Death in Canaan (1978)
The Interrogation of Peter Reilly
When Peter Reilly (Paul Clemens) returns home from band practice to find his mother blooded and dying he calls for help. But as the police start to investigate they put the focus of their investigation on Peter himself despite evidence showing that he couldn't have done it. Intensive, psychological questioning for many hours leads to Peter eventually becoming brain washed under the intensity and saying he did it leading to a judge sentencing him to prison for the murder of his own mother. But two years down the line Peter's case is still not over as with the support of the community and some new people in the justice system they set about raising enough money to appeal David's sentence and bring to light the malpractice of the police in their determination to bring charges against Peter and ignoring evidence.
"Death in Canaan" is another one of those true story movies and another one which deals with the failings of the police and a miscarriage of justice, a topic which I have to say has been explored quite a few times over the years in various TV movies. But "Death in Canaan" is a product of the 70s and anyone who knows their TV movies know that there is a distinct difference between the quality of TV movies in the 70s and those made now with those 70s TV movies generally being superior.
So is "Death in Canaan" superior? Quite simply it is and that starts for me with the acting as there are various familiar faces such as Tom Atkins, Brian Dennehy, Conchata Ferrell and Stefanie Powers but unlike modern TV movies "Death in Canaan" is not about the actors but the characters and every actor plays their character in a solid fashion, be it Atkins as a cold cop who is hell bent on nailing Peter for the crime or Conchata as the concerned friend of the family. But it is Paul Clemens as Peter Reilly who impresses as he nails it when it comes to the teenager thrown in at the deep end as the police set about playing head games and convincing him that he is guilty of a crime he didn't commit.
But it isn't just the acting and "Death in Canaan" is one of those movies which respects the audience enough to let them realise things for themselves. To give you an example Peter readily agrees to a lie detector test but we see the operator come in and rather than getting down to business sits chatting to Peter trying to gain Peter's confidence before then getting into his head and making Peter uneasy so that he will fail the test, feeding him a version of what happened which in Peter's state plays with his mind. That scene is so effective in showing the manipulative way the police went about breaking Peter down and getting him to say what they wanted but is just one scene in a movie with lots of these powerful scenes.
What we also have in "Death in Canaan" is the character of Joan Barthel, played by a restrained Stefanie Powers, who as a writer provides us as the lead through the movie. Through the smart writing we learn about the case, the failings of the system and the illegality of the way the police went about their business whilst also highlighting the community spirit when it came to trying to help Peter get his sentence over turned.
What this all boils down to is that "Death in Canaan" is an effective dramatization of a true story with good performances and good direction which allow the power of the story to be the star of the movie rather than the actors.
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