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Trial (1955) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

david chavez barney communist

Principal social issues: hate groups, racism/civil rights, immigration

MGM. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Glenn Ford, Dorothy McGuire, Arthur Kennedy, Rafael Campos, Katy Jurado, John Hodiak, Juano Hernandez, Robert Middleton, John Hoyt, Elisha Cook, Paul Guilfoyle, Ann Lee, Richard Gaines, Barry Kelley, Whit Bissell, Percy Helton. Written by Don M. Markiewicz based on his Harper Prize novel. Cinematography by Robert Surties. Edited by Albert Akst. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. Produced by Charles Schnee. Directed by Mark Robson. B&W. 105 minutes.


Trial is an intense and fascinating film dealing with a Mexican teenager in California who is accused of murder on a technicality. His case becomes a cause celebre for various political movements. Arthur Kennedy won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as attorney Barney Castle.


In 1947, law professor David Blake (Glenn Ford) learns his university position is at risk because he never practiced law. His department chairman suggests that he take the summer off to work in a law office as a volunteer to gain actual court experience. David approaches various firms, which dismiss his offer. Attorney Barney Castle is also dubious, but finally decides to use David to defend Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), a teenage Mexican who trespassed on a restricted beach and was discovered kissing a teenage girl who unexpectedly collapsed and died. She suffered from a heart condition, but since her death might have been caused inadvertently by Chavez, he is charged as being responsible for her death. The southern California town has a history of hostility against Mexican immigrants. DA Armstrong (John Hodiak) offers a plea bargain deal with a two-year sentence, but Barney rejects it, insulting Armstrong. The DA replies that Chavez will then face a first-degree murder charge. David agrees to serve as defense attorney.

A hate group organized by a prominent local citizen (John Hoyt) attempts to lynch Chavez, but David persuades the local jailer, Fatty Sanders (Robert Middleton), to calm the mob by vowing he will see that the boy is executed legally. Sanders gains time until the National Guard arrives, and he becomes a hero, appearing on the cover of Look magazine. Barney’s legal secretary, Abbe (Dorothy McGuire), assists David when Barney heads to the East Coast with the Chavez’s mother to raise money for the “Angel Chavez Defense Fund.” The murder case is to be held in the court of Ted Motley, a stern black judge with a reputation for favoring the prosecution. When David interviews the first group of potential jurors, the detective hired by the defense discovers that the police had already pre-interviewed the entire panel. Saying the jury pool is tainted, David moves that the entire panel be dismissed, and Motley agrees to the motion. This legal victory is touted by the national press. Barney asks him to appear at a rally in New York City that weekend. David goes, reluctantly, and is shocked to learn that the organizations raising money are largely Communist fronts. They cheer him as a hero, but when David tries to speak at the rally, his microphone is cut off and the band drowns him out. Returning to California, David confronts Abbe, who has fallen in love with him, and she admits that Barney is a Communist whose only interest in Chavez is to raise money for his radical friends. David returns Abbe’s love, and decides to concentrate on saving Chavez.

David is called to appear before the state legislature’s Committee on UnAmerican Activities. He demands a postponement until the Chavez trial is finished. The DA completes his case, which David believes is a weak one. He intends to rest his case, but Barney returns and takes over the defense. He insists that Chavez take the stand. Since Chavez’s mother believes in Barney, David has no choice but to call the boy to testify. Under the DA’s cross-examination, Chavez makes some incriminating statements. The jury finds Chavez guilty. David plans a special plea to save the boy’s life, but Barney dismisses him, wanting Chavez to be a martyr and hopefully foment more racial incidents. Outraged, David appeals to Motley to allow him to speak as a friend of the court. The judge agrees, and David explains how he became the dupe of left-wing hate groups. He knows that the state law will force Motley to apply the death penalty, but he points out a technical loophole that Motley can apply to the case since Chavez is under age. The DA unexpectedly joins David in his request to the judge. Barney, however, defies and insults the judge. Motley uses the loophole and sentences Chavez to an indefinite term at a juvenile center, to be freed on recommendation of the warden. The judge also sentences Barney to a two-month term for contempt of court. David leaves the court with Abbe, believing that justice has been served.


During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of Hollywood films reflected the anti-Communist hysteria, inspired in part by the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his controversial hearings. McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate in 1954. Some of these films, such as Red Menace (1949) or I Married a Communist (1950), were entirely fictional, while others, including I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and the television series I Led 3 Lives (1953–1956) were based on fact. Today, these productions are interesting largely as a study of the era or purely for camp value.

Trial is generally considered apart from these typical Red-baiting films, since it takes a more balanced and realistic approach, criticizing the hate movements of both the left and the right that try to exploit a controversial case for their own purposes. The first hate group to appear is the vigilante force controlled by the local rabble-rouser played by John Hoyt. Ironically, this group is thwarted in their crude lynch mob attempt not by a rational appeal but by fear that their community would suffer economically if their plan succeeded. The Communist hate group, on the other hand, is far more subtle. Their manipulation of events is actually hidden for the first half of the film. The actual agenda of lawyer Barney Castle, brilliantly depicted by Arthur Kennedy, is disguised. Once he detects the powder keg that could be ignited by the Chavez case, he springs into action, acquiring law professor David Blake as the perfect dupe, an idealist who believes Chavez to be innocent. In fact, David is apolitical, an advocate for justice but not for any cause. It is not until he is summoned to the huge rally in New York City that he realizes the Chavez Defense Fund is a front for Communist money-laundering. Glenn Ford is excellent as the naive Blake, particularly when he finds himself as the keynote speaker at a Communist rally. He refuses to read the speech, washing his hands of it and rushing back to California to defend his client. The Communist groups are a myriad of different organizations and causes that are merely covers for a massive money-making scheme to fund the party organization. Later, David refuses to testify before the California House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, believing that they are also seeking to exploit him. Elisha Cook, who serves as the process server for the committee, admits as much to the lawyer, implying the politicians are only interested in political theater, not in exposing the truth about Communist infiltration. Unless David intends to plead the Fifth Amendment or offer himself as a victim for the chairman’s accusations, the committee would have no interest in his appearance. Both the Communist radicals and the Red-baiters are depicted as abhorrent phonies with hidden, self-serving agendas. They both use the emotion of hate to achieve their goals. If the Communists seem worse, it is only because they are somewhat more ruthless, willing to sacrifice Chavez to further their cause. The script carefully shows how the boy’s mother is duped by the Communists until she hears David’s final plea before the judge. DA Armstrong, well-played by John Hodiak, has his own moment of self-awareness of his part in the tragedy of the Chavez case. When he asks the judge to mitigate the sentence, he successfully undercuts both the left-wing and right-wing exploiters of the case. In addition, Trial clearly demonstrates how hate groups can manipulate the social ills of the community, racism and the hostility toward the Mexican immigrant workers. In some ways, this theme is one of the central messages of the film. The plot also highlights the unequal application of the law. If a white youth were in the same situation as Chavez, it is unlikely he would ever have been charged. As David pointed out, it had never been proved that the girl’s collapse was caused by Chavez’s embrace instead of the strain of climbing the stairway. David certainly should have placed a rebuttal witness on the stand to discuss the nature of the girl’s heart defect. His most serious error, however, was not to ask for a change in venue after the first jury pool had been tainted. In another jurisdiction, away from the racism of the local court, Chavez would not have been convicted.

As a case study, Trial offers unusual areas for discussion, including the hard-nosed black judge who seems to favor the prosecution from the bench. It also cleverly exposes the sometimes hidden agendas of hate groups.

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