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AN ACT OF MURDER (1948)


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This rarely seen drama from Universal airs tonight on TCM. Florence Eldridge joins husband Fredric March, and Summer Under the Stars honoree Edmond O'Brien is also in the cast. These three actors made the prequel for THE LITTLE FOXES, called ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST, at Universal. 

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I have never seen this film but have every intention of seeing it tonight.  I am pleased that Edmond O'Brien is getting a day but the presence of Fredric March is what really peaks my interest here. Talk about underappreciated or forgotten (in today's world ) actors,  March may head the list for me.

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I've never seen it before. I am guessing the title shows what side the filmmakers are on-- that it is not an act of mercy. Am I right?

 

All I can say is that for 1948 it was a very good movie, dramatic but not melodramatic, and one that didn't attempt to preach one way or the other.  I'm glad it finally showed up here.

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A very good thought provoking film,  Fredric March is clearly the central character with Edmond O'Brien in a not very large supporting role. Still all actors give a good accounting  of themselves.  I wouldn't call the ending a cop out, it's a very difficult subject (mercy killing) and the film tries to explore both sides of the subject. I don't really know if there is  a clear answer to this,  I do know that some people have very strong opinions on both sides of the issue.  I personally have found myself in a very difficult decision  concerning a loved one, all I can say in good conscience is I did what I thought best for that person.

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It was an interesting film, and I'm glad I saw it. I agree with mrroberts, Fredric March is undeservedly forgotten (except for people like us, of course.) I always enjoy his performances. And he has a good face, an intelligent one.

 

However ! I have a HUGE problem with the premise of this film. It's the same premise as Dark Victory, and, to a lesser extent, with The Bells of St. Marys. Probably a lot of other films from that era too, if I could think of them.

Someone has a fatal illness (the film favourite from the 40s appears to be brain cancer, although they never call it that.) Usually a woman - can't think of one of these kinds of movies where it's a man. The patient knows there's something wrong. At first she pretends to herself that the strange symptoms she's experiencing are nothing - overexcitement, maybe, or they're tired. But the symptoms persist and get worse, so finally she sees a doctor.

 

The doctor conducts a series of tests, and it's very clear to the audience that things don't look good. Sure enough, in the scene immediately following the examination of the patient, the doctor makes a few calls, and we find out that the patient is seriously ill. Is, in fact, going to die fairly soon, and the problem is "inoperable".  *

 

Here's the part that drives me crazy. The doctor, in his infinite wisdom, decides it's "for the best" NOT TO TELL THE PATIENT.  !!!  WHAT THE FRIG IS THAT ALL ABOUT??!!

 

It's SO WRONG in every way. It's condescending, dishonest, unethical, and worst of all, DISRESPECTFUL OF THE PATIENT !

Ellie Cooke has every right to BE TOLD that she has a terminal illness. In fact, it's beyond a right, it's the duty on the part of the doctor to tell her. To assume that the patient would not want to know this undeniable reality is idiotic, paternalistic, and profoundly unfair to them. 

I cannot imagine why movie doctors think this way. It does not make the story better, it just makes it frustrating.

 

And in the case of "An Act of Murder", what adds to the frustration is the fact that even when Mrs. Cooke discovers her true situation -accidentally, of course, just as Bette Davis discovers hers' by accident - she too, pretends nothing is wrong.

 

She and her husband have so little time, and yet they spend what they do have pretending to each other. I can't handle this. I don't understand why it would in any way be considered a desirable way to behave.

 

* "Inoperable: Well, in the case of Dark Victory, they do operate. And at first everything's all right. But soon the terrible illness returns. So, ultimately, it's "Inoperable" in the sense that nothing's going to save Bette Davis'/Judith Traherne's life.

* I mentioned The Bells of St. Marys. Ok, it's indicated that Ingrid won't die, at least, not if she goes to Arizona or wherever they want to transfer her. But again, they DON'T TELL HER she has TB. What possible purpose does this subterfuge serve? 

 

 

ps: You can tell how strongly I feel about this from all the BLOCK CAPS, a kind of type I usually eschew.

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It was an interesting film, and I'm glad I saw it. I agree with mrroberts, Fredric March is undeservedly forgotten (except for people like us, of course.) I always enjoy his performances. And he has a good face, an intelligent one.

 

However ! I have a HUGE problem with the premise of this film. It's the same premise as Dark Victory, and, to a lesser extent, with The Bells of St. Marys. Probably a lot of other films from that era too, if I could think of them.

Someone has a fatal illness (the film favourite from the 40s appears to be brain cancer, although they never call it that.) Usually a woman - can't think of one of these kinds of movies where it's a man. The patient knows there's something wrong. At first she pretends to herself that the strange symptoms she's experiencing are nothing - overexcitement, maybe, or they're tired. But the symptoms persist and get worse, so finally she sees a doctor.

 

The doctor conducts a series of tests, and it's very clear to the audience that things don't look good. Sure enough, in the scene immediately following the examination of the patient, the doctor makes a few calls, and we find out that the patient is seriously ill. Is, in fact, going to die fairly soon, and the problem is "inoperable".  *

 

Here's the part that drives me crazy. The doctor, in his infinite wisdom, decides it's "for the best" NOT TO TELL THE PATIENT.  !!!  WHAT THE FRIG IS THAT ALL ABOUT??!!

 

It's SO WRONG in every way. It's condescending, dishonest, unethical, and worst of all, DISRESPECTFUL OF THE PATIENT !

Ellie Cooke has every right to BE TOLD that she has a terminal illness. In fact, it's beyond a right, it's the duty on the part of the doctor to tell her. To assume that the patient would not want to know this undeniable reality is idiotic, paternalistic, and profoundly unfair to them. 

I cannot imagine why movie doctors think this way. It does not make the story better, it just makes it frustrating.

 

And in the case of "An Act of Murder", what adds to the frustration is the fact that even when Mrs. Cooke discovers her true situation -accidentally, of course, just as Bette Davis discovers hers' by accident - she too, pretends nothing is wrong.

 

She and her husband have so little time, and yet they spend what they do have pretending to each other. I can't handle this. I don't understand why it would in any way be considered a desirable way to behave.

 

* "Inoperable: Well, in the case of Dark Victory, they do operate. And at first everything's all right. But soon the terrible illness returns. So, ultimately, it's "Inoperable" in the sense that nothing's going to save Bette Davis'/Judith Traherne's life.

* I mentioned The Bells of St. Marys. Ok, it's indicated that Ingrid won't die, at least, not if she goes to Arizona or wherever they want to transfer her. But again, they DON'T TELL HER she has TB. What possible purpose does this subterfuge serve? 

 

 

ps: You can tell how strongly I feel about this from all the BLOCK CAPS, a kind of type I usually eschew.

Funny, I thought that too, and remembered it actually happened with Kay Kendall, who died very young.  She wasn't told she had a terminal illness, and husband Rex Harrison and her doctors pretended she was being treated for anemia or something. I think the pretense went on until the end, though she had to have known on some level.

 

Probably medical regulations wouldn't allow it today, for adults at least.

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I also found the fact that the woman wasn't told of her illness very troubling, as if a person somehow isn't capable of handling the knowledge, especially if the patient is a woman.  My feeling is that such behavior from a doctor is unethical.  It would be considered malpractice nowadays, of course, since patients have the right to the knowledge about their conditions and consent to their treatment.  I also wonder if the ending reveal (I'll try not to give too much of a spoiler) is also a critique of the practice of leaving the patient in the dark

 

I thought it was an excellent film, however; March and Eldridge were outstanding, and I appreciated how the film does not give any easy answers.

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This film is very much of its time, the man (husband)  is the strong one and must handle all of the important matters concerning himself and his wife.  The doctor breaks the unfortunate news to the husband and he alone must bear the burden of that knowledge and make all of the decisions.  March hints that he and his wife have never had secrets from each other but in this case he is doing her a service by concealing the truth from her.  Even if the situation were reversed (he was dying) he would still be the one to know the truth and keep that from his wife. By our standards today this would be a very sexist attitude  and even unethical to not inform the woman of her situation.  The story does suggest that the wife is of  a strong character by not being truthful about her illness (she tries bearing that burden alone) and when she accidently learns of her terminal situation  she  alone makes the decision to speed things along.  If there is any one lesson I learn from all of this it is the importance of everyone involved (the whole family, including the daughter) being fully informed and handling the situation together.

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I just wanted to add that I started watching SEVEN DAYS IN MAY  (I've seen that film a number of times already) and once again Fredric March gives a terrific performance here. Of course everyone involved in this film is outstanding;  funny how when I watch Edmond O'Brien play his character here I sometimes think I'm seeing Charles Laughton. I'm sure that Laughton was a strong influence on O'Brien's acting.

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It's an interesting movie, but, as I recall, the ending is a bit of a cop-out.

 

 

Yes, I liked it, except for the ending. But I knew with the code, they'd have to come up with some contrived reason to wrap things up tidily....

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This film is very much of its time, the man (husband)  is the strong one and must handle all of the important matters concerning himself and his wife.  The doctor breaks the unfortunate news to the husband and he alone must bear the burden of that knowledge and make all of the decisions.  March hints that he and his wife have never had secrets from each other but in this case he is doing her a service by concealing the truth from her.  Even if the situation were reversed (he was dying) he would still be the one to know the truth and keep that from his wife. By our standards today this would be a very sexist attitude  and even unethical to not inform the woman of her situation.  The story does suggest that the wife is of  a strong character by not being truthful about her illness (she tries bearing that burden alone) and when she accidently learns of her terminal situation  she  alone makes the decision to speed things along.  If there is any one lesson I learn from all of this it is the importance of everyone involved (the whole family, including the daughter) being fully informed and handling the situation together.

 

 

 

Yes, the film was very much of its time in that regard and I wonder how often that happened back then in real life as opposed to movie reality. It certainly wouldnt pass muster today. But I thought the film was well done and acted. Until the pat ending. But I expected that............

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Here's the part that drives me crazy. The doctor, in his infinite wisdom, decides it's "for the best" NOT TO TELL THE PATIENT.  !!!  WHAT THE FRIG IS THAT ALL ABOUT??!!

 

It's SO WRONG in every way. It's condescending, dishonest, unethical, and worst of all, DISRESPECTFUL OF THE PATIENT !

Ellie Cooke has every right to BE TOLD that she has a terminal illness. In fact, it's beyond a right, it's the duty on the part of the doctor to tell her. To assume that the patient would not want to know this undeniable reality is idiotic, paternalistic, and profoundly unfair to them. 

I cannot imagine why movie doctors think this way. It does not make the story better, it just makes it frustrating.

 

 

Ellie was the daughter's name. I think you meant Catherine (Mrs. Cooke). Watching this film I was reminded of the real-life story of actor Rex Harrison whose wife, actress Kay Kendall, was not told she was dying. In fact, up until her death she never knew. And I think this happened quite often in those days. The belief was that the person would soon be dead, so why terrorize them with it and cause unnecessary angst? I know that may be hard for us to understand today.

 

By the way, this film is considered a social noir. The cameraman had also filmed Universal's version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a few years earlier. As Mrs. Cooke's condition becomes increasingly grim, the cinematography lends itself to a much darker view of life-- and the end of life.

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***possible spoilers ahead***

 

I recorded this film last night on TCM and I am watching it now. I think it is rather well made, with some extraordinary performances, but a few things do not work for me. 

 

First, I want to discuss the scene where she experiences wincing pain and breaks the mirror in the bedroom while she is packing. We get this quick dramatic scene and then it is not mentioned again. Of course, the filmmakers are letting us know, by foreshadowing it, how fatal her prognosis is. But how did she explain to her husband the mirror getting broken? And even if she had it fixed without his knowledge, wouldn't she know at that moment that there is something terribly wrong with her? People having good days do not go around smashing bedroom mirrors.

 

Second, and this plot point might seem minor, but why is it that when they pack to go on their trip he takes the note explaining her full medical condition? Obviously, the filmmakers have neatly included it in his suitcase so that she can find it and learn about her situation. But wouldn't he have have left this information in his office or already sent it on to the local physician?

 

And third, now this is what bothers me most, because it is certainly not addressed-- but when he gets behind the wheel during the raging storm with his wife in the passenger seat-- how does he know that his plan to kill her will be successful? What if he kills himself in the process, too? Can we assume that he was not only homicidal but suicidal as well? Yet, did he ever take into account the possibility that he may not survive the wreck but his wife could? If so, what good would that accident have done? Obviously, in the very next scene we see that his plan succeeded and the only visible evidence that he was even in a serious crash is the cane he walks with for the rest of the picture. He has no disabilities or scars (not even a bruise or scratch) while his wife conveniently (and mercifully?) experienced a much more final outcome.

 

What seems to be happening at one turn after another in this picture is that the filmmakers are trying to dramatize a philosophical thesis about mercy killing. But because they have fully worked out all the plot details, we are left to wonder if this could have been a better film than it is and if the points could have been made more smoothly and convincingly. As it is we are left with an artistic statement about a difficult decision regarding the quality or end of life, but we are given it in uneven terms and in a scope that is overshadowed by contrivance instead of the social realism they may have been striving to attain.

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I started watching this last night, and thought it was very good- multifaceted, intricate, appealing actors (Florence Eldridge was married to Fredric March, right? In real life I mean...either way, she's good in this and she's good in Inherit the Wind as his wife.)

 

About 45 minutes in, I had to stop and turn it off though because just a few weeks ago I lost someone I had known all my life to a sudden stroke and I just couldn't deal with a film about death- even one as compelling as this. I don't like turning off good movies, but I just couldn't go on watching this one.

 

I have to agree with Miss Wonderly about the doctor's decision to not tell the woman about her condition, that was a "HUH?" moment in a pretty realistic and well-directed movie (at least of what I saw.)

 

There were little touches I liked though- like the Dr. constantly talking about nonsensical things as he put the wife through a barrage of exams, and the scene where March and Eldridge leave their home with an umbrella, even though it doesn't seem to be raining, only to put it down as the man who walks behind them puts his up while passing their house (a metaphor perhaps for the unspoken troubles at home?)...

 

It was also nice to see a restrained Edmund O'Brien and Geraldine Brooks in something other than Possessed- man, she was a good looking woman and a charismatic performer.

 

Maybe if they re-air it when I'm ready to watch the whole thing, I'll give it another go.

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I recorded this film last night on TCM and I am watching it now. I think it is rather well made but a few things do not work for me. Never mind the fact that the wife isn't told she's dying (though she accidentally does find out the truth). There are some other plot points that do not seem to be worked out.

 

First, I want to discuss the scene where she experiences wincing pain and breaks the mirror in the bedroom while she is packing. We get this quick dramatic scene and then it is not mentioned again. Of course, the filmmakers are letting us know, by foreshadowing it, how fatal her prognosis is. But how did she explain to her husband the mirror getting broken? And even if she had it fixed without his knowledge, wouldn't she know at that moment that there is something terribly wrong with her? People having good days do not go around smashing bedroom mirrors.

 

Second, and this plot point might seem minor, but why is it that when they pack to go on their trip he takes the note explaining her full medical condition? Obviously, the filmmakers have neatly included it in his suitcase so that she can find it and learn about her situation. But wouldn't he have have left this information in his office or already sent it on to the local physician?

 

And third, now this is what bothers me most, because it is certainly not addressed-- but when he gets behind the wheel during the raging storm with his wife in the passenger seat-- how does he know that his plan to kill her will be successful? What if he kills himself in the process, too? Can we assume that he was not only homicidal but suicidal as well? Yet, did he ever take into account the possibility that he may not survive the wreck but his wife could? If so, what good would that accident have done? Obviously, in the very next scene we see that his plan succeeded and the only visible evidence that he was even in a serious crash is the cane he walks with for the rest of the picture. He has no disabilities or scars (not even a bruise or scratch) while his wife conveniently (and mercifully?) experienced a much more final outcome.

 

What seems to be happening at one turn after another in this picture is that the filmmakers are trying to dramatize a philosophical thesis about mercy killing. But because they have fully worked out all the plot details, we are left to wonder if this could have been a better film than it is and if the points could have been made more smoothly and convincingly. As it is we are left with an artistic statement about a difficult decision regarding the quality or end of life, but we are given it in uneven terms and in a scope that is overshadowed by contrivance instead of the social realism they may have been striving to attain.

 

 

I took it March meant for both of them to die in the car crash. He had already told the doctor on the phone he couldnt live without her. But yes, he couldnt have been sure of that. It was depicted he wasnt thinking clearly and was highly agitated. The smashed mirror was a good effect. Showing what happened after wasnt really needed and would've just lessened that scene, we didnt really need to know, or at least I didnt what happened after..........Yes, the bit with the letter was a bit contrived, but they had to have some scene to show her finding out (which the writer wanted)...........

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***possible spoilers ahead***

 

I recorded this film last night on TCM and I am watching it now. I think it is rather well made, with some extraordinary performances, but a few things do not work for me. 

 

First, I want to discuss the scene where she experiences wincing pain and breaks the mirror in the bedroom while she is packing. We get this quick dramatic scene and then it is not mentioned again. Of course, the filmmakers are letting us know, by foreshadowing it, how fatal her prognosis is. But how did she explain to her husband the mirror getting broken? And even if she had it fixed without his knowledge, wouldn't she know at that moment that there is something terribly wrong with her? People having good days do not go around smashing bedroom mirrors.

 

Second, and this plot point might seem minor, but why is it that when they pack to go on their trip he takes the note explaining her full medical condition? Obviously, the filmmakers have neatly included it in his suitcase so that she can find it and learn about her situation. But wouldn't he have have left this information in his office or already sent it on to the local physician?

 

And third, now this is what bothers me most, because it is certainly not addressed-- but when he gets behind the wheel during the raging storm with his wife in the passenger seat-- how does he know that his plan to kill her will be successful? What if he kills himself in the process, too? Can we assume that he was not only homicidal but suicidal as well? Yet, did he ever take into account the possibility that he may not survive the wreck but his wife could? If so, what good would that accident have done? Obviously, in the very next scene we see that his plan succeeded and the only visible evidence that he was even in a serious crash is the cane he walks with for the rest of the picture. He has no disabilities or scars (not even a bruise or scratch) while his wife conveniently (and mercifully?) experienced a much more final outcome.

 

What seems to be happening at one turn after another in this picture is that the filmmakers are trying to dramatize a philosophical thesis about mercy killing. But because they have fully worked out all the plot details, we are left to wonder if this could have been a better film than it is and if the points could have been made more smoothly and convincingly. As it is we are left with an artistic statement about a difficult decision regarding the quality or end of life, but we are given it in uneven terms and in a scope that is overshadowed by contrivance instead of the social realism they may have been striving to attain.

TopBilled; this is only my personal take on the events in the film. I  think your first point is easily explained by the fact that the wife is in a state of denial about her  headaches.  She is reluctant to let on to her family about them, or at least just how severe they are.  Maybe she suspects something is seriously wrong and just can't face the facts (don't we all do such things at times).  She broke the mirror and just didn't tell anyone about it, they won't know until they go in the room.  Your second point is the one that really got me. Why is  he carrying the doctor's note in his bag?  And if he wants to carry it along he should make sure its in a secure place. Of course the storyline needs some way for her to "accidently" learn of her true medical condition. A little nit picking on our part I guess. About your final point; I believe he at first was desperate to get her home but when she was getting worse (remember he doesn't know she took a bunch of pills at the diner) he acted on an "irresistible  impulse"   to end her suffering for good and had every intention of taking his own life as well. It seems a miracle that they both didn't die in that horrific crash. He survives and the eventual autopsy reveals that she probably was dead just before the car crash.

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TopBilled; this is only my personal take on the events in the film. I  think your first point is easily explained by the fact that the wife is in a state of denial about her  headaches.  She is reluctant to let on to her family about them, or at least just how severe they are.  Maybe she suspects something is seriously wrong and just can't face the facts (don't we all do such things at times).  She broke the mirror and just didn't tell anyone about it, they won't know until they go in the room.  Your second point is the one that really got me. Why is  he carrying the doctor's note in his bag?  And if he wants to carry it along he should make sure its in a secure place. Of course the storyline needs some way for her to "accidently" learn of her true medical condition. A little nit picking on our part I guess. About your final point; I believe he at first was desperate to get her home but when she was getting worse (remember he doesn't know she took a bunch of pills at the diner) he acted on an "irresistible  impulse"   to end her suffering for good and had every intention of taking his own life as well. It seems a miracle that they both didn't die in that horrific crash. He survives and the eventual autopsy reveals that she probably was dead just before the car crash.

Another thing that didn't make sense to me is: when did she figure out he was giving her something stronger than aspirin? And how was she to know how toxic it was? So was her overdose intentional or accidental? This is not really explained, even later at the trial. It seems a bit hard to believe that she would have put the drugs into her purse without him realizing that she had taken them. 

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Another thing that didn't make sense to me is: when did she figure out he was giving her something stronger than aspirin? And how was she to know how toxic it was? So was her overdose intentional or accidental? This is not really explained, even later at the trial. It seems a bit hard to believe that she would have put the drugs into her purse without him realizing that she had taken them. 

(This post includes SPOILERS)

 

I thought that the note she found mentioned the drugs specifically. It didn't exactly say how toxic they were, but it said something about the dosage, which would lead her to conclusions about their toxicity.

 

Also, I think that March's character did get injured, as suggested by the walking cane he's using in the later scenes. Or did he always use that? But he also turned the car over on driver's side, which seems like it would be more likely to kill him than her.

 

These things didn't bug me, though. I sympathize more with MissWonderly's complaint. Especially considering that he took it upon himself to kill her without consulting her, which is mentioned later by his daughter, to little consequence.

 

I wasn't taken by this film, but I have a hard time explaining why. It seemed like it was trying to say something that it didn't fully understand itself. And March's speech at the end about being "morally guilty" lost me about the third time he went through it. I gather that the film was ultimately against mercy killing, even though March was not punished for it for arbitrary reasons. What I didn't gather was the stance on suicide it was taking, or assisted suicide with victim's consent, which it didn't end up addressing.

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