Significant as the first appearance of Telly Savalas’ popular TV crimefighter Lt. Theo Kojack, whose last name was altered slightly once the character earned his own series a few months later, The Marcus-Nelson Murders works well as a stand-alone story about the complexities of police work. Because the narrative was extrapolated from a real-life case that informed the Supreme Court’s famous Miranda ruling, The Marcus-Nelson Murders explores the callousness with which the NYPD railroads an innocent man who makes an easy patsy for a high-profile crime. The Miranda ruling stipulated that suspects must be informed of their rights at the time of arrest, but the young man at the center of The Marcus-Nelson Murders gets arraigned on murder charges before he even realizes what’s happening. As written by the highly capable dramatist Abby Mann (an Oscar winner for 1961’s theatrical feature Judgment at Nuremberg), this adaptation of Selwyn Rabb’s book Justice in the Back Room has the flavor and toughness of Sidney Lumet’s various New York crime films, right down to the varied shadings of morality.
The story begins with a mysterious attacker invading a Manhattan apartment. Two of the women who live there are brutally murdered during the home invasion. Public attention compels the police to throw enormous manpower onto the case. Among the investigators is Kojack. He mostly lingers on the sidelines for the first half of this long film, though director Joseph Sargent periodically features domestic interludes between Kojack and his on-again/off-again lover, Ruthie (Lorraine Gary). After cops in Brooklyn arrest a simple young black man, Lewis Humes (Gene Woodbury), on an unrelated charge, they become convinced Humes was responsible for the murders. The Brooklyn cops coerce a confession with a toxic combination of charm and violence.
Kojack moves to the foreground after Humes is indicted, because the detective senses something isn’t right about the evidence and testimony incriminating Humes. What follows is the meticulous process by which Kojack and crusading lawyer Jake Weinhaus (José Ferrer) pursue the truth. Along the way, thorny issues (institutionalized racism, police procedure, unreliable eyewitness testimony) make it difficult for the heroes to see daylight, even as Humes rots in a cell.
The Marcus-Nelson Murders covers a lot of ground, so at times it feels more like a miniseries than a movie. Some supporting characters resonate, including aggressive Brooklyn prosecutor Mario Porrtello (Allen Garfield), while others get lost in the shuffle. The picture also has false notes, such as casting B-movie stalwart Marjoe Gortner as a Puerto Rican. Nonetheless, the overarching theme—how the need for justice intersects with the rights of the accused—comes through powerfully. Excepting the jaded narration he provides, Kojack is only one of several interesting elements, so it’s no surprise producers overhauled the character for his weekly series, transforming the rechristened “Theo Kojak” from a principled observer to a wisecracking rulebreaker.
The Marcus-Nelson Murders: GROOVY