11 February 2002 | Ron Oliver
Masterly Crime Drama
A hideous crime rocks a Deep South community and those who exploited it know THEY WON'T FORGET the part they played in the shame & violence that ensued.
Of all the hard-hitting dramas produced by Warner Brothers Studio in the 1930's, this was one of the most powerful. Absolutely no holds are barred in showing the aftermath of the murder of a pretty college girl and how events took on a life of their own - crushing the innocent lives who got in the way of the town's thirst for revenge. The film starts whimsically with six ancient Confederate veterans - among them Harry Davenport, Harry Beresford & Edward McWade - on a park bench, reminiscing upon the dim past & wondering if their contributions will be remembered. Poignantly, evil is about to reemerge and the old men will soon disappear, the dead ashes of the past engulfed by the passionate flames of the present. An urgent plea against sectarian hatred & mindless violence, the film sweeps the viewer along to its ultimate shattering climax.
Claude Rains gives a knock-out performance as the local politician who sees the murder as a chance to sweep him into the State Senate. Using his considerable vocal talent - even with his somewhat bizarre idea of a Southern accent - Rains steamrollers over nearly everyone else in the cast, deftly showing his character's utter fixation on prosecuting the case.
Kudos should also be extended to Edward Norris as the Northern teacher accused of the murder; Lana Turner as the victim; Elisha Cook Jr. as her strangely nervous boyfriend; and especially Clinton Rosemond as the terrified black janitor who discovers the crime.
Although Warners is at pains at the outset to deny any connection the story might have with an actual occurrence, the film is roughly based on the notorious 1913 murder of Atlanta factory worker Mary Phagan.