This is one of the most searing neo Film Noir police procedural/syndicate treasure hunt and shadow eye candy featuring a truly frightening and frenetic performance by our beloved Peter Falk who not only manifested THE only possible rumpled detective in a raincoat, that– “just one more question” knows who the guilty party is in the first five minutes of meeting them, Columbo (sorry Lee J. Cobb) whose inimitable style began the television detecting technique where we know who did it.
As ColumboPeter Falk usually uses the art of ‘misunderestimation’ and quaint anecdotes about relatives who may or may not exist, as he politely taunts and squeezes with relenting loose end tying questions pushing the culprit into a corner they can not escape from. In Murder, Inc (1960) Falk is so dark and brooding as a little thug with a mad on at the world and no acuity toward right and wrong. The only time I saw him create a darker character that sent chills down the back of my neck was in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that aired on December 13th, 1962 called Bonfirewhere he plays a psychopathic lady-killer who is posing as a firebrand evangelist.
I am planning a very special tribute to the genius of Peter Falk and his unmade bed detective always on the prowl for the jugular, with a very different slant on the show, (no hints please) hopeful getting it ready by the winter 2017 if I can enlist the wit & wisdom of fellow Columbo-worshiping Aurora of Once Upon A Screen to join me in pulling it off!
In his 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, Peter Falk attributes his performance as the crazed Reles in Murder, Inc. for launching his career! Not to mention that the great stage actress/teacher Eva Le Gallienne highlysuggested after Falk was caught sneaking into her acting class as part of the American Repertory Movement, that he stick with it!
Peter Falk received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his ruthless, violent and misogynistic murderous thug real life hit man –Abe Reles.
film critic Bosley Crowther wrote:
“Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando’s chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone’s ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt.”
Reles who reigned over the Brownsville district of Brooklyn during the 1930s depression era, was a clever and shifty taker and hit-man who could make people’s murders appear like brain hemorrhages by using an ice pick in just the right way. Lawman Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) whose book the screenplay is based on, together with Det. Sgt. William Tobin (Simon Oakland) keep track of this psychopathic criminal who is now working for the powerful crime boss Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter played as a self-indulgent burlesque man-child by David J. Stewart (Carnival Rock 1957, The Young Savages 1961) who runs the nationwide syndicate known as Murder Inc.
Directed by Burt Balaban (Lady of Vengeance 1957) and Stuart Rosenberg who later went on to direct the sublimely thoughtful Cool Hand Luke 1967 starring Paul Newman, he also directed The Amityville Horror in 1979.
Filmed in CinemaScope Murder, Inc. possesses a gritty realism painted effectively by cinematographer Gayne Rescher (A Face in the Crowd 1957, Man on a String 1960, Rachel, Rachel 1968 and Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends 1971)
The film’s musical score is indeed a great companion to the mood, as Frank De Vol who usually works with Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962) creates a tense and bitter little pill, a flamboyant world within the universe of egocentric criminals, petty thieves, depression era storekeepers like the wonderful character of Mrs. Corsi (Helen Waters who only appeared one more time in television’s Naked City in 1958) who runs the little soda shop or Joe Rosen (Eli Mintz) who live in fear for their lives. De Vol’s score in addition to a live smoking performance by the late Sarah Vaughan make the film’s musical personality work very well with the visual story.
The viciousness touches the garment district, the Unions, the burlesque clubs all the way up to the Borscht Belt where comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) is hit by Reles at the request of Lepke. There’s cops on the beat and the feds looking to finally incarcerate and shut down Murder Inc. The film is seeded with little cameos by some actors first appearances, like Sylvia Miles as Sadie the loud mouth who gets Reles’ hand shoved in her face while in the phone booth.
A small but slick performance by Vincent Gardenia as the mobs attorney Laszlo, and terrific stage performance by Sarah Vaughansinging Fan My Brow and The Awakening written by composer George Weiss. I saw Sarah Vaughan at the Westbury Music Fair back in the 1980s! she was nothing less than magical!
The basic gist is this–Reles (Peter Falk) and his flunky Bug (Warren Finnerty) meet with Garment District crime boss Lepke Buchalter (David J. Stewart) who wants to hire Reles as the syndicate’s new hit man. Lepke’s first task is for Reles to hit comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) who has a headline act up in the Catskills. Sage has been holding out money from the slots and Lepke is a petty hothead (who constantly drinks milk) with a literal belly ache. Enter Joey Collins Stuart Whitman (I’ve had a long time crush on this guy and his eyebrows!) a singer, who knows Sage from show business, and since he owes Reles $600 which will soon be $1,000 with every day he doesn’t pay back his loan he feels cornered into helping Reles do him a ‘favor.’ Joey Collins (Whitman) is coerced into driving up to the Borscht Belt in order to lure Sage out of the club so Reles can do his dirty work with his nice clean ice pick!
When Reles pays a visit to the small apartment where Joey and his refugee showgirl wife Eadie (May Britt) live, Eadie is not only rude, she tries to throw Reles out. Reles who obviously has an inferiority complex takes Eadie’s dismissal as a rejection of his manhood and he comes back while Joey is out of the apartment and brutally assaults her with his, “dirty hands, his dirty fingers.”
But Joey is so entangled and emasculated himself by the predicament he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t even try to stand up to Reles, but rather feels he is trapped, though Eadie wants to just run and get as far away from Reles and the whole deal. While the couple stay together because they are forced into a dynamic by Reles, they no longer sleep in the same bedroom nor act as a married couple. The weak and shameful Joey should have listened to Eadie!
Reles sets the kids up in this glamorous apartment as a front.
Now that Lepke thinks he has everything under control he has Reles working full force taking out anyone who can fink on him. Reles gives a maniacal soliloquy about ‘taking’ manipulating the couple into living as a cover in his gorgeous apartment that is furnished with imported stolen goods and dope.
The police want to bring Lepke in because they have found a witness, small business man Rosen who Lepke warned already to keep his mouth shut. He should have had his trusted man-crush Mendy push down the elevator shaft when he had the chance. Rosen is seen brought in by detective Tobin by Lepke, Mendy and their lawyer Laszlo in the halls of the courthouse. Rosen is now, at least this time– a dead man…
Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard) is asked by Lepke to kill Rosen himself, gunning him down right on the street in front of his shop, one pop in the guts, and then a bullet to the back of his head at Lepke’s request. Lepke comes to hide out at Joey and Eadie’s apartment, where he proceeds to demean and treat Eadie like a servant.
While detective Tobin (Simon Oakland) has been trying to shake things up and harass Reles and Lepke, even asking the small shop owners for their help, as Mrs. Corsi explains to Tobin that innocent people are being threatened, ‘acid thrown’ on their wares, even attacked just being seen talking with the police. She refuses to say a word. He can’t break the protective shield surrounding this gang, nor legally fight against a sly lawyer like Laszlo (Vincent Gardenia).
District Attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) moves in and begins an all out mission to bring down Murder Inc. which has it’s tendrils in Chicago and Florida (What happened to New Jersey? hhmm)
Burton Turkus is interrogating Reles after he agrees to turn states evidence. He asks Reles how he can simply murder people without any feelings around it. Reles asks him how his first time on the job as a cop effected him. He tells Reles, he was shaky at first but “he got used to it.” Reles gives him a very matter of fact ‘that’s your answer’ look.
Before the police finally pick up Lepke, while in hiding Lepke gets paranoid about his people squealing so he orders a hit on anyone in Brownsville that can connect him to the syndicate, especially Joey Collins and his wife Eadie who are living with him and now know too much. Finally Eadie can’t bear it anymore and goes to the police and becomes an informant. Turkus takes Joey and Eadie into protective custody. Which isn’t so protective but hey, I won’t ruin the film for you.
Once Reles realizes that Lepke is on his trail he agrees to spill the entire can of Murder Inc. beans on the operation too, knowing the law very well, and making a deal with Turkus for a lesser murder sentence and his promise of protection.
So Reles is also hidden away at the less than fortress-y Half Moon Hotel room watched over by disgruntled uniformed cops in Coney Island. I won’t give away the defenestration climax, but I will say that Lepke does finally face execution for his part in several unsolved murders. His last meal must have included a gallon of milk for that upset stomach disorder…
You can absolutely say that it’s Peter Falk’s incendiary performance as the high strung little punk with a Napoleonic complex based on true life Brooklyn gangster “kid twist’ Abe Reles earning him the Academy Award nomination for his combustive performance and his myriad of colorfully vicious asides.
It’s what makes Murder, Inc (1960) work so well, but there’s a lot of little inlaid gems that make this neo-noir crime drama a conflagration of mind gripping tropes and wonderful little characterizations.
Murder, Inc is a neo-noir/documentary style/crime-drama masterpiece featuring not only Falk’s searing performance, but David J. Stewart as the despicable complainer -Lepke who ran the syndicate in New York City and was connected to all the major city crime bosses who oversaw big money, murder and mayhem like a miserable business, taking out potential stool pigeons, or little shop owners who just can’t pay their protection fees — Vicious brutal and utterly mesmerizing the film plays like a nightmare while the well intended but at times inadequate good guys who just can’t seem to legally or physically pin down the bad guys without getting their witnesses murdered. Or it’s suggested that there are also insiders in the police department and government that shield these criminals from prison time. Murder Inc spreads like an insidious disease taking over the city, but like all things violent -they must eventually self-destruct as Stuart Whitman who plays Joey Collins: says to Reles, after he is arrested“I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry!”
Eadie (May Britt) is the film’s sufferer and sacrificial lamb as a woman who is either consistently abused and mistreated or woefully looked after by all the men in the film. She is surrounded by dread and ruin.
Talking about Lepke–“He came in the door like a king. He came with a hole in his stomach. All the time he stayed I was his house maid. Two Minute Eggs… (she closes her eyes)…. I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”
“I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”
This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I gotta go make a two minute egg!
Folie à deux (/fɒˈli ə ˈduː/; French pronunciation: [fɔli a dø]; French for “a madness shared by two”), or shared psychosis, is a psychiatric syndrome in which symptoms of a delusional belief and hallucinations are transmitted from one individual to another.
a·mour fou (ämo͝or ˈfo͞o)
1. uncontrollable or obsessive passion.
“The puzzle and threat of random violence is one of the defining tropes of true-crime”-Jean Murley
In Cold Blood (1967) is director Richard Brooks (The First Time I Saw Paris 1954, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958, Elmer Gantry 1960) masterpiece of modern nightmarish nihilistic ‘horror of personality’.
Columbia studios actually wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play the roles and wanted it shot in color. Newman went on to do Cool Hand Luke that year and McQueen starred in The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt in 1968. Thank god Brooks got his way and got to do his treatment in Black & White, on location and with lesser known actors, who both went on to earn Oscar nominations for their chilling performances of the murderous pair.
A post-war true crime thriller, what author Elliot Leyton terms Compulsive Killers: The Story of Modern Multiple Murder, the film is steeped in expressive realism about two thugs Robert Blake as Perry Smith a dark and damaged swarthy angel of death & Scott Wilson (In the Heat of the Night 1967, The Gypsy Moths 1969, The New Centurions 1972, The Great Gatsby 1974, The Right Stuff 1983) as Dick Hickock, who inspire in each other a sense of anti-establishment negativity.
These two drifters, having heard about a wealthy wheat farmer from a fellow inmate, think there is a safe in the house filled with $10,000. The two dark souls take siege upon the rural Holcolmb Kansas Clutter family in the middle of the night, hog tie them, look for the money, only to find this clean cut humble family has nothing to steal but $43, a bible and pasteurized milk in the icebox. The two proceed to shot gun murder and cut the throats of the entire household so there are… “No witnesses.” –Dick Hickock. There are two surviving daughters, Beverly and Eveanna that were spared this horror.
John Forsythe plays Alvin Dewey head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation who goes on the hunt collecting clues and tracking down the killers involved in this sensational crime.
Dewey tracks down these two bad boys, who have fled to Mexico where Perry (Robert Blake) loses himself in fantasies and painful flashbacks of his childhood with a violent father, whoring mother, of buried treasure, and prospecting for gold. Dick (Scott Wilson) gets tired out languishing around listening to Perry’s dreams and convinces him to head back to the States, passing bad checks along the way and winding up in Las Vegas. The police finally catch up with the murderous anti-social duo, where the men are finally broken of their alibi, and they are sentenced to die by ‘the big swing’ hanging.
Some scenes after Mexico…
Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15  (UPI) — A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged… There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.
—The New York Times
The film is based on Truman Capote’s non fiction novel that started the True Crime trend. Capote was looking to write a non-fiction novel and had been inspired by the shot gun murders of the Clutter family when the sensational crime hit the news in 1959.
The two were arrested on January 2, 1960 in Las Vegas and then executed by hanging on April 14, 1965. For the five years the two remained on death row they exchanged letters with Capote twice a week. Capote actually lived near the prison in Garden City and became very close in particular with Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock. According to Ralph F. Voss in his book Truman Capote and the Legacy of ‘In Cold Blood’ he writes that Smith had the idea that talking with Capote would spare him from the noose. But when he learns of the working title of the manuscript he winds up confronting Capote, who manages to manipulate him into confessing about the night of the Clutter murders.
Capote tells Smith that “The world will see him as a monster if he doesn’t open up and tell Capote what Capote wants to know.” Eventually Perry Smith does open up and relates that brutal night in a vivid confession to Capote that winds up being “memorable lines that appear in the book”. As Voss tells us, “It is during this confession that this film, like the book and like both Richard Brook’s and Jonathan Kaplan’s film’s before it portray the brutal murders of the Clutters. Capote marks the fourth time Herb, Kenyon, Nancy and Bonnie die in artistic representations of their tragedy–once in Capote’s pages, and three times on screen.”
The film doesn’t necessarily convey the emotional conflict that Capote felt for his subjects which is more obvious in his novel, he also created a connection with the killers that would be shared by the reader. According to writer Jean Murley from The Rise of True Crime: The 20th Century Murder and Popular Culture, “The simultaneous evocation of compassion for the murderer and horror at his deeds makes In Cold Blood a new form of murder narration… Capote’s narrative treatment of his subject would draw the reader into an uneasy and unprecedented relationship with killers, creating a sense of simultaneous identification and distance between reader and killer.” Murley asserts that there is a comfortable distance the reader experiences, “a vicarious thrill, a jolt of fear, and a comforting reassurance that the killer is contained.”
Just one more point about Capote’s novel that Jean Murley makes which I think is pretty revelatory about the killer (Perry) referred to as ‘sweet, suave and fascinatingly fatal’… ‘ who was at once a devious and dangerous loner and a sensitive wounded man’ within that is the notion that Murley distills the ‘ambiguity and intensity of the reader/killer relationship that allows the writer to interrogate notions of good and evil, self and other.” The film while starkly angled from the killers point of view for a good deal of the film, doesn’t quite evoke that same sympathetic enigma, though Robert Blake does an incredible job of portraying a wounded soul.
Conversely Dick Hickock is described and masterfully pulled off by Scott Wilson as “vulgar, ugly, brutal and shallow; he looks like a murderer (the real Hickock looks like a vicious punk) and he wants to rape Nancy Clutter before before killing her. Perry Smith is sensitive, handsome, artistic, a dreamer; sickened by Hickock’s lust(there is a scene in the film while the two are in Mexico where Hickock is drinking & carousing with a local working girl in the room with Perry) in the film Perry prevents the rape. And in keeping with the book, Perry almost loses his nerve to even go through with the robbery, getting sick in the gas station right up to the time they drive up to the Clutters property. There is some emphasis on Dick’s relationship to his cancer ridden father (Jeff Corey) which showcases the only genuine connection he has to humanity.
In particular Capote became very attached to Perry Smith, and struggled with demons about his execution, believed that both men’s natures were impacted by their early roots in poverty. Capote was tormented because he sold his soul to the devil, in order to write this ‘real’ book fueled by a tragic story that ultimately results not only in the murders of the Clutters but in the deaths of his subject of interest Perry Smith who went to the gallows. As Voss calls it, “the cost of literary non-fiction”. He also came to the conclusion that neither man was by himself a mass-murderer, but linked together they fed each-others egos and compensated for their inadequacies, as John McCarty says, “by constantly arousing and bolstering certain expectations of one another, they evolved into a potentially violent third party that was more than capable of murder.”
Eventually Capote would publish his true crime tome in The New Yorker in four installments between September and October of 1965, published as the book in 1966, and becoming a huge success adapted to film in 1967.
As Jean Murley points out in Rise of True Crime, The 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture “Capote brought together and perfected the nascent conventions of what would become true crime, and his basic formula has been copied ever since.”
The film is elevated to a level of intense and searing reality due to brilliant cinematographer Conrad L. Hall’s (Edge of Fury 1958, The Outer Limits television series 1963-64, Harper 1966, Cool Hand Luke 1967, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid 1969, The Day of the Locust 1975, Marathon Man 1976, American Beauty 1999) incredible eye for scoping out a palpable environment filled with dread, tension and instability in the normally ordinary settings. Either mastering the closed in spaces between figures who shape the narrative, he also captures the alienation in the scenes when the duo are driving through the dirty dusty openness of the Great Plains. The additional moody atmosphere is lent a heightened sense of anxiety by Quincy Jones’ cool score. The film cast includes; John Forsythe as Alwin Dewey, Paul Stewart as Reporter Jenson, Gerald S. O’ Loughlin as Harold Nye, Jeff Corey as Mr. Hickock, Charles McGraw as Mr. Smith, Sammy Thurman as Mrs. Smith, Will Geeras The Prosecutor.
The film opens with a starkly gloomy night scene, Quincy Jone’s slick score leading us into the scene, as a Greyhound bus heads toward the camera. Inside, Robert Blake dark and brooding is sitting with his guitar. Conrad L Hall lights Perry’s intense face with the strike of a match he uses to light his cigarette. In a powerful moment it accesses our full attentions. Perry blows the little flame out and all at once the scene is wiped out in one puff! The film begins to peak our senses of danger in much the way Robert Siodmak’s masterpiece of film noir The Killers (1964)opening had led us into the plot.
As Jürgen Müller eloquently says it in his overview of 1960s cinema –“In Cold Blood opes with a flash and stealthily proceeds to trap its prey in a fog of eerie cinematic expression, born of its black and white photography and Quincy Jones’ dark jazz score.”
In November of 1959 Kansas, two ex-cons and social outliers, the quiet , yet brooding Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and hyper-kinetic egotist Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) conspire to go out on an adventure to travel 400 miles in a beat up old Chevy, in order to rob the Clutter family farmhouse. The film is part genre of the dark road trip film as the two maneuver, scheme and machinate on their dark road trip toward their fate. True crime flash back, neo-noir, police procedural, the shades of gray between good vs evil and a moral commentary on the death penalty, allowing the narrative to elicit sympathy and a vision from both murderers point of view, the ‘outlaws perspective’. It is still a very sobering view into the minds of the human offal of society.
Perry Smith’s most infamous statement about the crime, “I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
Dick had been fed some gossip by an inmate friend, that Herbert Clutter (John McLiam) a wealthy farmer keeps a fortune, $10,000 stashed in his safe at the house. The two decide that it would be an easy job to grab the loot and head for Mexico, leaving their hard lives behind them. What becomes a spiraling coil of nerves, is fed from both Perry’s apprehension about the plot working and Dick’s cock sure attitude. In the twist of fate, it is Perry’s growing inner aggression that becomes the catalyst for the final annihilation of the family. Though Dick acts the part of punk, saying ‘No Witnesses he is not only priming Perry to be the one to have blood on his hands but by this time it is Perry who at first seems hesitant and adverse to violence, explodes in cold nuclear fission of seemingly senseless bloodshed.
The way In Cold Blood is constructed, it begins to release the tightly wound coil as the two draw nearer to the Clutter home, we are introduced to this clean cut American family in their daily life, in the light of the day, showing the family as an ordinary close and loving bunch right before they are about to be slaughtered. By the time the two men arrive, it is the dark and ominous shadow of night cloaking the ranch. Perry and Dick begin to wrangle the family bringing the men down to the basement tied up. But it is the day after the murders once the police arrive and told later on in flashback that we get hints of the savagery, that we could only imagine was about to happen the night before.
The Kansas police begin their search in vain, as Perry and Dick make it to Mexico to hide out. Dick who is interested in partying with the senóritas Perry living half in surreal flashbacks to his bleak beginnings as a child with several siblings and his mother a beautiful Native American woman who liked her alcohol and other young men and committed suicide. His brutal father who drew a shot gun on him and chased him out of the house. Perry had a grim, sad and claustrophobic life, and thus he fantasizes. Perry makes a reference to digging for gold just like Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madra 1947. The irony of him finding empty bottles in the dessert that only yield a few cents, which he shares with a young homeless boy and his grandfather is a particularly humanizing scene in the midst of the fatalistic outcome that is inevitable. Perry never meant to amount to anything but a lost dreamer with no home.
Not only is Perry a dreamer, but Dick is an egomaniac and also has delusions of grandeur. Once the two figure on having to come back to Nevada in order to get some cash, they are quickly picked up by the authorities and charged with the murders. Soon after, they realized they will be facing the death penalty.
Perry revisits that night at the Clutters, flashing moments of the night on the screen. We see them fumbling for the non existent safe. The mass murder that only yielded them a mere $43. We see Perry and Dick rummaging through the house looking for anything valuable. Hall’s camera finally settles on the family coldly bound, gagged and positioned in a certain way that sends chills up the spine. Ultimately it is here that it is revealed that its the reluctant and quietly brewing fury inside Perry that goes on a single rampage and executes each family member calmly and cold-bloodily.
Once again, Jürgen Müller-“The contradictions of the characters give the audience an inkling of what might have led to this senseless act of ultra violence.”
There is an element of homo-erotic attraction between Perry and Dick. It is unspoken yet it’s palpable to me, amidst the warm beer, faded treasure maps, dark brooding antagonism, prison scars, tattoos, sweating, greasy hair, aspirin popping, peacockery, wise-cracking resentment toward society and the morally driven nuclear family of the mid to late 50s.
From Movie Psychos and Madmen-Film Psychopaths from Jekyll and Hyde to Hannibal Lecter by John McCarty- McCarty’s chapter on Killer Couples points out how Capote’s film was the most “famous example of this type of lethal psychological interrelationship.” And though Smith had boasted to Hickock that he wasn’t a stranger to killing before that fateful night where his pent up aggression turned violent and he cold-bloodily killed four innocent people. Hickock was the one who “earmarked the Clutters for robbery, and it was he who engineered the heist by passing bad checks to buy the materials needed for the job. More important, it was Hickock, who was the dominant half of the pair.” Hickock appears the alpha male who uses the term ‘faggot’ too easy and Smith the submissive lover within the dynamic of their odd relationship. McCarty goes on to write, “Smith looked up to him and slaughtered the defenseless Clutters, toward whom Smith admitted later he never felt any anger, as a way of proving himself to his more glib, brash, and manipulative buddy.”
“You’re good. You’re really good! Smith tells Hickock who moves with ease as he proceeds to con a bunch of store owners passing bad checks. And on the flip side, Hickock is also impressed once Smith kills the helpless Clutters whose only provocation to violence is that they are ordinary. McCarty’s insight points out that like Leopold and Loeb, the same function worked for that killer pair, the less dominant wound up being the one who perpetrated the murder, while the more controlling “partner lent immoral support.”
Here is a recently released article in the Smithsonian about Capote’s long time friend and writer Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).
The Big Yellow Bird he is referring to is a symbol, a warrior angel that comes to him in his dreams It is his savior, a protector he had during his dark days. He describes the bird as being “taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower.”
The irony of the film plays itself out in little subtle commentaries like the insurance salesman who wishes Herb Clutter the night before he is murdered “A very long and healthy life” or the moment in Las Vegas, Dick at the wheel of the car wanting to gamble because he’s feeling lucky, at that split second the police car pulls up next to them and the scene cuts away to the Perry and Dick being brought in to the station.
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
― Sigmund Freud
“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!
Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”
Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962—“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”
The Naked Venus 1959–“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”
Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961)“The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”
Lorna (1964)-“Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”
The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham“I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathoryin Daughters of Darkness (1971)– “Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”
Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)–“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”
The Lickerish Quartet (1970)–“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”
THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)– Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”
Peter O’Toole asSir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”
Euripides 425 B.C.–“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”
WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?
psychotronic|ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia
In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!
FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…
THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!
I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!
Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. WhileFilm Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.
Directed by Barry Shear, (Wild in the Streets 1968,Across 110th Street 1972) written by Joel Oliansky, Dennis Murphy and Mann Rubin. It stars Robert F. Lyonsas the infamous true life serial killer (Charles Schmid) Skipper Todd. The film hosts an incredible cast of actors, Richard Thomas, Belinda Montgomery, Sherry Miles, Joyce Ames, Holly Near, James Broderick, Gloria Grahame, Fay Spain, Edward Asner, Barbara Bel Geddes, Michael Conrad and Meg Foster.
It’s a bit of rare 70s THRILLER genre vérité, which is brutally stripped bare of self consciousness or moral ambiguity. Director Barry Shear shows no pretense with this film, it’s bleak and graphic and stars the fresh scrubbed American youthfulness of Robert F Lyons who is chilling as he inhabits the persona of Steven ‘Skipper’ Todd with the acuity of an anti social archetypal socio-path, a foreshadowing doppelgänger of serial killers to come.
Based on the real life character of 60s thrill killer, Charles Schmid also dubbed the Pied Piper of Tucson who was found guilty of murder in 1966 and sentenced to death, but wound up getting 50 years to life, when the state of Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty in 1971. Eventually Schmid himself was murdered in prison.
Lyons worldly ruthlessly inhospitable persona channels a charismatic young philosophical misanthrope who embodies the 60s attitude of the anti establishment credo, taking it to a violent level of psychotic abandon. Todd becomes an anti- hero to the local youth who worship him, in particular the very young women he easily beds, who treat him like a deity. He exhibits the qualities of a Svengali as he manipulates both male and female devotees. Todd is cool and urbane, charming his way into the lives of several high school teenagers in a small California town. There is a jaundiced atmosphere to this community, as the complacency and rumbling undercurrent of disturbed restlessness paint a very uneasy portrait of American life off kilter.
When the film opens, Todd has killed a 16 year old girl named Sue Ellen Mack, having recruited two other teenagers to help cover up the crime by burying the body in the vast and ceaseless desert, the perfect place to lose a body. One teen is an overweight girl Norma (Holly Near) who hangs on Skipper like a minion, clinging to him like a swooning groupie and the other a scraggy termite called Andy.
Shear directs each scene with a heartless realism. The three while leaving the desert just having buried Sue Ellen, pick up Billy Roy ( Richard Thomas) who is hitchhiking, just having been released from reform school. There is the sensibility to the film that exposes a mob mentality. This heightened sense of a younger fringe craving to dwell aimlessly outside of society, the phrase used often to signify an opposition to society or being a ‘citizen’ is prevalent in sub genre films, such as the biker genre. In this environment it is feasible that an awakening adolescence would be mesmerized by an outlier, a bad boy, and therefore aide in concealing the crime. It’s conceivable that a flock of youths could be present at the scene of a murder, not only do nothing to stop it, and in fact, help in it’s surreptitious design to cover it up, and allude the police. The unrepentant complicity to the crimes bares a similarity to the working dynamic of the 1986 film The River’s Edge
Skipper Todd manipulates Richard Thomas‘ character Billy like a master puppeteer, dangling the potential for romance with his former classmate Amata. Billy has been obsessed with Amata since High School. Unfortunately Amata only has eyes for Skipper, and poor naive Billy is so easily influenced and blinded by his attraction to this girl that he doesn’t see how Todd is using him as yet another pawn in his coterie.
Belinda Montgomery plays Roberta a pretty 16 year old girl from an affluent family, who is less pliant and impressionable at first. It is her rebellious attitude and her blatant defiance toward Skipper’s malevolent magnetism, which charge his advances which become more potent, as he becomes drawn to her the more she resists.
She’s the one female who appears immune at first to Skipper’s charms. Although she restrains from falling into the same infatuated vapidness like the other girls, ultimately after Skipper breaks into her house one night, beats and rapes her, she finally breaks down and succumbs to his control and decries that she loves him. The manifest use of violence against women as sexual stimulation, and the tenet of annihilating women’s power through control, not love is another inherent trope of the story. Skipper mother as a role model only teaches him to take, to make money, and skews the boundaries of love for him by bestowing upon him an odd, underlying sexualized affection.
We are clued into Skipper Todd’s evolution as a misogynist, as an Oedipal nightmare, who fancies himself an elitist an Übermensch, Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman who poses as anti-hero, bemoaning the state of society and it’s lemmings who conform, yet ironically depending on the very thing he condemns in order to suck the life force out of it. This he needs for his egoist dogma to be able to thrive, feeding off the susceptible, and violating the vulnerable, just as Mrs. Todd picks the bones clean of the elderly men she is charged to take care of.
Though living as an outsider, he needs followers to facilitate his crimes. To help him bury the bodies. He espouses that people have ‘stale dreams’ and that society is riddled with lying and selfishness. In this he is a true Sociopath, as he is the most selfish phony of them all. As self deluded as was Charles Manson who consider himself to be a songwriter and profit, Todd also writes songs on his guitar, recording himself singing glorifying lyrics about his strangulations of the girls he kills. A minstrel madman, strumming and fucking his way through Tucson.
As I’ve said earlier, Todd’s followers include a young Richard Thomas as Billy Roy a guileless yet loyal young man, who unwittingly enables Todd to continue his blood lust and ravaging of young girls. Billy remains naive until the end, when he finally sees the true evil nature of his friend Skipper Todd, and ultimately turns on him.
Shear’s The Todd Killings conveys the feeling of hopelessness and hollow confinement which pervade much of the film and the collective scenes of impulsive brutality. Whether or not the story is historically accurate to the events that led up to Scmid’s capture is unclear, regardless the narrative is a somber, chilling mood piece about society and the attractive monsters it sometimes breeds.
The film creates an eerie, often brutally unsettling tone that unleashes a sense that there is no way out of conformity. You either live an existence of an ugly sterile complacency or wind up being sacrificed on the altar of individual freedom.
The use of the desert as a playground/killing field for Todd and his followers creates an alienating environment. Todd’s compulsion sets the tone for a fraying wire of isolation, in which a barren land of free love and reckless idolatry ultimately lead Todd and his followers to devolve by the film’s tragic end.
At the root of Todd’s twisted nature lies that hint of Oedipal fixation, as his relationship with his mother portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes bares the reflections of an incestuous partnership. Todd’s conflation of sex and violence, his natural adeptness at manipulation and psycho-sexual violation ultimately make him a serial killer who thrives on destroying that which he is fixated on. The film provides us with an insight into his hatred of women, American motherhood, and the society that engenders both to be simple offerings for the slaughter.
Mrs. Todd’s, Skipper’s money hungry mother owns a nursing home for elderly men running it like a military complex, all of who’s family members never visit. She manages this ‘institution’ like a waiting room for decaying livestock, providing minimal comforts, she’s more militant in her administrations than compassionate as a care giver. For her this is nothing but a business arrangement that supports her simple lifestyle. She shows no emotional connection to the elderly men in her care, nor for her son, who visits periodically, skulking around for hand outs. No emotional maternal outpouring, yet a queer romantic sort of banter.
Skipper tells her that he would ‘rather die than make my living that way.’ She tells him that he is in fact ‘living off them…We all make our lives that way, that’s what life is all about.”
Skipper treats her more like one of the many girlfriends he uses in order to cop some ready spending money. Mrs Todd spouts off about life like an unemotional puritanical hen, urging him to find employment or at least help her out there at the home, which he violently rejects.
The entire atmosphere of the old age home and the town, is disparaging of the human condition and gives us a little insight into Skipper Todd’s lack of empathy, largely pronounced by the contrasting verve of the youth culture shown asphyxiating by the small -town’s conservatism.
Todd’s mother is a clinically acidic detached, and cold-blooded ‘mother figure’ and a reminder that though Skipper seems repulsed by the way the old men have been abandoned by their families, it is still their money that he virtually parasites off of when he comes calling for a hand out from his confederate mother.
Without giving away the climax of the film, I will say that there is a particular scene towards the end that is so savage, framed with such a starkly simple realism, that it is utterly jarring.
The Todd Killings creates a story telling that fuses together our very real fears of the social boogeyman who lurk amidst all us ‘normal’ seeming folk, and although filmed in the 70s, it makes a timeless leap into a contemporary arena without loosing any of its thrust. It tells the story of a monster like Charles Schmid, without feeling outdated or hazy around the edges due to lack of a more graphic or gore drenched narrative.
The film also doesn’t rely on police procedural to fill us in on the details, it is told partly from the perspective of Todd’s own dystopian psyche and partly from the victims themselves. In particular Montgomery’s portrayal of Roberta which is nuanced, strikingly dramatic and ultimately heart wrenching.
The film also stars one of my favorite unsung actresses Gloria Grahame as Billy Roy’s mother. It also co-stars the wonderful Edward Asner, Fay Spain, James Broderick, Michael Conrad as Detective Shaw, and good old Holly Near as Norma ( just can’t forget her in Angel, Angel Down We Go 1969)as one of Skippers nubile sycophants.
“Teenage girls looking for the body of Alleen Rowe, in connection with murderer Charles Schmid.” Photo from LIFE magazine., via Sweetheart of the Rodeo’s blog post: Hell among the yearlings
On March 10, 1975, Schmid was stabbed 47 times by two fellow prisoners, he died almost a month later.
Skipper Todd: I can sleep with them once because it degrades them. It makes them dirty. The worst thing about it is… you meet a chick who isn’t… bad. You can’t screw her because you don’t want to make her “dirty.”
Roberta: You actually came to see me without any of your baby-pimps? Wow. How do I rate that honor?