The Other Andy: Murder in Coweta County (1983)
Hello again, and welcome back to another installment of The Other Andy. Today’s film might just show Andy as the farthest from the kind hearted Mayberry sheriff as I have seen, and the scary thing is that the character he plays was a real guy. Culled from the 1979 book Murder in Coweta County by Margaret Anne Barnes, which was based on real events, the TV movie shines a light on the very real problems of racism, corruption, and the good ol’ boy system that existed in Georgia in the late 1940s. This is a movie about the South in a period after slavery had been done away with and replaced with the servitude culture of sharecropping. It’s sad to say, but as a Southerner, the problems exhibited in the film have yet to gasp their last breath. While the sharecroppers are long gone, the culture of racial division and cronyism still persists to this day. Examining these problems in a warts and all kind of way, paired with great performances from Andy Griffith and his co-star, country legend, Johnny Cash, combine to make Murder in Coweta County not only a fascinating film, but also the best Made for TV movie I have ever seen.
Andy stars as John Wallace, the self appointed king of Meriwether County Georgia. He controls it all from the sharecroppers and the moonshiners’ right down to the sheriff. He’s untouchable and above the law. When tenant farmer Wilson Turner (Robert Schenkkan) tries to run a little ’shine on the side, Wallace tracks him down and kicks him off his farm for not cutting the “king” on the action. Turner decides to steal a prize cow in retaliation which lands him in jail, but Wallace has him released from jail so he and his boys can chase Turner down and kill him. Unfortunately for Wallace, he gets seen roughing up Turner in Coweta County, home to the no nonsense, hard nosed, law abiding Sheriff Lamar Potts (Johnny Cash). Potts doesn’t care what people think of Wallace in Meriwether County, and he pursues Wallace doggedly lining up a litany of circumstantial evidence against the powerful businessman. What he can’t find is Turner’s body, but when two men, both African American field hands, come forward with testimony against Wallace, it goes into the hands of a jury of twelve white men and women to decide John Wallace’s fate.
With a screenplay written by prolific TV movie writer Dennis Nemec, who also penned the Shatner vehicle Secrets of a Married Man, and directed by Gary Nelson, who helmed feature films The Black Hole, Freaky Friday, and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Murder in Coweta County came with a higher pedigree than most other fare of its ilk. While there are some scenes which tip the film’s origins with obvious budgetary restraints, for the most part, Murder in Coweta County has the classic grainy, gritty look of 70s cinema. The period styles and locales are spot on, and a lot of credit has to be given to Production Designer Stuart Wurtzel, who went on to work with Woody Allen on three movies as well as The Ghost and the Darkness, Enchanted, and Marley and Me. Cinematographer Larry Pizer (who worked both on Phantom of the Paradise and a TV remake of Phantom of the Opera with Maximilian Schell) provides some excellent camera work, and the hot, sticky feeling of a Georgia summer practically radiates from the screen. Even the music by Brad Fiedel is spot on, and Fidel would pen tunes for Fright Night, True Lies, The Terminator, and The Serpent and the Rainbow as well as many more.
Of course, none of these fine works behind the camera in Murder in Coweta County would have been for naught if it wasn’t for bang up performances by the entire cast. Down to the last bit player, everyone created a world that seemed completely real. Naturally, the main attractions were the two leads, Andy Griffith and Johnny Cash. While I’ve seen Andy play evil in Savages and Pray for the Wildcats, both of those parts are wildly fantastical. Playing a real life evil bastard, Griffith turns it up a notch, and any hint of the affable Southern charm he’s so well known for fades from existence. He’s still completely charismatic, and it is easy to believe his character is a feared and revered figure in his county. I can’t say enough about this performance, and his final big speech, telling his character’s side of the story before a packed courtroom, is a tour de force of his acting career.
I could say the same about Johnny Cash. Previously, I had seen Cash in the 1961 feature Five Minutes to Live, and while he was intense, I wouldn’t have called his acting stellar. In the late 70s, Cash began to do a series of TV Movies, including The Pride of Jesse Hallam, also directed by Gary Nelson, and age and experience must have tempered his acting range. Johnny, who is often thought of as a lawbreaker despite his single arrest for picking flowers in a restricted area, is perfectly cast as the stone-faced, hard as nails lawman. It was kind of interesting to see the two leads, Griffith and Cash, who were associated with the law on opposing sides, switch it up to play against type. Cash easily matches Griffith move for move, and the two legends work off each other perfectly. Knowing a bit about both men, I’m sure the subject matter was near and dear to their hearts and each have his all. There is also another Cash in attendance, June Carter, who appears as the swamp dwelling fortune teller Mayhayley Lancaster. June Carter always had a certain witchy look in her old age, and her wild eyed performance could not be called less than inspired. The cast also includes future Tim Allen neighbor Earl Hindman, character actor Danny Nelson as the sheriff under Wallace’s thumb, Johnny’s piano player Earl Poole Ball who has a great name, and Watergate lawyer James F. Neal as a slick Atlanta lawyer.
Murder in Coweta County easily tops my list of favorite Made for TV films, but more than that, it stands as important look at a supposedly bygone era. While many of the issues that Coweta County shines a light on still remain, they are the kind of societal problems that have taken on different, more shadowed forms. If there is any question that institutional racism still occurs, just look to the past year and the vitriol surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin. Like Murder in Coweta County, it is a case that boils down to one mans word against that of a dead man, and many people, on both sides of the issue, focus on the race of the two parties as a determining factor. In real life, as well as the film, the testimony of the field hands against Wallace comes under question solely because of their race, and the belief that no jury will believe a couple of African Americans over a white man is the foundation on which Wallace‘s case was built. (On a side note, the ‘N’ word is thrown around more than the entire run of All in the Family, and it is jarring to hear it coming out of Andy Taylor’s mouth.) To call Murder in Coweta County merely a TV film is to do it a disservice. It is the pinnacle of acting for both Griffith and Cash, and it stands as document of a South that doesn’t dwell that far in the past and still has a tendency to rear its ugly head.
Being a Made for TV flick, there's no trailer available for Murder in Coweta County, but the whole film is hanging around YouTube in 10 minute chunks. Do yourself a favor and check it out.