Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)


Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”




A Good Start

“This is the essence of discrimination: Formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.” (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987) (Brennan, J.), on remand, 692 F. Supp. 1286 (M.D. Fla. 1988)).

This rule, reaffirmed by the landmark Supreme Court decision which, over the dissent of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, first recognized the infection with a contagious disease (tuberculosis) as an actionable handicap under federal law, forms the initial bond between star litigator Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the unlikely team at the center of this movie. Because through these words, black attorney Miller begins to realize that his colleague Beckett faces a handicap which, in essence, is not so different from that confronted by many of his fellow African Americans. And because this is an incredibly effectively scripted Hollywood movie, we, the audience, easily get the point as well; even if we’re white, and even if we’re not gay and/or suffering from AIDS like Beckett.

Of course, the insidiousness of the AIDS virus places those afflicted with it in a class of their own, and while the movie spares its viewers the pictures of some of the virus’s most graphic effects, it does go to considerable length to show the physical decline associated with it – not only in the person of Beckett himself, for whose role Hanks literally almost starved himself. Some of the patients surrounding him in the movie’s earlier emergency room scenes really were AIDS patients, whom Hanks had approached when preparing for the movie, and who had subsequently agreed to participate; and as Hanks emphasized during an appearance in Bravo TV’s Inside the Actors’ Studio, not all of them are still alive. – Denzel Washington’s appropriately named Joe Miller, middle class everyman in everything but the color of his skin (one of the movie’s obvious bows to political correctness), displays an attitude uncomfortably familiar to many of us; shunning gays in general and the HIV-infected Beckett in particular, out of a mixture of ignorance about AIDS, prejudice against those suffering from it, and prejudice against gays. Both Hanks and Washington give strikingly emotional, profound performances that rank among the best in their respective careers – Hanks deservedly won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Beckett, but Washington unfairly wasn’t even nominated for either. Yet, neither of them would have been able to shine as much as they do without their exceptional supporting cast; to name just two, Jason Robards, commanding as ever as Beckett’s homophobic former boss (and role model!), and Antonio Banderas as his devoted lover.

By the time of Philadelphia‘s release, some of the early myths about AIDS had begun to disappear, and the yearly growing numbers of newly infected patients had brought it out of its erstwhile obscurity as “the gay plague.” But indepth knowledge was still far from widespread, and therefore the movie – which was inspired in part by the real-life case of New York attorney Geoffrey Bowers – not only brought awareness to the disease in general, but also made a couple of important points, from educating the public about the disease’s method of transmission to emphasizing that it is by no means limited to gays and can even be contracted in something as life-affirming as a blood transfusion. (Indeed, several European countries were rocked by transfusion-related AIDS scandals right around the time of the movie’s release). One of Philadelphia‘s most quietly powerful scenes is the testimony of a female witness who was infected by just such a transfusion, and who emphasizes that having AIDS is not a matter of sin or morality: “I don’t consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent, I’m just trying to survive,” she responds when asked to confirm that in her case “there was no behavior on [her] part” involved and contracting AIDS was something she was “unable to avoid.” – Moreover, four years before Ellen DeGeneres rocked the showboat with a kiss during an episode of her sitcom, and Kevin Kline and Magnum macho Tom Selleck locked lips in In and Out (the screenplay of which was inspired by Hanks’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia), it was by no means a given that a movie would get away with letting Hanks and Banderas exchange acts of tenderness from caresses and kisses on the hand to a slow dance at a gay party.

Given Philadelphia‘s fundamental message and the memorable performances of its protagonists, it is a pity that the movie doesn’t entirely avoid Hollywood pitfalls, such as its soggy ending with grease literally dripping off the screen and the undeniable taste of a sugar-coated afterthought, transmitting the message that even dying of AIDS is really not so terrible, at least for the surviving family who can still unite around the television set and wallow in their memories of their lost loved one. And while I do buy Joe Miller’s transformation from a (somewhat stereotypical) homophobic male to a reluctant supporter of gay rights, I don’t really see why Beckett suddenly assumes a cliché gay look the second he has been fired; not to mention that I suspect not everybody in his situation would have enjoyed such overwhelming support from his family.

But ultimately, it is the movie’s overarching message that counts. “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me; it’s just you and I my friend … and my clothes don’t fit me no more: I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin,” sings Bruce Springsteen, the movie’s other Oscar winner, in “Philadelphia”‘s title song. And Justice Brennan wrote in the Supreme Court’s Arline decision that in amending federal law, Congress was motivated by “discrimination stemming not only from simple prejudice, but also from archaic attitudes and laws.” This movie goes a long way in dispelling such attitudes. It alone isn’t enough – but it is, as Andrew Beckett jokes about the 1000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean, at least a good start.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia TriStar (1993)
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Executive Producers: Ron Bozman / Gary Goetzman / Kenneth Utt
  • Producers: Jonathan Demme & Edward Saxon
  • Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tak Fujimoto
  • Tom Hanks: Andrew Beckett
  • Denzel Washington: Joe Miller
  • Jason Robards: Charles Wheeler
  • Antonio Banderas: Miguel Alvarez
  • Lisa Summerour: Lisa Miller
  • Karen Finley: Dr. Gillman
  • Joanne Woodward: Sarah Beckett
  • Anna Deavere Smith: Anthea Burton
  • Mary Steenburgen: Belinda Conine
  • Robert Ridgely: Walter Kenton
  • Charles Napier: Judge Garnett


Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks
  • Best Music, Song: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”.
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 49 (Andrew Beckett)
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 68 (“Streets of Philadelphia”)
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama: Tom Hanks
  • Best Original Song – Motion Picture: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
MTV Movie Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Best Male Performance: Tom Hanks
ASCAP Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
  • Most Performed Songs from Motion Pictures: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
Grammy Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
GLAAD Media Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Outstanding Film – Wide Release: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1994)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1994)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actor: Tom Hanks





Unit – Corps – God – Country

How much critical thought can the military allow its rank and file? Certainly most orders must be followed unquestioningly; otherwise ultimately the entire Armed Services would collapse. But where do you draw the line? Does it matter how well soldiers know not only their military but also their civic duties? Does it matter whether trials against members of the military are handled by way of court-martials, or before a country’s ordinary (civil) courts?

I first saw A Few Good Men as an in-flight movie, and after the first couple of scenes I thought that for once they’d really picked the right kind of flick: A bit clichéd (yet another idle, unengaged lawyer being dragged into vigorously pursuing a case against his will), but good actors, a good director and a promising storyline.

Then the movie cut from the introductory scenes in Washington, D.C. to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessup) inquired: “Who the fuck is PFC William T. Santiago?”

And suddenly I was all eyes and ears.

Director Rob Reiner and Nicholson’s costars describe on the movie’s DVD how from the first time Nicholson spoke this (his very first) line in rehearsal he had everybody’s attention; and the overall bar for a good performance immediately rose to new heights. Based on my own reaction, I believe them sight unseen. Or actually, not really “unseen,” as the result of Nicholson’s influence is there for everybody to watch: Never mind that he doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, his intensity as an actor and the personality of his character, Colonel Jessup, dominate this movie more than anything else; far beyond the now-famous final showdown with Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee. Nobody could have brought more power to the role of Jessup than Nicholson, no other actor made him a more complex figure, and nobody delivered his final speech so as to force you to think about the issues he (and this film) addresses; and that despite all the movie’s clichés: The reluctant lawyer turning out a courtroom genius (as lead counsel in a murder trial, barely a year out of law school and without any prior trial experience, no less), the son fighting to rid himself of a deceased superstar-father’s overbearing shadow, and the “redneck” background of the victim’s superior officer Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland, who nevertheless milks the role for all it’s worth).

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who adapted his own play, reportedly based the story’s premise – the attempted cover-up of a death resulting from an illegal pseudo-disciplinary action – on a real-life case that his sister, a lawyer, had come across in the JAG Corps. (Although even if I take his assertion at face value that assigning the matter to a junior lawyer without trial experience was part of the cover-up, I still don’t believe the real case continued the way it does here. But be that as it may.) Worse, the victim is a marine serving at “Gitmo,” the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where any kind of tension assumes an entirely different dimension than in virtually any other location. In come Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and co-counsels Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), assigned to defend the two marines held responsible for Santiago’s death; Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and PFC Louden Downey (James Marshall), who claim to have acted on Kendrick’s orders to subject Santiago to a “code red,” an act of humiliating peer-punishment, after Santiago had gone outside the chain of command to rat on a fellow marine (none other than Dawson), attempting to obtain a transfer out of “Gitmo.” But while Kendrick sternly denies having given any such order and prosecuting attorney Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon) is ready to have the defendants’ entire company swear that Kendrick actually ordered them to leave Santiago alone, Kaffee and Co. believe their clients’ story – which ultimately leads them to Jessup himself, as it is unthinkable that the event should have occurred without his knowledge or even at his specific orders.

By the time of this movie’s production, Tom Cruise had made the part of the shallow youngster suddenly propelled into manhood one of his trademark characters (see, e.g., The Color of Money, Top Gun and Rain Man); nevertheless, he manages to (mostly) elevate Kaffee’s part above cardboard level. Demi Moore gives one of her strongest-ever performances as Commander Galloway, who would love to be lead counsel herself in accordance with the entitlements of her rank, but overcomes her disappointment to push Kaffee to a top-notch performance instead. Kevin Pollack’s, Kevin Bacon’s and J.T. Walsh (Jessup’s deputy Lt.Col. Markinson)’s performances are straight-laced enough to easily be overlooked, but they’re fine throughout and absolutely crucial foils for Kaffee, Galloway and Jessup; and so, vis-à-vis Dawson, is James Marshall’s shy, scared Downey, who is clearly in way over his head. The movie’s greatest surprise, however, is Wolfgang Bodison, who, although otherwise involved with the production, had never acted before being drafted by Rob Reiner solely on the basis of his physical appearance, which matched Dawson’s better than any established actor’s; and who gives a stunning performance as the young Lance Corporal who will rather be convicted of murder than take an unhonorable plea bargain, yet comes to understand the full complexity of his actions upon hearing the jury’s verdict.

“Unit – corps – God – country” is the code of honor according to which, Dawson tells Kaffee, the marines at “Gitmo” live their lives; and Colonel Jessup declares that under his command orders are followed “or people die,” and words like “honor,” “code” and “loyalty” to him are the backbone of a life spent defending freedom. Proud words for sure: But for the “code red,” but for the trespass over that invisible line between a legal and an immoral, illegal order they might well be justified. That line, however, exists, and is drawn even in a non-public court-martial. I’d like to believe that insofar at least, this movie gets it completely right.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1992)
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Executive Producers: William S. Gilmore & Rachel Pfeffer
  • Producers: Rob Reiner / Andrew Scheinman / David Brown
  • Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
  • Based on a play by: Aaron Sorkin
  • Music: Marc Shaiman
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
  • Jack Nicholson: Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, USMC
  • Tom Cruise: Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, USN JAG Corps
  • Demi Moore: Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, USN JAG Corps
  • Kevin Bacon: Captain Jack Ross, USMC, Judge Advocate Division
  • Kiefer Sutherland: Lieutenant Jonathan Kendrick, USMC
  • Kevin Pollak: Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, USN JAG Corps
  • Wolfgang Bodison: Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, USMC
  • James Marshall: PFC Louden Downey, USMC
  • J.T. Walsh: Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Andrew Markinson, USMC
  • J.A. Preston: Judge (Colonel) Randolph, USMC
  • Noah Wyle: Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes, USMC
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Corporal Carl Hammaker, USMC
  • Matt Craven: Lieutenant Dave Spradling, USN JAG Corps
  • John M. Jackson: Captain West, USN, JAG Corps
  • Christopher Guest: Dr. (Commander) Stone, USN MC
  • Michael DeLorenzo: PFC William T. Santiago, USMC


Major Awards and Honors

American Film Institute (AFI)
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Dramas: No. 5
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 29th: “You can’t handle the truth!” (Colonel Nathan R. Jessup)
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Jack Nicholson
ASCAP Awards (1994)
  • Top Box Office Films: Marc Shaiman
MTV Movie Awards (1993)
  • Best Movie




“It’s not the jury’s judgment that worries me. It’s mine.”

“No more murder cases,” is the doctor’s strict prohibition upon reluctantly releasing renowned barrister and recent heart attack survivor Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) from hospital. (Although even the word “release” seems to be a matter of some dispute here, because according to Sir Wilfrid’s nurse Miss Plimsoll [Elsa Lanchester], he was “expelled for conduct unbecoming a cardiac patient.” But let’s leave that aside for now.) And following the doctor’s orders, Sir Wilfrid’s staff have lined up an array of civil cases: a divorce, a tax appeal, and a marine insurance claim – surely those will satisfy their hard-to-please employer’s demands?

Err … not likely.

So, try as he might to be a good patient, Sir Wilfrid needs only little encouragement to accept the case of handsome drifter and small-time inventor Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of murdering his rich benefactress Emily French (Norma Varden). Of course, the very circumstances that most disturb the famous barrister’s colleagues Mayhew and Brogan-Moore (Henry Daniell and John Williams) – Mrs. French’s infatuation with Vole, his visit to her on the night of the murder, the lack of an alternative suspect and his inheritance under her new will – just make the matter more interesting in Sir Wilfrid’s eyes. Most problematic, however, is Vole’s alibi, which depends entirely on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), an actress he had met when stationed with the RAF in WWII-ravaged Hamburg. Troubling, insofar, isn’t only that Christine is her husband’s sole alibi witness and that – Sir Wilfrid explains – a devoted wife’s testimony doesn’t carry much weight anyway. The real problem is that Christine isn’t the loving, desperate wife one might expect: far from that, she is cool, calculating and surprisingly self-controlled; so much so that, worried because he cannot figure out her game, Sir Wilfrid decides not let her testify at all, rather than risk damaging his case. That, however, seems to have been one of his illustrious career’s few major miscalculations – because now he and his client suddenly have to face Christine as a witness for the prosecution. And her testimony on the stand is only one of several surprises that she has in store.

Witness for the Prosecution is based on a concept that Agatha Christie first realized as a four-person short story (published in the 1933 collection The Hound of Death) and subsequently adapted into what she herself would later call her best play, which opened in London in 1953 and in 1954 on Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle citation as Best Foreign Play. Throughout the adaptations the storyline was fleshed out more and more, the focus shifted from the work of solicitor Mayherne (whose name changed to Mayhew) to that of QC Sir Wilfrid Robarts, and the screenplay ingeniously added Miss Plimsoll’s character, utilizing the proven on-screen chemistry of real-life spouses Laughton and Lanchester, for whom this was an astonishing eleventh collaboration, and whose banter bristles with director / co-screenwriter Billy Wilder’s dry wit and the fireworks of the couple’s pricelessly deadpan delivery, timing and genuine joy of performing together.

Perhaps most importantly, the story’s ending changed: not entirely, but enough to give it a different and, albeit very dramatic, less cynical slant than the short story’s original conclusion. – To those of us who have grown up with Christie‘s works, those of her idol Conan Doyle and on a steady diet of Perry Mason, Rumpole of the Bailey and the many subsequent other fictional attorneys, the plot twists of Witness for the Prosecution (including its ending) may not come as a major surprise. At the moment of the movie’s release, however, the ending was a much-guarded secret; viewers were encouraged not to reveal it both in the movie’s trailer and at the beginning of the film itself; and even the Royal Family were sworn to silence before a private showing. Similarly, features such as the skillful, methodical unveiling of a seemingly upstanding, disinterested witness’s hidden bias in cross-examination have long become standard fare in both real and fictional courtrooms, and any mystery fan worth their salt has heard more than one celluloid attorney yell at a cornered witness: “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” (Not recommended in real-life trial practice, incidentally.) Yet, in these and other respects it was Witness for the Prosecution which laid the groundwork for many a courtroom drama to come; and herein lies much of its ongoing importance.

Moreover, this is simply an outstandingly-acted film; not only by Laughton, Lanchester and a perfectly-cast Marlene Dietrich but by every single actor, also including Torin Thatcher (prosecutor Mr. Myers), Francis Compton (the presiding Judge) and, most noteably, Una O’Connor (Mrs. French’s disgruntled housekeeper). This is true even if Tyrone Power’s emotional outbursts in court may be bewildering to today’s viewers – and even if one wonders why an American-born star was acceptable for an Englishman’s role without even having to bother trying to put on an English accent in the first place, whereas Dietrich and other non-native English speakers of the period, like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, were routinely cast as foreigners. (Yes, yes, I know. Redford and Out of Africa come to mind somewhat more recently, too, but that’s a can of worms I won’t reopen here.)

Witness for the Prosecution won a Golden Globe for Elsa Lanchester, but unfortunately none of its six Oscar nominations (which undeservedly didn’t even include Marlene Dietrich), taking second seat to the year’s big winner Bridge on the River Kwai in the Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Actor (Alec Guinness) and Best Editing categories, and to Sayonara for Best Supporting Acress (Miyoshi Umeki) and Best Sound. No matter: with the noirish note resulting from its use of multiple levels of ambiguity – in noticeable contrast to Christie‘s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries – it fits seamlessly next to such Billy Wilder masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity; and it has long since become a true classic, courtroom and otherwise.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: MGM / United Artists (1957)
  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
  • Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Harry Kurnitz
  • Adaptation: Laurence B. “Larry” Marcus
  • Based on a play (and short story) by: Agatha Christie
  • Music: Matty Malneck
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Russell Harlan
  • Tyrone Power: Leonard Vole
  • Marlene Dietrich: Christine Vole
  • Charles Laughton: Sir Wilfrid Robarts
  • Elsa Lanchester: Miss Plimsoll
  •  Henry Daniell: Mayhew
  • John Williams: Brogan-Moore
  • Torin Thatcher: Mr. Myers
  • Francis Compton: Judge
  • Norma Varden: Mrs. Emily Jane French
  • Una O’Connor: Janet MacKenzie
  • Ian Wolfe: Carter
  • Philip Tonge: Inspector Hearne 


Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globes (1958)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • 10 Top 10 (10 greatest US films in 10 classic genres) – Courtroom Drama: No. 6



Amazon (Finally) Suing Sellers Over Fake Reviews [REBLOG]

Reblogged from: GreyWarden

(reblogged from


One of Amazon’s most appealing features is the unbiased reviews provided to members. Unfortunately, it turns out that some sellers have taken it upon themselves to feed fake reviews to their customers-to-be. This wouldn’t be a prudent idea. Amazon is (and has been) suing those sellers that are buying positive reviews.

Amazon has previously sued to stop websites that sell fake Amazon reviews, along with individuals offering to write fake reviews. This latest batch of lawsuits is against the companies that buy fake reviews for their products.

A story from TechCrunch this week reports that three new lawsuits were brought against sellers where the fake reviews made up 30 percent to 45 percent of the overall reviews. According to TechCrunch, the defendants are Michael Abbara of California, Kurt Bauer of Pennsylvania and a Chinese company called CCBetter Direct.

We reached out to Amazon for comment and received the following in regard to these cases:

While we cannot comment on active litigation, we can share that since the beginning of 2015, we have sued over 1,000 defendants who offered to post fake reviews for payment. We are constantly monitoring and will take action against abusive sellers by suspending and closing their accounts and by taking further legal action. Our goal is to eliminate the incentives for sellers to engage in review abuse and shut down this ecosystem around fraudulent reviews in exchange for compensation. Lawsuits are only one piece of the puzzle. We are working hard on technologies that allow us to detect and take enforcement action against perpetrators while also preventing fake reviews from ever surfacing. As always, it is important for customers to know that these remain a very small fraction of the reviews on Amazon and we introduced a review ranking system so that the most recent, helpful reviews appear first. The vast majority of reviews on Amazon are authentic, helping millions of customers make informed buying decisions every day.

The rules in this type of a case are fairly straightforward. Amazon has sellers agree to the following:

You may not intentionally manipulate your products’ rankings, including by offering an excessive number of free or discounted products, in exchange for a review. Review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited.

Furthermore, when sellers choose to break selling policies, they may find themselves without much recourse. The seller policies make it clear that any disputes or claims will be resolved by binding arbitration and won’t go to court and that each party waives their right to a trial.

So sellers take heed, if you want a good review, make sure your product/service earns it. To make sure that you are adhering to Amazon’s rules, read the full Participation Agreement in its entirety.


Original post:



Southern Belle Savannah

Adapting a book to the screen is always a risk, and adapting a successful book particularly so, especially if it is a nonfiction book and the story has already made news (or been the subject of gossip, which in this instance doesn’t seem to make much difference) long before the book was ever written. There will always be those who claim that you didn’t do the book justice, or that you didn’t do the real events justice, or both. But let’s face it, folks, the vast majority of us weren’t witnesses to Jim Williams’s record four trials, nor did we attend any of his famous Christmas parties, nor did or do we know Mr. Williams or any of the other inhabitants of Savannah featured so prominently here (even if Jerry Spence – not the attorney, the hairdresser appearing as himself in the movie – insists that ever since the publication of John Behrendt’s book people have been asking him to sign their copy). All that most of us did was read the book … yes, so did I, and I enjoyed it immensely. And maybe some have taken a trip to Savannah and gone on one of those Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bus tours. (No, haven’t done that myself yet. Savannah’s on my list, though.)

Granted, condensing four trials into one, adding a fictional reporter (John Kelso alias John Cusack) as a stand-in for Mr. Berendt whose book is a first-person account, and making Mandy Nichols (director Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison) the reporter’s love interest, meant altering the facts as related in the book. But let’s not forget that the latter covers a period of eight-plus years and is jam-packed with a shooting, four trials, a host of social events and a cast of more memorable characters than many a novel; all of which is near impossible to transform into a movie if you neither want to skip over half the important details and move the action at breakneck speed, nor turn the project into a ten-part TV series. These changes were probably necessary byproducts of the screenwriting process. But the core elements of the story have been maintained, and apart from the relationship between Mandy and John Kelso / John Berendt, the cast of main characters strikes me as pretty faithful to the book.

Most importantly, the person at the center of the story: antiques dealer, art lover, restorer of historic mansions and sun of Savannah’s genteel society, Jim Williams, is exactly the kind of man you imagine after having read the book – portrayed by Kevin Spacey with all the charm, grace and slightly condescending noblesse you would expect from a textbook Southern gentleman, with that “coastal accent … soft and slurring, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants” as John Berendt writes, quoting Gone With the Wind; making you forget that neither did Mr. Williams actually come from “old money,” nor did Kevin Spacey grow up south of the Mason-Dixon line. And Savannah, of course, is Savannah … city of grand old mansions surrounding its 21 squares, cotillon balls (including a black one), a Married Women’s (Card) Club, lush vegetation, shady trees, Spanish moss and sultry heat radiating from the pages of John Berendt‘s book as much as it does from the movie screen in director Clint Eastwood’s interpretation. The movie was shot on location, including and in particular in and around Williams’s Mercer House, on Monterey Square and in Bonaventure and Beaufort Cemeteries; giving it that feeling of authenticity which is virtually impossible to replicate in a studio. In addition, almost all of the Savannah residents vital to the story readily participated in screen tests; with the glamorous Lady Chablis (in all her eccentricity more lady than many a born one, Southern or otherwise) emerging in a starring role and Williams’s attorney Sonny Seiler portraying the trial judge. Even bulldog Uga, the famed mascot of the University of Georgia’s football team, traditionally provided by the Seiler family and as important a member of Savannah society as all its human residents and as Patrick, the long-deceased dog still symbolically being walked by its former caregiver, was not left out … with the minor imperfection that because Uga IV, the star of the book and the real events it describes had already followed his ancestors Uga I – III to dog heaven when the movie was shot, he had to be portrayed by his son, Uga V. And more authenticity is added by the use of several songs written by Johnny Mercer, Savannah’s famous son and great-grandson of the general who built the mansion restored and inhabited by Jim Williams.

Clint Eastwood’s direction evokes an only marginally modernized version of the “old South” most of which could have come straight out of a book by Faulkner or Tennessee Williams; with an eye for the atmosphere and intricacies of the place and its people that comes as a surprise only to those who merely know the one-term mayor of Carmel, CA as Dirty Harry or the Man With No Name, not as the director of The Bridges of Madison County, like this movie a book adaptation (although set in quite a different environment). And in this approach, he proves as faithful to John Berendt‘s book as in the movie’s depiction of Jim Williams and his fellow Savannahians: What on the surface is the chronicle of the trial of a prominent and rather colorful member of society for the death of a wayward, hot-tempered street hustler who happened to be his sometime lover (and that of most of Savannah’s society, both male and female), is truly a complex, beautifully shot portrayal of the city itself and its people; like in the book, the events as such are merely a vehicle to put into pictures what Eastwood was interested in most. Yet, the movie should first and foremost be taken at face value; it is more than just another book adaptation and in its dignified beauty, easily stands on its own two feet.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1997)
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Executive Producer: Anita Zuckerman
  • Producer: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenplay: John Lee Hancock
  • Based on a book by: John Berendt
  • Music:  Lennie Niehaus
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Jack N. Green
  • John Cusack: John Kelso
  • Kevin Spacey: Jim Williams
  • Jude Law: Billy Hanson
  • Jack Thompson: Sonny Seiler
  • Irma P. Hall: Minerva
  • Alison Eastwood: Mandy Nicholls
  • Paul Hipp: Joe Odom
  • The Lady Chablis: Chablis Deveau
  • Geoffrey Lewis: Luther Driggers
  • Kim Hunter: Betty Harty
  • Dorothy Loudon: Serena Dawes
  • Anne Haney: Margaret Williams
  • Richard Herd: Henry Skerridge
  • Leon Rippy: Detective Boone
  • Terry Rhoads: Assistant D.A.
  • Michael O’Hagan: Geza von Habsburg
  • Bob Gunton: Finley Largent
  • Sonny Seiler: Judge White
  • Jerry Spence: Hairdresser


Major Awards

Society of Texas Film Critics Awards (1997)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – Also for “L.A. Confidential”.




Barry Scheck / Peter Neufeld / Jim Dwyer: Actual Innocence – When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

Actual Innocence - Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, Peter NeufeldA scathing Verdict on the U.S. Criminal Justice System

“Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” – U.S. v. Garsson, D.C., 291 F. 646, 649 (1923) (Judge Learned Hand)

While you may find “Actual Innocence” in the “true crime” section of your bookstore, this is not your typical fare of a more or less well-written and soon-to-be-TV-movie account of a harrowing crime, or series of crimes. And while the book undeniably shows the hands of two lawyers who know how to craft a closing argument, and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, this is at heart, as the authors point out – and disturbingly so – a “work of nonfiction.”

“Actual Innocence” (which was originally subtitled Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted) is an account of the work of Scheck’s and Neufeld’s “Innocence Project,” describing some of the Project’s most prominent and successful cases, and a scathing condemnation of the shortcomings of the American system of criminal justice – particularly, under the Supreme Court’s holding in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 404 (1993) (Rehnquist, C.J.) that “a claim of ‘actual innocence’ is not itself a constitutional claim.” Under Herrera and the cases following it, a federal court can reject a defendant’s petition for relief even if it is based on proof of innocence, even if that proof is, as in the cases represented by the Innocence Project, of a scientific nature (DNA evidence showing that the defendant cannot have committed the crime he has been convicted of), and even if the deadlines for submitting that proof are so short that it is virtually impossible for a defendant to present evidence obtained post-conviction in time for a consideration at least in the state court system, which review has to precede a review by the federal courts.

In Herrera, the Supreme Court upheld a Texas death sentence after the defendant had missed the state law’s 30-day deadline to get a new trial based on new evidence. And while that particular case involved questions of the reliability of circumstantial evidence, admissions of guilt and eyewitness identifications (briefly, at night and without live testimony by one of the witnesses), these exclusionary rules apply regardless of the type of evidence presented. In the cases that Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer describe here, this sometimes meant that DNA evidence which, due to scientific advances, had only become available years after the conviction, was not admitted, even if it conclusively proved that the wrong person had been convicted. The defendants were left to petition for executive clemency, which is discretionary and, more often than not, depends on the amount of political pressure exercised.

It is often argued, particularly by proponents of the death penalty, that the criminal justice system functions well, and that even in the best system, regrettable errors cannot be prevented. The authors of “Actual Innocence” make a compelling case for the contrary. Even if a lawyer’s shortcomings in the representation of his client may, in theory, lead to the reversal of a conviction, the bar here is almost as high as that for the presentation of proof of innocence. In Texas, e.g., not even a lawyer sleeping during the trial or showing up drunk is considered ineffective and, like in other states, most mistakes made out of inexperience with the handling of murder/felony trials will not be enough to support a reversal, either. Moreover, scientific evidence, such as a “DNA fingerprint,” is often not available to indigent defendants, who are most likely to be hurt by inefficient trial attorneys because they lack the means to hire counsel experienced and sophisticated enough to handle a trial of that nature. These more often than not are the ingredients of a cocktail which, without timely and forceful intervention, can be as lethal as the death penalty itself; even if there is not, in addition, abuse on the prosecutorial side – failure to fully investigate and/or disclose the evidence available in the case (including exculpatory evidence), racial bias in the jury selection, misconduct by scientists acting as the government’s experts, etc.

American TV again and again broadcasts reports on persons released from prison, sometimes only days before their execution, based on belated proof of their innocence. All of these cases expose, in differing ways, the inherent weaknesses of the U.S. criminal justice system. While I did not practice in the U.S. long enough to feel comfortable echoing unreservedly the verdict handed down by the Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer, who declare the country’s criminal justice system “a shambles,” many facts recounted by them ring true to me, too. I also stop to consider if not only a Democratic president (Clinton) imposes a moratorium on the death penalty but a Republican governor, a one-time declared proponent of capital punishment, takes the same action and orders an investigation because “since the reestablishment of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977, there have been persistent problems in the administration of the death penalty as illustrated by the thirteen individuals on death row who have had their death sentences and convictions vacated by the courts” and “the number of death sentences and criminal convictions being vacated or overturned has raised serious concerns with respect to the process by which the death penalty is imposed.” (Former Illinois Governor H. Ryan, Executive Order Creating The Governor’s Commission On Capital Punishment, May 4, 2000).

Of course, not every claim of innocence is justified. But any criminal justice system should be able to allow for the presentation of conclusive proof of innocence, regardless how belatedly. And while the question of guilt or innocence may not have dominated the discussion on the case of executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – to many people, even those otherwise opposed to the death penalty, the poster child for its application – I am not exactly comfortable with the assessment by former President George W. Bush, who in 6 years as governor of Texas oversaw more than 150 executions, that McVeigh was “lucky to be an American. This is a country that will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed, as opposed to rushing his fate.” (New York Times, May 12, 2001.)

Edward Humes: Mississippi Mud

Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia - Edward HumesDixie, Dirt and a Determined Daughter

“Mississippi Mud” is, as author Edward Humes’s introductory words explain, the name of that particular kind of poker where the cards themselves become irrelevant and the only thing that really counts is the ability to bluff and betray. It is also the name of a sweet, rich pie made from chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla and corn syrup (and according to some recipes, vanilla ice cream and/or whipped cream). In this book, “Mississippi Mud” is Humes’s term of reference for the loosely organized group of people otherwise known as the “Dixie Mafia,” whose members not so long ago used to leave traces of their unsavory plots all over the “Old South,” from Louisiana to Texas and beyond. And one day in September 1987, their activities hit home in the Gulf Coast resort city of Biloxi, Mississippi.

Not that this should necessarily have come as a complete surprise, you will say, if you’ve heard the gossip about the city’s one-time notoriety, if you know some of the historic facts that have contributed to those rumors (such as early 18th century con artist John Law’s get-rich-quick scheme which crushed the hopes of thousands of European settlers, or the exploits of James Copeland, arguably the “Dixie Mafia”‘s 19th century forefather), or if you have made it all the way through this book’s first third to read Humes’s account of Biloxi’s past. And of course, from New York to Atlantic City, Chicago, Las Vegas, Palermo, Corleone, Moscow, Hong Kong and Macau, there are plenty of cities large and small all over the world that have at one time or another seen their share of mafia, mob and triad activity; and gambling, illegal liquor and sex schemes often, although not necessarily, have something to do with it. More than once, those who have made it their business to rake out the mud get bogged down by it and die, instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice thus adding to the list of casualties in the seemingly never ending war against organized crime. And all too often the culprits get away with murder: literally so.

Well, not here, however, and that is the difference in this story – or one of them, anyway. Granted, the “Dixie Mafia” may not have been as intricately organized as the Chinese triads, any of their Italian and Russian counterparts or the organizations run by the likes of Al Capone, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano and John Gotti; but Humes’s account of a city government and a police force partly unwilling and partly too incompetent to mount a proper investigation into the murder of an outspoken critic of official corruption and of her husband, a prominent judge, sounds eerily familiar; and so does the involvement of a contender for public office with a group of notorious criminals running a scam out of a supposedly high security prison, with little to no interference from prison officials, and with a shadowy organizer pulling his strings in the background. The odds of successfully pitting a sole determined woman – the victims’ eldest daughter – and her dogged investigator against the combined forces of political clout, an endless supply of seedy money, utter ruthlessness and sheer police incompetence were slim to none. Yet, Lynne Sposito persevered, and after ten years, finally got justice for her murdered parents.

Edward Humes tells the story of Sposito’s quest with a journalist’s detachment; in a chilling matter-of-fact style and with an excellent eye for detail. He does not fall into the trap of glorifying the victims; both Vincent and Margaret Sherry were far from perfect, and the reader learns about their flaws and personal pitfalls as well as their strengths and, in particular, Margaret Sherry’s undying commitment to rooting out corruption in Biloxi. Nor does Humes unduly vilify those involved in the conspiracy (although given their colorful personal and criminal histories and their various roles in the conspiracy to kill the Sherrys, any further vilification would have been unnecessary anyway and would actually have taken away a lot of the narrative’s effectiveness). Equally unsettling as “In Cold Blood,” to this day the benchmark of all true crime literature, although less literary in its description than Truman Capote’s account or, for that matter, John Behrendt’s famous “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Humes’s “Mississippi Mud” unravels the web of corruption and crime in which much (although undoubtedly not all) of Biloxi’s society once used to be caught. And although the consequences of the events related here won’t be as terminal for any of the conspirators as they are for Lynne Sposito and her parents, Mrs. Sposito can now at last, as Humes quotes her at the end of the book’s paperback edition (which updates the narrative’s conclusion vis-a-vis the earlier hardcover version), “get a good night’s sleep” again – thus eerily echoing the sentiment expressed in Eliot Ness’s (Kevin Costner’s) final comment in Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables,” who, when asked by a reporter what he will do after prohibition has been lifted, drily responds: “I’m going to have a drink.”

Carol Daugherty Rasnic: Northern Ireland: Can Sean and John Live in Peace? An American Legal Perspective

Northern Ireland: Can Sean and John Live in Peace? (An American Legal Perspective) - Carol Daugherty RasnicOn the dreams under Northern Ireland’s feet

Ireland’s history is a violent one and, as Fulbright Fellow Carol Daugherty Rasnic shows in this book’s first chapter, this is not only true for the 20th century but dates back at least to the island’s 1169 Norman conquest – and actually, even further, as the Viking invasion of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries consisted of a series of rather aggressive campaigns as well. The difference, however, was that despite these bloody beginnings the Viking colonists were eventually absorbed into Irish culture and daily life; contributing thereto rather than continuing their attempts at its suppression. Conversely, throughout much of Ireland’s subsequent history, suppression was the preferred method of government of both the Normans and their British descendants; who brought in English settlers not to cultivate the island together with their Irish neighbors but to drive those out, thus sowing the seeds of the hatred still plaguing its society today, and no more so than in the six provinces still constituting British-controlled Northern Ireland, after the ill-famed 1920 Partition which eventually brought independence to the island’s southern part.

Inseparably linked to nationality was, particularly from the times of Henry VIII on, the issue of religion; the English settlers being Protestants belonging to the Church of England/Ireland, while the vast majority of the Irish hung on to their Catholic faith; thus suffering discrimination not only on the basis of their nationality but also that of their religious beliefs. Tracing the multiple facets of today’s division to their historic origins, Professor Rasnic shows how the identification as “Catholic” and “Protestant” has long come to exceed a mere religious denomination, mixing with everything from a person’s stance towards the British administration of Northern Ireland to his or her national/ethnic origin, area of residence and social environment; to the point that the religious label is used even by those who have little to no spiritual connection to the church whose faith they claim as their own.

In the eight chapters following the book’s initial historic overview, the author takes an in-depth look at the major issues dominating contemporary Northern Ireland life and politics, from ethnic strife and the (particularly: “Orange,” i.e. unionist) parades, apt to newly ignite the fires of hatred every summer, to issues of governance, the release of prisoners convicted of terrorist acts, “decommissioning” (i.e., disarmament of the paramilitary groups active on both sides of the conflict), the position of the police and the administration of (criminal) justice, human rights and instances of persisting discrimination, and finally, the sectarianism in the province’s schools, threatening to perpetuate the existing divide for a long time to come. Particular emphasis is given to the terms and effects of the so-called Good Friday Agreement, the April 10, 1998 agreement between Northern Ireland’s major political parties and the governments of Ireland and Great Britain designed to bring an end to the province’s “Troubles.”

Although the book is subtitled “An American Legal Perspective,” this is by no means the work of an outsider: Professor Daugherty Rasnic herself is the daughter of Irish immigrants on both parents’ sides, and prolonged stays in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have intimately acquainted her with an island which, quite obviously, is not merely her ancestors’ home but an inseparable part of her own identity as well. A lawyer by training, she moreover brings to the subject the analytical skills necessary to digest problems as intricate as those ravaging the province of Northern Ireland; and her interest in and experience with the American civil rights movement provides for a truly unique perspective, enabling her to not only put the Northern Irish situation into a larger European context but also draw comparisons to similar issues of racial strife and discrimination in the U.S.

Aware that the issues she addresses – particularly with regard to the legal aspects of the Good Friday Agreement – may well have the effect of a strong barbiturate on her non-lawyer readership, the author apologizes for having to address matters which “only a constitutional [law] purist could love.” Quite unnecessarily so, however, as she does a marvelous job in explaining a set of highly complex questions of constitutional and international law which, I am sure, are confusing to many lawyers as well. Moreover, Professor Rasnic’s manifold comments, anecdotes relating to her own experience and sections entitled “A Personal Perspective” provide a truly personal tone; while scholarly in its overall approach to the subject and dedication to detail, the book nevertheless reads more like a conversation with the author, reflecting much of her doubtlessly vivacious nature, passion, empathy and sense of humor – humor even in the face of adversity proving her yet again, as cliché (and maybe not just that) would have it, a true daughter of Irish parents.

In addition to all its other merits, this book also benefits from its author’s easy access to over twenty principals and other individuals involved in the Northern Irish peace process, from then-First Minister David Trimble and Police Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan to Northern Ireland Assembly members of virtually all political colors (with the notable exception of the Rev. Ian Paisley, whose camp seems to have been the only one to adopt an obstructionist attitude), judges, attorneys, clergymen, social workers and professors at various universities; all of who add their own insight and perspective on the “Troubles,” and whose comments are faithfully reported; in many instances verbatim.

Professor Daugherty Rasnic concludes her analysis with the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Like the great poet’s words, her book expresses the hope that, one day, Northern Ireland may find a lasting way out of its “Troubles” (and no doubt, she is watching the province’s recent political developments with a certain sense of trepidation). With this book, she has made a contribution of her own to the search for such a path – and I have a feeling that it will not have been the only one.

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Well, one day I may well get around to writing proper reviews of these masterpieces after all, too. But until then, quite unapologetically, my Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament entry will have to do …

Huck Finn vs. Atticus Finch, or:
Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Elimination Tournament ReviewThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (13) versus To Kill a Mockingbird (20)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain, Guy Cardwell, John Seelye   To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The scene:

On the banks of the Mississippi, early morning. Mist is rising from the river and spreading over the meadows. In a grove formed by a group of moss-covered trees, the people of St. Petersburg are gathered in a circle around a makeshift outdoor court setting jointly presided over by Judges Taylor and Thatcher. Atticus Finch has left his table on one side of the court setting and is pacing back and forth, addressing the jury that is sitting in a box next to the judges. At a table opposite to the one Atticus has risen from, Huck Finn is lounging back in his chair, slid halfway under the table, chewing and occasionally spitting out watermelon seeds. The case, it would appear, concerns the disappearance of a sum of money that Huck is accused of having “borrowed” from the Widow Douglas, who is now sitting at the table Atticus has left, looking at Huck with a supremely grieved expression (Huck having protested that he’d never borrowed anything other than cornstalks and watermelons in his life, and he’d even given up on the cornstalks considering that then borrowing watermelons wasn’t going to be so bad no more).

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal,” Atticus is holding forth. “That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve.”

“Oh, come to the mourners’ bench! come, black with sin!” is heard from a group of black spectators, standing in the back of the crowd, segregated from the white folks by a barrier. “AMEN!” answer others from their group. “Come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (A-A-MEN!) come, all that’s worn and soiled and suffering!”

Huck lets out a yawn and exchanges a glance with Tom Sawyer, who is sitting in the first row of the audience next to Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, while Scout Finch is amusing herself somewhere in the distance, playing hide and seek with Jim.

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system,” Atticus continues. “That is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard and come to a decision. In the name of God, do your duty.”

Atticus makes his way back to his table, keeping his eyes on the jury even after he has finished addressing them, to emphasize the last point he has made.

“Come with a contrite heart!” echoes the chorus behind the barrier. “Come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open – oh, enter in and be at rest! (A-A-MEN! GLORY, GLORY HALLELUJAH!)”

At the words “the door of heaven stands open,” Huck exchanges another glance with Tom, who surreptitiously advances his left foot by just a few inches. Atticus (eyes still on the jury) stumbles and, with a shout, crashes into a hole that had been covered up by a makeshift layer of grass and dirt spread out over a blanket and secured by a few rotting planks. Chaos ensues, while Atticus is heard complaining that the hole is full of snakes, spiders, rats and the like. Under cover of the turmoil that is surrounding the crowd’s joint efforts to rescue Atticus from the hole, Huck makes his escape by way of a rickety boat moored nearby, courtesy of Jim who’d also been using that boat as his most recent hiding place in his game with Scout. Tom is prevented from following them by Aunt Polly’s iron grip on his arm and by a reproachful look from Becky Thatcher’s eyes, under which he turns bright red.

As the boat floats down the river, the judges squabble over whether to declare a mistrial or consider Huck’s flight an admission of guilt and convict him in absentiam. Atticus however, finally rescued from his hole, dusts off his clothes and, with the Widow Douglas’s grudging consent, resolves the issue by graciously admitting defeat to an opponent who has simply outsmarted him.


Favorite Quotes

To Kill a Mockingbird

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

Err – no, there isn’t …