‘The Lawyer’ (1970): Petrocelli on the big screen

In anticipation of reviewing the recent DVD release of the cult 70s TV courtroom mystery, Petrocelli, starring Vanishing Point’s Barry Newman, we thought we’d first look at the two movies that directly led to the creation of that fondly-remembered NBC series, beginning with director Sidney J. Furie’s big-screen The Lawyer, from 1970.

By Paul Mavis

In a large Western town, struggling transplanted Harvard lawyer Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman) finally catches a break: in nearby wealthy cow town Baker, a big, juicy murder has riled up the millionaires and cowpokes. Sexy socialite Wilma Harrison (Mary Wilcox) has been found beaten to death in her bed. Her husband, Dr. Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), has a flimsy, drunken alibi about passing out on a downstairs couch, prior to seeing an intruder in Wilma’s bedroom, and just before being knocked out by an unseen assailant.

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Police Detective Sergeant Moran (Warren J. Kemmerling) and county coroner F. J. Williamson (E.J. Andre) aren’t buying it, though. Too many of the facts—as they interpret them—point to only one suspect: Jack.

Petrocelli readily agrees to take the case, since he’s not exactly raking in the big dough: he drives around in a camper truck, and lives in a small trailer at his remote home site, along with his beautiful wife/legal secretary, Ruth (Diana Muldaur). Soon, Petrocelli’s pushy, aggressive style and his Italian last name are pissing off the wrong good ‘ol boys in Baker. And while Tony thinks he has a better-than-good defense, since the murder investigation was botched and the State essentially has no solid evidence against Jack, he hasn’t counted on the overwhelmingly prejudiced media (and jury pool), nor on how well friendly rival Eric P. Scott (Harold Gould), the D.A., will counter him…nor on the revelation that Jack was sleeping around alot, particularly with hot number Mrs. Alice Fiske (Kathleen Crowley).

Even though it’s now long forgotten—not that it received any major critical or box office notice to begin with when it was released back in 1970—The Lawyer was considered a “hot” property in Hollywood when it was first developed as “The Sheppard Murder Trial” in the mid-1960s. Fans of American true-crime stories will of course recognize The Lawyer’s plotline as a fictionalized account of the notorious Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case, where the Ohio osteopath was convicted of the 1954 sex slaying of his wife, Marilyn. The crime and subsequent circus-like trial achieved nationwide coverage due to its exploitation elements of extreme violence (the victim had been brutally raped and beaten to death), sex (the doctor played around), and money—it even inspired a hit TV series, the highly influential The Fugitive, with David Janssen. Sheppard gained further notoriety when the doctor’s conviction was eventually overturned and a new trial granted thanks to the efforts of flashy self-promoter F. Lee Bailey, who succeeded in getting Sheppard off the second time around in 1966.

With that kind of continued publicity, the Sheppard case was a natural for the movies, especially since the studios were moving towards a freer depiction of sex and violence on screen. Originally shopped around by the future producers of Bullitt and The French Connection, “The Sheppard Murder Trial” project went into turnaround when those producers lost their option, before it was scooped up by director Sidney J. Furie and producer Brad Dexter. They in turn took it to Paramount where Furie had a five-picture deal with the studio. Having come off two difficult star vehicles (Marlon Brando’s western, The Appaloosa, and Frank Sinatra’s rococo spy opus, The Naked Runner), Furie was in the mood for a smaller, character-driven project, featuring a non-star cast. Much P.R. hay was made when actor-turned-producer Dexter (The Magnificent Seven) announced that attorney F. Lee Bailey would play himself in the movie—a fantasy that both Evans and Bailey ballyhooed until the notion had served its publicity purpose.

With former Commie blacklister Harold Buchman brought on to help shape the scenario, a decision was made during research on Bailey to shift the focus of the movie from a true account of Sheppard to a fictionalized one of Bailey, resulting in a story about a young, fish-out-of-water rebel lawyer fighting the powers that be in a sensationalized murder case—a case where the details were very similiar to the Sheppard murder. Despite Paramount’s unease about the non-star cast, Furie put his money on unknown New York actor Barry Newman for The Lawyer’s lead, a jobbing actor who worked part-time as a waiter in between his sparse TV, movie, and theater credits (Furie didn’t exactly alieve Paramount’s fears by sticking to non-A-listers like gorgeous Diana Muldaur or talented character actor Harold Gould, to round out the cast). To save money and time, however, Paramount insisted that Furie—noted then for his costly, time-consuming baroque method of framing—shoot The Lawyer in the plain Academy aspect ratio. There’s some conflicting info on whether or not The Lawyer was hard-matted in camera, or soft-matted at theaters…or what the ratios even were (I watched The Lawyer on Amazon—it’s never been released on home video—and if that wasn’t an open matte, then Furie framed it to look okay for TV).

Shooting on The Lawyer wrapped in the fall of 1968…and then Paramount sat on it for over a year and a half (Newman stated he heard the studio considered it a “tax write-off” movie, and that it was delayed because of Paramount’s dire financial straits at the time). When it eventually premiered in New York in the spring of 1970, it received mostly negative reviews and even some bad publicity (intolerant leftists—really?—hassled Furie at the Q & A, so…he split, saying he was making an entertainment, not a lecture). Other critics were more kind, but that critical NYC word-of-mouth hindered the picture’s roll-out (the studios back then still put a lot of stock in what those New Yawk pseudo-eggheads said), and The Lawyer wound up disappearing soon after its middling general release that summer.

Director Furie’s later assessment of The Lawyer was that it played too much like a made-for-TV movie, a judgment that isn’t far off the mark (the first sign that hits you is that horrible “la la la” sitcomy music from composer Malcolm Dodds). Filmed during that late 1960s transition period when the Hollywood studios began pushing the boundaries of big-screen sex and violence, while still being mindful not to go too far in terms of middle-of-the-road audiences’ tastes, The Lawyer’s familiar courtroom trial mystery framework was old, old hat for any potential ticketbuyers. Its “modern” flashes—now quite tame—of nudity and bloodshed merely served to pump up the TV-like proceedings in an effort to move with the changing times.

You can also see scripter Furie (he claims to have written the movie entirely by himself, even though Buchman gets co-credit) trying to tap into the counterculture appeal that was then being cleaned up and minted for the mainstream popular culture. Petrocelli, played by unconventionally handsome Newman (a more masculine, cocky version of Dustin Hoffman’s schlub), may be devotedly married (no swinging “free love” for him), and a Harvard lawyer (horrors of horrors to the hippies out there). However, he’s still kooky enough to abandon the rat race in New York and head out into the wild, wild West, living in a trailer, slamming a camper truck around the roads like a Formula One driver, and laying out in a field of daisies when things get too heavy, contemplating the universe in between fighting the establishment. Indeed, the tension over whether or not Petrocelli is “selling out” by taking this high-paying gig, is as prevalent a plot element in The Lawyer as is who committed the murder.

Whenever the movie strays from the courtroom set to go outside, we get one of The Lawyer’s best elements: a firm sense of place in the Western locales (shot in and around Colorado Springs), with Furie creating a nicely suggestive atmosphere of dusty, bleached-out menace amid the unfamiliar surroundings. Inside the stylized courtroom and the police headquarters and the attorney anterooms, Furie paints a gritty, cynical portrait of the way the law actually works, when it’s enacted and shaped (or more accurately bent) by ambitious lawyers, rich, powerful businessmen, and turf-obsessed professionals like coroners and sheriffs. It’s nothing new, but it’s well done (Furie’s multiple perspective flashback structure is jump-cutting fun), with hip, fast dialogue that hides some nasty, funny jabs.

What ultimately undercuts The Lawyer, however, is the ironic combination of too much running time and not enough character resolution. Clocking in at a numbing 120 minutes, The Lawyer is just too much after awhile, with the anti-climatic second trial eliminating most of the suspense as we yet again go over the same material with yet another Rashomon-like flashback (chop a solid 20 minutes out and you’ve got a crackerjack movie in there somewhere). Frankly, by the 90-minute mark, we don’t care if Colbert is innocent or guilty—we just want it ended, already (Colbert, acting as if he’s mislaid his pencil or something, doesn’t help. He brings no shading, no interest to this supposedly persecuted victim).

It might have been better if The Lawyer had focused more on Petrocelli’s soul rather than the murder. We’re not even sure if Furie knew whether or not Petrocelli was a rebel or a ladder-climbing scrounger. One minute he says he hates kids and dogs, and the next he’s in a field of daisies, staring up at the sky, pondering the innocence of his client, or rallying his group of young college interns to find legal loopholes (where the hell did they come from? And where did they go after their one scene?). How can he be a grown up, savvy cynic at the same time he’s supposedly a young, hip, anti-establishment warrior? The two impulses don’t mix, at least not in this script, so we never know who Petrocelli is, or where, exactly, he’s coming from (while we’re at it: who buys that chic, mysterious, refined—and beautifully remote—Muldaur is the wife of a barn-burning iconoclast? When Newman smacks her on the ass and she decadently purrs for more, it’s a dirty joke for the middle-aged country club set in the audience, not the dirty hippies).

Furie’s on firmer ground ripping the biased media and the prejudiced establishment, but even then he overplays it, setting a biased coroner’s inquest at a rodeo fairground, turning it into a grotesque farce that’s completely at odds with the rest of the movie’s degree of realism (it’s more Altman than Furie). By the time we decide that Newman’s soul is relatively safe from corruption, we’re bored with all the last reel legal machinations, focusing not so much on the mystery’s could-be solution, but on how poorly the courtroom squabbles are staged (I’m a big fan of character actor Harold Gould…but he’s sorely miscast as a slow, sly Southern lawyer. Newman is supposed to be terrified of him?). Too long and yet too vague, The Lawyer is at least passably entertaining…but someone should have made a motion to strike about 30 minutes of it from the record.

Read all of the reviews in our 4-part Petrocelli series.

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.

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