Dummy (TVM) (1979)
Director: Frank Perry
Cast: Paul Sorvino, LeVar Burton, Brian Dennehy
Synopsis: A deaf and dumb young man accused of murdering a prostitute is defended by a deaf lawyer.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Never before has a murder suspect looked – or been depicted – as angelically innocent as LeVar Burton in Dummy, a 1979 TV movie based on a true case. Burton plays Donald Lang, a lifelong deaf-mute accused of stabbing a prostitute to death in an alleyway. Unable to understand what crime he is being charged with, Lang is incapable even of using sign language to protest his innocence. He looks doomed to a life in institutions until his case is taken up by deaf lawyer Lowell Myers (Paul Sorvino), who must wage a race against time as he fights to earn Lang a fair trial before his own failing powers of speech desert him.
Perhaps almost as incredible as the fact that the story is a true one, is the fact that, having won his freedom after the prosecution withdrew its case because it was unable to locate a couple of key witnesses, Lang went on to commit an almost identical crime to the one with which he was originally charged. As a spoken coda by Sorvino attests to this, we can only assume that writer Ernest Tidyman chose to portray the angelic Lang through the eyes of his deaf champion for the duration of the film up to that point. In a way, the viewer feels as cheated as poor old Myers must have done, but the film at least put forward a strong case for the fair representation of those with disabilities who face criminal charges.
The film’s OK. It’s not as powerful as it might have been had it been given higher production values, but it’s held together by a fine performance from Sorvino, who manages to accurately capture that slightly guttural way the deaf have of speaking. The cast does actually boast a number of actors whose careers would prosper: Sorvino, of course, would later appear in Goodfellas; LeVar Burton, who had earlier appeared as Kunta Kinte in Roots would regain his hearing but lose his sight as Geordie LaForge in Star Trek; Brian Dennehy, who appears as Lang’s supportive boss, became a TVM mainstay, and Gregg Henry, fresh from his stint as Wesley Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man, would go on to provide a memorable villain of his own opposite Mel Gibson in Payback.
(Reviewed 14th April 2012)