Town on Trial

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Town on Trial
"Town on Trial".jpg
UK quad format poster
Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Ken Hughes
Robert Westerby
Produced by Maxwell Setton
Starring John Mills
Charles Coburn
Barbara Bates
Derek Farr
Alec McCowen
Cinematography Basil Emmott
Edited by Max Benedict
Music by Tristram Cary
Marksman Films [1]
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 22 January 1957 (1957-01-22)(UK)
  • August 1957 (1957-08)(US)
Running time
96 mins [2]
CountryUnited Kingdom

Town on Trial is a 1957 British mystery film directed by John Guillermin and starring John Mills, Charles Coburn, Barbara Bates and Derek Farr. [3] A whole town comes under suspicion when two grisly murders are carried out—particularly members of the local sports club.



While playing tennis at a posh club in a town near London called Oakley Park, young and flirty Molly Stevens attracts considerable interest. The men ogle her and the women detest her. She is later found dead, strangled with a stocking. The local police chief requests the help of Scotland Yard, so Detective Superintendent Mike Halloran is sent to investigate. The locals, however, resent having an outsider poking into their affairs.

A book of love poems, including an inscription from a Peter Crowley, is found in the victim's flat. There is also a photo of a group of men together with Molly and Fiona Dixon, a young woman from the prominent Dixon family. Her father, although shocked to learn that his daughter knew the "trashy" Molly, will not let Halloran question her.

Halloran eventually learns that Molly left Peter Crowley for a married man, Mark Roper, who is the club's secretary. Roper denies any involvement, and also claims that he was giving nurse Elizabeth Fenner a lift to her hospital at the time of the murder.

The coroner reveals Molly was two months pregnant. Dr. John Fenner, the local Canadian expat physician who certified the death, is asked by Halloran why he neglected to report that fact. Fenner claims he was trying to avoid a scandal for Roper and the club.

Elizabeth turns out to be the doctor's niece and also a Canadian expat. She confirms that Roper gave her a lift, but this later turns out to be a lie - a result of her attempts to protect the reputation of her uncle, who left his practice in Toronto after a misdiagnosis led to a patient's death. This is something the locals are unaware of, but Roper knows and is using this secret to blackmail the doctor.

Roper, always bragging about his wartime heroics as a RAF fighter pilot who achieved the rank of Wing Commander, is revealed by Halloran to have been nothing but a lowly ground crew member, who was dishonourably discharged after theft and is currently heavily in debt. The club demands Roper's resignation. He turns up at a party, gets drunk and starts a fight. Leaving the party and going for a walk, Fiona is ambushed and strangled to death. Her body is placed in the boot of Dr. Fenner's car.

Halloran finds out that Peter Crowley has been treated for schizophrenia. Peter flees to a church, climbs to the top of the steeple and threats to jump. Halloran ascends the steeple to prevent the suicide, risking his own life in the process, and manages to convince Peter not to kill himself. A fire brigade turntable ladder rescues the two just as they are about to fall.

Main cast


The film was based on an original script by Robert Westerby called The Nylon Web. In May 1956 it was announced the film would be a co-production between Marksman (Maxwell Setton's company) and Todon (a company owned by Donna Reed and her husband). John Guillermin would direct. [4]

In July it was reported that Michael Rennie would star. [5] However the lead roles went to John Mills and Charles Coburn. Filming began 8 August 1956. [6] That month the title was changed to Town on Trial. [7]

Ella Raines was to play a key role, but had to drop out because her mother fell ill. [8] She was replaced by Barbara Bates, then under contract to the Rank Organisation. [9]

Critical reception

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "Despite sharp and efficient handling and a skilful choice of locations, this is a fundamentally artificial murder mystery with a predictable dénouement. Episodes designed to explain the reasons for Halloran's bullying tactics appear merely otiose and slacken the film's tempo considerably. John Mills, in an otherwise competent cast, seems ill at ease as the ruthless Scotland Yard superintendent. Town on Trial, though, has more drive than most thrillers of its type, even if this is mainly rather spurious and superficial." [10]

The Los Angeles Times said Guillermin "directs this picture at a furious pace." [11]

According to the BFI, "Detractors have too often accused Guillermin of being merely a journeyman, lacking any real style of his own. The defence would do worse than to offer Town on Trial as its Exhibit A, drawing particular attention to its breathtaking PoV shot of the killer stalking a second victim that anticipates the camera gymnastics of Dario Argento." [1]

A profile on John Guillermin called the film "a police procedural in which the lead investigator, in true Guillermin fashion, tears a community to pieces to expose every last lie. Imagine an English Mike Hammer, finding corruption wherever he goes, but too serious and proper to mix it up with the dames and too civic-minded to go ahead and torch the whole town." [12]

Ken Hughes wrote the script. Filmink said "men driven by lust was a recurring theme of Hughes movies". [13] A piece in the same magazine on Guillermin called the film "a little gem, a good, tough British crime film with no cosiness, a lot of pace, plenty of flourishes and energy in the direction." [14]

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  1. 1 2 BFI: Town on Trial Linked 2015-03-01
  2. BBFC: Town of Trial Linked 2015-03-01
  3. "Town on Trial". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 7 April 2024.
  4. Drama: 'Kings Go Forth' Urged Along by Ross; 'Nylon Web' Owen-Reed Film Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 26 May 1956: A7
  5. 'Walk With the Devil' Moving Right Along Los Angeles Times 24 July 1956: 17.
  6. Drama: Mills, Coburn Opposed as Stars; Champion Jet Flyer's Story Slated Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times7 Aug 1956: 27.
  7. U.-I. TO FILM LIFE OF FASTEST PILOT: New York Times 7 Aug 1956: 19.
  8. Angeli, Newman May Be Reteamed; Japanese Boy Gets Stellar Role Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]13 Aug 1956: B9.
  9. Hugo Haas to Produce 'Little Miracles;' Lance Fuller 'Voodoo' Star Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 22 Aug 1956: C9.
  10. "Town on Trial". The Monthly Film Bulletin . 24 (276): 35. 1 January 1957 via ProQuest.
  11. Town on Trial' Notably Acted Murder Mystery G M W. Los Angeles Times 4 Oct 1957: A8.
  12. Savage Spectacles Möller, Olaf. Film Comment; New York Vol. 50, Iss. 1, (Jan/Feb 2014): 20-21.
  13. Vagg, Stephen (14 November 2020). "Ken Hughes Forgotten Auteur". Filmink.
  14. Vagg, Stephen (17 November 2020). "John Guillermin: Action Man". Filmink.