Incident in a Small Town (1994)

Harry Morgan and Walter Matthau in Incident in a Small Town (1994)

Cobb Saves Courtroom Bell

"Incident in a Small Town" was the third and last collaboration of Walter Matthau and Harry Morgan in the roles of Cobb and Bell. Now whilst I have seen the first TV movie "The Incident" I have yet to watch the second "Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore" yet having not seen the second movie isn't an issue because the only thing you need to know to understand "Incident in a Small Town" is that Cobb and Bell have become partners in a law firm. And it is also not an issue because the storyline in "Incident in a Small Town" is an enclosed one, with no real linkage to the other movies other than seeing Cobb finding himself defending Bell of all people when he is tried for murder.

After 13 years of not speaking to his daughter Lily (Stephanie Zimbalist), after she had a child out of wedlock, Judge Bell (Harry Morgan) receives an urgent call as Frank Trenton (David Nerman) has shown up, the father of her son John (Nick Stahl - The Man Without a Face) and he is acting threatening. With Harmon Cobb (Walter Matthau) deciding to join him as Bell heads to Illinois they find themselves involved in a court case when after an attempt to get a restraining order fails Frank is killed and Bell says he did it in order to protect Lily from a beating. But Harmon knows something isn't right and with Lily refusing him permission to use the fact that John was born out of Frank raping her, his defence is a hard one.

Nick Stahl and Walter Matthau in Incident in a Small Town (1994)

So as already mentioned one of the nice things about "Incident in a Small Town" is that whilst the third movie in the series it is not necessary to have watched the others to follow what goes on. I'm not saying it doesn't help to understand the friendship between Cobb and Bell as well as an in-joke right at the end of the movie but because we have an enclosed story of murder that prior knowledge is essential.

Now as to the murder and court case well on one hand it is everything you expect with the wily old Cobb finding himself having to think smart to win the case whilst turning on the charm with the much younger prosecuting lawyer who he refers to as a Vanguard. It is that small town charm and humour especially as Cobb and Bell have to deal with the local judge who takes an immediate dislike to anyone who tells him his job, allowing Cobb to play him in order to get what he wants. But whilst entertaining it is not the most dynamic of crime/courtroom dramas and to be honest is quite weak.

The trouble is that "Incident in a Small Town" is obvious because whilst the story sort of starts when Judge Bell says he killed Frank you can guess he didn't and is covering up for someone else. Now there can be only two people who he is protecting, his daughter Lily or his grandson John and whilst the outcome of this is not that surprising the twist in the logic when we understand what is what is a nice moment. But unfortunately it makes it weak because it is too easy to second guess.

It almost feels like "Incident in a Small Town" was made because people enjoyed watching Matthau and Morgan as Cobb and Bell and to be honest there is a lot to enjoy about watching these two old timers together. But again it doesn't feel that dynamic and often feels quite limp with the writers relying on the popularity of the characters rather than the script. The upshot of this is that young Nick Stahl as John ends up stealing many a scene because he delivers the angst of a young man dealing with discovering secrets as well as holding some of his own.

What this all boils down to is that "Incident in a Small Town" is an entertaining movie but it does feel like in their third movie together the writers have relied more on the popularity of Matthau and Morgan together than on a really decent script and so at times it does end up quite weak.