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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

True Crimes (originally published 2/02)

Back in the old days, before movies and television, they had their own ways of exploiting the perpetrators and/or victims of sensational crimes. For instance, some quick-thinking entrepreneur might visit the boneyard in the wee hours and dig up the corpse of the individual in question. He would then tour the stiff around the county fair circuit, charging the locals two bits a head to view the remains.

Today, we have the electronic equivalent of this sideshow profiteering: the television docudrama. Just this week, for example, the tube exhumed for our edification poor Marilyn Reza, whose husband, Dr. Robert Reza, was convicted of her 1990 murder largely on the testimony of his former mistress. The CBS miniseries "Guilty Hearts" changed the names, but makes no bones about the connection, advertising itself as a "true crime love story."

Still, television didn't invent the idea of capitalizing on sensational crime stories. Movies have been doing it since the silent days. Here are some prime examples to look for on home video.

"Rope" (1948). The infamous Leopold and Loeb case was the inspiration for this Alfred Hitchcock film about a pair of intellectual college boys who murder a school chum for no other reason than to prove they can get away with it. Farley Granger and John Dall play the lead roles opposite James Stewart as the professor whose cynical philosophical musings inspired the boys to commit the murder. Hitchcock tried a fascinating technical experiment with this picture. Since the action is played out in real time on a single set, he decided to film it without any cuts. That is to say, the camera never stops running - the whole film is one long, unbroken shot. Because a camera's film magazine can only hold about ten minutes of film, Hitchcock had an actor cross in front of the camera just before the film ran out, then started again with the actor crossing the lens. By splicing the film just as the actor blocks the view, the illusion of a continuous shot could be maintained. It is still, I believe, the only commercial feature film to have been shot in this manner.

"I Want to Live!" (1958). Almost 50 years after her execution in the gas chamber at San Quentin, the case of Barbara Graham can still start arguments. There are those who say that she was railroaded and others who maintain that the verdict was just. She had been convicted of murdering an elderly, crippled woman while attempting to rob her. The conviction stood despite certain discrepancies that subsequently came to light. Susan Hayward received an Academy Award for portraying Graham in this Hollywood version of her story, directed by Robert Wise. Producer Walter Wanger and scriptwriters Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz clearly come down on Graham's side of the controversy. In fact, the film emerges as a powerful statement against capital punishment.

"In Cold Blood" (1967). Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about the murder of the Clutter family of Kansas by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock was adapted for the screen by Richard Brooks. Instead of casting big name stars in the roles of the killers, Brooks decided to go with unknown actors - Robert Blake (prior to his television success as "Baretta") and Scott Wilson. He ratcheted down the budget, shot in black and white on the actual locations where the events had transpired, and turned out a fictional film that looked and felt like a documentary. But while maintaining this realistic, just the facts ma'am veneer, Brooks ransacks his director's bag of tricks. You name it, he does it: cross cuts, match cuts, flashbacks, fancy dissolves, the works. It's a neat bit of sleight of hand, and very effective.

"The Boston Strangler" (1968). Tony Curtis delivers a striking performance as Albert De Salvo, whose multiple personality disorder permits him to murder and mutilate women without ever realizing that the killer and he are one and the same. This is really almost like two films butted together. The first half follows the police investigation tracking down suspects, while the second half follows De Salvo's journey into the treacherous labyrinth of his own tortured mind.

To be sure, these modern-day sideshows substitute actors for the actual participants in the scandals and crimes they commemorate. But don't feel too cheated. At least half the time the exhibits that toured the county fair circuit were not the real McCoys either.

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