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Nick Nolte Plays Against Type In 1974’s ‘Death Sentence’

But you should probably give this TV movie a watch anyway.
Death Sentence Tv Header
By  · Published on March 22nd, 2020

Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.

This week’s slice of ’70s fright fare swaps traditional scares for a drama that unfolds in the courtroom, but horror fans will appreciate the murder and thriller elements all the same. Viewers who insist on being surprised by mysteries might have some issues with this one, though.

Where: ABC
When: October 2, 1974

If you stumble upon a copy of 1974’s Death Sentence these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film stars a young Nick Nolte in a prominent role. His grizzled good looks are all over the promotional images, and for a certain kind of movie enthusiast, that’s all it takes to make your nipples perk up. However, despite being the face of Death Sentence, Nolte is barely in the movie. That said, despite the lack of Nolte, Death Sentence is still an entertaining and passable little thriller.

Now, before I spoil the movie for you, just know that every synopsis you’ll read about it — including the official one on IMDB — does the same. If you watch the trailer, you’ll know the twist right away. In fact, what would be a big reveal in most other movies is given away in Death Sentence’s opening few minutes. Death Sentence has no interest in surprising viewers, but if you’d like to enter the movie not knowing anything about who the killer is, stop reading this piece now, and bookmark it for later.

Based on the novel After the Trial by Eric Roman, Death Sentence stars Cloris Leachman as a woman who gets summoned for jury duty during a murder trial. The accused is an innocent man (played by Nolte) who is being tried for killing his wife, but it turns out that she was also seeing someone else in secret, and she was pregnant with his stillborn baby. Can you guess who the killer is yet?

But let’s talk about Susan for a second. Her husband, Don (Laurence Huckinbill), doesn’t want her assisting the trial. They have plans for a romantic getaway, so he encourages her to tell the court that she’s prejudiced. However, Susan is honest, and she ends up revealing that she’s really a moderate liberal (but not the “bleeding heart” or “compassionate” kind) who believes in fact-checking. She can’t get out of the situation after that confession, much to her husband’s dismay… because he’s the killer.

As the trial progresses, and Susan starts piecing the facts together, it doesn’t take long before the clues point her towards the real culprit. Initially she thinks that the similarities with her husband that are revealed are purely coincidental, until the truth confirms that he’s a murderer and a no-good cheating bastard as well.

Death Sentence

There’s no denying that Death Sentence would be a better movie if the opening scene was completely cut and the identity of the real killer was kept secret for longer. The movie isn’t exactly subtle with its exposition in general, so it wouldn’t take much thinking to figure it all out anyway. But keeping the reveal a bit closer to the vest would have made for a more suspenseful experience, but it’s too late to go back and tell director E.W. Swackhamer and writer John Neufeld to make a better movie, isn’t it?

Still, despite the lack of surprises, Death Sentence is a perfectly fine courtroom drama that boasts some effective thriller beats. The characters who give evidence during the trial — including a grieving mother and a fuck boy — are entertaining in a soap opera sort of way, and the performances are strong across the board. Furthermore, Huckinbill is excellent as the manipulative husband, and when the proverbial poop eventually hits the fun, he makes for an imposing and intimidating villain. The movie’s thunderous climax, complete with lightning sound effects and all, lets him chew scenery in a way that would make Nic Cage proud, and his acting is a thing of manic beauty.

Nolte is also great in his small role, and his character is unlike the macho men he’s used to playing. Here, he’s soft spoken and gentle, even though his dead wife’s mother claims that his character is an abusive drunk who shoved his spouse down the stairs and killed their baby. Of course, Nolte is no stranger to a diverse range of roles, but this movie brings out a vulnerable side to the actor that fans of his action fare might not be used to seeing.

Swackhamer’s direction is tight and ensures that the movie moves along at a steady pace, consistently delivering big revelations and some suspenseful moments. While those revelations won’t blow your mind, if you’re the type of person who enjoys gossip about people having affairs and trying to cover up pregnancies from their elderly parents, Death Sentence will bring you some entertainment.

All in all, Death Sentence doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, but it’s short, sweet, and engaging thriller all the same. If you’re in the mood for a competently directed soap opera that keeps your attention and doesn’t require much thinking, you can do a lot worse than seeking out this forgotten ‘70s television movie.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.