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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Serial Killers (originally published 3/04)

It goes without saying that murder and murderers hold a fatal attraction for filmmakers. In fact, the only thing that cinema storytellers like more than a good, juicy murder is a whole string of them. Serial killings are tailor-made for the action film genre, since nothing keeps the old plot line moving like a fresh corpse every few minutes.

If you doubt it, go and see “Twisted,” the current release starring Ashley Judd and Andy Garcia as a pair of cops tracking down a serial killer. If you’ve already seen “Twisted,” and haven’t been reduced to peeking under the bed at night by the experience, you might also enjoy these serial killer movies.

“M” (1931). Director Fritz Lang’s classic suspense film is one of the most respected masterpieces of the German cinema. Peter Lorre, in his first major role, is outstanding as a compulsive child murderer. His eerie signature is the melody from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” that he whistles whenever murder is on his mind. In trying to track him down, the police become so eager that their investigation begins to hamper the activities of the local organized crime syndicate. To get back to business as usual, the criminals set out to find the killer themselves, so that he is eventually under pursuit from both sides of the law.

“While the City Sleeps” (1956). Years later, in the United States, Lang made this fascinating echo of “M.” Again, there is a serial killer terrorizing the city. A newspaper publisher offers the position of editor-in-chief to any member of his editorial staff who finds the killer, sending each editor scrambling for sources to pursue the murderer’s identity. As in “M,” Lang presents us with an organization outside of law enforcement mobilizing to catch a serial killer for all the wrong reasons. Apparently the cynicism that informed Lang’s work in pre-war Germany remained undiminished in postwar America.

“The Boston Strangler” (1968). Tony Curtis portrays Albert De Salvo, a real-life serial killer who terrorized the Back Bay of Boston between 1962 and 1964. Director Richard Fleischer chose to tell the story in a semi-documentary style. He also made use of a split screen technique that was in vogue at the time, dividing the wide screen up into multiple images seen simultaneously.

“10 Rillington Place” (1971). Fleischer’s other serial killer film, less well known but every bit as good as “The Boston Strangler,” stars Richard Attenborough as John Reginald Christie, the British serial killer. Christie’s testimony had resulted in the execution of Timothy John Evans for the murder of Evans’s wife and infant daughter. Only later was it discovered that Christie had committed those murders, and others besides. This was the case that led to the abolition of the death penalty in England.

“Eyes Without a Face” (1959). French director Georges Franju’s gothic classic is a triumph of moody horror. A plastic surgeon is overcome with guilt when his reckless driving causes the disfigurement of his daughter’s face. Determined to restore her beauty, he kidnaps and kills a series of women in order to remove their facial skin. His efforts to graft the new skin onto his daughter’s face repeatedly fail, necessitating more and more murders.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947). Believe it or not, there are even a handful of comedies on the subject of serial killings. This one was made by Charlie Chaplin, who cast himself in the role of a wife-murdering bluebeard. Chaplin was trying to make a point about hypocrisy – that a world that sees no moral problem with atomic bombs and other horrendous weapons of war shouldn’t be troubled by a little thing like serial killings. In the light of the atrocities for which medals are given in time of war, Chaplin thought, a bluebeard is by comparison a laughing matter.

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