Thursday, September 3, 2009

15 Movies That Stuck With Me

The Asphalt Jungle
Citizen Kane
Witness for the Prosecution
The Bad Seed
Dressed to Kill (1946)
Night of the Hunter
Psycho
The Heiress
To Kill a Mockingbird
Suddenly, Last Summer
Dr. Strangelove
Lawrence of Arabia
Jaws
The Long Hot Summer
Adam’s Rib

Everybody loves surveys. Lately Facebook friends have been asking each other, “What movies stick with you? You have 15 minutes to come up with your top 15.” My friends’ lists are astonishingly different. I had no idea “Heidi” was Bec’s favorite movie, or that Drake was a big Dustin Hoffman fan—he’s put “Midnight Cowboy” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” on his top 15. But then I found out that “Heidi” was not at the top of Bec’s love- it-seen-it-a-hundred-times list. She just can’t forget the scene where Klara gets out of her chair and walks. And Drake being a fan of Dustin Hoffman? Not really. “Midnight Cowboy” was the first truly adult movie he saw, and “Kramer” came out when he was fighting his ex for custody of their children.

A movie sticks with you for a variety of reasons. It could be that it is visually stunning, like “Lawrence of Arabia.” Or a character like Boo Radley (and Robert Duvall’s performance) in “To Kill a Mockingbird” just won’t let go. Or you shudder every time you think of the look on Olivia deHaviland’s face as she walks up the stairs in “The Heiress.”

I see patterns in my list. Two-thirds are mysteries, and most involve violent crime. At least 11 were based on books or plays. Twelve are in black and white. I saw 14 out of the 15 as a child. I have good taste—most won or were nominated for Academy Awards.

Of all the original and striking aspects of “Citizen Kane”—directing, innovative camera action, cutting, translating such huge stage and radio talent to the screen, rich development of complicated characters—my favorite is Welles’s narrative choice. The way he chose to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane—stories within stories--is so much more than a series of flashbacks. The only movie that comes close to it is “Memento.” A faceless reporter goes on a quest to discover the meaning of a rich and powerful man’s last words. It’s a mystery that the people closest to Kane and the reporter himself never figure out. But the filmmaker gives us the answer. When Welles reveals the secret to us we feel an enormous sense of satisfaction because not only is the mystery solved for us, it is a secret we share with the story-teller.

When I first saw “The Asphalt Jungle” I prayed that gut-shot Dix, played by Sterling Hayden, would make it home to the bluegrass fields of Kentucky and I was sick to my stomach when he didn’t. This was probably the first time I was rooting for a hero, someone I’d come to care about even if he was a criminal, who didn’t win. This was a new experience for me. Did I make a poor moral choice? Why was I attracted to this character? A lot of questions for an eight-year-old.

I cut my teeth on courtroom dramas with one of the best--“Witness for the Prosecution.” Her performance as Christine Vole is arguably Dietrich’s best. And there’s not just one twist at the end but two. Plus, who can forget Janet McKenzie on the witness stand?

Just about any Sherlock Holmes movie starring Basil Rathbone could be on my list. I chose “Dressed to Kill,” the one about music boxes, because I am fascinated by how music can be a clue to solving a mystery. Standard forensic tools—magnifying glasses, sniffing dogs, autopsies, microscopes--are irrelevant. It is Holmes the musician who observes the differences among the variations of the tune and in fact Watson who figures out their relevance. (And Holmes gives him credit.) Adding to the suspense is that a group of very smart and ruthless crooks—the murder of Watson’s old chum Stinky is unforgivable—is following the same clues.

“Night of the Hunter” is not only one of the most visually stunning films ever made, it features one of the creepiest characters ever imagined. The fact that a sociopath hiding behind the collar of a preacher could fool so many salt-of-the-earth people for so long scared the hell out of me. It still does. How can anything be amiss with someone who brings so many souls to Jesus? Movies like this are dangerous—they make you start questioning social institutions and wondering about the hypocrisy you see around you.

Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was one of my first exposures to a sociopathic personality. More than one person in my family had been treated for neurosis, so the idea that there are genetic tendencies toward mental illness already worried me. Plus Rhoda was female. And a child. Could my parents see that movie and decide I wasn’t so bad in comparison?

The most startling feature of “Psycho” is not that the heroine meets a violent end early in the film, but that Hitchcock and Perkins make the killer so sympathetic. We are morally outraged by murder and want to see justice for Marion Crane, but we’re fascinated by Norman and want to understand him, and at least a small part of us wants him to succeed. We enjoy this internal conflict and seek it by watching the movie again and again. Plus, this film addresses a seldom-treated aspect of murder. The clean-up. Could we do as well, covering up for our own mothers?

“Dr. Strangelove” demonstrated the power of film to me. I was indoctrinated to believe that d├ętente with the Ruskies was tantamount to worshipping Satan and that the U.S. was justified any time it dropped any bombs on anyone, and right here in the living room my parents were laughing at this movie. How did the filmmaker make these bomb-shelter-building ultra-conservatives forget their belief system and relish the humor of a horrifying scenario they swore could never happen?

“Suddenly, Last Summer,” fascinated me because I found myself able to understand the action from metaphor and implication. Williams deals with such taboo themes as the Oedipal complex, homosexuality, and cannibalism without overtly referring to any of them. This subtlety was thrilling for me as a teenager, intellectually and artistically. It was also stimulating that the action revolves around a character who has been dead for months and whose violent end is not only incomprehensible in its ferocity and unfairness, it can not possibly be avenged. Catherine’s reveal is a triple-whammy—it lets everyone know how Sebastian died, it saves her from the nut house and sends the one who wanted to put her there into it. Wow.

In the hands of another filmmaker “Jaws” would have been a good action movie, but Spielberg’s direction elevates it to classic status. The directorial choices he makes are spot-on. He communicates layers of story visually, the actors inhabit their roles effortlessly, and the action and dialog ring true. Add superlative editing by Verna Fields and the most appropriate score imaginable by John Williams, and you have a primer for any aspiring director on how to make a classic.

Movies allowed me to glimpse romances that were different from my parents’, and I paid particular attention when it was obvious on screen that two actors were in love in real life. The 50-year romance Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward began during the filming of “The Long Hot Summer” translated to the screen, and as I watched them spark and spar as Ben Quick and Clara Varner, I wondered, “Is this what falling in love is?”

Real-life partners Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play husband and wife attorneys in “Adam’s Rib,” and their off-screen intimacy translates to the screen as well. In the play, written by real-life husband and wife Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the characters maintain their intellectual integrity, moral idealism, and the sanctity of their marriage while fighting on opposite sides of an ethical and legal issue. This was a very exciting version of the institution of marriage that I wasn’t certain would work in real life. I found out it is quite possible, going on forty years now.

I see deeper patterns here than the ones I stated up front. Yes, I have chosen movies that revolve around crime and murder, revenge and obsession, sociopathy and mental illness. Even the comedies feature major felonies. But the larger pattern is that all these movies are masterpieces of story-telling--the filmmakers chose exciting, novel ways to deliver the action. And as a story-teller, that’s what impresses and interests me the most.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Timeless Advice from Strunk & Lucas

Omit Needless Words 500


If you’re driving in Indianapolis on Guion Road, rubberneck to the west as you go under the 38th St. overpass and you won’t see this graffiti—it’s a digital composite. I didn’t really want to get shot defacing some banger’s logo. The spirit was willing even if the flesh was prudent.

I’ve always envisioned Professor Strunk standing before his English 8 class in a rumpled suit, tie askew, hair wild and woolly, pounding his fist on the podium as he hurls Rule Seventeen at his students.

Strunk’s advice is at the top of a poster on the wall in my office (next to the one of Henry Lee Lucas’s Rules for the Successful Serial Killer). Other words of wisdom follow:

Thomas Jefferson: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Dr. Johnson: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

William Faulkner and Scott Peterson apparently didn’t mean the same thing by “Kill your darlings.”

And that brings me to Henry Lee’s rules, the simplicity of which I think Strunk would approve:

1. Don’t kill anybody you know. (HLL eventually got caught when he ignored this cardinal rule.)
2. Don’t use the same M.O. twice.
3. Keep moving. Do your next one miles away, in a different jurisdiction.
4. Don’t use the same weapon twice. Dispose of it. You can always score another one.
5. Ditto for your vehicles.

Stay focused, keep it simple, keep writing!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Touched by Murder

Most of us have been touched by murder. Even without a direct connection to a homicide—even if you don’t personally know a victim or a killer, or are not connected to the criminal justice system on either side--“six degrees”--and probably fewer—separate most people from a murder. How many degrees separate you from a victim of 9/11? A school shooting? A home invasion? A hit-and-run? A domestic disturbance gone bad?

John and I are not involved in criminal activity, we do not live a high-crime area, and none of our friends are murderers, yet we are directly or indirectly connected to a number of homicides.

My father-in-law, a policeman on IPD for twenty years, worked his share of murder cases as a patrolman and a detective. Also, as a rookie cop he was involved in the Elder Avenue shootout--a mental patient shot eight officers before police returned fire and hit him twenty-eight times.

My father, a physician, once worked as the Marion County deputy coroner. He kept a gun from a homicide case as a souvenir.

My brother-in-law, a lawyer for the Indiana Attorney General’s office, argued death penalty cases before the appellate court for many years.

An in-law’s father served on the Manson jury.

Two professional colleagues on opposite sides of the country were murdered in cold blood.

I took piano lessons a few doors away from where a yuppie lawyer murdered his wife and stuffed her in the ironing board closet.

A neighbor killed his ex-wife, her father, and a policeman, and wounded her mother and blinded another officer after a police stand-off at his ex-in-law’s home--which happened to be across the street from the house John lived in when he was young.

My parents knew many of the parishioners of the church of a minister and his wife who were axe-murdered after Christmas Eve services.

A house a few doors down from a home a realtor once showed us was later purchased by a man who killed his wife and baby and stuffed them in the freezer in the garage.

A policeman-colleague of my father-in-law was murdered; the case was never solved. He lived across the street from where we live now.

I covered a murder trial as a reporter.

A co-worker’s baby-sitter also watched the children murdered by serial killer Stephen Judy.

A dear friend’s mother was murdered by home invaders in Zimbabwe.

John and I were witnesses in a murder trial after we were almost victims ourselves—we escaped the killer by a clever twist of words.

Closest to home—literally--was the murder-suicide in the house next door. It happened twenty feet away from us as we slept in our bed.

Is it any wonder, then, that I write true crime and mystery stories?

Hallway Justice

If you want to see how the criminal justice system really works, pick a bench outside a courtroom and sit there for a couple of hours. John and I are witnesses for the prosecution in a murder trial but have to wait in the hallway near Municipal Court 15 (3rd floor, West Wing, City-County Building) for our turn to testify in case someone else’s testimony influences ours. As we sit there and observe the passing scene, we discover the criminal justice system operates quite differently in real life than is depicted on episodes of “Law and Order” or “Shark.” Outcomes might become official in the courtroom, but they are decided in the elevators, hallways, stairwells, and restrooms outside.

There is an easy camaraderie among the lawyers--they greet each other warmly. Anyone dressed better than blue jeans is either an attorney or works in the building. Lawyers and clients with any clout confer in anterooms. The rest meet--many for the first time, a few minutes before the case is called--in the hallway.

An attorney in a gray suit outlines the options to a young woman in a tight blouse. “You were caught with the joint in your car,” he says. Her husband is a drug dealer, but if he goes down for it, the family will lose the breadwinner. “They’ll take the title to the car and suspend your license for 180 days.” She looks disgusted. “It’s state statute,” he explains. “They have to do it.” He explains that if she’s clean--no more felony raps for three years--the conviction will be expunged and she can truthfully check the box on a job application “never been convicted of a felony.”

A young man nearby cannot claim that. His white-haired lawyer advises him it will go worse for him because his last felony conviction was less than three years ago. (Apparently the three-year-rule plays a significant role in these people’s lives.) His case was scheduled for today but White Hair won a continuance.

Most people coming out of courtroom 15 are holding yellow continuance slips: “Your case has been continued to-“ Did the record cold last week push too many trials into this week, or are the wheels of justice this slow, as a rule? We don’t know. Our own court appearances have been postponed three times. We received four sets of subpoenas to testify as prosecution witnesses to a murder committed sixteen months before.

Another older attorney accompanies a 40-ish heavyset woman and a young man down the hall. She’s on her way to put up bail money for her son. She tugs the sleeve of her son’s attorney. “He’s a good boy,” the woman says. She is incredulous the judge didn’t dismiss the charges. “He comes by every Sunday with a bucket of chicken.”

A young man in sagging jeans emerges from the courtroom with his attorney after a successful appearance. “Oh, I got this other thing going, too,” he says.

“What’s that?”

“Car theft.”

“Okay,” says the attorney, a tall man with silver hair. “You want me to rep you on that?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, that’ll be a total of 750. You got the 375 for today?”

Saggy Jeans whips out a wad of bills and peels off $375.

“Okay, when is it?” Silver Hair sets down his lambskin briefcase and takes out his day planner.

“March 1.”

“What time?”

“10:30.”

“Okay, see you then.” Saggy Jeans will brief Silver Hair at 10:25 on the morning of March 1.

A scared young man about 20 holding the inevitable yellow slip sits on a bench between an attractive woman of 30 and an older attorney. The woman asks, “You gonna help my little brother?” She nods in greeting to various people walking by while the lawyer explains what her brother can expect. She might be an attorney herself, or work in the building.

“I’m here for my little brother.” She pulls the young man off the bench. “This is my little brother.”

They all get in the elevator. “You gonna help my little brother?”

A skinny man with coke bottle glasses gets out of the elevator. It’s Ronny*, a clerk from the video store we go to. He’s stoned out of his gourd but still recognizes us. He explains, “I was so upset about this DUI I had to smoke a doobie before I came to court.” Maybe he thinks being blitzed is a legal excuse for missing a court date, or the judge will be more sympathetic if he comes to court baked instead of drunk. In the case we’re testifying for, the defendant thought he could avoid the kidnapping charge if he married the girlfriend he kidnapped. Ronny waits with us while his attorney confers with another client on a bench nearby.

* all names have been changed to protect us from the convicted.

A heavily muscled guy with cuts and scratches on his face paces the hallway. “Five years! Five years, man!” he complains to his lawyer. “They’re going to take my license for five years!” Five years is actually good, his attorney explains: “They take away your license for life, it means ten years. Ten years means five, five means less than nothing.” A suspended license did not mean his client needed to stop driving; it just meant a bigger hassle if he got caught behind the wheel.

I am wondering when the attorney will bring up the cuts and scratches, but he does not because his client received them in a recent altercation that 1) is irrelevant to the traffic violation he was representing him for and 2) represents no fresh charges (billable hours) as no one had called the police.

A rumpled attorney emerges from the elevator and looks around. “Kevin Jones! Kevin Jones!” he yells. He finally finds Kevin, a slight young man who’s been wandering around the hallway, in the bathroom. The lawyer pushes Kevin into the elevator. “You’re supposed to the upstairs! Drug court, man, drug court! I almost sent a sheriff after you!”

As they step into the elevator we hear a snippet of conversation between two other passengers: “Then my other charge, my stolen car charge, that’s-“ and the doors close.

Ronny’s lawyer is finished with his client and comes over. “You can take this, or you are entitled to a jury trial, or you can go before a judge. This is what they’re offering you.”

Ronny mumbles, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”

“Whatever you wanna do,” the attorney says.

“No, whatever you wanna do,” Ronny says.

The attorney sighs. “Seven dollars a day for house arrest, 180-day suspension.”

Ronny is silent. He is too stoned to understand that the best deal has been offered up front. I don’t think he took the deal because we never see him again at the video store.

The woman in the tight blouse up on the possession charge is back with her attorney. “Sign this,” he says. “This means you understand the charges and accept the probation.” He shoves the form in her lap. “The charges have been explained to you. Sign this.”

The woman looks away for a minute. She’s seeing one year, two years down the road. Her lawyer is repeating, “And this will be expunged from your record if you’re not charged with another felony in the next three years-“ he looks at her- “which I don’t think is gonna happen…“

A clerk comes out and calls John’s name. He gives me a smile and disappears into courtroom 5. I’m next.

Two men in Raiders jerseys greet each other. The heavier one complains, “They said, ‘thirty-six counts of possession of state property.’ Burglary! I ain’t done nothin’, man! That’s a motherf------- bunch of shit. Then they got this motherf------- charge of assault against my woman. I’m motherf------- supposed to be living with her, they said. I can’t motherf------- do that! And that people that done it was the neighbors. We just moved in there a motherf------- month and they called on us!”

The smaller one shakes his head in disbelief.

Three attorneys are chatting when a clerk from courtroom 15 rushes out. “Do you represent Slater?” he asks the one in the middle. “I have a Slater who says you’re his lawyer.” The attorney calls to his paralegal down the hall, “Do we have a Slater?” At her nod, he and the clerk run back toward the courtroom. One of the other lawyers yells after them, “Is it a male Slater? I had a Donald Slater once.”

A young attorney, papers in hand, stops an older lawyer. “Hey, where can I find this case- would it be in six?”

“Is it municipal?” asks the older man.

“Yes.”

“How old is it?”

“1988.”

“They might still have it,” the veteran says. “It’s probably in the sub-basement, though.”

The young man disappears into courtroom 6 but emerges in a few minutes. He takes the elevator to the sub-basement, where he will spend the rest of the day. The older man looks after him. He’s perhaps thinking, You made it through law school, probably had to hold a job while attending classes, and at night visions of Perry Mason and Matlock and $50,000 retainers danced in your head. You end up defending people making $7500 a year, a third of which goes for your fees--in cash, up front--with not a lot left for gold wheel rims or child support payments. This is the life of a criminal defense attorney.

A tall young man in a suit--the first defendant wearing a suit today--waits for the elevator with his lawyer. The attorney pushes the button again and says, “It doesn’t look good, man.”

The client shakes his head. “I wasn’t there, man.”

“They got two witnesses. They testified.”

The client is angry. “Hey, I got witnesses of my own,” he says.

The attorney looks around. He says, “If you can come up with two witnesses, we might have a shot.”

The young man in the suit nods his head as they step into the elevator. He can probably come up with a couple.

It’s my turn to testify. I’m the final witness for the state. There was no disputing the man’s guilt--witnesses and evidence nailed him for the homicide. Our testimony proved the defendant had been stalking for a kill; it destroyed the one defense contention, that the murder was spontaneous and unpremeditated.

He was convicted on all charges and sentenced to two hundred years, but died in prison about three years later.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

There will be blood...and vomit

Ah, yes, I remember it well. My older brothers John and Andy are playing marbles in their corner bedroom, the one with the airplane curtains. I am out in the hall doing the “little sister hover.” I am terribly curious about this masculine pastime of “playing marbles,” but intruding on male territory is unthinkable—unless I have an excuse. I await my opportunity. Suddenly, a marble rolls out into the hallway under the huge oak bookcase. Holding close to my heart the vain hope of somehow being allowed into the game if I retrieve the errant aggie, I lunge after it. In my eagerness to please I have forgotten a cardinal rule of physics, and my thick skull meets the solid leg of the bookcase.

Crack! goes my cranium, and a torrent of blood starts gushing from my forehead. I cannot see through the flood streaming into my eyes but can hear laughter coming from the northeast, i.e., the direction of the boy’s bedroom. King, the trusty family dog, hears the commotion and comes running. He lovingly laps the blood from my face and promptly vomits. Someone alerts Mom. When she sees her youngest’s head covered in blood and dog vomit she screams—she, a mother of four older children and a doctor’s wife to boot, has forgotten that even a minor head wound gushes enough blood to satisfy the most ardent wrestling fan. Amy puts a towel to my forehead and we all troop to the phone in the master bedroom. Dr. Scott (of the family that gave us our cat Maynard) instructs her to get me right over to his office, as these are pre-911 days. He expertly stitches me up, and before long, alas, only the shadow of a scar remained. I was already fantasizing telling strangers (for everyone in my small circle of home, school, and church would know what really happened) the story of how I got the scar rescuing a baby from a burning building, or perhaps in a deathmatch with another international spy where I used my tumbling skills to lethal advantage.

It’s hard to top another family scar story that comes from my dad’s brother Don. Don was born in 1916 and served in WWII. Throughout our childhood my sister Louisa and I believed that he received the long scar that runs down his face in the sands of North Africa. There he was, locked in hand-to-hand combat with one of Rommel’s finest—perhaps even Rommel himself--when a vicious swipe from a Nazi bayonet ripped his flesh from forehead to chin. Now, Don was—still is—noted for telling a good story, but two little girls curious about a nasty scar on an otherwise handsome face had no idea he was putting them on. Since our own father had no such tale of derring-do from the war—he spent WWII in New Jersey examining soldiers going out and coming back from active duty—we could offer our uncle’s dramatic experience when it came to exchanging tales of family heroism with friends, classmates, and eventually co-workers and in-laws. It was only a few years ago that we brought up this old war story merely in passing, and Don denied ever telling it to his two annoying nieces. He did, however, tell us the true story.

In the 1920’s when Don was a child, cars had very few safety features. One day Grandpa was driving the family Ford down a hill and had to stop suddenly. Without safety belts, child restraints, safety glass or air bags, Don was thrown through the front windshield and the glass sliced his face open. No Rommel, no bayonet.

I think I’ll stick with his other version, and if you happen to ask me about the scar barely visible on my own forehead, I’ll tell you about the cartwheel that foiled an international jewel thief in the upstairs hall near a huge oak bookcase.