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Peter Medak directed this Film from a very biased point of view. He presents one side of an opinion – in this case sympathetic to Derek Bentley though exact events are not certain. At nine am on the morning of the 28th January 1953 Derek William Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison London, as an accomplice to a murder which was committed by a friend in the course of a robbery attempt, it created a cause cï¿½lï¿½bre leading to a 45 year long and ultimately successful campaign to win him a posthumous pardon. The Trial took place before Lord Chief of Justice for England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey London. Medak gains a lot of sympathy for Derek by showing his misfortune throughout.
The beginning of the film indicates a very somber atmosphere. Immediately after the credits we encounter a Blitz scene with Derek buried under the rubble of an old building during the bombing. As an audience you soon realize that he has suffered a physical, mental and emotional trauma which has left him with brain damage.
In the next scene Derek is four years older causing mischief vandalizing a shed with a group of other boys. The boys, however, are rumbled and managed to escape but Derek gets caught and, put in a difficult situation, experiences an epileptic fit.
We fast forward again a few years, the camera moves down a corridor towards Derek sitting looking concerned outside the Head’s office of the Kingswood Approved School he had been admitted to. The decision is made that he is to be released partially because of his low level intelligence, that of an eleven year old. The scene foreshadows what happens later; from what is said you get a real sense that the institutions of society are much more powerful than the individual – in this case, Derek. Justice is firmly against him, although it is apparent there is nothing criminal about him.
Ashamed of what happened, Derek becomes a recluse and does not leave the house. Within his own world he feels comfortable but as soon as he leaves the he begins to show his vulnerability. We then come across Chris Craig for the first time as he sees Derek from the street corner he is completely over dressed and it is evident he is a confident character, a tilting shot upwards signifies this.
There is a strong contrast between the two: Chris, 16, tries to emulate and pretend to be a gangster with a strong American influence around the time of Al Capone and Prohibition. Derek who had very little contact with the outside world and has only just discovered a love of music. Their style and behavior differ as well. Despite Chris’ small stature he constantly manipulates people around him and because Derek naï¿½ve, he is easily persuaded. The scene in which the two meet is set beside the train line. The sound of a train approaching almost builds tension and gives you a sense of resounding force Derek is up against leaving you asking, what events will follow?
Derek soon becomes more acquainted with Chris and begins to feel a sense of belonging. From being with Chris’s clique he soon makes the connection that to get what he wants he needs money.
It is rather easy to forget Chris’s age. In the next scene he is a classroom at school exchanging various objects for weapons. Because the film is set in a post second world war period, there were a lot of guns around which made their way into the hands of the youngsters. It becomes clear Chris actually uses the guns whereas the others in his class of his age do not. This is vital to the Tamworth road scene. As their teacher enters there is a high angle shot looking over the class, showing the students lack of power (authority).
Derek is physically large and appears strong but is of a gentle nature.
Derek becomes more and more involved in the gang and is given a blue jacket by Niven Chris’s brother who, noticing his physically large stature, perhaps had an intention of using him. This jacket is however a light blue a different colour to the black they were wearing so this does suggest he is still an outsider.
When Derek returns home, his fathers suspicions are raised about his whereabouts. Through questioning it is obvious he is not any good at lying nor does he act well under pressure, he has to rely on his sister to help him.
Reluctantly, Derek has to under-take a physical test so he can be excused from national service, due to his epilepsy, as an audience you feel sorry for Derek as they didn’t believe him. Despite his appearance Derek is shown in an extreme close up as vulnerable, unable to stand up for himself.
Derek is excused from service and is deemed subnormal. At this stage Derek’s self-worth is low and his parents talking about him makes matters worse.
Following this we see Chris’s brother struggling in a feud with the police. After seeing his brother trying to shoot his way out of arrest it’s as if it is no longer a game for Chris and he is hardened by the episode as his brother is sentenced to twelve years imprisonment. His right hand man however is not charged which leads you to think Derek’s fate would be the same in just such an occurrence.
Bentley does try to resist the lure of the gang but is drawn back, as he goes to see Chris there is a establishing shot on Derek to show empowerment on his part (he had obtained the key to the butcher where he had been humiliated a number of times). At this point Chris appears at his weakest. We are reminded of his adolescence wearing his PJ’swith toy cars and a gun on his bedside table.
Derek and the gang join forces once again; the camera lingers on Derek signifying that is not entirely sure what he is up against, whereas the camera looks up at Chris trying to exert his power. By this point Derek is in a black coat like the others, perhaps to suggest he is no longer an outsider. Their plan to rob the butchers doesn’t materialize so Chris and Derek attempt to break into Barlow and Parker (confectionary wholesale and manufacturer warehouse) via the roof. The camera looks down on Derek once again and up at Chris as he shouts from above.
Even at this point the two are messing around. In this scene the action is mainly focused on Chris as he fires a revolver aimlessly into the air as the police arrive and detective Sergeant Fairfax reaches the lift-housing. In a pivotal part of the film Derek is placed under arrest but breaks free and shouts “Let him have it Chris!” which can be perceived in different ways but resulted in Derek’s conviction as he was said to have mentally aided murder. Derek stands up to Chris but to no prevail. The camera looks down on Chris as he exhausts his ammunition, he is consequently left powerless. Cornered, Chris jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.
The next episode is the funeral of the policemen shot dead, Constable Sidney Miles, in the incident. The Home Secretary of the time David Maxwell Fyfe is shown to say to the family of the officer: “Justice will be done” in a vengeful tone.
We quickly move to the trial, as viewers we are witnesses and not at all impartial. There is a whole establishing shot of the court room with the two accused looking small and insignificant in the middle of shot.
The court system was mainly run and controlled by the higher classes but the judge is not necessarily shown through camera angles or positioning as the greatest power in the room, under questioning Chris is almost in control of the courtroom despite the enormous charges and the severity he still manages to cast doubt over the courtroom elders, manipulating. You continue to feel sympathy for Derek with a defense that seems to get weaker throughout even though he is as much of a victim.
It is not at all surprising that Derek is caught by the prosecution under questioning and the trial begins to feel unfair towards Derek. The fact that Derek had a knuckle duster and on him used as evidence builds sympathy again as none of which were his but given to him by Chris. As tension builds, through sound effects and an extreme close up we get a strong insight into his mental anguish as he struggles with his words. The camera pans around the room from Derek’s position with his family solidly there in the forefront of the picture. The camera rests on Derek’s father the longest as he still looks towards him more concerned about his thoughts and opinion even though the jury clearly depict their negative impressions.
The verdict is passed by the jury with a recommendation of mercy, there is a low angle shot of Derek as he is taken down. He appears disorientated and dizzy after the devastating sentence; the picture gets darker as he is put in detention reflecting the situation. Chris is presented as a young boy as they both sit behind bars. After reading the home office psychiatric reports the Home Secretary refuses to request clemency from the Queen. This does make the legal system seen fallible, you feel increasing sympathy for Derek as we find out that the sentence is rarely carried out in this situation and especially since it was contreary to public opinion. There was talk that the trial was manipulated to send the public a message that of murder especially of a cop is unacceptable a point made clear by Peter Medak.
The family only finds out the news in a slightly cruel way through a journalist. In the last meeting between Derek and his family the camera focuses on Derek at eye level. Once again he displays his mental age in saying will it hurt there is a strong sense of poignancy about it.
Derek’s father goes to Parliament to appeal with a petition however they were not allowed to discuss Bentley’s sentence until it had been carried out. In a bird’s eye view shot we find Derek’s farther pacing up and down in a large space awaiting the MP’s decision. By this point nothing can be done.
The picture fades to the next scene where one of the guards is scribing for Derek in a letter, as he attempts to sign the letter we recognize he is left handed considered clumsy at the time and different, considering he is shown as very right sided at the beginning of the film. Derek’s is shown to be understandably emotional but shows maturity, he had heart but not the judgment. There is a long establishing shot of Bentley’s street signifying morning which in tern is quite and peaceful.
In the Penultimate scene the camera tracks down the stairs of the house into the living room with the clock on the mantelpiece getting louder and louder as it nears nine o’clock the time of execution. The speed in which it takes place is quite dramatic! along with it is a sense of finality.
The story is controversial, because Medak has chosen a topic which had been familiar with the public not so long ago. The end sequence suggests that justice is a blunt instrument and the film in its entirety raises the question of capital punishment the incorrect decisions, the dangers and whether it should be abolished.