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Viewer Guide: Inherit the Wind and A Most Wanted Man

April 22, 2021 | Richard Peña


Inherit the Wind (1960)

This week’s classic is Inherit the Wind, the 1960 courtroom drama directed by Stanley Kramer.

Adapted from the long-running hit Broadway play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925, dramatizing the clash between intellectual freedom and religious fundamentalism in the trial of a high school teacher jailed for lecturing his class on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March star as Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, thinly veiled depictions of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the two actual legal lions—and former friends—who faced off in the Scopes case. Dick York co-stars as Bertram Cates, the young teacher modeled on John Scopes who finds himself arrested in front of his class as soon as he dares to assert that mankind evolved from the first “wiggly protozoa in the sea.” When three-time presidential candidate and biblical scholar Brady makes a surprise offer to prosecute the case, local leaders are delighted by his high profile participation—for both religious and economic reasons. Surveying the carnival-like atmosphere celebrating Brady’s arrival is sardonic newspaper reporter E.K. Hornbeck, the cinematic stand-in for the real-life Scopes trial journalist H.L. Mencken, portrayed by Gene Kelly in a rare strictly dramatic role. But when Hornbeck announces that his paper the Baltimore Herald has engaged the famously agnostic Henry Drummond to defend the young high school teacher, the stage is set for an epic battle of philosophies that continues to reverberate today.

Premiering on Broadway in 1955, Inherit the Wind offered a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, partly to sidestep lawsuits from surviving participants, but also because playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were more interested in offering the story as a parable for McCarthyism. In fact, producer-director Stanley Kramer had even hired blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young to adapt the film script under the pseudonym of Nathan E. Douglas. Both the play and film deviate from historical record in a number of areas, including the addition of entirely fictional characters like Reverend Brown and his daughter Rachel, as well as incidents like Brady’s dramatic courtroom collapse, although it is true that William Jennings Bryan died just five days after the end of the Scopes trial. Furthermore, John Scopes was never arrested and had in fact volunteered to be tried in court in a freedom of speech test case orchestrated by the ACLU. Spencer Tracy and Frederic March were longtime admirers of each other’s careers, but also relished the acting competition the screenplay provided them. Despite a hostile reaction in some southern states, Inherit the Wind still picked up four Academy Award nominations for adapted screenplay, cinematography and editing, along with a Best Actor nod for Spencer Tracy.


A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Tonight’s indie is A Most Wanted Man, a 2014 spy thriller adapted from John le Carré’s 2008 novel and directed by Anton Corbijn.

In his final starring film role, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays as Gunther Bachmann, the head of a special secret intelligence division in Hamburg, Germany. With the German port city’s lingering notoriety as the home base for 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, sensitivities remain high, and competing government agencies are determined to crush any future acts of international terrorism. In the midst of investigating a Muslim philanthropist suspected of ties to Islamic militants, Gunther and his team quickly take notice when an alleged Chechen jihadist named Issa Karpov appears on their surveillance networks. Learning of Karpov’s efforts to contact a banker named Thomas Brue, played by Willem Dafoe, Gunther strikes a tentative bargain with his hardline security bosses to allow Karpov to remain free in order to follow his trail to potentially bigger things. Also falling under Gunther’s observation is Anabel Richter, an idealistic immigration lawyer, played by Rachel McAdams, who becomes a go-between for Karpov and Brue. But when Robin Wright appears on the scene as Martha Sullivan—an “observer” from the U.S. Embassy—Gunther remembers his own high price for making the world a safer place, a price he never wants to pay again.

A veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6 A Most Wanted Man’s author David Cornwell achieved international fame as John le Carré, adopting his pen name due to the MI6 prohibition against staff publishing under the real names. As one of the agents allegedly exposed by the notorious British spy Kim Philby in 1964, le Carré left Foreign Office service to devote himself full-time to writing, with his prolific output of novels providing ample material for film and television, including The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People and The Little Drummer Girl. A Most Wanted Man marked the first collaboration of le Carré with his sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell as producers, who went on to produce adaptations of le Carré’s The Night Manager and Our Kind of Traitor and a new miniseries adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl in 2018. While it requires close watching, you can spot le Carré in a cameo appearance in the scene where Gunther breaks up the barroom fight. Sadly, the film marked the final leading role of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose at the untimely age of 46, just two weeks after the film’s premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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