Archive for the ‘true crime’ Tag

Helter Skelter (1976)   Leave a comment

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On July 20, 1969, engineers at NASA realized a decades-old dream and landed the first manned mission to the lunar surface. As 500 million people watched, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Less than three weeks later, on August 9, another group realized their dream when they broke into the home rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and massacred five people.

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Outside the scene of the Tate murders, 10500 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles.

The reasons for those murders and two more on August 11 were not typical ones. Sharon Tate and Voityck Frykowski didn’t welch on a bet.  Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring didn’t steal from the wrong people. Steven Parent wasn’t running around with the wife of a jealous man. Rosemary and Leno LaBianca didn’t get caught in a drug deal gone bad. Their killers didn’t get caught mid-burglary and decide to off the witnesses. No, what keeps us talking about the murders in Los Angeles that August is the bizarre motive and the even more bizarre people who thought it up.

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Spelling counts.

Vincent Bugliosi, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County at the time, prosecuted members of the Manson family for the seven murders and wrote, along with Curt Gentry, the brilliant true crime book, Helter Skelter about his experienceThe made-for-television movie of the same name doesn’t stray far from the book and that’s a good thing.  The book is a marvel of true crime/legal reporting. The film leaves out some details. It would have to or it would be ten hours long. In his book, Bugliosi spends a lot of time discussing his methods and the legal particulars of the case.

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George DiCenzo and Vincent Bugliosi

Director Tom Gries (Will Penny) keeps the story moving forward and makes you want to learn more.  George DiCenzo has the authority to play Bugliosi and I when I think of Charles Manson, I picture Steve Railsback. He IS Manson. It’s–if you’ll pardon the expression–witchy.

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“I said no olives!”

I remember seeing this on TV when it first aired. This was the time when everyone watched whatever big TV movie was on that week. Everybody talked about it. I know I couldn’t look away. Hearing Charles Manson’s theory for the first time was chilling. It was almost as frightening to realize that this scary little man could convince a group of lost people to kill total strangers for no reason. Highly recommended.

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One man’s family.

haunty

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Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)   Leave a comment

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Caryl Chessman, called the Red Light Bandit because he used a red light atop his car to pull over couples, rob them, and rape the women, wrote four books during his twelve years on death row. Cell 2455 Death Row came out while Chessman still lived. The film shows Chessman (William Campbell) as a difficult teen who fell in with the wrong crowd and then became a gang leader.

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I said medium rare!

He pleads guilty to some of the robberies, but innocent to the rape charges and acts as his own attorney in court. It gets a bit Alan-Alda-in-the-last-seasons-of-M*A*S*H-y in this part and the whole thing smells strongly of whitewash and Hollywood filtering. Apparently Chessman did a decent job of fending off the electric chair in real life though. Anti-death penalty crusaders protested and wrote songs on his behalf. Biggies like Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ray Bradbury wrote letters asking for mercy. SPOILER ALERT: When the film opened he was still with us, but was later executed when the secretary asked by the judge to call the jail for another stay of execution, called the wrong number. By the time she found the correct one, it was too late. No kidding. You can’t make this stuff up. The most interesting part of this film is that William Campbell’s younger brother Robert plays Chessman as a youth. Vince Edwards appears as a fellow criminal. Pretty standard.

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The real Caryl Chessman’s mug shot.

Rope (1948)   Leave a comment



Alfred Hitchcock exchanges his usual cinematic style for a more playlike one as he puts his own spin on the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings in Rope. John Dall and Farley Granger star as Brandon and Phillip, sons of privilege, who decide that killing a classmate they deem inferior and getting away with it is proof of their intellectual superiority.


“We’re better than you.”

The film opens with the camera moving from a placid street scene and into the students’ palatial flat, closing in on Brandon and Phillip strangling their victim with the eponymous weapon. The two have a drink and discuss their evening plans. As Robert Mitchum says in Out of the Past, the pair are “a little cold around the heart”.


“Oh, you wanted a Windsor knot?”

They don’t stop with their ghastly crime. To further reinforce the belief in their Nietzschean Übermensch status, they hold a cocktail party on the day of the murder and invite the victim’s parents. They even serve dinner on a chest containing the body. Sweet.


The corpse makes it tasty.

Based on the real life Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924 in which two wealthy University of Chicago students kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks just to prove they could, Rope begins during the murder and follows Brandon and Phillip as they prepare for the party, bicker, and attempt to hide their crime. Filmed on a single set using long uninterrupted shots of up to ten minutes at a time, Rope breaks a few established rules of cinema to great effect. As the evening progresses, the killers’ facades of control erode and the apartment seems to shrink. That sense of claustrophobia grows as Brandon and Phillip feel cornered by their former teacher and idol Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). At first Rupert appears to be cut from the same cloth as the killers, but as Rupert observes the pair, the audience sees his suspicion and anxiety. It’s fun to watch Rupert inveigle his way into the guests thoughts and the hosts insecurities.


“The something of something.”

Since we know what happened to Leopold and Loeb, we can guess as to the fate of Brandon and Phillip, but it’s still a good time and the dialogue, written by Hume Cronyn and an uncredited Ben Hecht, is witty and dark.


“To murder!”

I love Rope and despite or perhaps because of the film’s divergence from the director’s usual path, it’s my favorite Hitchcock.


Hitchcock always won at Rock-Paper-Scissors.

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