The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


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