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DVD Review: The Murder of Mary Phagan

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The 1988 made-for-TV miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan tells the true story of the murder of a thirteen-year-old factory girl and the conviction of her boss Leo Frank. This newly released DVD is part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection Movies on Demand, which offers viewers the chance to order certain titles, otherwise unavailable, on DVD-R. This movie comes as a two-disc set.

The Murder of Mary Phagan, which won three Emmys and was nominated for two Golden Globes, has a long list of talent behind it. The story was written by Brokeback Mountain co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry. The main cast includes Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Peter Gallagher, and Charles S. Dutton. William H. Macy and Cynthia Nixon also appear in small roles. The Murder of Mary Phagan is a story worth telling. This film follows the true story of the murder, the trial, and the eventual lynching of an innocent man. The Murder of Mary Phagan is not a whodunit murder mystery. This is a story about justice an injustice. 

In 1913 Atlanta, Georgia thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan went to pick up her paycheck from the pencil factory where she works for twelve cents an hour. It was a Saturday, it was also Confederate Memorial Day, and the factory is closed. The only employee working is Leo Frank (Gallagher) the manager of the factory. Frank is the last person to admit to seeing Mary Phagan alive. She never returns home that day and the next morning her battered body is discovered by the night watchman in the basement. A note left near the body leads the police to several suspects. One is the night watchman who discovered the body, one is Leo Frank, and another is the janitor Jim Conley (Dutton). It is Leo Frank the police decide is the killer and he is arrested and put on trial for the crime.

Though the movie is titled The Murder of Mary Phagan it is really about Leo Frank. Frank is a Jewish man from New York, and he is an outsider to the community. Though Frank adamantly proclaims his innocence there is no stopping the perception he a killer and rapist. The case of Leo Frank is an important one in history, though it is not well known. This trial was the birth place of the anti-defamation league and responsible for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the first trial in which a white man was convicted on the testimony of an African-American. These details are not the focus of the movie, but serve as a historical backdrop to the story.

The true star of the movie is Peter Gallagher. His understated performance only highlights the severity of his situation. Kevin Spacey is also a standout in this early role, though his newspaper reporter character is a bit of a cliché. Of course Jack Lemmon quite effective in a role that seems to be just in the background for much of the movie until some powerful and pivotal scenes. The cast alone makes this movie worth a look.

Though The Murder of Mary Phagan is a very well-made and engrossing movie, this DVD release is flawed. The running time of this DVD is 236 minutes, while the original broadcast was 251 minutes. The missing fifteen leaves out quite a bit of information. The first disc of the two-disc set also end rather abruptly, with the beginning of the second disc starting in a place that doesn’t quite make sense. The picture quality is very good. It is not formatted for widescreen televisions. Overall it is difficult to completely recommend this movie due to the missing scenes, but it is a very compelling story with excellent performances from the cast. It is a shame the full feature could have been released.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.