Despite the somber subject (the trial of Nazi war criminals), this film is a something of a forgotten gem. No major studio would dare mount such an effort today, and that’s sad. Beside being a loss to our culture, it reflects badly on the taste and intellect of modern audiences. But Stanley Kramer was part of a more contemplative era. As one of the most successful director\producers of his time, this might be the best movie he made.
You can find a full synopsis and all the stats online. Suffice to say that everyone involved was working at the top of their game. In particular, Ernest Laszlo, ASC’s black and white photography bears attention. To say that a million courtroom dramas have been filmed over the years is only a small exaggeration. Nonetheless, his treatment should be the final word on how to present this sub-genre.
Shot in 1.85 aspect ratio on Kodak’s Plus-X and Double-X negative, it has everything a cinematography fan could ask for: a masterful hard light aesthetic, complex compositions, deep focus, long takes, whip pans, filter wedges…even a series of snap zooms! Then there’s the generous mobility of the camera. The dolly grip – whomever he was – deserved a special award for the finesse shown in each of his moves. Made long before the invention of the Steadicam, remote head and video assist, they are truly remarkable in their precision.
But Laszlo’s approach is not limited to the coldly technical. His camera captures powerful, intimate moments; no matter where it rests, the performers’ every nuance is enhanced. At about the 05:00 mark there’s a pan from left-to-right off the faces of a maid and butler as Spencer Tracy’s Chief Trial Judge walks toward the reception room of his residence. Aware that the viewer is about to be mired in the horrible events that sparked the proceedings, their expressions are so true and spontaneous that they couldn’t have been planned. Yet Laszlo is in the right spot to catch them. Even when applied lightly, his touch affirms the narrative’s stately nature. Clearly, he and Kramer never lost sight of their responsibility to history as they went about their work.
Expertly cut by Frederic Knudtson – who was Oscar-nominated for his efforts – there’s not a slack frame from start to finish. His pacing and shaping of the performances once again show how our collaborators can set the table for our own success.
Laszlo was also Academy Award nominated – his second of eight earned over a fifty year career. His lone win came in 1965 for his black and white work in Ship of Fools, also directed by Kramer.
By all means, seek this movie out. There’s so much to learn and admire… it’s well worth your time!