DVD Review: The Murder of Mary Phagan (TV 1988)

Miniseries haven’t decreased in popularity, but like most television these days, they’re designed for binge-watching. However, Via Vision has recently unearthed a traditional classic two-parter, The Murder of Mary Phagan, available now on DVD for the very first time in Australia.

Based on a true story, Leo Frank (Peter Gallagher) a factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913 is accused, tried, and convicted of the murder of one of his young female employees, 13-year-sold Mary Phagan. Sentenced to death by hanging, the events that follow expose an ugly mob mentality and a miscarriage of justice with state Governor, John Slaton (Jack Lemmon) as the unintentional catalyst during his final days in office.

While already knowing the plot points going in, I wasn’t expecting how drawn out the story would be over the course of the two 110-minutes parts, but at no point does the action drag or feel boring. The time’s spent wisely, from establishing the Southern setting, which on the surface appears proud and lively, to growing the characters. Peter Gallagher as Frank is the perfect gentleman, giving a very restrained and dignified performance, but he’s not portrayed as someone who couldn’t have possibly done it. Writers Jeffry Lane and George Stevens Jr. are keenly aware the case is technically unsolved, so there are very subtle instances that cast an ounce of doubt over the viewers as for our lead’s guilt.

As for his arrest and subsequent trial, it’s both a sensational and disgusting display of prejudice as it’s revealed that Frank is not only a Northerner from New York but a man of the Jewish faith, sore points for the undercurrent of seething racism and an inferiority complex that stems from the South having lost the Civil War. Having said that, state prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, is played furiously by Richard Jordan who makes an otherwise frustrating trial appear very entertaining for the viewer.

Jack Lemmon is mostly unseen during the first half, but still holds presence as a respected leader who we quickly realise is just a cog in the machinery of state politics, ran by money and influence. His character comes to fruition during part two when presented with actual evidence that’s in favour of Frank’s claim of innocence and like any good murder mystery, it’s thrilling to see the pieces fall into place and to witness Dorsey’s case dissolve before his eyes.

Kevin Spacey (remember him?) appears in a featured supporting role as a journalist and agitator who eventually subscribes to finding the truth; and there’s William H. Macy as an unruly local, Cynthia Nixon as Mary Phagan’s close friend and Robert Prosky as the main supporting actor political mover and shaker Tom Watson; arguably the main villain of the piece.


Sourced from it’s 2011 DVD counterpart in the U.S. under MGM, the relatively low-res quality is typical of many TV mini-series that found their way to DVD from the 2010s onwards. However, with the enhancement abilities of modem playback devices and televisions, The Murder of Mary Phagan comes up alright with some decent sharpness in some small measure, making up for the pale colours. Presented in 4:3 and NTSC formatted, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track carries solid volume, but I did notice that the audio drops for a couple of seconds on two occasions; one during a line of dialogue which was slightly annoying. Via Vision likely isn’t to blame as it seems to be a fault with the master they acquired.

If you’re unfamiliar with this tale of true crime and plan on purchasing the DVD, don’t read the back as you’ll be met with a blunt spoiler. Admittedly, though, it does serve as a good hook for potential viewers.

(TV 1988, director: William Hale)



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