Monday, July 25, 2016

Witless For The Prosecution

Or: Not Nobody, Not No-How: Johnny Nobody (1961)

By Hank Parmer

So did you hear the one about James Ronald Mulcahy, famous Irish-American author and outspoken atheist with a death wish, currently residing in the mother country? How one fine day, after receiving a telegram from his publisher informing him his latest book has been banned for indecency, he takes a stroll with the postman down to the picturesque village pub and picks a fight with the locals? (Over religion, naturally.)

Ejected from the pub, he challenges the outraged villagers to two falls out of three over the existence of God.

A riot is narrowly averted when the parish priest, Father Carey, arrives on the scene and persuades his flock to cool it.

His plan to get himself pummeled into a bloody rag having thus far failed, the author vows to insult the Deity on His own front step. He marches up to the church with a furious crowd trailing close behind.

Standing before the gate, he glares up at the heavens and defies the Big Guy upstairs to do something about it. Right on cue, a man guns him down.

When asked, the disoriented-appearing stranger claims he doesn't know who he is or how he got there with a pistol in his hand. A voice in his head told him to destroy this man, so he did. (I suppose if that voice in his head told him to jump off a cliff, he'd do that, too!)

So they call him -- "Johnny Nobody".

What then, you may ask, is the punchline? Actually, the joke's on the viewer, because there's still an hour-and-change left to go in this gobbler.

If you're incurably geeky about classic cinema, and especially film noir, you can understand why my interest was piqued when I came upon this reputed example of the genre, courtesy of our friends from across the Big Pond. Mostly because I'd never heard of it, but also because it starred William Bendix (as the author with the mercifully short part) and Aldo Ray as the title character, who as it turns out doesn't get all that many lines, either. Neither of these actors is a household name now, except to movie nerds, but their presence in some notable noir films and crime thrillers of the 1940s and '50s convinced me to give this one a look. Plus, as typically happens in these British B-movies, there were solid supporting actors in the cast like Cyril Cusack and Niall MacGinnis.

In fact, Johnny Nobody was released right after Ray starred in the nifty little British caper flick The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. So at first glance it didn't appear wholly implausible this one might at least be mildly entertaining. And it got a high rating on IMDB. (More on that, later.)

It was certainly informative. For one thing, it seems that in the Auld Sod, if you shoot an atheist while he's daring God to smite that chip off his shoulder, and then claim you don't know who you are, the police won't put much effort into checking your story. Oh, you'll still be charged with murder, however, on the bright side, your lawyer can utilize a little-known yet apparently highly effective surprise defense. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Father Carey (played by Nigel Patrick, another well-known -- for his time, anyway -- British character actor and occasional lead, who also occupies the director's chair for this one) visits Johnny in jail. Johnny sticks to his story of amnesia and a disembodied voice. In an odd echo of a character Ray played in a far better film -- Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall -- he's been sketching to while away the time before his trial. Carey is intrigued by one quite professional drawing: a stylized depiction of St. George slaying the dragon. Johnny says he has no idea what it means, but he feels it's important.

Before he leaves, the father hands Johnny a bundle of fan mail, and lets him know that people all over the country are donating money to pay for his defense. It's the Christian thing to do.

Comes the day of the trial at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. Father Carey is called to the witness stand. After the father identifies Johnny Nobody as the man who shot Mulcahy, Johnny's counsel (Niall MacGinnis -- who appears painfully aware of what a consummate load of codswallop the script's about to call on him to deliver) astounds the court when he bases his defense solely on Carey's opinion as a learned priest and therefore an expert on whether the murder Johnny indisputably committed was an actual act of God.

The impeccable legal logic he lays out here is worth noting: You see, since witnesses must swear on the Bible before testifying, that means everything in it must be the literal truth. Citing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the pillar-of-salt number the Lord did on Lot's wife as precedent, his counsel asserts Johnny is clearly innocent, because he was only the instrument of divine vengeance against a blasphemer.

And of course no one bothers to point out that neither of these examples of Jehovah's wrath was executed by a mortal, utilizing something as decidedly non-supernatural as a semi-automatic pistol. Or that giving people a free pass to plug someone because a voice from Above told them to might set a worrisome precedent.

The judge, although rightly skeptical, goes along with the gag and adjourns the court, giving himself and Father Carey a couple of days to ponder if the priest's truly qualified to settle the knotty question of whether God's now employing amnesiac torpedoes. Outside the courthouse, the mysterious brunette we met briefly during the trial scene (Yvonne Mitchell) introduces herself to Father Carey as a journalist and says she'd like to come down and give the parish a look. When called on it, she admits she's angling for an interview and apologizes, but surely the father can't blame her for wanting to scoop the competition.

They part ways, and Father Carey, deeply conflicted, returns to the seminary for some advice. He runs into his old friend, Brother Timothy (Noel Purcell, another instantly recognizable character actor from the British B's, though he's perhaps best known as the ship's carpenter from John Huston's film of Moby Dick) as the brother extricates himself from underneath a pile of sweaty young boys. Okay, he's refereeing a soccer game, but he seems like he's enjoying this a bit too much ....
Timothy conducts Carey to his venerable teacher and mentor, Father Bernard, who's worried because Johnny is attracting a cult. Father Carey confesses he can't decide whether the guy's just funnin' them with that amnesia act or God really has made His avenging angels trade in last eon's flaming broadsword for a shiny new revolver. (And wiped Johnny's memory of being an angel, no doubt to maintain plausible deniability.)

Father Bernard points out that this sounds suspiciously Old-Testament-y to him; he feels Jesus likely wouldn't have approved. Carey's revered teacher then makes the first sensible suggestion in this nonsensical script, that trying to trace Johnny's past might be worth a shot. Which apparently never occurred to the Garda. Maybe they've been swamped while coping with an outbreak of leprechaun hooliganism.

As for what Carey should do, Bernard feels he should obey his conscience. So you're on your own with this one, kid.

Father Carey returns to his parish, only to find the village has become the season's hot pilgrim destination, with buses disgorging hordes of the faithful, come to see where the atheist got his.

Be sure to stop at the pub afterwards for your complimentary "Bloody Mulcahy"!

The postman chats with the priest while putting up a poster advertising races in a town named Inish Gashel. He fondly reminisces about the place, which was his boyhood home. It was once a thriving port, but now he says it's only a sleepy little burg with a few pubs and a racetrack. Father Carey notices the journalist and her photographer pull up and get out of a car.

Disturbed by all this ghoulish hullabaloo, Father Carey returns to his church. Among the latest batch of mash letters to Johnny (the father kindly volunteered to handle his fan club's mail) there's an odd communication with no return address, postmarked -- dum, dum, dum -- Inish Gashel! There's nothing in it but a hand-written note in block capitals: “Matthew, Chapter 13, Verse 27” which Carey reminds us says "Be of good cheer. Be not afraid."

This jogs the priest's memory: He recalls receiving another letter from the same village, although that one referred to a passage from Isiah about making a covenant with Death and being in agreement with Hell. Creepy ....

Father Carey decides to investigate.

After he departs, the reporter shows up at the church, claiming she has an appointment for an interview with Father Carey. When told by the curate he's gone off to check out Inish Gashel, she says she's never heard of the place. But wait: She goes to a phone booth and places a call to Inish Gashel, spelling out the place name to the operator without a single hesitation. Something's fishy here...

Father Carey first visits the Inish Gashel racetrack. There's no one there, except a surly caretaker. When Carey mentions he wants to speak to the postmistress about some mysterious letters, the caretaker informs him she's out that day. The father still insists on going to the village.

Suddenly, a lone rider appears from out of nowhere and narrowly misses trampling Father Carey when he leaps the fence. This negligent equestrian gallops off without so much as looking back to see if Carey's injured. The caretaker claims he has no idea who the guy was, it happened too fast for him to get the number on that gelding.

Continuing on his way to Inish Gashel, something catches Father Carey's eye as he's driving past the local church. He pulls over to check it out. There's a bas-relief panel by the entrance, which clearly must have been the original model for Johnny's sketch of St. George and the dragon! An elderly local, leading a donkey, happens to totter by at this moment. Carey asks the old man if he's seen any artists around here sketching, but the gaffer doesn't recall anyone of that sort. He helpfully directs Carey to a shortcut to Inish Gashel, which results in the father's car landing in a bog, out in the middle of nowhere. Carey makes a sinister discovery: Someone took the warning sign down.

Trudging back along the lonely road, who should come along entirely by accident but our journalist. In the most highly unlikely of coincidences, she says she's down there on a story. She offers to give him a lift to Inish Gashel, but he's in a hurry now to get to Dublin and tip the authorities off about the clue to Johnny's identity he's discovered at the church.

When they hit the main road, Carey spies the donkey guy and has the journalist pull over. He accuses the local of deliberately putting him in the bog, but the old man swears the signs were bewitched. (And the Wee Folk have been playing tricks on him, like hiding the appliance -- and his fairy wings!) However, he now recalls there was one of them artistic types in the neighborhood a few weeks ago. He thinks the man was staying at "the great house" just a few miles down the road.

Carey's eager to inform the authorities tout suite, but the reporter insists on first checking out the house. Arriving at the mansion, they find it deserted. The front door is unlocked, so they walk in and case the joint. Father Carey attempts to phone the police, but, ominously, the line's dead. He tells the reporter they should drive to the nearest police barracks, but then he spots a Bible lying on a table. It's bookmarked at the very same verses cited in those mysterious letters from Inish Gashel!

But there's an another passage marked, too. The reporter recites it from memory, while giving Father Carey a significant look: "It is I, the wife of your bosom."

Yes, she's Johnny's spouse. His real name is Mark Wheeler. She admits she sent those cryptic Bible quotes to Johnny/Mark just to let him know she was thinking of him, while he was languishing in durance vile.

Now the whole ludicrous -- I mean, nefarious plot is revealed: Wheeler spent ten years studying primitive religions in a remote section of Mexico. (Although if this movie is to be believed, he could easily have found plenty of material on the same topic while living among the backward natives of the Emerald Isle.) But just when he was getting ready to publish his book, Mulcahy got wind of it, hastily threw something together on the same subject and was published first.

(If you ask me, shootin's too good for the varmint!)

While later attending one of Mulcahy's lectures in New York, the two of them overheard some of the other audience members remarking it was a wonder no one had murdered the blaspheming lout. And thus their cunning plan was born.

Now, wait a second: The Wheelers' scheme absolutely depended on his anonymity. It must have been fairly tricky for a big, beefy, baby-faced American like Mark to travel to Ireland and wait around out in a sparsely populated rural area for some unspecified interval before his big opportunity. Did he stay in his room all the time, or wear false whiskers? They must have at least one confederate, because who else would his wife have called at Inish Gashel? How many people were in on this crackpot conspiracy, anyway? The photographer? The caretaker? The guy on horseback? The gaffer? The donkey?

Even so, how could he possibly have arranged to be standing by that gate, miles away from where he was lodging -- at least, I assume he wasn't hanging around the place beforehand -- at the precise moment Mulcahy publicly dared Jehovah to blast him with a thunderbolt? Or was Mark just intending to walk up and plug the author, regardless, and this turned out to be his lucky day?

And since concealing his identity was so essential, why then did Mark draw that dead giveaway sketch of the bas-relief? Was he taunting the police? If his faithful wife just couldn't help sending those tender little notes to her homicidal hubby, why didn't she take the obvious precaution of posting them from another village, like, one that's a bit more distant from where they'd been staying, or just drop her Biblical billets-doux in a letterbox when she was in Dublin?

I'd say there's a convincing case to be made that in addition to being a pair of raving nutters, Mark and his wife are complete idiots.

Whatever. She attempts to persuade Carey to keep his mouth shut, at least until after the trial -- once Mark's been acquitted, she reminds the audience, the authorities can't prosecute him a second time for the same offense. She tries to tempt Father Carey with all the goodies tourism will bring to his parish, how it will advance him in the Church hierarchy. (Get thee behind me, Satanette!) To cap it all off, she lays a major theological brain-twister on him: How can Carey be so sure that they weren't doing God's will, by having been inspired to waste an unbeliever?

Carey is outraged at the suggestion. He takes her car, intent on driving straight to the nearest police barracks and spilling the beans. But she's one step ahead of the father: She reports her car as stolen, claiming he's a robber who broke into the house and assaulted her – taking clever advantage of the deep scratch he got on his cheek while dodging that horse to lend credence to her story. Apprehended by the Garda at a roadblock, he's handcuffed and hauled down to the station. When he tries to explain who he is, a mix-up in which the newspaper earlier misidentified a photo of his curate as himself now comes back to plague the father at this critical juncture.

An extremely unsympathetic chief constable promises Carey he'll be locked up for a week, until he can be brought before the local Justice of the Peace. Carey is frantic: How can he be in Dublin tomorrow, when the trial resumes? While the Keystone Konstables search the luggage from the car, Carey takes advantage of their limited attention spans to scarper.

In a prolonged homage to The Thirty-Nine Steps, he's pursued by men and dogs through the Irish bogs. While hiding beneath a bridge, he's accosted by a troll -- no, the guy only looks like a troll. He's actually a gypsy, who conducts the father to his nearby camp. Carey's erstwhile rescuer is at first inclined to turn him over to the police and collect the reward, but the matriarch of the clan quizzes the father on Catholic ritual and concludes he really is a priest.

Welcomed now by the gypsies, Carey gratefully relaxes by the campfire, while the guy who brought him to their camp applies some needed padding to the running time by soulfully warbling that hot new number -- The Ballad of Johnny Nobody -- that's rocketing up the charts. And rightly so. I don't know about you, but nothing says "hero worthy of immortalizing in story and song" to me like gunning down an unarmed man and claiming God told you to do it.

I reproduce it here, for your edification:

The Ballad of Johnny Nobody

Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Nobody
Johnny, oh Johnny: Are you somebody?
You came out of nowhere
The great God was willing
Our hero was there
The blasphemer's blood spilling
But who can be sure
God's law they're fulfilling?

Sadly, the arrival of the representatives of secular law prevents us from hearing the rest of this stirring ode, which I strongly suspect goes something like “And who gives a shite/when 'tis an atheist you're killing?” The gypsies quickly hide the father under the matriarch's bed. The police are discouraged from searching the old woman's caravan when it's mentioned she has the scarlet fever. Har.

Next morning, after his mire-besmirched suit's been sponged off and pressed, they manage to get Carey on the Dublin Express, just one step ahead of the police.

Meanwhile, back at the trial already in progress, the judge rules Father Carey's opinion is inadmissible as evidence. Which doesn't matter, anyway, because he isn't there. Johnny/Mark's counsel delivers his summation, reiterating the film's tiresome gimmick -- "We can't find out who he is, so maybe he really was sent by God!" -- with spittle-flecked fervor, when he hardly needed to bother with these rhetorical acrobatics: The jury's obviously going to acquit the guy simply because he offed an unbeliever.

Back to Father Carey, in his desperate race against time that's supposed to be keeping us on the edge of our seats. The train's held up for almost an hour by repairs to the track, so he gets off at the next stop to search for a public telephone. Evidently the police in this benighted part of Ireland are unfamiliar with that newfangled notion of calling or wiring ahead, so they can have someone waiting to apprehend the fugitive.

But just when Father Carey locates a phone booth, a police car belatedly zooms onto the scene in a cloud of dust and screech of brakes. The Garda pile out and chase the priest back on the train as it pulls out of the station. They search the compartments, but he eludes them by crouching down and clinging to the outside of the car. All the way to Dublin, apparently.

He finds Wheeler's missus and the cops awaiting him at the station, but once again he outwits the authorities -- this time by the stunningly original gambit of hoisting a small crate on his shoulder and walking right past them. However, Mrs. Wheeler sees through the ruse, but decides she'd best tackle him on her own. She tries to run him down with her car, but Carey dodges and she crashes into a wall. Carey jumps into a waiting cab and tells the driver to get him to the Central Criminal Court -- and step on it!

But he arrives too late: To absolutely no one's surprise, the jury has found Johnny Nobody "Not guilty"! The crowd cheers enthusiastically while Johnny/Mark allows himself a satisfied smirk. Father Carey pushes his way into the courtroom and tries to convince the judge there's been a horrible miscarriage of justice, but His Lordship coldly informs him the verdict has been reached.

Carey then angrily denounces Johnny/Mark, who just shrugs it off.

"I'm going to walk out of here a free man,” he gloats, “And no power on Earth can stop me!"

Which is, of course, absolutely, positively the worst thing he could have said, ironic-ending-wise. The guy's just begging for it, and this story's not afraid to deliver: There's a peal of thunder out of a clear black-and-white sky, while the scene goes all wavy. (For one terrible instant I was afraid they were segueing into a flashback. Will this thing never end?!?)

Wheeler clutches at his chest and keels over, dead. Now that's how you do divine retribution! Nothing flashy, just an awfully coincidental thunder-clap followed by a heart attack. Leave 'em guessing, that's the ticket.

Next we see the postman doffing his cap to Father Carey's church as he cycles past, while we get one last opportunity to savor this movie's harmonica-drenched score. (How else are we going to know this is rural Ireland?) The crowds have long departed. The shot dissolves to a God's-eye view of the village, so we know all's been set right with the world. The End.

This film, by the way, currently has an IMDB score of 7.4 stars out of a possible 10. It's described as a cross between a Father Brown mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. Which it would be, if our priestly protagonist had used keen powers of deduction and a penetrating insight into the human heart to unravel some deadly riddle, instead of behaving like a numbskull who had to be whacked upside the head with every clue. And if, like Agatha Christie's famous thriller, this had been a (semi) plausible courtroom drama featuring some interesting characters and a twisty plot, rather than this tedious drivel whose denouement richly deserves to be the textbook example of unsurprising.

All that to the side, being as I am of the heathenish persuasion, I couldn't even begin to untangle the theological implications of this story. You have to hand it to Jehovah, though, for scoring a real two-fer: He got rid of both that loudmouth Mulcahy and the sacrilegious killer who was fitting Him for a frame. And allowed a bunch of devoted worshipers to let their Medieval freak flags fly.

So let that be a lesson to us all.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

O.M.G. You;re a glutton for punishment, Scott.

Scott said...

No, I'm NOT!

Okay, yes I am.

But this time Hank absorbed all the punishment, while I merely looked on, like one of the the pervy, jaded, domino mask-wearing spectators in the audience in Behind The Green Door.

maryclev said...

In a prolonged homage to The Thirty-Nine Steps, he's pursued by men and dogs through the Irish bogs

Ah! This must be Dr. Seuss' version of "The Thirty Nine Steps!" (he's pursued by men and dogs through the Irish bogs)

Scott said...

I will not chase him through a bog,
I will not track him in the fog.
I will not search inside this log,
Screw it, I'll just go watch Trog.

Debbi said...

Wow, Scott!

Not only a great film skewering, but you were a poet and didn't know it! Or did ya, laddie? :)

Unknown said...

Did they all say "Begorrah" and "Top of the morning to you" which are obligatory in every Irished up film. Or "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" as an exclamation which, I confess shamefacedly, I have been known to do in moments of extreme stress. Even an atheist can have Catholic school flashbacks.
Well done, Hank. Another winner for your column.