Further Reading: Remember the Song, Remember Town Without Pity?

Kim unearths the 1961 Kirk Douglas-starrer.

by | December 11, 2008 | Comments

Further Reading by Kim Newman

Town Without Pity, a little-remembered 1961 courtroom drama with Kirk Douglas, inspired a much more familiar song of the same name. But what of the movie asks Kim Newman.

Many 1950s/1960s movies are remembered today mostly for spin-off hit records. Everyone can hum ‘Theme from A Summer Place’, even if you can’t remember its title, but few bother with the once-popular 1959 Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue movie it comes from. You could be forgiven for thinking the Nat King Cole hits ‘Smile’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ originate with the 1975 and 1986 films which use them as title songs, rather than Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and the obscure Captain Carey USA (1950). Though The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is merely decent by Alfred Hitchcock’s standards, the song Doris Day introduced in it (‘Que Sera Sera’) was an instant classic.

Other standards which eclipsed movies they were written for include ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, ‘That’s Amore’ (from The Caddy), ‘Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing’, ‘Never On a Sunday’, ‘Days of Wine and Roses’, ‘Born Free’ and ‘The Look of Love’ (from the first Casino Royale). ‘Unchained Melody’ may be ‘that Ghost song’, but it was first heard in Unchained (1955). Even ‘Alfie’ and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ are probably better remembered as songs than Alfie and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are as films.

Town Without Pity

These standards have all been covered, sampled, remixed and recycled to this day, as has Gene Pitney’s haunting, paranoid, melodramatic ‘Town Without Pity’, introduced in this seldom-revived, very interesting 1961 Kirk Douglas courtroom drama. Pitney, who also had a hit with ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (a theme song not heard in the film which inspired it), croons about persecuted young love on the run with a masochistic, melodramatic abandon (‘yes, it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can doooooo …’).

Like ‘Smile’, ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Unchained Melody’, ‘Town Without Pity’ joins the hit-list of ditties written for one movie but used in another: it’s the end credits music for Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat). The music and lyrics are by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, who also wrote the High Noon ballad — another the-whole-community-is-against-us song, as it happens. As was often not the case, the song is used well in the film itself — blaring from a jukebox in the opening scene, though eerily muted as the troublemakers leave the bar and drift through a quiet German town under the credits, then reprised orchestrally throughout, amping up sometimes talky drama, with apt bites of the tough talking lyrics (‘until this plain granite planet falls apaaaart’).

Town Without Pity

Based on a novel (Manfred Gregor’s The Verdict) inspired by an actual incident, Town Without Pity is an insistent statement of a theme — essentially, that a rape victim who takes the witness stand is raped all over again as the defence lawyer feels obliged to convince the court that ‘she was asking for it’ — that has been so often dramatised in subsequent film, TV and stage dramas that many countries have changed their laws. A US-German co-production, directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, this also has to deal with a particular set of legal circumstances: four GIs stationed in Germany in the early 1960s are tried for the rape of a local girl in an American court martial held before spectators in a local gymnasium.

Army-appointed defence lawyer Major Steve Garrett (Kirk Douglas, in a situation surprisingly parallel to his military lawyer role in Paths of Glory) keeps suggesting to the girl’s indignant, pompous, self-deluded, bloodthirsty father (Hans Nielsen) that she be spared the ordeal of giving her side of the story in court, but this would mean the prosecution (headed by reliable E.G. Marshall, whose legal experience runs from jury duty in Twelve Angry Men to 132 episodes of the pioneering TV ‘lawyer show’ The Defenders) can’t ask for the death penalty — though, if the men were tried under German law, they would not face capital punishment.

Further Reading by Kim Newman

Without being at all explicit, the opening sequence is effectively upsetting. It even has the feel of a miniature Last House on the Left, though it might well have been heavily influenced by Last House‘s direct inspiration, Ingmar Bergman’s rape-and-revenge picture of a year earlier, The Virgin Spring; the victims in Reinhardt’s and Bergman’s films are both called Karin, and other details are similar. On a hot, dull Sunday, four sullen, bored, off-duty Americans are disappointed to find the neighbourhood tarts aren’t waiting for them in a small-town bar, and wander off — that tune still playing — under the credits, looking for easy action. It’s unstressed, but obvious that these swaggering men represent an army of occupation — which later complicates the legal situation.

The gang consists of brooding thug Sergeant Snyder (Frank Sutton — US viewers find his presence jarring, since he played a similar character as a comic foil in the sit-com Gomer Pyle USMC); buttoned-down Corporal Scott, silly but serious in an Alpine souvenir hat (Richard Jaeckel, underplaying the good soldier/terrible human being role in the manner of Ben Gazzara in Anatomy of a Murder); tagalong goon Haines (Mal Sondock); and jittery, complicated foul-up kid Larkin (Robert Blake, whose testimony resonates through his career onscreen and off). In a sylvan, sexy setting, bikini teen Karin (Christine Kaufmann, scoring an ‘and introducing’ credit) has a tiff with mama’s boy beau Frank (Gerhart Lippert), swims across a river, takes off her wet costume and poses discreetly nude to taunt Frank (these details come back to torment her later) and is assaulted.

Town Without Pity

Reinhardt uses a few tactics which would become stock horror film material a decade later — the shifting perspective of a peeping tom (a prurient old lady who shows up as a witness who plays for laughs in a ghastly spell) observing the youngsters from behind the bushes, with the viewpoint then taken by the approaching rapists, plus the Wes Craven-like contrast of the sunny outdoors and the horrible deed. Also used is that bit which became an instant cliché in Halloween — a character grabbed by the neck and lifted off the ground so her feet kick in the air like someone on the gallows — it’s especially disturbing as the tiny, frail Kaufmann dangles from Sutton’s meaty grip. Frank tries to intervene, swimming against the current to cross the river, but is felled with a single blow. Later, Larkin tries to soothe the whimpering girl and covers her with his shirt, which is the piece of evidence that leads to the foursome — who get to say very little for themselves — to the brig, and the courtroom.

This being a Kirk Douglas movie, the centre of the agony is the star. Nagged by a local reporter (Barbara Rutting) who serves as external conscience and narrator (the film uses the odd practice of often having the narrator paraphrase dialogue heard in German into English in voice-over), Garrett makes it plain he hates having to do this job, but has no other course of action if the authorities and the father insist on the death penalty, since he is unconvinced that Larkin participated in the rape, even if he claims he did (the kid has a screaming fit when Garrett introduces testimony that he’s impotent). No one does self-hatred like Douglas, who bulls intently through all his scenes as if digesting broken glass — he keeps trying to give Karin and her family an out, but also gathers enough dirt from nasty locals because ‘the ugly hate the beautiful and the poor hate the rich’ to depict the girl (who fudges details in her testimony to avoid saying she was naked when attacked) as a ‘sex-mad brat’.

Town Without Pity

Town Without Pity has powerful scenes in and out of court, between slightly hectoring and obvious ‘best-seller’-type issue-raising contrivances (Rutting — later a regular in those wonderful German Edgar Wallace crime movies of the 1960s — gets stuck with stooge duties), and carries its story through to a grimmer conclusion than a straight-up Hollywood movie might have done. It is much more credible than The Accused, in which the hero lawyer (Kelly McGillis) puts the victim (Jodie Foster) on the stand in a set-piece that counters the she’s-a-slut-so-why-is-she-complaining argument, but that scene is a triumphant, Oscar-winning vindication rather than a cruel, public humiliation.

Garrett — essentially the girl’s fifth rapist – destroys the victim on the stand, which gets his clients guilty verdicts and long jail terms but not the gallows; a townful of nasty, prurient, envious or twisted folks get to leer at and feel superior to the victim; Frank is prevented by his small-minded mother from following the lawyer’s advice and get the girl out of town; and now-outcast, ridiculed Karin commits suicide (admittedly, this hews to a prevalent Hollywood tendency that rape victims need to die later in the film). It’s unusual — in comparison with the better-known, admittedly all-round better Paths of Glory and To Kill a Mockingbird — in that its accused actually are guilty, though it has less trouble finding a moral centre than Anatomy of a Murder.

In the end, the song is the most memorable thing about the movie — but it’s a strong, involving, angry and potent picture by itself.

Tag Cloud

Red Carpet richard e. Grant Photos TV Land GLAAD mission: impossible WarnerMedia Ghostbusters TIFF Amazon Prime Video 2017 RT21 reboot BET Awards Epix Infographic movie space Funimation YouTube Premium Avengers Rom-Com Cartoon Network Dark Horse Comics Columbia Pictures Kids & Family OWN Musicals asian-american Creative Arts Emmys Mystery Nominations teaser Spike Hear Us Out tv talk obituary cancelled Set visit Hulu series Syfy A24 CW Seed E3 4/20 PlayStation discovery Showtime Chernobyl dceu blaxploitation Baby Yoda Western docudrama Star Trek YouTube Red films Trailer south america Rock Amazon Studios technology Music hollywood CBS All Access stop motion stand-up comedy book psychological thriller golden globes franchise breaking bad Endgame HBO Go 45 YouTube werewolf Quiz Fox News documentaries San Diego Comic-Con 2020 Disney Plus independent Trivia Video Games Year in Review die hard streaming 71st Emmy Awards historical drama FOX 21st Century Fox Marvel Binge Guide composers MCU vampires Apple Emmys Vudu war reviews zombie Arrowverse based on movie AMC Horror 2018 screenings Musical criterion Animation WGN Lifetime Christmas movies First Look Comedy Central 72 Emmy Awards slashers sag awards Teen The Witch Spring TV MSNBC medical drama Winners game show television 007 name the review Freeform USA Masterpiece robots GIFs See It Skip It 2019 zombies BBC One biography Anna Paquin Sci-Fi Ellie Kemper Television Critics Association batman crime drama jamie lee curtis DirecTV Crackle DGA History Writers Guild of America TLC DC Universe USA Network binge news Cosplay period drama documentary Adult Swim Nickelodeon ghosts canceled TV shows ABC Family romance Mary Tyler Moore FX festivals Women's History Month anthology Character Guide Paramount Network Walt Disney Pictures unscripted dark twilight comedies Spectrum Originals GoT Amazon TruTV Lucasfilm spinoff Country scary movies DC streaming service renewed TV shows Hallmark Christmas movies police drama Interview Film Pop TV Box Office LGBT blockbuster NBC Acorn TV rotten movies we love justice league 2015 quibi award winner hispanic Brie Larson Summer spider-man Food Network elevated horror Apple TV+ MTV universal monsters Black History Month romantic comedy nbcuniversal Bravo TCA 2017 LGBTQ Mudbound Mindy Kaling Discovery Channel video Universal Rocky Comic Book Song of Ice and Fire Cannes adventure PaleyFest TCM New York Comic Con Drama TCA comiccon Family halloween CNN VH1 dragons Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Heroines spy thriller indiana jones ITV Premiere Dates NYCC best green book Nat Geo Starz cancelled TV series Shondaland Fantasy fast and furious serial killer Reality Competition FXX classics CBS Schedule Film Festival BAFTA free movies Travel Channel canceled psycho Oscars Crunchyroll politics parents TBS HBO Max Amazon Prime cancelled TV shows Sony Pictures animated Superheroes Britbox directors Opinion movies latino Sundance singing competition Grammys Pirates concert dramedy natural history satire 2016 critics disaster Sundance Now supernatural First Reviews toy story YA harry potter Stephen King Calendar Marvel Studios 24 frames Marvel Television indie Hallmark casting strong female leads Martial Arts foreign finale Countdown Holidays anime thriller political drama science fiction Reality IFC Films Toys Shudder Classic Film Christmas Thanksgiving ABC Awards Tour all-time TNT Black Mirror DC Comics X-Men boxoffice Tomatazos joker crime Apple TV Plus a nightmare on elm street SDCC The Purge Fall TV National Geographic Elton John dogs Valentine's Day Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stoner witnail Rocketman RT History Pet Sematary TCA Awards cars Disney streaming service what to watch Super Bowl American Society of Cinematographers ratings Pride Month Turner HBO comic emmy awards zero dark thirty Biopics cooking rotten versus mutant Captain marvel child's play Comedy chucky Netflix Action Lifetime crossover Pop Mary Poppins Returns christmas movies ESPN VICE FX on Hulu Watching Series Disney+ Disney Plus cartoon doctor who TV game of thrones sequel Turner Classic Movies Election comics Marathons Polls and Games cinemax spain The CW Certified Fresh Paramount cancelled television Peacock worst facebook Awards hist SundanceTV sports transformers cats BBC America BET Disney Channel Lionsgate Warner Bros. spanish language travel video on demand Mary poppins Ovation Academy Awards Podcast CMT Extras IFC laika Comics on TV children's TV El Rey screen actors guild Holiday The Walking Dead Superheroe social media aliens nature sitcom Tumblr OneApp Tubi superhero talk show E! APB revenge crime thriller SXSW Disney Television Academy Emmy Nominations mockumentary Tarantino Best and Worst true crime A&E Pixar VOD adaptation Netflix Christmas movies 20th Century Fox TCA Winter 2020 President Star Wars Sneak Peek cults BBC miniseries kids Esquire TV renewals The Arrangement Logo cops diversity Winter TV Trophy Talk theme song dc PBS Sundance TV