Directed by Mark Robson (Peyton Place (1957)) and written by Don Mankiewicz (I Want to Live! (1958)) this film earned Arthur Kennedy his third of five Oscar nominations (without a win this one for Supporting Actor) for his role as a communist lawyer. The story is about a law professor (Glenn Ford) who must get some trial experience during the summer if he wants to keep his job at the university which has added this new practical requirement. Dorothy McGuire plays Kennedy’s secretary who helps Ford with the case.
The film opens on a private beach at night. A woman’s scream is heard and after rushing to the scene a Mexican boy Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos in his second film his first was Blackboard Jungle (1955) also with Ford) is found standing over a dead White girl. This happens just as Ford is out looking for a firm to help him gain the required experience. After being turned down at several places he tries Kennedy’s office who though he initially turns him down decides he might be just what he needs to pursue the Chavez case. They go to the courthouse jail run by ‘Fats’ Sanders (Robert Middleton) and Kennedy slips him a $20 in order to be the first lawyer to see Chavez.
They meet Angel’s mother Consuela (Katy Jurado) and their client. Kennedy doesn’t really believe Angel’s story that he’s innocent while Ford wants to believe him. After giving Angel & Consuela some instructions they leave. While having lunch and discussing the case with McGuire Kennedy introduces Ford to the District Attorney (John Hodiak). The DA wants to know how they plan to plead the case if they want to entertain a plea bargain. When Kennedy says their client would plead guilty to trespassing the DA is insulted and leaves telling them the charge will be first degree murder. Then Kennedy and Ford go to the murdered girl’s parents (Whit Bissell plays the father) to urge them to have a quiet funeral and they agree. However at the end of the funeral some white supremacists (including Paul Guilfoyle) wearing black armbands arrive to say they’ll make sure Angel pays for his crime.
The next scene is at the courthouse again later that day where a lynch mob has formed outside the jail. ‘Fats’ unable to get the National Guard there in time addresses the mob and guarantees justice that Chavez will hang legally. He also adds that he won’t seek reelection again unless what he’s said is true. They should believe him because he says he "can’t do any other kind of work" which breaks the tension and disperses the mob. For Angel’s defense Kennedy must go to New York to raise the money. He takes Consuela with him to help leaving McGuire to help Ford prepare for the trial. A relationship between the two develops. There is also a scene between Angel and Ford where we learn that Chavez is an intelligent young man and that Ford will be explaining things to him as the trial goes along. The trial begins with jury selection and Juano Hernandez will be the presiding judge. Ford is successful in having the existing jury pool thrown out because they had been interrogated by the police.
In New York Kennedy plans a big rally complete with a wall sized poster saying "Free Angel Chavez". The weekend before the trial is to start Kennedy calls Ford and insists that he must attend the rally which though McGuire tries to prevent it he reluctantly does. Once there he discovers that the rally’s attendees will be communist sympathizers if not outright communists! However he goes along with it because they need the money for Angel’s defense. When it’s his turn to speak he begins to tell them of his disapproval of it all but Kennedy has the band kick in and replaces him at the microphone. Lack of credibility alert – Ford is playing a college law professor from California who is offended by a Left leaning organization raising money for his trial. I don’t think so;-)
Ford leaves the rally disgusted and upon his arrival home at the airport is greeted by McGuire. Their relationship has soured because Ford correctly concludes that she too must be a communist sympathizer. However she denies that she’s a party member and repudiates some of their methods so love prevails. Back at the trial Ford goes through jury selection which includes using his last challenge to remove Kiley (Frank Ferguson uncredited) from the panel. The jury is set and the case is adjourned for the day when a process server (Elisha Cook Jr.) gives Ford a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Committee the following Saturday for his involvement in the New York rally. He says he will be unable to appear given the trial which includes testimony from recognizable character actors Frank Cady (Sam Drucker in TV’s Green Acres) uncredited and Richard Gaines. The rest of the film is the trial itself and though I won’t reveal how it turns out I will say that there is at least one surprise ending if not two.