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Television Reviews : 'Mary Phagan' on NBC

January 23, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

"The Murder of Mary Phagan" is an eerie, troubling, sociological thriller recalling a volatile 1913-15 case that lingers even today as unfinished business.

Airing in two parts on NBC (8:30-11 p.m. Sunday and 9-11:30 p.m. Tuesday on Channels 4, 36 and 39), it is cool and convincing, a finely staged and acted, generally faithful retelling of a story shrouded in darkness, ambiguity and legend.

Sweet and pretty Mary Phagan was nearing her 14th birthday when she was found slain one Saturday in the Atlanta pencil factory where she had gone to collect her pay from plant manager Leo Frank. After a nationally publicized and highly controversial trial--that would be a sham by today's standards--Frank was found guilty of Mary's murder and sentenced to hang.

As the script by Jeffrey Lane and producer George Stevens Jr. so ably illustrates, this was not your ordinary murder case. As one of those rural girls forced to work in sweat shops for 12 cents an hour to help support her family in hard times, Mary became a martyr for the poor's struggle against the rich oppressor.

Frank epitomized the wealthy managing class, a college-educated outsider from Brooklyn who lived grandly compared with his factory workers and their families. What's more, he was Jewish.

Some of director Billy Hale's later scenes overflow with sentiment, but he's highly skilled at injecting tingly suspense and mystery, the intermingling qualities of this haunting story that keep you ever on edge. His smoky, underlit courtroom sequences are masterfully executed, as Frank is victimized by unreliable witnesses and an ambitious prosecutor in an antagonistic atmosphere of classism and anti-Semitism. The jury's decision is never in doubt.

It is Gov. John Slaton who must make the final decision on Frank, however, faced with the moral choice between saving a possibly wronged man and advancing his own political career. And after he makes that choice, it is followed by another event as heinous as the murder and sexual abuse of poor Mary.

The performances are excellent: Jack Lemmon as Slaton, Richard Jordan as Solicitor Gen. Hugh Dorsey, Robert Prosky as political boss Tom Watson, Rebecca Augusta Miller as Lucile Frank, Peter Gallagher as the nervous, bespectacled Leo Frank and Charles Dutton, who nearly steals the show as Jim Conley, the dubious black janitor whose testimony appears to send Frank to the gallows.

"The Murder of Mary Phagan" is too long and occasionally too slow and a bit thickly oiled. Initial stages of Part 2 approach stagnancy. Yet the human tragedy and underlying riddle--Frank's guilt or innocence is clouded in the story as it has been in real life--keep you captivated.

Although evidence surfaced years later that increased doubts about testimony that helped convict Frank, it was still inconclusive. So he remains today a puzzle, either a murderer or a victim of blind hate and ignorance.

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