Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

An Act of Murder


One of those stories where everyone involved is acting from the best of intentions, but everything could have come out much better if they had only spoken to each other. But that may be the point of the whole thing.

It’s a movie very much of its time. Frederick March is a respected judge who has been happily married for twenty years. But his wife is getting crippling headaches. Naturally, she tries to hide them for as long as she can, setting the pattern for everything to come. When she finally comes clean both her hubby and her doctor tell her not to worry, it’s probably nothing. But of course it’s not nothing, it’s fatal and inoperable.

Akira Kurosawa’s great film Ikiru is about a man who is told by doctors that everything is fine. He instantly knows he’s a goner, because they use the words they always use in Japan when it’s actually hopeless. In 1948, many if not most people thought it was best not to tell a patient that she (it was mostly women, who were thought less able to cope than men) was going to die. To me, that is horribly cruel. Doesn’t she deserve time to say goodbye, to get her affairs in order, to think about her life? The judge actually wants to tell her; it’s the doctor who advises him not to.

There is a problem they pose to people in law school, something like this: A man jumps out of an 80th floor window. On the way down he passes a couple who are arguing. One of them tries to shoot the other, but misses, and hits the falling man. He is dead before he hits the ground. Is this murder? Clearly it is, in that it was the bullet that killed him. However, it is also true that he was a dead man in everything but the legal sense the moment he jumped.

What happens here is that she eventually discovers that she has been lied to. And here’s where it gets almost as silly as the law school problem. The judge has been thinking of mercy killing, an overdose of a drug the doctor has warned him can be lethal. Instead, he drives their car off the road in a terrible “accident.” She is killed, but he survives. So now we get to the moral lesson this is all about. The judge is an inflexible sort, who never gives a damn about someone’s state of mind, for instance, before passing judgement. He is also honest to a fault. He marches into the DA’s office and insists he be arrested and tried for murder, because it was no accident.

Aha! But the screenwriter has a trick up his sleeve. The wife had taken an overdose before they got into the car. An autopsy reveals that she was dead before the car left the road! Well, I have a hard time swallowing that she would do that; on the other hand, it fits right in with the theme of people not talking to each other. She figures (I guess) he will think she died of her brain tumor, so her memory won’t be besmirched with suicide. Anyway, chastened, the old judge realizes that, though he is not legally guilty, morally he is a murderer, because of his intent. He vows to mend his ways and be more compassionate when he’s passing sentence. Like I said, it’s all rather silly, but you can take it as food for thought … if you want to.