TV Terror Guide: Death Sentence (1974)
Air Date: Oct. 2, 1974 (ABC)
Production Companies: Spelling-Goldberg Productions
Running Time: 74 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: John Neufeld
From the novel After the Trial by Eric Roman
Directed by: E.W. Swackhamer
Cast: Cloris Leachman, Laurence Luckinbill, Nick Nolte, Alan Oppenheimer, William Schallert
Rating: 7 vintage televisions (out of 10)
Talk about a coincidence! Susan Davis (Cloris Leachman) is chosen for the jury in a murder trial in which her husband is the real killer. This isn’t a spoiler, the revelation comes early… for us, that is. The fun of the Death Sentence (1974) is in Leachman’s performance as Susan gradually becomes suspicious of her husband, Don (Laurence Luckinbill), and eventually confronts him.
The casting is fun all the way around. The defendant accused of killing his wife, John Healey, is played by Nick Nolte. He doesn’t do much other than hang his head sadly during testimony, but it’s always a treat to see early in his career an actor destined for greater things. His defense builds a solid case that there was another man and presents a motive of covering up an unexpected pregnancy.
Also in the cast are two familiar faces, playing off each other as the prosecutor and defender. Alan Oppenheimer plays the former, Lubell, and William Schallert plays the latter, Tanner. In my mind, it’s Rudy Wells from a couple The Six Million Dollar Man TV movies vs. Carson Drew from The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.
The trial is compelling to watch even without the twist. Sure, it’s full of shocks and revelations that we’ve seen many times in other courtroom dramas during the last 40+ years. When they’re well crafted, as they are here by writer John Neufield and director E.W. Swackhamer, though, you can never get enough of them.
Before you know it, Susan has put two and two together, and the personality we’ve seen for an hour makes it totally believable that she would confront her husband with what she’s learned instead of simply calling the police. This sets up a brief, but suspenseful climax that shows the consequences.
I don’t have much else to say about Death Sentence. It’s a far-fetched concept that seems perfectly plausible and is told in an exciting way. It’s bolstered by great casting and performances. 74 minutes speeds along; it didn’t seem like it was time for the finale when it arrived. It accomplishes everything I’d want in a 1970s TV movie.
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