Local plant foreman, recent widower, and unreasonable Irish hothead Joe Reynolds (Michael O'Shea, overblown and irritating as always), returning home from work, meets busybody mailman and former war buddy, Sam Lord (Lloyd Nolan, so determinedly earnest here you want to bash him in the face), who has a package for Joe's kid, Pat (Billy Cummings). It's an adult woodman's kit, complete with deadly-sharp hatchet, which Pat immediately wields, wildly running off with his gang of friends as Joe and Sam chuckle over those rambunctious little hooligans. Being a boarder at friends Marty and Agnes Hannon's (Roy Roberts and Trudy Marshall) comfortable suburban home, Joe has a ready pal to go nip off and have a drink with at the corner bar, thanks to condescendingly good-natured Agnes' allowances for such naughty boy behavior. Meanwhile, back at postman Sam's house (hey! It's time for my first four-hour break!), Sam kicks off his shoes and reads a crime magazine--what a regular joe!--before his wife, Kate (Lynn Whitney), scolds him like a naughty boy to put them right back on this instant (gee...no wonder they don't have kids).
Meanwhile, in the alleyways of Anywhere, U.S.A., Pat does what any normal kid would do with a dangerous hatchet: he starts chopping away, only this time it's on the wooden crates behind old man Kenny's (Ben Welden) bakery. And you know what that means: old man Kenny don't like Joe and Pat, see, so he takes Pat's hatchet and gives the little punk a cuff and tells the boy his old man better cough up a buck or he don't get back no hatchet. Well, Joe ain't gonna take that kind of guff offn nobody, see, so he and old man Kenny start to tussle and before you can say, "I knew I should have stayed home and beat my kid for vandalism!" Joe is "seen" by witnesses Pete (William Frambes) the clerk, Mrs. Simms (Ruth Ford) the customer, and Mr. Bolger (Byron Foulger, hilarious), the disgusting little weakling, hitting old man Kenny over the head with the hatchet, killing him dead. It doesn't take long for this, um..."circumstantial evidence" to put Joe on death row, particularly when do-gooder "friend" Sam actually calls the cops on him (what a rat) and testifies against him in court (jeesh what a friend). Still, Sam wants to help Joe (maybe next he can pull the switch?), but will he get Joe out before the prison lights dim...or before Joe breaks out of the slammer?
There's not going to be too much discussion here for Circumstantial Evidence, not so much because of its quick 68 minute run time, but because it's such a stupid exercise in cautionary noir, there isn't a lot of "there" there to chew over. Call me "picky" (which I'm usually not with these kinds of unpretentious, meat-and-potato programmers), but if you're going to call a movie "Circumstantial Evidence," going so far as to open up the movie with one of those cornball, specious "calls to action" title cards warning the public (hee hee) about the dangers of "circumstantial evidence" in today's world...would it be too much to ask that you at least understand what the term actually means? Hey, I'm no lawyer, but I've seen enough episodes of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law and Petrocelli to know that the eyewitness testimonies--mistaken or not--that put Joe away, are considered direct evidence in a court of law, not circumstantial (with the literally tens of thousands of hours of TV courtroom drama I've seen since I was in rompers, I guarantee I could fake my way through a real trial). Sure that's a pissy little observation on my part, but that's just the kind of thing a fake TV lawyer like me would say, isn't it, and besides, I didn't name the movie, so don't blame me if it's screwed up.
Nothing in Circumstantial Evidence makes any logical sense, from the very start of it (responsible dad Joe thinks the quickest way to prove his innocence...is to run away until "things blow over?"), to the crime itself (what coroner said, "Sure you can face a man and bury a hatchet in the back of his head,"), to the courtroom trial (dimwit Nolan not realizing until it's too late that he probably shouldn't have testified about Joe's vow to "bash in [Kenny's] bone head to a pulp,"), to the laughable machinations that lead Joe in, out, and back into prison again (gee, those prison wall guards sure stink with the search lights...). With more time (and a better scripter and director than Robert F. Metzler and John Larkin, respectively), maybe something could have been done with the movie's more interesting subtexts, like childless Nolan constantly trying to "take away" O'Shea's son, or the barely-mentioned notion that Joe's had some trouble before, or some funny commentary on that matriarchal tyranny going on in that creepy suburb? Well, forget all that here in Circumstantial Evidence; the only thing on Metzler's and Larkin's minds are rushing through this improbable tale as quickly as possible in the vain hope that nobody will notice the holes.
The verdict's in: they failed.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.