Sentence of Death unfolds gradually. The action mostly follows Betsy Palmer, playing a naughty blue blood who the tabloids love to cover. She’s slumming it and having a nice private dinner at a drug store. She’s there when someone holds it up and kills the owner.
Enter cops Gene Lyons and Ralph Dunn. Lyons is the younger, more sensitive one. Dunn is the older, lazy one. They round up suspects based on previous behavior and new widow Virginia Vincent identifies James Dean as the murderer. Palmer does not, but also doesn’t say it isn’t him for sure.
Dunn railroads Dean with Lyons nodding along, albeit hesitantly.
Jump ahead until after Dean’s convicted and on death row (hence the title) and Palmer happens to see the man she saw that night. She tries to convince the cops without much success and has to threaten to use her tabloid platform if they don’t investigate. Eventually she convinces Lyons to look into the matter.
When Sentence opens, Palmer’s just annoying. Adrian Spies’s teleplay goes out of its way to make her unlikable. Same goes for Dunn. Dean gets some great material–or just does great things with it–as he realizes he’s in a lot of trouble. For most of that time, before the story jumps ahead, Lyons is just along for the ride. He perturbed banters with Palmer, not much else.
Once they partner to investigate, however, Lyons gets a lot better. Dunn’s failures as a responsible cop wear Lyons down. He also can’t help finding himself interested in Palmer, who proves to have a bit more depth than anyone thought she did.
Palmer’s good once the action gets started. Dean’s only got a couple scenes, he’s excellent in both. Lyons gets good too, though more than anyone else in Sentence he gets too stagy, too exaggerated. Director Matt Harlib doesn’t do much to rein in performances.
Sentence of Death has a surprising twist at the end, some excellent character development, and some nice performances. The wrap up is a little rushed. Not too much, but a little.