Captain Frank Matthews (George Peppard) of the Washington police is distracted from the trial of a suspected rapist by the nagging suspicion his wife Adele (Jean Seberg) is having an affair. Thanks to the efforts of diligent defense attorney Woodrow Wilson King (Richard Kiley) the case collapses against Paul Sanderson (Robert F. Lyons). Yet even King harbours doubts as to whether an unstable creep like Sanderson ought to be back out on the street. After railing against an overly lenient justice system, Matthews argues with Adele then takes a room at a hotel. The next day detectives bring news that turns Matthews' world upside down.
George Peppard's enduring television fame as Colonel 'Hannibal' Smith on The A-Team obscures the fact he was a popular leading man throughout the Sixties in westerns, comedies and thrillers. A solid if unspectacular Peppard vehicle, Pendulum may not look much like a film from 1969 with its clean-cut ensemble of sharp-suited characters. Yet its themes cut right to the heart of America's social dilemma at the dawn of the Richard Nixon era. So much of our view of the Sixties is filtered through the legacy of liberal activism and the counterculture it is easy to forget that this period also marked a resurgence of convervativism. Screenwriter Stanley Niss, who also produced, establishes a theme that exploded in the Seventies with a run of maverick cop and urban vigilante thrillers. Namely that the American legal system at the time was supposedly more concerned with protecting the rights of suspected criminals rather than those of their victims.
It is an argument film audiences would here time and again in the likes of Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974) and a legion of hard-boiled Italian rip-offs. When King's defense team release multiple rapist Paul Sanderson back on the street, Matthews casually tells a lady lawyer he hopes she won't be his next victim. Sure enough, mere moments after release, Sanderson makes a sweaty pass at the unnerved woman. Both Matthews and the judge presiding over the case proselytize that the pendulum (see what they did there?) has swung too far to the left but the film is no right-wing tract. The plot provides a counterpoint once Matthews finds himself on the other side of the law. Presumed guilty even by his cop colleagues and faced with the full weight of the state against him he turns to Woodrow Wilson King. To his credit, King proves as zealous an advocate for Matthews as he was for Paul Sanderson even though he is not above laying the irony on thick. The film also weaves a layer of ambiguity around Matthews and his crumbling, doomed yet still passionate marriage. Peppard plays him as rather cold and robotic to the point where he seems a plausible suspect.
George Schaefer, a television veteran whose other notable film was Steve McQueen's Henrik Ibsen adaptation An Enemy of the People (1978), maintains a methodical pace letting the plot unfold one sober, analytical beat at a time. It is solidly televisual. Not far removed from an episode of Peppard's later detective show Banacek. However, the slow burn ensures the odd shock moment packs a punch. Perhaps inevitably the mystery veers towards the most obvious resolution possible yet to its credit not at the expense of its core themes. Subtlety might not be Pendulum's strong point but it offers an intelligent, balanced treatment of complex ethical dilemmas, giving a fair airing to progressive and reactionary points of view.