Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Stefan Machura
teaches political science and sociology of law at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany). He has co-edited with Peter Robson Law and Film, Oxford: Blackwell 2001 (which appeared also as No. 1/2001 of the Journal of Law and Society). His research interests include lay participation in the administration of justice, legal culture and public

Read other reviews:

Internet Movie Database

All Movie Guide

Readers' comments



Eight O' Clock Walk may be read as an anti-capital penalty picture. Then, the message would be: Look, everyone can be mistakenly accused and only by fortune the innocent gets away. Circumstantial evidence might be enough to result in death.

EIGHT O'CLOCK WALK - A Timeless Plot

by Stefan Machura

A nightmare could start like the British film Eight O' Clock Walk, released 1953. However, a loving woman and an attentive barrister save the day. Eight O' Clock Walk has been overlooked by most law and film scholars so far. Halliwell's Film and Video Guide (2000, 247) judges Eight O' Clock Walk as follows: "Minor-league courtroom stuff, an adequate time-passer". Hal Erickson, at least, disagreed. In a text on director Lance Comfort, he wrote: "Many of his postwar efforts, notably Eight O' Clock Walk..., were distinguished by their creative utilization of actual locations and well-sustained levels of suspense". "The iniquities of circumstantial evidence are explored in the compact crime drama Eight O' Clock Walk. ... Based on a true story, Eight O' Clock Walk is one of the most oft-telecast of 1950s British films, and deservedly so" (Erickson). The Lexikon des internationalen Films (1997/98) does not even list Eight O' Clock Walk. This usually means that a movie did not appear in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Indeed, the movies deserves attention as a typical trial film. This essay describes the film following the order of its scenes and explores its meaning, which is still relevant for a contemporary audience.

Postcard views of London open the movie Eight O' Clock Walk. The establishing shots locate us at the place and time of the story. Ordinary street scenes among them, but also a view of Old Bailey, the famous London courthouse. Children appear on a London street, they are making April-fool jokes. A man's voice offscreen begins talking, introducing his story. It is Tom (Thomas Leslie) Manning's story. The protagonist (played by Richard Attenborough) has just married, he tells us. When he says farewell to his darling and starts walking along the street, the crucial events begin. A little school girl, Irene Evens, whom we saw before joking with her friends, stands in Manning's way. She is crying. Good hearted Manning gives her his handkerchief. She takes it and says that she has lost her dog. Manning follows her into a neighboring bombsite to help find the dog. Somewhere in the bombsite, the girl shouts "Ha-ha, April foo-ool" and runs off. Manning jokingly follows her, falls on the ground and threatens her with his raised fist. Mrs. Zunz (Lilly Kann) witnesses this scene.

Alone again Irene is feeding ducks at the river bank, singing a song about Old Bailey. The dark shadow of a man is falling over her. A shrill steam engine whistle is heard, sounding frightening. As the viewer suddenly understands, this sound indicates death. Later scenes show the search for the missing girl, the detection of her strangled body, Manning's arrest and the murderer's shadow near children again. The police busily collects circumstantial evidence: the handkerchief, the soil on Manning's coat from the murder site, as well as the testimony of Mrs. Zunz. She states that she saw Manning fighting with the girl. Also, a Horace Clifford tells the police he watched Manning walking with the girl into the bombsite. Up to this point of the film, the viewer knows that an innocent man is arrested and that a dangerous madman is still free.

Manning's wife Jill (Cathy O'Donnell is characterised as "US star" by McFarlane 1999, 144) contacts lawyers to seek help. But the legal professionals do not appear engaged in the case. On top of all, the defending barrister refuses to see her and her imprisoned husband, because he wants to preserve an "objective view" on the case.
"Means they are not even interested, I suppose it's because we are not paying anything. ... Doctors - see you, talk to you, give you help. Lawyers - they stay on the outside and make you stay there, too", is her opinion.

After numerous interrogations by police and a psychologist, Manning already starts to doubt his mind. Did he-suffering from a head-wound from his times as a war pilot-have a "blackout"? We see the wife's figure very small before the prison door. We see her encouraging Manning in the prison. We see Mrs. Manning visiting the barrister's office again. A clerk tries to send her away but Peter Tanner (Derek Farr), the junior counsellor in her husband's case invites her into his office. In their exchange, Mrs. Manning contrasts the old legal practice on the one hand and humanity and life on the other. A client needs encouragement, not detached professional expertise. Tanner, moved by this, visits Manning in prison, believes in his pledge of innocence and makes the case his own.

The trial day comes. In a nicely set scene, a number of women are polishing the courthouse floor. They are exchanging what they have learned about the pending case from the papers. In another scene, a middle-aged lady discusses the death penalty, opposing it principally, sketching out the proponents' view as: "You have to hang someone." She is a juror to Manning's case, we learn. Next we learn that the young defender's father will prosecute the case. Film scholar McFarlane (1999, 144) notes that:
"The rival court appearances of Geoffrey Tanner Q.C. ... and his son, Peter ..., who makes his debut in court as the Manning's defence counsel when the barrister appointed for that purpose is unable to appear. The two exchange a number of 'my learned friend' and other conventional legal ripostes in court and go off arm in arm at the end. In fact, the film's last image is of them walking away from the camera. Their camaraderie is in the West End theatre's jocular mode, and the only discernible point of spending time on them is ... to suggest the incorruptibility of British justice: whatever their feelings for another, they are perfectly able to carry out the necessary legal procedures on opposite sides of the case."

As another means to show the incorruptibility of the justice system, McFarlane (1999, 144) mentions the figure of the presiding Justice Harrington (Harry Welchman). The viewer learns that Harrington's wife is in hospital that very morning for a dangerous surgery. She will later die under the anaesthetic. To add to the dramatic constellation at the beginning of the trial, the now familiar shadow appears again, falling on the announcement of the case in the court hall.

A powerful series of detailed court scenes filmed in Old Bailey shows the start of the spectacle. The judge is dressed in his wardrobe. Officials are waiting backstage. Finally the judge is announced and enters the courtroom. In the cellar under the court room, the defendant and his wardens are waiting. Summoned as a witness, Manning walks upstairs into his dock. Everyone is staring at him.

Defending barrister Peter Tanner (Derek Farr) gets in heavy trouble during the examination of witnesses

The trial develops quite unfavorably for the defendant and his young barrister. The camera depicts Tanner in despair (Picture above). The prosecutor impresses the jury by passing photos of the victim's body.
Social psychological research demonstrated: the more severe the pains and damage inflicted by a perpetrator, the tougher the penalty advocated by beholders (e.g. Vidmar and Miller 1980, 584-5, Zamble and Kalm 1990, 334-5). To show photos of wounded bodies to the jury serves as an effective strategy of the prosecution in U.S. capital cases (Sarat 1995, 1124-7).

Austin Sarat (1995, 1127) quotes a woman juror who voted for the death penalty in a case: "Normally I consider myself a liberal easterner transplanted here to Georgia and against capital punishment - always was - but after I saw that picture of that man, something popped. I saw the pictures of him slumped down behind the counter and he was shot at somewhere around here and behind the ear, that was terrible. (...) I think about it even now and it bothers me very much."

Later in Eight O' Clock Walk, the judge frightens Mrs. Zunz, the lady witness from the bombsite, with a fine for leaving the court building temporarily. She is a foreigner (a German!) obviously not knowing how to behave before an English court of law. To the viewer, she appears quite simple-minded, certainly not able to differentiate between a joke and a real danger. The movie skips her testimony, but its content is clear.

Then Mr. Clifford gives evidence, followed by a woman reporting that she saw Manning in a dusty coat. A school comrade of Irene recalled that Manning once asked him whether he had a small sister. Then, on the witness stand, Irene's mother gives hearsay evidence that Manning gave the victim sweets and allegedly has been after her. When the mother breaks down in tears, the first adjournment is ordered. On the second day, the mother continues her testimony, talking about the girl's habit to feed ducks on the river bank before school.

At the moment, when the defense begins to present its case, the judge interrupts for a second adjournment. His daughter informs the judge that his wife did not wake up after the anaesthetic. Nevertheless, the judge is able to continue with the trial. Finally, the defendant testifies under oath. The judge interrupts an attempt by the prosecutor to provoke Manning unduly with his questions.

Time for the final arguments. The prosecutor appeals to the jury: "... your duty, your CLEAR duty to return a verdict of guilty." The judge suggests a break for lunch. Although they are not allowed to, the jurors are starting to discuss the case, having not even heard the defense's arguments. The lady juror we know from before is now, like some of her colleagues, convinced of Manning's guilt. Warned by another juror, she states: "Our duty is to do what we think is right." Up to now the situation has only changed from bad to worse for the defendant.

The following scenes show the real murderer. Manning's wife and Tanner are sitting in a restaurant when Tanner detects a child holding a sweet like the one found with the dead body. A moment before, Tanner (but not the audience) saw who gave it to her, understands the connections, and back in court calls Horace Clifford (Maurice Denham) to the witness stand. Clifford is confronted with the similarity of the sweets. A street musician is instructed to play the same Old Bailey song that was played when Clifford gave the sweet to the child in front of the restaurant. It is the same song that was sung by the victim at the murder site (The audience knows this but Tanner does not). Clifford breaks down. (Denham's play very much conforms to the popular stereotype of a psychopathic child-killer.) His hat is falling on the floor - just like a cut off head at the execution.

The title of the movie has a double meaning. On the one hand, an eight o' clock walk is just a walk around eight. (Manning started his a little late that morning, almost at nine.) On the other hand, and most important here, an eight o'clock walk means death. It refers to the hour at which executions are termed.

On the BBC, conservative MP Ann Widdecomb recently speculated in public about the re-introduction of the death penalty to British law. It has been suspended "indefinitely" by Parliament in 1969. Later European law totally extinguished the death penalty. MP Widdecomb is quoted: "I would also like some of the ritual to go away, the black cap, the eight o'clock walk - none of these are necessary". A pollster, Ben Page, reports that three-quarters of the UK population consistently favour the death penalty "in some circumstances" (BBC). Voices like these make films such as Eight O' Clock Walk a timeless warning.

Indeed, Eight O' Clock Walk may be read as an anti-capital penalty picture. Then, the message would be: Look, everyone can be mistakenly accused and only by fortune the innocent gets away. Circumstantial evidence might be enough to result in death. - Brian McFarlane (1999, 145) writes that
"the film's real interest is in the process of the judicial system and the dangers of circumstantial evidence. Considering the debate that was raging at the time about capital punishment, it is only weakly polemical ..."

But why, then, is not the film title "Circumstantial Evidence," if that is the main focus? However, McFarlane is right that the film does not present its message too directly. Law is depicted as a bureaucratic force. The legal system and some of its personnel appear almost inhuman in their adherence to rigid rules. These rules allow circumstantial evidence. Another of these rules-as refracted by the movie-is that the barrister should not talk to the defendant. For if the defendant pleads not guilty but confesses to the barrister, the latter would be in a terrible position, as Tanner is advised. Manning's wife Jill is American. No wonder she expects a lawyer to fight for the client and search for favorable evidence, as numerous Hollywood movie lawyers do, and as indeed is the role of an American lawyer in criminal trials.

To be sure, the police and the jurists in Eight O' Clock Walk are working routinely and there are no transgressions in any phase, but all these quite proper activities lead to having the wrong man on trial and having the dangerous man still out on the streets. The depiction of the jury is remarkable. In a typical film, it represents the people's good common sense, and also stands for the audience (Machura/Ulbrich 2001). Here, the jury represents a largely biased citizenship. The general picture of the lawyers also is far from positive, despite the laudable figure of young Tanner. Only some very good luck, combined with the adversarial system with some import of engagement from the U.S., saves Manning from the blind bureaucratic machine.

However, it is a parody of the English adversarial system, since the inexperienced lawyer, the one who does like to have a personal bond to his client, the one who has the instinct of a detective and the abilities of a theatre director in framing the culprit saves the innocent. At best, the Tanner figure could have been understood as a promise of future generations of lawyers. The film is staged in the early Fifties when being a barrister meant a socially detached position in any respect. Tanner is ready to encounter his client directly.

Far from legitimising the English legal system, Eight O' Clock Walk, however, is undecided.. One can say, police does its duty, as the prosecutor does, the judge acts more or less reasonably in a most terrible personal situation, and there is a lawyer capable of handling the case. Barriers in getting one's rights are finally overcome. Such aspects essentially weaken the film's critique. But on the other hand: Is not every system somewhere in between perfect and discouraging?

Reference list
BBC. Http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2204738.stm, visited 18 November 2002.
Erickson, Hal. Http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/person/details/0,7621,BIO-P+85622,00.html, visited 18 November 2002.
Erickson, Hal. Http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/movie/details/0,7286,VID-V++++90333,00.ht.., visited 18 November 2002
Hallywell's Film and Video Guide 2001. 2000. Edited by J. Walker. New York: Harper Resource.
Lexikon des internationalen Films. 1997/98. 2nd edition. Edited by Katholisches Institut für Medieninformation (KIM) and Katholische Filmkommission für Deutschland. München: Systhema.
Maltin, Leonard. 1992. Movie and Video Guide 1993. New York: Signet.
Machura, Stefan, and Stefan Ulbrich. 2001. Law in Film: Globalizing the Hollywood Courtroom Drama. In Law and Film, edited by S. Machura and P. Robson. Oxford: Blackwell.
McFarlane, Brian. 1999. Lance Comfort. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Sarat, Austin. 1995. Violence, Representation, and Responsibility in Capital trials: The View from the Jury. Indiana Law Journal 70; 1103-35.
Vidmar, Neil, and Dale T. Miller. 1980. The Social Psychology of Punishment. Law and Society Review 14; 565-602.
Zamble, Edward, and Kerry L. Kalm. 1990. General and Specific Measures of Public Attitudes Towards Sentencing. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 22; 327-37.

Eight O' Clock Walk, Great Britain 1953, director: Lance Comfort.

Posted August 26, 2005

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views