In Harlem, three members of the Italian American street gang the Thunderbirds stab to death Roberto Escalante, a blind member of the rival Puerto Rican Horsemen gang. The three culprits are soon apprehended: Arthur Reardon is the combustible leader, Anthony "Batman" Aposto is a dimwit, and Danny diPace is still a juvenile at fifteen, escaping a broken home. Daniel Cole (Edward Andrews) is the ambitious District Attorney about to launch a campaign to become Governor. He agrees with assistant DA Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) to charge the three boys with first degree murder and seek the death penalty.
With help from Detective Gunderson (Telly Savalas), Bell starts to put together the case. He is originally from the same Harlem neighbourhood, and in his younger days used to date Mary diPace (Shelley Winters), Danny's mother. Bell's wife Karin (Dina Merrill) holds liberal views espousing tolerance and understanding of the social conditions driving youth to violence. As Bell delves into the details of the murder and the backgrounds of the victim and the assailants, he finds more than meets the eye. But with the Puerto Rican community baying for revenge and Cole seeking the good publicity of a quick conviction, there is little room for compassion.
The climax in the courtroom veers more towards social commentary to the detriment of pragmatic legal reality. Bell seeks to punish guilt but only in the right doses while accounting for evil intent, peer pressure and abject lack of intellect. He also tries to find space for the sensibilities of his wife, his boss and the victims' families. It all a bit too much for one case to absorb and one attorney to deliver, and his improvisation away from a senior lawyer's discipline undermines credibility.
Burt Lancaster delivers a typically sturdy performance, ably assisted by small but precise roles from Dina Merrill and Shelley Winters. Merrill is cool and collected, almost icy, as Bell's life partner in the new world he created for himself. Winters is ruffled and frantic as the woman left behind: Bell could have been Danny's father, a scenario that Mary holds onto as her greatest achievement and he looks back on as his greatest escape. Such are the margins of life between savagery and civilization.
All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.