The series, whose four films look into some thorny legal and moral questions, is the brainchild of Daniel Creson of the University of Texas Health Science Center of Houston. Each screening will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by local medical, law and psychiatric experts.
Talk will center around civil liberties and bigotry after a screening of the post-World War II interracial romance Snow Falling on Cedars, and around the insanity defense after the 1931 German classic M, starring Peter Lorre as a compulsive child molester. Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb teen murder case, deals with juveniles being tried as adults. And the Sean Penn-Susan Sarandon death-row drama Dead Man Walking tackles the death penalty.
The basic question posed by this series: When the law's black-and-white reductivism butts up against the grayish realm of mental health, is there any way to balance the legitimate concerns and needs of each side? "This has been a problem since the very beginning of case law and mental health paradigms," says Creson.
Take Lorre's portrayal of the cinema's first serial killer in M. Director Fritz Lang's film brings the audience into uncomfortable intimacy with the killer's mad thoughts. His crimes are violent and unforgivable, but he claims not to remember committing them. Can he be held accountable? Should he? He falls back on that same legal defense used by everyone from Andrea Yates to Robert Durst.
"The insanity defense is rarely used in Texas, because it almost always fails," says Creson. "That fact speaks for itself." No wonder the Joker is always tried in Gotham City rather than Houston.