartoon Infographic psycho biopic Peacock Universal Pictures cooking Schedule universal monsters TNT Character Guide archives indiana jones OWN festivals Toys GoT Best Director talk show Fall TV Holiday Valentine's Day 20th Century Fox sopranos PlayStation Reality Warner Bros. American Society of Cinematographers 2021 Set visit king kong prank Sneak Peek Hulu Mary Poppins Returns superhero Holidays toy story television Best Actress heist movie Writers Guild of America cancelled TV shows Ellie Kemper Polls and Games HFPA Native mutant best ABC Pacific Islander doctor who genre Awards Tour 2016 quibi franchise scene in color ABC Signature true crime A&E Thanksgiving ghosts Mudbound police drama BBC America Drama video on demand VOD serial killer 45 classics Oscar international Rocketman south america Podcast Sony movie romance worst nbcuniversal docuseries legend Amazon Studios Best Actor Rock target anime obi wan VH1 black comedy Trophy Talk directors nature PaleyFest video Kids & Family Tarantino natural history comedies stop motion emmy awards Apple TV Plus WGN new york comic book movie crime drama Rom-Com spanish language adventure TCA Awards Premiere Dates Disney Channel sitcom Academy Awards NBC Emmy Nominations NYCC Action live event obituary ESPN cancelled television monster movies Christmas Binge Guide Trailer TV 2019 Black Mirror stoner Broadway streaming movies E3 2017 Ovation richard e. Grant Paramount worst movies composers Super Bowl Columbia Pictures 73rd Emmy Awards Freeform LGBTQ See It Skip It italian slashers posters Women's History Month TCM GLAAD rotten movies we love summer TV preview TCA Winter 2020 medical drama series scary Calendar documentaries Geeked Week green book ITV biography name the review Mary poppins dreamworks Television Academy Cannes Comic Book game show scary movies olympics Discovery Channel hollywood MTV young adult indie deadpool Hallmark Christmas movies godzilla feel good know your critic TruTV women Shudder BET royal family Best Picture Funimation Classic Film FX Logo Epix DGA Lucasfilm Certified Fresh DC streaming service science fiction criterion Apple TV+ Pixar Crackle Photos IMDb TV trophy Fargo APB screen actors guild Vudu Shondaland Box Office aapi child's play robots hispanic heritage month Sundance TLC blaxploitation rotten dexter all-time children's TV ABC Family hispanic 24 frames Tubi Syfy Adult Swim A24 die hard Comedy Central Dark Horse Comics comic books 99% ID Lifetime Creative Arts Emmys Amazon Prime razzies Paramount Network spider-verse toronto TCA 2017 BBC One lord of the rings Film sag awards suspense History Arrowverse comic book movies Britbox First Look Disney Plus Superheroes ViacomCBS Bravo pirates of the caribbean Black History Month Captain marvel summer TV golden globe awards Star Trek target scene in color jurassic park thriller documentary Music Disney streaming service Pop Best and Worst Starz Marathons films teaser boxoffice Comedy Nickelodeon RT History Comics on TV 90s YouTube Premium news Crunchyroll saw New York Comic Con Year in Review mcc supernatural singing competition Paramount Pictures comiccon technology Oscars Food Network Star Wars Martial Arts 71st Emmy Awards TIFF theme song YouTube Red DC Universe SXSW Hollywood Foreign Press Association E! spanish australia dark President Emmys anthology WarnerMedia wonder woman Stephen King hidden camera CBS dc Video Games spain stand-up comedy Pride Month TV movies discovery christmas movies Elton John adaptation hist king arthur cops dceu casting FXX art house vampires halloween tv summer preview scorecard Brie Larson cats HBO Go blockbusters Universal marvel comics The CW Trivia San Diego Comic-Con X-Men Tokyo Olympics IFC spinoff Turner Classic Movies Winners space TV Land Winter TV reviews popular crime 2020 rt archives Avengers USA Network Spike Ghostbusters DC Comics zero dark thirty basketball The Walt Disney Company Fox Searchlight Pop TV GIFs docudrama werewolf Turner The Walking Dead zombie cars Legendary spy thriller Opinion social media blockbuster live action free movies cancelled joker Family Sony Pictures vs. streamig Masterpiece mob sequel SundanceTV broadcast unscripted Spring TV Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 1990s IFC Films Lifetime Christmas movies sequels fresh Chernobyl Pirates french 2015 Mary Tyler Moore HBO Max halloween nfl animated Quiz NBA canceled harry potter game of thrones The Witch what to watch Esquire Song of Ice and Fire 2018 72 Emmy Awards politics The Purge war Baby Yoda mission: impossible Instagram Live Fantasy tv talk YA Western new star wars movies AMC Plus binge asian-american Countdown festival diversity based on movie Summer Musical TV renewals El Rey Disney Walt Disney Pictures psychological thriller TBS HBO adenture Focus Features satire Indigenous Interview CMT Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Marvel mockumentary facebook 21st Century Fox reboot Wes Anderson foreign BAFTA japan 007 venice laika travel CNN Red Carpet The Arrangement Comic-Con@Home 2021 Neflix versus Apple Country Tomatazos FX on Hulu SXSW 2022 Prime Video remakes Fox News aliens Nominations Television Critics Association kong 79th Golden Globes Awards witnail Endgame TCA a nightmare on elm street high school Biopics Election Heroines award winner romantic comedy justice league kaiju concert jamie lee curtis CBS All Access slasher rt labs critics edition fast and furious spider-man zombies Watching Series YouTube action-comedy crime thriller scene in color film series Sundance Now Exclusive Video RT21 interviews marvel cinematic universe BBC Tumblr Netflix Christmas movies Sci-Fi japanese Horror superman rt labs 4/20 football screenings boxing independent twilight SDCC telelvision First Reviews Paramount Plus Sundance TV Hear Us Out 93rd Oscars Rocky National Geographic Disney+ Disney Plus Spectrum Originals dogs latino comics FOX Musicals cancelled TV series PBS Tags: Comedy chucky dragons Film Festival elevated horror Alien scene in color series BET Awards Mindy Kaling critics new zealand 94th Oscars South by Southwest Film Festival DirecTV miniseries breaking bad The Academy critic resources Grammys book adaptation book MGM Showtime