An entertaining whodunnit, Town on Trial is also a peek behind the curtains of middle class village life in 1950's England. While the crime aspect of the film is not entirely successful, the subject matter is surprisingly frank for the time that it was made, and the script takes some surprising turns with characterisation.
When a young woman is found strangled by a stocking in the English village of Oakley Park, there is no shortage of suspects, from Mark Roper, the married Lothario secretary of her tennis club, to the local doctor with a secret from his past, to a troubled young man with a history of blackouts. Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) is brought in to solve the case, something he pursues with relentless zeal, but with the locals resenting the outsider and refusing to help, can Halloran succeed before the killer strikes again?
The detective aspects of the story do not always work, with the clues and police procedural work rarely rising above the sophistication of an episode of Midsomer Murders, while the killer's motives seem vague. Much more convincing is the claustrophobic and sometimes mean-spirited world of village life, where many residents seem more interested in sweeping the murder under the carpet rather than finding out who did it. Conformity and fitting in is the name of the game, a theme that drives or shapes many of the main characters. The murder victims both stray from the accepted social norms for women, giving their deaths an air of puritanical retribution akin to some horror films, accentuated by the by the Bible quotes left at the murder scenes.
The detective is also an outsider, something underlined in the scene where, after a conversation about ties worn by former pupils of Harrow Public School, Halloran pointedly replies that he went to London Polytechnic. He is certainly a man who feels more at home with inner city life "a place you can see the dirt – here you have to dig for it".
The suspects, on the other hand, are doing their best to keep their heads down and out of trouble. Roper has spun an extraordinary web of deceit in order to keep his coveted position as secretary of the tennis club, a web that soon comes unraveled once the police start poking into his affairs, and his past.
The plot mixes sex, violence, and stockings in a way reminiscent of Hitchcock, with the story generally pacy, and the revelations and twists coming thick and fast. The Hitchcock influence is also felt in the climax, which sees Halloran clinging for dear life to the side of the church steeple.