THE LOCAL press lately has been trumpeting the fact that Boston has been laying claim to more and more motion picture "world premieres" -a dubious distinction that sometimes is akin to being the first in your neighborhood to contract bubonic plague. Last fall, there was something called 80 Steps to Jonah , which starred Wayne Newton. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a remake of Moby Dick.
The latest entrant is The Lawyer , touted as making its debut at the Saxon Theater, although the week before it had been shown at the Harvard Square to an audience of law students, who proceeded to make Director Sidney J. Furie feel about as welcome as Judge Hoffman in the city room of the Old Mole . The film is loosely based on the Sam Sheppard murder case, which of course also touched off a popular TV series which every week asked the question, can a one-armed man find happiness in a two-fisted world?
Director Furie, who is still in his 30s, started off his career by turning out such products as The Snake Woman and Doctor Blood's Coffin, then directed Rita Tushington in the generally-neglected Leather Boys (1963) and went on two years later to the high point of his achievement- The Ipcress File, the crackling spy vehicle in which Michael Caine-Harry Palmer kissed with his glasses on.
In more recent times, while Brando was trying to get out of Colombia, South America, and Sinatra was trying to stay out of Newark, New Jersey, Furie has come up with another leading man, whose name is not exactly a household word, although for all I know, Barry Newman may indeed be very big on Let's Make a Deal. Newman, who comes off as a cross between Andy Williams and Soupy Sales, plays the title role in The Lawyer -a young man named Tony Petrocelli who lives somewhere out in L.B.J. Country in spite of being a product of Harvard Law and Providence, Rhode Island. (In a tired, overworked running gag, he keeps explaining that his name is pronounced "Petro-CHELLI-CHELLI !" but the local Yahoos obviously have never even seen a Prince Spaghetti commercial.) Tony, as might be expected, is not very big in the Southwest. For one thing, he wears a vest. For another, he drinks root beer instead of Dr. Pepper.
Still, he is hired to defend a physician (played by Robert Colbert) who has been accused of murdering his very-nekkid wife, but who claims that the real killer was a bedroom intruder with a "ghost-like" shape. Predictably, Petrocelli is denied requests for a change of venue and sequestration of the jury, is harassed by the state troopers and pelted by the citizens, and has his client labeled a "wife-slayer" by the television commentator prior to the outcome. Besides that, everyone keeps mispronouncing his name.
However, none of this stops tough Tony, who, once in court, comes up with more tricks than Charles Goren on a good night. When he isn't busy popping the classy sheriff for calling him a "Wop," or telling someone else to "screw of" (Furie believes in up-date, gutsy dialogue), he manages to find time to win a new trial after the first one results in a second-degree murder verdict. From that point on, it's Agatha Christie time.
It has been observed that Furie's films are more interesting visually than dramatically, but The Lateyer is disbarred on both counts, except for some early von Sternberg-like playing around with shadow. More concerned with the bedroom than the courtroom, the director and his co-scenarist. Harold Buchman, fill the frames with repeated and lingering flashbacks to the blood-splattered walls and victim, and force-feed the characters into continually exchanging one-liners as if they were Frisbees. Occasionally, Furie shows the Silent Majority homestead in its most ludicrous light (the inquest is held outdoors in a livestock exposition arena), but mainly is preoccupied with providing plenty of lip-smackin-good leers. (Told that his client never played around. Tony quips in disbelief, "What's the matter-did he have it shot off in the last war?") When he's not reconstructing Yuk Night at the American Legion Smoker, the director is going for the obvious sight gags (a-sheriff's tattoo which reads "Mother") and stereotypes (a swishy hairdresser named Mr. Andre).
The cast is generally undistinguished, with the notable exception of the prosecuting attorney, played by Harold Gould, who resembles Mark Twain physically and George C. Scott professionally. But with Sidney Furie discarding Blackstone for Bailey-hoo, Barry Newman seems a better candidate for the Borsht Belt than Circuit Court.