Like many Warner Archive releases, Final Verdict offers the opportunity to mull over the all-important question of Whatever happened to the quality made-for-TV movie?
This 1991 Treat Williams drama came as part of the TNT channel's foray into making their own original movies. Viewers may recall that this was the period of TNT's all-things-for-everybody strategy, when NBA basketball games butted up against black and white flicks starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. It comes as no surprise that the TNT Originals (as they were billed) ran the gamut - some were memorable (Christine Lahti as a frustrated schoolmarm in Crazy from the Heart), some pointless (the remake of Christmas In Connecticut directed by, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Final Verdict, a sentimental, gauzy-filtered nostalgia piece a la To Kill a Mockingbird, falls in the middle of the good-to-bad spectrum.
With period-accurate polish, the film captures some of the essence of the real-life criminal lawyer it depicts, Earl Rogers (1869-1922). The plot has Williams' Rogers coming to the defense of two accused murderers - one innocent, the other not - in 1914 Los Angeles, a time when California's laws were often defined by the looser standards of the Wild West era. Told from the admiring vantage point of his spunky pre-teen daughter, Nora (played by Olivia Burnette), the film is set up as a drama involving an unusually dynamic family. Earl and Nora's joie de vivre is counterbalanced with the sensible, often exasperated mother, Belle (Ashley Root), and the steady guidance of Earl's reverend father (Glenn Ford in his final role). Earl will do anything to win a case, even defending a man whom he knows is guilty. Although it makes him an hero in Nora's book, the moral indignation of letting killers go free makes the Reverend view him as a failure, which sends Earl into a depressed, booze-induced stupor. He has a chance to redeem himself, however, when taking on a case where a young guy and his former friend got involved in a poker-night brawl that ended up with two bullets piercing the dealer's skull.
Final Verdict was based on a best-selling 1962 memoir by Adela Rogers St. Johns, a pioneering "lady reporter" and historian nearly as famous as her dad (in her 80s, she served as of the more feisty, astute contributors to the grand 1980 documentary series Hollywood). Her fond recollections bring to life Earl Rogers' ability to charm even the most uptight of juries. She had good reason to idolize him, after all - here was a man whose winning streak in the courtroom made him a larger-than-life figure in Californian crime history, so much so that Erle Stanley Gardner based his Perry Mason character on him. It makes you wonder why, then, they chose an actor as lackadaisical and charisma-free as Treat Williams to play him. While not terrible, he gives the characterization a halfhearted go when it sorely needed 100% commitment. Much of the movie's energy comes from Olivia Burnette, who manages to convey Nora's curiousity and intelligence without going into bratty precociousness, and other cast members like Lance Kerwin, Dana Hill, and Fionnula Flanagan.
Final Verdict uneasily straddles the line between crime-drama and kid-friendly period nostalgia, ultimately becoming a sanitized and forgettable effort. The limits of the TV-movie format prevent it from being as edgy as it should have been, although in its defense it certainly looks nice, with various Texas locales substituting for turn-of-the-century L.A. as a bucolic city on the move. Adela Rogers St. Johns' words are illuminated by warm narration by an actress who is uncredited (but she sounds an awful lot like Sissy Spacek).
The picture on Warner Archive's m.o.d. edition of Final Verdict sports the 1.37:1 image in an adequate, somewhat soft transfer with decent color saturation. The dark levels lack definition, however, adding a layer of murk to the film's soft-focus, grainy-textured photography.
The Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is a utilitarian affair that serves its function without being particularly show off-y. Dialogue is clearly mixed and musical scoring is employed to a pleasant effect.
Just a trailer, which makes it appear that Final Verdict got a bona fide theatrical release at some point. Chapter stops are provided every ten minutes.
It's like an episode from Anne of Green Gables, had Anne hung out with convicted murderers and hookers. The 1991 made-for-TNT production Final Verdict stars a restrained Treat Williams in an early 20th century courtroom drama that impresses in certain areas (kid actress Olivia Burnette) and bores in others. Williams' blasé acting job throws a big wet blanket over this otherwise evocative period drama. The jury rests. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.