The Story on Page One
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Courtroom dramas had a shining year in 1959, giving us Otto Preminger's marvelous Anatomy of a Murder and Richard Fleischer's hard-edged Compulsion as well as Clifford Odets's entry in the genre, The Story on Page One, which has almost nothing to do with newspapers, despite its journalistic title. The plot centers on a murder case that grabs front-page headlines, but the movie is about the case and the subsequent trial, not the news coverage that's occasionally glimpsed or mentioned.
Rita Hayworth plays Jo Morris, a discontented wife and mother whose husband, Mike (Alfred Ryder), is a Los Angeles cop with a belligerent manner and a loud mouth. Gig Young plays Larry Ellis, a mild-mannered widower whose friendship and affection give Jo welcome relief from the tensions surrounding her at home. Jo and Larry sleep together only once, but the film's big turning point takes place when Larry's scheming, moralistic mother finds out about the mostly platonic affair and confronts Jo, threatening to tell Mike what she's been up to. Larry rushes to Jo's house to comfort her, but Mike hears them talking about the situation and rushes into the room with gun in hand. The gun goes off in the resulting struggle and kills Mike, whereupon both Jo and Larry are arrested for homicide. Anthony Franciosa plays Victor Santini, a young lawyer who takes on their case after an emotional appeal by Jo's mother overcomes his initial resistance to what seems an extremely difficult assignment.
The most effective scenes in The Story on Page One unfold during the long courtroom scenes that dominate the second half, building considerable suspense about the fates of the two defendants. Flashbacks reveal the backstory of their discontented lives, their brief love affair, and the killing that landed them in jail. The verdict arrives in the last moments of the picture, by which time viewers have had plenty of time to decide how they'd decide the case if they were in the jury box.
The Story on Page One is the second of two movies directed by Odets, one of the most respected playwrights of the twentieth century. He rose to fame in the 1930s as a founding member of the Group Theatre, a troupe known for the sort of earnest political convictions that Odets expressed in plays like the 1935 productions Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty, which focus on social and economic challenges facing working-class characters in the Depression era. The Story on Page One is stronger on domestic drama than political argument, but it makes telling points about the power of money in the American legal system, as well as the difficulty of winning a case unless you're fortunate enough to have first-rate lawyering on your side. Odets's steady concern with the everyday psychological problems of ordinary people also stands out, especially in scenes contrasting the influence of two very different mothers--the controlling, sanctimonious Mrs. Ellis (Mildred Dunnock) and the quietly resilient Mrs. Brown (Katherine Squire)--on the lives of their grownup offspring.
Odets worked on screenplays for various directors during the Hollywood stage of his career, and other writers penned screen adaptations of some of his plays, as was the case with Ruben Mamoulian's excellent Golden Boy in 1939. Like many filmmakers, he saw directing as the industry's most "interesting and stimulating" job, and it was also a way of preventing unwanted changes to his scripts. He made his directorial debut with None But the Lonely Heart, a 1944 melodrama starring Cary Grant as an errant young man and Ethel Barrymore as his aging mother. He then started writing The Story on Page One, which began as an eight-scene play called The Murder Story and eventually reached theaters under its new title in 1959.
Sitting in the director's chair helped Odets see his screenplay for The Story on Page One from a new perspective, and he made a number of changes when the production was before the camera, not always taking care to prevent continuity mistakes and odd gaps and slippages in the plot. At the beginning, for instance, Santini refuses to represent the defendants on the seemingly impossible case, but a few minutes later he's hard at work on their behalf without a word of explanation. There are even two moments when the same actor plays a witness in the box and a spectator watching the witness from the other side of the courtroom! "In tightening his screenplay directorially," Gene Ringgold wrote in The Films of Rita Hayworth, "Odets left loose story ends dangling which, as a writer, he should have resolved." Spotting these loose ends is part of the fun for viewers watching the picture today.
The best asset of The Story on Page One is the acting, especially by Hayworth, who is seasoned and mature enough to make Jo a believable and sympathetic figure, and by Young, who's equally sympathetic, if a bit more conspicuously dapper than his character needs to be. Mildred Dunnock is also excellent as Mrs. Ellis, the control freak described by Saturday Review critic Hollis Alpert as "an octopus in a genteel mother's clothing." The one miscalculation in the cast is Franciosa, whose tough-talking brusqueness doesn't entirely suit the outgoing young lawyer he plays. James Wong Howe did the atmospheric camerawork, making solid use of the black-and-white CinemaScope format, and Elmer Bernstein composed the score.
Reviews of The Story on Page One were less than enthusiastic, with Alpert complaining of "laborious flashbacks and fairly crude characterisations" and The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther lauding the "well-balanced cast" but dismissing the story's subject as a "low-grade domestic homicide, without any particular imagination or suspense." Perhaps the most insightful comment came from the critic at Time, who opined that moviegoers "will readily understand that the lovers are not really being tried for murder but for adultery, that the jury is not on the screen but in front of it, and that the camera is fighting for the lovers just as hard" as the lawyer defending them. As that comment suggests, The Story on Page One is both a courtroom picture and a psychological drama sparked by a romantic triangle gone tragically awry.
Director: Clifford Odets
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Clifford Odets
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Art Direction: Howard Richmond, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Elmer Bernstein
With: Rita Hayworth (Jo Morris), Anthony Franciosa (Victor Santini), Gig Young (Larry Ellis), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Ellis), Hugh Griffith (Judge Edgar Neilsen), Sanford Meisner (Phil Stanley), Robert Burton (District Attorney Nordeau), Alfred Ryder (Lt. Mike Morris), Katherine Squire (Mrs. Brown), Raymond Greenleaf (Judge Carey), Myrna Fahey (Alice), Leo Penn (Morrie Goetz), Sheridan Comerate (Ofcr. Francis Morris)
by David Sterritt