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The Murder of Mary Phagan DVD Review

The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988 miniseries) DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com The Murder of Mary Phagan
Miniseries & DVD Details

Director: Billy Hale / Writers: Jeffrey Lane, George Stevens, Jr. (teleplay); Larry McMurtry (story)

Cast: Jack Lemmon (Governor John M. Slaton), Richard Jordan (Hugh Dorsey), Robert Prosky (Thomas Watson), Peter Gallagher (Frank M. Leo), Kathryn Walker (Sally Slaton), Rebecca Miller (Lucille Frank), Paul Dooley (William J. Burns), Charles S. Dutton (Jim Conley), Kevin Spacey (Wes Brent), Cynthia Nixon (Doreen Camp), Kenneth Welsh (Luther Rosser), Penny Allen, Thomas Anderson, Dylan Baker (Ravinaw), Daniel Benzali (Medical Examiner), Nesbitt Blaisdell, Beeson Carroll, William C. Crawford, David Cromwell, Loretta Devine (Annie Maude Carter), William Duff-Griffin, Jennifer East (Factory Worker), Barbara Eda-Young (Mrs. Phagan), Gwyllum Evans, Carl Gordon (Witness), Sam Gray (Sigmond Montag), Richard Hamilton (Judge), Brent Jennings (Newt Lee), William H. Macy (Randy), Jordan Marder (Alonzo Mann), Heather McAdam (Factory Worker), William Newman (Police Chief Clapton), Owen Rackleff, Bill Raymond, Fred Sadoff, Raynor Scheine (Mr. Quinn), Brian Smiar, Kate McGregor Stewart (Nina Formby), Jimmie Ray Weeks (Detective Jeffries), Ron Weyand, Nicholas Wyman (Mr. Lund), Wendy J. Cooke (Mary Phagan)

Original Air Dates: January 24 & 26, 1988 / Running Time: 212 Minutes (2 Parts) / Rating: PG

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: March 15, 2011 / Suggested Retail Price: $26.98
Two single-sided, single-layered discs (DVD-5 DVD-Rs) / Black Keepcase

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The 1988 NBC miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan has one of those titles that leaves no question as to its content. Mary Phagan was a 13-year-old pencil factory worker in Atlanta, who was found beaten, murdered, and possibly raped on a Saturday night in April of 1913.
This star-studded two-part drama deals largely with the aftermath of the girl's death, centering on the legal proceedings.

Suspicion quickly attaches itself to the factory's wealthy manager Leo M. Frank (Peter Gallagher). Our first impressions of this slicked-back, Ivy League-educated boss are that he is soft-spoken and gentlemanly. The latter is called into question as some of Frank's low-paid workforce of 103 young girls comes forth to report lecherous behavior, like invading the girls' bathroom.

Wisely, the validity of such claims is not immediately clear to us. They are a part of a criminal case being built by glory-seeking solicitor general Hugh Dorsey (Richard Jordan). This design puts us on the investigation as well, invited to read into Frank's denials and recognize ulterior motives and sources of doubt. By the end of Part 1 (1:36:33), it is evident that period prejudice is in play, and not the racism you'd expect of the era but anti-Semitic sentiment (Frank is a Jew originally from New York, and Gallagher speaks with a faint accent to that end). The first part collects the facts, with police questioning giving way to an arrest and a closely-watched criminal trial. In it, the theatre of the legal system plays out in a sweltering courtroom, as such movies always seem to (at least this one justifies that by killing a noisy fan).

In 1913 Atlanta, wealthy, educated pencil factory manager Leo M. Frank (Peter Gallagher) is put on trial for "The Murder of Mary Phagan." Georgia governor and U.S. Senate hopeful John Slaton (Jack Lemmon) wants to make sure he's got all the facts right before sending Leo Frank to the gallows.

When Part 2 (1:55:56) opens, convicted Frank's appeal requests have been denied and a hanging seems inevitable. But some hope lies in the arrival of William J. Burns (an excellent Paul Dooley), a private detective rivaled only, in his mind, by Sherlock Holmes. The lively Burns looks into the holes in the case against Frank, believing that an injustice may be committed without a closer investigation. The detective isn't alone in objecting the jury's findings; concerned citizens from all over the East Coast come to voice their doubt over Frank's guilt.

The grievances do not fall upon deaf ears. Georgia's Governor John Slaton (Jack Lemmon) listens to them with an open mind and decides to hold a hearing to clear up some troubling inconsistencies. The trial's material witnesses, convict janitor Jim Conley (Charles S. Dutton) and factory girl Doreen Camp (Cynthia Nixon) are called back and questioned over their testimony. Dorsey objects to every step and resents the prevailing theme that he coached the witnesses to make a stronger case for the prosecution. Pursuing the matter causes the once beloved Slaton to fall out of favor with the people he represents and the good ol' boys who pull strings down in the South (like the rallier Tom Watson, played by Robert Prosky), making his conscientious actions political suicide just as he intends to run for the U.S. Senate.

In a suffocating Atlanta courthouse, ambitious solicitor general Hugh Dorsey (Richard Jordan) questions forgetful key witness, janitor Jim Conley (Charles S. Dutton). Private eye and director of the precursor to the FBI William J. Burns (Paul Dooley) thanks Ms. Carter (Loretta Devine) for her undercover work and accepts her useful contribution.

This miniseries is based on an historic and fascinating true crime which led to both a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. The case was previously put on film in 1915's punctual silent Thou Shalt Not Kill, revisionist 1935 black movie Murder in Harlem, and 1937's They Won't Forget starring Claude Rains. In 1998, the tale became the unlikely subject of a Tony-winning Broadway musical called Parade. On account of its length, timing, and nature, you'd expect the miniseries to offer the most thorough and accurate account of the murder investigation. As far as I can tell from post-viewing research, it does, though it omits the racism of Frank's defense and Slaton's possible conflict of interest. It also leaves less room for doubt in its findings than the actual event did, as anything not wanting unsatisfied viewers would have to.

Mary Phagan is good television. It is well-shot, well-cast, well-played, well-researched, and well-produced. The combination of true crime and made-for-television entertainment does not raise expectations, particularly when the miniseries in question is almost a quarter-century old. Gladly, this holds up very well. It is not at all maudlin or pandering and it is practically as faithful to the facts as any real-life story put on film. Even the period recreation is convincing, avoiding the usual dead giveaway of a production period by not featuring 1980s hairstyles.

A typical 23-year-old TV production is not going to be full of people you recognize, but Mary Phagan fares surprisingly well in this regard. I count twelve actors that with whom the general public should be familiar to some degree. Among them are, in smaller roles, are William H. Macy, Loretta Devine, and Dylan Baker. The real revelation, however, is Kevin Spacey. Less than a decade away from winning his first of two Oscars, the actor gives a nice performance as sensationalist journalist Wes Brent. This miniseries would air smack in the middle of his two-month, 7-episode run on CBS' "Wiseguy" (his third appearance on that crime drama actually premiered on the off night between Mary Phagan's two installments).

Playing a young factory witness and a driven journalist, Cynthia Nixon and Kevin Spacey are destined for fame and accolades. Leo Frank's wife Lucille (Rebecca Miller) is among those demanding justice for her husband.

The Murder of Mary Phagan was nominated for five Emmy awards and won three, most notably Outstanding Miniseries. Even so, that achievement didn't make its long absence on DVD unusual. For one thing, the days of high-profile network TV movies and miniseries are long past and largely forgotten. HBO now dominates the market and it rarely has enough competition to warrant a 5-nominee category. Excluding PBS, only one network production (CBS' 2005 Elvis) has been nominated for the Outstanding Miniseries Emmy in the past seven years. Furthermore, even when the formats were as popular as they were in the 1980s, miniseries and TV movies didn't have the shelf life of standard TV shows and theatrical movies.
Miniseries and telemovies are not often rerun, making them unfamiliar to nearly all who didn't tune in the first time. A comparably-rated contemporary show has an afterlife in syndication, but unless a home video release was secured from the start, even an acclaimed miniseries or movie is destined for obscurity. Mary Phagan did have the benefit of a two-cassette VHS issued in March 1992 by Orion Home Video. But even at the recent height of the DVD boom when a wealth of content was being released, few studios mined their TV libraries for miniseries. Most of the Emmy winners and nominees remain unavailable to rent or own today).

Such was the case for Mary Phagan until March, when it turned up in the latest wave of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Comparable to similar programs at Warner, Sony, and Universal, this Fox-distributed line gives forgotten catalog titles new life on made-to-order, no-frills DVD-Rs, avoiding the costs and concerns of general retail. This title is noteworthy for being one of the collection's only 2-disc sets, meant to accommodate its length and raising the list price $7.

The Murder of Mary Phagan has some interesting cover art, apparently newly created for this DVD debut. It gives the factual film a bit of an inappropriate fantastic air, with Peter Gallagher looking like a cross between Doctor Octopus and Raiders of the Lost Ark's Nazi Gestapo Arnold Toht. Despite barely featuring in Part 1, Jack Lemmon takes front and center as he does in his Emmy-nominated Part II performance, with his exclusive billing standing nearly as tall as the title itself. Unquestionably the most accomplished cast member here, Lemmon deserves credit (along with Dooley) for making the series' second act every bit as compelling as the first.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Utilizing standard single-layer DVD-Rs (the first of which isn't even filled to capacity), The Murder of Mary Phagan is more compressed than it needs to be. Still, it looks rather good. Even if you didn't notice the 1.33:1 television aspect ratio, you wouldn't mistake this for a feature film on account of the modest quality. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with the presentation, which is marred by very few imperfections. I would say it certainly looks better than a brand new VHS and you won't need to worry about this disc degrading.

Or will you? People say that DVD-Rs aren't as reliable as standard factory-pressed discs and I have enough experience with self-burned discs to believe that. But I haven't had any problems with the handful of made-to-order discs I've gone through once for reviews. Until here, when Disc 2 had some playback issues between the 12-minute and 30-minute marks. The disc would stall and then possibly skip ahead anywhere from 5 seconds to 1 minute, at which point I'd be able to rewind and see some of the skipped bits missed without trouble. Still, these were repeatable troubles and frustrating ones at that. They were not unlike my trials with unclean library-rented DVDs, except without any oils or fingerprints from previous borrowers to explain it. And my players are just a few months old, so even heavy use can't put the blame on them.

His presidential campaigns may have failed, but publisher Thomas Watson (Robert Prosky) wields much power as he pushes for Leo M. Frank to be punished. Though it doesn't look like rain, Governor Slaton (Jack Lemmon) checks out Mary Phagan's umbrella, while his speechwriter/assistant (Dylan Baker) looks on.

Fortunately, after around the 40-minute mark of the second disc, we are in the clear and nothing else like that occurred again. Your mileage could definitely vary, but the trouble does trigger concerns for me, knowing that a bad disc isn't as quickly or painlessly replaced as it might be from a brick & mortar store. I should mention that this is the third MGM made-to-order release I have reviewed in the past few days and the first with trouble. That's two out of three problem free and, as Meat Loaf and Jack Nicholson said, that ain't bad.

The Dolby Stereo soundtrack ain't at all bad either. The mix doesn't shatter the mold for late-'80s primetime programming, but it is clear and has some range and depth, plus a serviceable score by David Lean composer Maurice Jarre. Frustratingly but standardly, neither subtitles nor closed captions are offered. I would think that the captioning especially would be easy to locate and convert.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Not a single bonus feature is found here. That isn't surprising, since other Limited Edition Collection DVDs typically carry no more than a trailer, which as a TV movie, this wouldn't readily have. And though a variety of TV ads must have been made and would have served a similar purpose here, I'm sure NBC wasn't about to cull through their archives and that MGM wasn't about to ask them to.

As basic a menu as there can be, each disc's predominantly black screen displays the cover art and gives you just one option: "Play Movie." Though it claims chapter stops are hastily placed at every ten minutes, they are in fact fittingly anchored to commercial fadeouts (which were spread more than ten minutes apart back in '88), but you're on your own for scene selection.

The cover art is of a slightly lower caliber than standard releases, particularly the plain-looking back (which overstates the puzzling runtime by 24 minutes). The standard black keepcase holds Disc 1 on a swinging tray and both discs feature primitive labels that narrowly avoid amateur classification with printed FBI anti-piracy warnings.

John Slaton (Jack Lemmon) has to think about his entire life before he runs for U.S. Senate. Interesting... Jim Conley (Charles S. Dutton) gets a little bit sweaty down in the basement where Mary Phagan's dead body was found.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

After two duds, I'm glad that I found an above average production debuting in MGM's Limited Edition Collection.
The Murder of Mary Phagan is a quality legal drama that is only obscure because it is a miniseries. It holds up remarkably well as a fascinating slice of American history that I didn't know and now won't ever forget.

I almost recommend this disc. The picture and sound are quite alright, the lack of extras isn't remotely surprising, and even the skipped standard touches like scene selections and subtitles aren't too hard to forgive. But I am concerned with the annoying Disc 2 playback issues I had. It makes sense that you'd be more likely to get a bad disc on a made-to-order title than a traditionally manufactured one. Ideally, though, there would be no possibility for problems on a $27 set.

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Reviewed May 6, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1988 Orion Television and 2011 MGM and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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