Death Row Becomes Them: Capital-punishment performances

By David Everitt
Updated November 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

A Place in the Sun

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On-screen death sentences have breathed life into many an actor’s career. True, some viewers might not believe the case Sharon Stone makes for herself as a gritty convict in Last Dance. But death row theatrics have often swung juries of reviewers and award presenters. Here’s a video renter’s road map to some of the most dramatic last miles traversed on screen.

The convicted: James Cagney as a lovably cocky gangster.
The crime: Killing a treacherous lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) and shooting it out with the coppers.
Career injection: Earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Take on capital punishment: As a chance for Cagney to teach the Dead End Kids a life lesson, by pretending to be scared of the electric chair, thus showing budding delinquents that gangsters aren’t really so tough. A-

A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951, Paramount)
The convicted: Montgomery Clift as a social-climbing factory worker.
The crime: Allowing his pregnant girlfriend (Shelley Winters) to drown.
Career injection: Garnered him his second Oscar nomination.
Take on capital punishment: As in Theodore Dreiser’s novel, it’s an American tragedy — retribution for Clift’s flawed character. A

The convicted: Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham, real-life murderer or framed victim, depending on who is testifying.
The crime: The brutal 1953 robbery-murder of an elderly woman, which, according to the film, Graham did not commit.
Career injection: Won her an Oscar as Best Actress, after four previous nominations.
Take on capital punishment: As the horrifying murder of an innocent woman. B+

IN COLD BLOOD (1967, Columbia TriStar)
The convicted: Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as real-life murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, respectively.
The crime: The 1959 massacre of a rural Kansas family, as depicted in the Truman Capote best-seller.
Career injection: Put Blake on the fast track (until his film career derailed in the ’70s); jump-started Wilson’s short-lived career as a leading man (before he became a supporting player).
Take on capital punishment: As the chilling, inevitable conclusion to a grim story. A-

THE DETECTIVE (1968, FoxVideo)
The convicted: Tony Musante as an innocent suspect railroaded by detective Frank Sinatra (playing, believe it or not, an early incarnation of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard hero).
The crime: A gruesome homosexual-lust murder.
Career injection: Strong reviews led to bigger roles for Musante — for a while.
Take on capital punishment: As a hair-raising miscarriage of justice. C+

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