Judge Fredric March must deal with his wife’s illness and soon is on trial for her murder.
Watching 1948’s An Act of Murder felt like taking a vitamin; it’s good for you but it has no taste, nor does it make for a memorable or enjoyable experience. The best thing about this movie on the subject of mercy killing is the fine acting of real life husband and wife Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. They truly make the picture worth watching and the story possible to emotionally invest in. On their 20th wedding anniversary, Eldridge confides in a family friend, doctor Stanley Ridges, that her headaches are getting worse. She secretly goes for an exam, but the doctor ends up keeping her in the dark and telling her husband March what he discovered– that she has incurable brain cancer and not much longer to live. Her last days will be terrible pain and suffering, and March, a loving husband, a man of routine and structure, is utterly lost and devastated. He tries to hide the facts from Eldridge while taking her on a second honeymoon, but she finds out she’s dying. The scenes where she knows that he knows but she pretends not to know, while he valiantly pretends everything is normal to keep from troubling her, are heartbreaking and so well acted. The stoic March starts to crack when he sees the medicine won’t help her much, and while entertaining suicidal thoughts he witnesses an injured dog being put out of its misery. Here an idea is planted for what he will do next.
That part, the picture of the emotional impact on the couple is compelling. The ethical and legal debate that follows March’s decision (I won’t say what he does), though obviously groundbreaking in 1948, is not nearly as gripping, and moves far too quickly to delve into any arguments in as much depth. When March confesses to murdering his wife it’s up to O’Brien to step forward to defend him, and the story is tied up neatly with a plot twist that’s too convenient, but there were limits to how groundbreaking as they could get in that era after all. The other big flaw to me was that Geraldine Brooks and Edmond O’Brien are great actors underused here by being plugged into dull stereotypical headstrong young idealist roles. After March has just been dealt the bad news, Brooks is desperately trying to convince her father to give her boyfriend O’Brien a break (they don’t get along). Her inability to recognize that something is deeply upsetting her father, her borderline whining and storming off when she doesn’t get her way, is really off putting and just comes off as immature and selfish. O’Brien isn’t given much meat in his role by being predictably written as the new and improved model lawyer who seemingly only by virtue of being progressive and young, by having a chip on his shoulder, and all read up on new ideas, is automatically more correct and wiser than the experienced, traditional type of tough and rigid jurist that March represents. Luckily O’Brien has enough charisma to save the character from being just an annoying know it all.
Though I was moved by the good acting and the potent material, the movie as a whole just didn’t live up to the potential power of such material or the caliber of the actors, which also include John McIntire and Will Wright. Having said that, for Fredric March fans this movie is a must, as it is definitely one of his great performances, with the added attraction of seeing him in some excellent scenes with Eldridge.