Based on a true story, The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988) was a very prestigious, two-part television movie. Top-billed Jack Lemmon had done very little television after becoming a film star in the late-1950s, though he did play James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day's Journey Into Night on television the year before. That adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play co-starred up-and-comers Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher, both of whom are also in this. Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain) is credited with the story and Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) wrote the score.
Yet this 236-minute historical drama is a curious viewing experience. The subject matter is inherently interesting and multi-faceted, and there are plenty of potentially interesting, morally conflicted characters. The true story of the murder of Mary Phagan is significant in the social history of the United States and should not be forgotten but this TV-movie, for all its class, is singularly uninvolving and takes no chances. I remember watching the first-half when it was new, and to my surprise felt so utterly disconnected with the way it was done that I finally gave up. My reaction this time is much the same, though the second-half is a bit better than the first.
Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" line of DVD-Rs, The Murder of Mary Phagan is presented in its original 4:3 full screen format. (It does appear to have been released theatrically in other parts of the world, and may have been exhibited in 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 format in those venues.) The first-half, running a little over 90 minutes, and the second-half, running just under two hours, each get their own DVD-R disc. There are no extras.
The film follows historical events fairly closely. Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan (Wendy J. Cooke), a factory worker at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, is found strangled to death in the factory cellar on April 27, 1913. A politically ambitious prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey (Richard Jordan), quickly arrests and charges plant superintendent Leo Frank (Gallagher), a Jewish-American from Brooklyn. A black janitor, Jim Conley (Charles S. Dutton), is charged as his accomplice. Conley offers testimony claiming Frank had a long history of luring women into his office on Saturdays, when the factory was largely deserted, and that Frank had murdered Phagan and ordered Conley to help him dispose of her body.
However, the hard evidence against Frank is flimsy at best and his trial proves a farce, driven by both blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Yankee capitalism, the latter not without some justification given their willingness to hire prepubescent children in their factories at 12 cents/hour for 12-hour shifts.
One guesses McMurtry was probably responsible for the film's tapestry-like structure. Despite Lemmon's prominence in the ads (some ad art featuring his image alone in fact), he's just one of ten or so major characters - and Paul Dooley's appearance as private investigator William Burns adds a pinch of Robert Altman as well. But as adapted by Jeffrey Lane and George Stevens, Jr., The Murder of Mary Phagan merely seems unfocused, shifting without clear purpose mostly between Leo Frank, Georgia governor John Slaton (Jack Lemmon), and Wes Brent (Kevin Spacey), a clichéd alcoholic reporter of the Front Page variety.
The problems are two-fold. First, while the anti-Semitism, anti-northerner angles are extremely interesting the teleplay doesn't really do anything with this potentially explosive material. The Murder of Mary Phagan is just too tame, too tasteful, and doesn't seem to have any particular perspective but rather is content to present history without much comment and certainly with little emotion. As a result, the religious intolerance aspect just bubbles to the surface occasionally as the audience watches from the gallery, intrigued but emotionally detached for lack of personal investment in any of the characters.
Leo Frank is little more than The Victim in this, and reporter Wes Brent hangs around looking for a story, but virtually never expresses a personal observation of his own. Lemmon's Governor Slaton is more interesting, forced into to making some tough political choices during the last days of his term and as he mulls a run for the U.S. Senate, but the character is way off on the sidelines during Part One then disappears near the end of Part Two just when the audience is most interested in learning his reaction to Leo Frank's fate and how it might impact Slaton personally and professionally. Instead, the story's conclusion has almost none of the impact it should have.
The acting is variable, with even Lemmon having the tendency to get all mint julepy and generically "southern." Spacey really has no character to play, Dooley is broad but entertaining, Jordan is hammy, and Gallagher is earnest but doesn't really connect with the audience. As wily Jim Conley, Charles S. Dutton comes off best; his is one of the few characterizations that plays like a real, flesh-and-blood person and not a movie or regional stereotype. William H. Macy and Cynthia Nixon also have early-career roles. Macy is little more than part of the crowd of vigilante types, though Nixon has a good supporting part as an opportunistic factory worker not above bending the truth in order to get her picture in the newspaper.
Video & Audio
Part of MGM's movie on demand program - billed under the "Limited Edition Collection" banner - The Murder of Mary Phagan consists of two DVD-Rs that present the TV-movie in its original 4:3 broadcast format. Filmed in 35mm, the image is fine with no obvious problems, though I wonder why Part One concludes with no end titles at all - it just stops. The mono audio is fine. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options. As usual, this comes with no-frills menu screens (having only a "Play Movie" options) and chapter stops every 10 minutes.
For its cast alone, The Murder of Mary Phagan is worth watching. It's a class act with well-acted moments and the story is interesting, but in the final analysis it never quite comes together, either. Mildly Recommended.