Sunday, October 02, 2016

A Mid-20th Century Scarlet Letter

"Supposing is good, but finding out is better."

Mark Twain

Haven't we all known people who were a bit too quick to jump to conclusions?

And, if we are truly being honest, aren't we just a bit prone to that ourselves?

"The Mark," which was in U.S. theaters on this day in 1961 (it debuted in West Germany a few months earlier), is an example of that. And, while I prefer to keep my politically oriented writing on another blog, I couldn't help observing, when I saw it again on TV recently, that the idea behind the story actually supports both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the issues of bias and profiling.

I think Clinton is right when she observes that there is an element of bias in every human heart. It is human nature to be suspicious of anyone who is different, and I believe that is true of even the most liberal among us. It doesn't mean one is a hater, to use the label that modern progressives seem to favor for dismissing those who disagree with them. I think it is a self–defense mechanism that has probably been in man's DNA all along.

At the same time, I realize what a difficult job enforcing law and ensuring order is. I have known some police officers in my life, and I covered the police beat when I was a reporter. Profiling is a (typically) nonviolent method for narrowing down the general pool of potential suspects in a given population. It prevents police from, say, wasting time by scrutinizing all the men in a given area when investigating a crime — even though witnesses reported seeing a man in a particular age range wearing specific clothing who was leaving the scene of a crime.

At the very least such a person is a person of interest with whom the police would want to have a conversation.

Profiling isn't exclusively about race, as some would have you believe. Now, it isn't perfect. Nothing is, but it saves time — and don't we all try to do that in all sorts of ways in our daily lives? If, for example, you work in human resources, and your company advertises an open position that draws a couple hundred applications, you're going to look for ways to quickly whittle the pool of applicants down. After all, you have other things that must be done, other deadlines that must be met. Your methods may not be entirely fair. You might even miss someone who would be perfect for the job. But it seems more efficient than painstakingly reading through every resume.

Profiling is a tool — but like most tools, it must be used with other tools to do the job.

Stuart Whitman played a convicted sex offender whose crime had been intent to commit child molestation, not the actual crime itself (maybe that was too hot to handle in 1961). I don't even recall that the crime was committed — and if it wasn't it seems to me that intent would be difficult to prove. Perhaps attempt was meant — but there are laws on the books that deal with attempts to commit crimes. Intent would be a similar but hardly interchangeable term.

Actually "The Mark" addressed so many things about modern culture that are still true more than half a century later. It told a tale of so many things that are good and bad about people in the 21st century — their choices, their fears, their loves, their hates, their prejudices. And the ultimate point of the story, I have concluded, is that people so often reach conclusions to condemn and label without knowing the facts.


He had served his sentence. After he was released from prison, he tried to build a new life for himself and seemed to be doing a good job of it. With some assistance from the prison psychiatrist (Rod Steiger), he landed a job and was excelling at it. He started a relationship with the company's secretary (Maria Schell), a widow with a young daughter.

Then he came under suspicion for molesting and beating a child.

At first there was no real problem. The police picked him up for questioning — as they routinely do when a crime has been committed. Being questioned does not mean that one is a suspect, only that police feel the individual may be able to provide some useful information.

Whitman's character had an alibi and was released, but a reporter who covered his earlier trial recognized him and wrote articles about his activities — disclosing the fact that he had been alone with his girlfriend's daughter.

As a journalist that is something with which I have a problem. I was always taught never to report rumors as fact and not to write about a suspect's past unless the suspect was in custody, on trial or had been convicted.

When I watched "The Mark," I put the blame squarely for what happened on the reporter. When the story of Whitman's character's past was published, he lost both his job and his girlfriend.

Most modern viewers probably won't recognize Whitman. Mostly a supporting actor in the years leading up to "The Mark," he had both leading and supporting roles in the projects that followed. He received his only Oscar nomination for his performance in "The Mark."