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A thriller with extra dimensions. Controversial murder case makes exceptional video drama

The Murder of Mary Phagan NBC, Sunday, 8:30-11 p.m, and Tuesday, 9-11:30 p.m. Stars: Jack Lemmon, Peter Gallagher, Richard Jordan. Writers: George Stevens Jr. and Jeffrey Lane, based on a story by Larry McMurtry. Director: Billy Hale. Producer: George Stevens Jr. On the surface, ``The Murder of Mary Phagan'' is a compellingly entertaining fact-based thriller, made with uncommon skill and sensitivity.

But dig just a bit deeper, and you will discover it is much more than that. It is an incisive study of individual integrity pitted against mass hysteria, Southern xenophobia, class discrimination, anti-Semitism, bureaucratic dishonesty, populism gone awry, and political manipulation.

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If that seems like a great burden to lay on an unpretentious two-part drama, let me make it worse by adding that it is also impeccably acted by Jack Lemmon, Peter Gallagher, and Richard Jordan; subtly directed by Billy Hale; exquisitely photographed by Nick Knowland; and authentically costumed by Judy Moorecraft and Merrily Murray-Walsh. In addition, it has a surprisingly restrained score by Maurice Jarre.

The cleverly multilevel script by George Stevens Jr. and Jeffrey Lane is based on the controversial 1913 Atlanta murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker in a pencil factory. A Jewish manager from New York, Leo Frank, was allegedly the last person to see her alive. Public sentiment against Frank was stirred up by newspapers and rabble-rousers as well as a politically motivated solicitor general. In the end, the governor was forced to make a stand, based mainly on his own conscience. The price he paid was the ruin of his political career.

Most shocking in this drama is the true-to-life conclusion and ending note that explains what actually happened to all the main figures. It provides a punch-in-the-solar-plexus touch of reality.

Jack Lemmon, as Gov. John M. Slaton, plays a very small role in the Sunday night part of the drama, but really comes into his own in the Tuesday conclusion, where he gives an Emmy-quality performance. Richard Jordan, in a difficult and ambivalent role, skillfully manages to make the solicitor general obnoxious but understandable.

The same murder case was used as the basis for a 1930s movie, ``They Won't Forget,'' in which Lana Turner made her debut as the young girl. That film, however, offered no final twist to clarify the real-life events, as this version does.

``The Murder of Mary Phagan'' is not merely entertainment television at its best; it is contemporary cinema at its best.

Producer Stevens tells what drew him to story of Mary Phagan

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The Leo Frank case is one ``where the Jewishness of the main figure played a part in the judgment of him,'' says George Stevens Jr., producer and co-author of ``The Murder of Mary Phagan.''

``One of the things that attracted me most to the story,'' he continues, ``was the fact that the most popular governor in Georgia history got entangled in the events, and it caused him to make a difficult choice, to test his own conscience. ... The difficulty of a politician remaining true to himself is still a problem in our political system.''

Though there has been a recent revelation of evidence pertinent to the Frank case - evidence which, according to Stevens, seems to clear Frank once and for all - there are many people in Georgia who still believe Frank was guilty. When asked if the film won't help change their minds, Stevens says, ``Prejudice dies hard. But ... this film is not a polemical film. It's about basically good people who allowed their prejudices to become inflamed. My father [Hollywood director George Stevens Sr.] used to say that films give people an opportunity to live lives that they haven't lived themselves. Audiences don't come just to be entertained; they come to learn about themselves, too.

``I don't want to sound pretentious. But .... I think, in general, audiences are made up of pretty good people, and if this increases their awareness of an era, an event that actually happened, well, that's all to the good.''