Winterset is a play written by Maxwell Anderson in 1935 and adapted for the big screen – with some emendations to the plotline – the following year. The film version was directed by Alfred Santell and stars Burgess Meredith in his screen debut.
In 1920, an Italian immigrant named Bartolomeo Romagna is framed for robbery and murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Fifteen years later, it is confirmed via a university report that the case against Romagna was fraudulent; he didn't do it, and his wife testified he was at home the whole time.
The real offender was a thug named Trock Estrella, who stole Romagna's car, and the victim was shot from said car. The police nailed Romagna because the car was recognized and later found abandoned on a highway. Trock was never proven guilty. The driver of the car, a boy of Jewish descent named Garth Esdras, kept quiet about his role in this, for fear of his own life — but has had to suffer a Guilt Complex for many years.
In the present, Romagna's son, Mio, is looking for the real murderer, to clear the name of his father. Trock is looking for Mio, to remain out of sight, while he also threatens Garth in case he should reveal anything. Garth lives in hiding with his father and younger sister, Miriamne. The judge, who sentenced Bartolomeo, also lives with immense guilt, taken up to eleven because Bartolomeo, knowing his own innocence, cursed him during the trial. The judge has resigned his post and has partly gone mad because this conscience, knowing Bartolomeo´s eyes are on him wherever he goes.
In the end, Trock manages to corner Mio, who has taken a shine to Miriamne, and kills both of them. He also gets the better of the judge. The film adaptation spared them, however.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Trock gets away pretty easy. He has, however, a terminal disease which eventually gets the better of him.
- Break Them by Talking: Bartolomeo towards the judge during his trial. Later, his son Mio towards a police officer in a spectacular Stealth Insult.
- Crapsack World: New York in The Dirty Thirties. Lampshaded by Miriamne when she asks her father if it is better to tell a lie and live than otherwise, and her father confirms that it is so.
- The Dragon: Trock is constantly followed by a sinister number two, who only goes by the name of Shadow.
- Face Death with Dignity: Bartolomeo Romagna. His calm final speech truly guts the judge, who has to sentence him.
- Guilt Complex: Both judge Ellis and Garth. No guilt for Trock, though.
- The Ingenue: Miriamne is nothing but a kind, goodhearted teenage girl...
- Kill the Cutie: ...who gets shot at the end of the play.
- The Mafia: Not clearly stated, but Trock Estrella is an Italian mobster, all things considered. Bartolomeo Romagna, however, was not.
- Police Are Useless: Mio points this out when a police officer breaks up a number of people who happened to dance to the music of a hurdy-gurdy. Justified, when he knows about his father's ordeal. This speech is probably an Author Tract.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The play is inspired by the case against Italian immigrants Zacco and Vanzetti, executed for similar reasons in 1927.
- Sanity Slippage: Judge Ellis has gone partly insane from this ordeal. He walks around like a madman, muttering to himself, warning others from the peril of judging rashly.
- Shout-Out: A young man trying to find out who killed his father? Mio even states that his father's voice beckons him from beyond the grave...