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
"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.
Peter Tanner (Derek Farr) gets in heavy trouble during the examination
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
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?
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:
Maltin, Leonard. 1992. Movie and Video Guide 1993. New York:
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
Sarat, Austin. 1995. Violence, Representation, and Responsibility
in Capital trials: The View from the Jury. Indiana Law Journal
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