Tag Archives: Rosetta Lenoire

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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The Brother from Another Planet (1984, John Sayles)

Despite being about an alien who crash lands on Earth and finds himself stranded in New York City, The Brother from Another Planet takes its time getting to being a fish out of water story. Even when it does, it’s more like a fish being carefully transported in a cup of water to maybe some more water story. Writer-director-editor Sayles and star Joe Morton create this perfect point of entry–the alien (Morton) who crash lands and discovers New York–and then they entirely ignore that possiblity. Morton’s alien can’t speak. The viewer has his backstory, but no understanding.

So when Morton’s moving into a location, even though the viewer is meeting new characters simultaneous to Morton, it’s flipped because the humans are trying to figure him out just like the viewer. Sayles balances it perfectly. Morton’s calm, silent, which gives Sayles room to fill the soundtrack with conversation and sound and music. As the viewer finds their footing in how Sayles is telling this story, the style changes as the story develops. Brother has an incredibly peculiar structure.

Morton’s in New York, looks human besides his feet, and has magic fixing things (technical and biological) powers. He’s a Black man and he’s in Harlem. He goes to a bar, meets its regulars, and Sayles sets up almost half the movie. Brother’s present action is short–seems like around a week–and Sayles doesn’t pace it evenly. All the setup is also important because the characters all recur. Because in the middle of the first half, where Morton’s a fish out of water but not having that experience (he’s being treated as a human in need, not a marooned space alien), Sayles reveals Morton’s on the run.

He’s on the run from Sayles. And–wait for it–David Strathairn. They’re credited simply “Men in Black.” And they’re aliens too. Only they can talk and screech like angry cats when they get excited. And they run like morons. They’re hilarious. Because Brother’s a comedy. It’s occasionally serious, it’s occasionally scary, but it’s a comedy.

Except when it’s not. Because in the second half, it becomes this gentle romance and also this gritty crime procedural. Only, in the case of the latter, it’s out of nowhere because the viewer isn’t privy to Morton’s thoughts. It’s all guesses. Sayles doesn’t fetishize the mystery either. It’s just part of Morton’s character; despite being the lead, the film isn’t from his perspective. He’s always the lead, but only sometimes the protagonist.

Morton’s phenomenal. He’s got to let the audience in, but never the cast. He actually doesn’t get much to do at the beginning, once opening set piece is done. He gets more to do in the second half and it’s an abrupt, graceful transition. Sayles’s plotting of the film is exquisite. He’s got this big cast and everyone gets a lot to do. They don’t get it all at once, they’re never fighting for room, they just–eventually–all get a lot to do. It does mean sometimes a great supporting performance doesn’t get much more material, but it also means sometimes the great performance comes later in the role. It’s uneven, but graceful. Morton, Sayles, composers Martin Brody and Mason Daring, they all keep the moments consistent, even if there’s a big style change.

Sayles indulges without ever losing track of the story or Morton. His editing is great. The rhythm he creates, once Morton steps into the bar, has so much depth, it fits the supporting cast. And the supporting cast is big and excellent.

The bar guys are Daryl Edwards, Steve James, Leonard Jackson, and Bill Cobbs. They’re great. Tom Wright and Maggie Renzi are social workers. They’re great. Wright is playing the hero of a stranded space alien story, but doesn’t know it and Sayles isn’t interested in doing that story. Wright’s just the more traditional protagonist.

Caroline Aaron, Rosetta LeNoire; great. Jaime Tirelli… awesome. Fisher Stevens, awesome. Then there’s Dee Dee Bridgewater who sets off a completely different rhythm and type of storytelling. It’s like the first act of Bridgewater’s movie got dropped into the second act of Brother. But it works because Sayles has established the irregular pace.

Bridgewater’s great. Of course she’s great.

Good photography from Ernest R. Dickerson. Sayles’s composition is pragmatic and tied into Morton’s narrative distance and the script. Dickerson help makes it seem ambitious.

It’s great. The Brother from Another Planet is another one of those great movies where I just say “great” a lot because I think the repetition, despite employing the same adjective over and over, is also accurate. It’s great. Things are great about it. It’s a masterful delight.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by John Sayles; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; music by Martin Brody and Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Peggy Rajski and Maggie Renzi; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Joe Morton (The Brother), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Malverne Davis), Steve James (Odell), Bill Cobbs (Walter), Leonard Jackson (Smokey), Daryl Edwards (Fly), Tom Wright (Sam), Caroline Aaron (Randy Sue Carter), Herb Newsome (Little Earl), Jaime Tirelli (Hector), Maggie Renzi (Noreen), John Sayles (Man In Black), David Strathairn (Man In Black), and Rosetta LeNoire (Mama).


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