Tag Archives: crime

Eden (2012), directed by Megan Griffiths

Eden_Poster♦♦

Human trafficking crime drama — about Eden (Jamie Chung), an 18 year old Korean-American girl who is kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a corrupt lawman (Beau Bridges) and his young crack-smoking assistant (Matt O’Leary) — confuses intelligence and resourcefulness with selfish opportunism, squandering all the sympathy we have for the girl immediately following her abduction.  Based on the lies of a woman named Chong Kim, whose story evidently was taken at face value by the filmmakers and only later shown to be fantasy when it was investigated by Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking non-profit organization.  The movie, however, retains the “based on a true story” title which, ironically, is more accurate here than in some other cases, as Kim appears to share the same vile personality traits as Eden.  For those who think making us hate inherently hateful people is an accomplishment.  Also known as Abduction of Eden.

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The Factory (2012), directed by Morgan O’Neill

factory♦½

Generic muddle about a cop chasing a serial killer/kidnapper.  Makes so little sense, director O’Neill has to go back and show you all the clues leading to its just-because-we-can ending, though all that gets clarified is just how bad and illogical this film is.  “Inspired by” true events, which would appear to be a mixture of the Joseph Fritzl and Gary Heidnik cases, with some Manson-like brainwashing thrown in to glue it all together.  John Cusack plays every cop ever, breaking things, beating people up, and doggedly pursuing his goal until, of course, he brilliantly solves the case.  The best line in the film occurs during the Christmas season, when a young boy whose older sister has been kidnapped asks his mom, “If Abby doesn’t come back, do I get her presents?”  What should have been a poignant moment is notable only for its comedy.  A dismal effort all around.

Devil’s Knot (2013), directed by Atom Egoyan

Devil's_Knot_film_poster_(2013)♦♦½

Unfocused dramatization of the events surrounding the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, including the investigation, arrest, trials, and convictions of three teenage boys for the crimes. The teenagers, later known as the West Memphis Three, received additional notoriety when questions began to be raised about the case, with many believing that they are innocent. Based on a book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, who believes the teenagers were
targeted in a “witch hunt” similar to that which occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. The murders of the boys were linked by police and prosecutors to Satanism and Satanic ritual. Meanwhile, other leads, particularly one involving a black man who on the night of the murders reportedly entered a restaurant bleeding and disoriented, were ignored. That’s a lot of ground to cover for any dramatization, and there’s more besides, such as a woman and her son, both of whom appear to have lied to police: the woman about attending a satanic ritual with two of the accused, her son about having witnessed the murders.

More like a series of reenactments than a dramatization, the film fails to probe any aspect of the case or the people involved with any depth. That said, it opens well with Reese Witherspoon and young Jet Jurgensmeyer as mother and son, and the fateful if perfectly natural decision to allow the boy to go out riding bikes with his friends. The sequence ends with the discovery of the bodies. The bulk of the film, if viewed as a kind of primer on the case, is compelling enough, but those familiar with what happened may become bored by the wide-ranging superficiality of it all. Devil’s Knot is a deeply flawed film, but one which, for its subject matter and themes, may appeal to those interested in true crime.

Suspicion (1941), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Suspicion_film_poster♦♦♦½

Suspicion is a good movie, probably even better if you haven’t read the Francis Iles book on which it is based, Before the Fact. That, however, is a nuance not typical of Hitchcock’s adaptations. On the other hand, never was he so hampered by his source material. With this one, whoever adapted the story had to know going in that there was one element of the book — and it’s an important element — that, realistically, couldn’t be included in the film. And without it — well, it’s a different story.

It won’t sound like it in a review without spoilers, though. The film, like the book, is about a young woman who marries a dashing scoundrel. Johnnie Aysgarth lies, cheats, and steals, partly to cover his addiction to gambling and partly to pay for it. Mostly because that’s just who he is. Lina, his wife, doesn’t approve of any of it, but as Johnnie’s transgressions progress, one suspects she could be happy with a little gambling which, after all, is a whole lot better than murder.

After a whirlwind romance, the movie is all about Lina discovering who, really, she married. And it’s here that the movie fails. Not in the little things: this movie (again, like the book) is funny and suspenseful; Cary Grant has no difficulty with the role of a lovable rogue and Joan Fontaine (who won Best Actress for her role) grounds the film dramatically, just as Lina hopes to ground Johnnie. The trouble is on a larger scale than that. In the book, written entirely from Lina’s point of view, we learned everything we needed to know about the other characters. In the film, also from Lina’s point of view, we don’t. The concealment is cleverly done, but it still feels like something Johnnie would do: it feels like lying or cheating. Movies (and books, too) do this kind of thing all the time, of course, but rarely in a way so central to the plot. Which isn’t to say the movie doesn’t end well. I think both book and film end the way they ought to, but each is operating under a different set of rules.

With Hitchcock’s adaptations, it doesn’t usually matter much whether you read the source material first. He molds them and changes them, creating films that stand entirely on their own. In this case, though, I think it does matter. If you are thinking of reading the one and watching the other, I suggest seeing Suspicion first. But if you have time only for one, read Before the Fact.

Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley)

beforethefact♦♦♦♦½

I picked this up at a second-hand shop because I was planning to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation, Suspicion, and when I can I prefer to read the book first. I’d never heard of it before I saw it on the shelf. Certainly I never expected it to be so marvellously enjoyable. First Marnie, now this: the Brits and their “crime” novels have won me over.

The crime in this case is really a series of progressively more serious transgressions, beginning with petty theft and ending with a suspicion of murder. The criminal is Johnny Aysgarth, a young, attractive, carefree man who is both immature and damnably likeable. But this isn’t, in fact, Johnny’s story. It is Lina’s, Johnny’s slightly older wife, who married Johnny against her father’s advice. Her father could see that Johnny was “rotten”; told from an early age how plain she was, Lina couldn’t see beyond his devoted attention and eloquent flattery, and really didn’t want to. The development of their relationship over the years is really what this book is about; it’s the only path that could possibly lead to the haunting final scene.

For the reader, following the path is like watching a comic train wreck, if you can imagine such a thing. Iles, or Berkeley, was a humorist, so I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that this book is as funny as it is; but he was also a mystery writer: we laugh, even as the suspense and the shocks urge us to turn away. The humor is built outwards from the characters and situations and the shocks are those felt by Lina as she plumbs to unsuspected depths of Johnny’s and her own psyche. And it’s all rather horribly believable. Just as there are men like Johnny, so there are women like Lina (though neither sex may wish to admit it). Iles puts them together to create a refreshing and immensely satisfying cocktail.

Marnie (1961) by Winston Graham

Marnie_book_cover2♦♦♦♦½

Man, I was smooth. I told my friend, Look, all you have to do is grab it and put it in your pocket like it’s no big deal. Like this. We were halfway out of the store and all was quiet when my friend said, That was easy, wait here. The key word, of course, is “halfway” out of the store. Soon as we hit the mall, some big lug was on our tail and we were toast. It’s possible I smarted off to the guy a bit. It’s possible that’s why he called the cops. It’s certain that an hour later, we were both downtown in a detention cell. What are you in for? this scary tough kid asks. Stealing a necklace, I say. Oh, man, you should be home watching Popeye. I didn’t ask what he was in for.

This is more or less how Marnie begins her life of crime, with a minor theft at the age of ten. Thankfully, it’s also where the parallels with my own life end. When we first meet Marnie, she’s passing a cop who wishes her a good night. She wonders what he’d say if he knew what was in her handbag. Over a decade later, she’s graduated to felony theft. Warrants have been issued for her arrest. But she doesn’t mind: the warrants are all under false names in towns she’s long since left behind. Now she’s on the move again.

But this time she picks the wrong target, or the wrong man to work for. Mark Rutland, of Rutland’s Printing, is a lonely widower whose wife died very young. Marnie captures his imagination. While it can’t be said she encourages his attention, she doesn’t entirely rebuff him either. It’s enough for Mark to fall in love. When Marnie makes her move, Mark catches her. Believing he can help her, he coerces her into marriage. And that’s when Marnie’s uncomplicated, if criminal, existence comes to an end.

I didn’t know until I saw the credits that Alfred Hitchcock’s film was based on this novel, or any novel for that matter. Unlike many of the books his films have been based on — Psycho, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, to take those I’ve read myself — this one doesn’t seem to have come down to us with a reputation in its own right. I find this strange for two reasons. First, Winston Graham, the author, wrote over 40 books, including 12 in a series popular in Britain. Second, and more significantly, I think this book is better than the others I’ve read. Head and shoulders better.

Perhaps it has something to do with its genre. Where the other books are all considered thrillers, this one is classified as a crime novel. Whatever that is. I have to admit, if that was all I had to go on, I doubt I ever would have picked up this book. So let’s make this a little clearer: Marnie is a psychological suspense story that happens to involve crime.

Not that the crime is incidental — Marnie’s M.O. is richly detailed. Watching her go about the business of ingratiating herself into a company, planning the heist, and then carrying it out is one of the pleasures of the book. But what really makes it enjoyable is Marnie herself, who approaches her “work” with a detachment and matter-of-factness that is both funny and frightening. She’s pathological, but utterly charming. (She reminds me a bit of Julie Bailey, Cornell Woolrich’s dazzling angel of vengeance in The Bride Wore Black.)

Of course, Marnie’s crimes are only one manifestation of her mental condition. The other is her detestation of men. One leads to her marriage, the other threatens to destroy it. Though Hitchcock’s film is, in terms of plot, remarkably similar to Graham’s book, the two are unique in that their emphases are different. The movie pushes Mark into the foreground; the book, narrated by Marnie herself, keeps him at a distance — though not quite far enough away to suit Marnie. And we can’t help but sympathize with her. She was, after all, virtually blackmailed into marriage. But where the movie can be seen as a war for dominance, the book details a war of suppression. Mostly that means running away — distancing herself from Mark, going out with his hated cousin and business partner — but Marnie is too bright not to consider the implications of her lifestyle. As Graham drops one clue after another about the source of Marnie’s derangement, we begin to sympathize with Mark, as well, or with his aim at least. This isn’t about a man trying to tame a woman; it’s about a woman discovering that she has a problem. And it’s all played out against a tense backdrop of crime, jealousy, frustration, and intrigue.

With this book, at least (and now I’m curious about all those other books), Graham shows himself to be, like Hitchcock, a master of suspense.

Seduction of the Innocent (2013) by Max Allan Collins

seductioninnocent-collins♦♦½

It was in the author’s afterword and acknowledgements that I learned that the heroes of Seduction of the Innocent, Max Allan Collins’ roman à clef about the comic book controversy started by Dr. Fredric Wertham with his 1954 book of the same name, had been featured in two previous novels. With this third book, Collins says, his originally envisioned trilogy was complete. Not that he wouldn’t mind writing more books about Jack and Maggie Starr, if readers asked for them. How many readers that would take is anyone’s guess. He admits, however, that the publisher of the first two decided against the third, so I’m guessing it wouldn’t be many.

Seduction comes to us thanks not to readers but to Hard Case Crime. Hard Case Crime seeks to bring back the pulp excitement of the paperback original, both by reprinting older works and by publishing newer ones. Without HCC I may never have discovered Michael Crichton’s John Lange books. I like HCC and I like their lurid covers. And I say good for them that they allowed Collins a venue for Seduction. Even if his original publisher probably wasn’t crazy.

Fortunately this trilogy is thematic rather than narrative; I don’t think I missed much not having read the previous two. All are centered on various controversies in the comics world: who really owned Superman, the Al Capp/Hal Fisher fued, and now Dr. Wertham’s crusade against comic books that ultimately resulted in the creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.

Fredric Wertham is here named Werner Frederick, and fans of comic book history will have fun matching real people and titles to those in this book. Mad, for instance, is Craze, and Bill Gaines is Bob Price; Batman becomes Batwing; and so on. Collins tells us that his caricatures are ultimately fictional, but at least in Wertham’s case, the representation is clearly wish-fulfillment as well, as Collins takes one pot-shot after another at the good doctor.

“Good” doctor? Within the last couple of years, a study was made of Wertham’s research and scientific rigor as it related to comic books. Let’s just say that Wertham, it seems, took a few shortcuts on his way to his conclusion that comic books should be removed from the hands of children under 15. But let’s also “remember” that Wertham established the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, where he specialized in helping black teenagers. Collins reluctantly cops to this fact of Wertham’s good nature, but he can’t resist undermining it: at one point in the book, in a scene set in the clinic, he has Werner look about “dismissively.” In his afterword, he admits that Wertham “made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.” These, however, he says, are “understandably” overshadowed by what he had to say…about comic books. But he’s right: the naked quest for money will always trump a social conscience. Especially when writers like Collins fixate on the one and “dismiss” the other.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t view Wertham as a villain even regarding the comics controversy. In fact, I think many (including Collins) who have read Wertham’s book have missed the point entirely. I think maybe Wertham did. The point isn’t that comics are (or were) so awful, but that society needs to take a hard look at itself and its values and how it promotes those values. This, to take an example ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, is exactly what cartoonist Joe Sacco has done in this strip about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I applaud Sacco and I applaud Wertham, both of whom are telling us that real freedom comes with a price, that of responsibility. And that things are never quite so simple as the knee-jerk crowd would have us believe.

One of the funny things about Collins’ book — which is certainly sometimes intentionally funny, but this isn’t one of those times — is the way Collins takes Wertham to task for trying to manipulate people into seeing things a certain way while all the while doing exactly the same thing to his readers. The action is set in the 50s, but the heroes are plucked straight from our own 20-teens, being just as liberal and open-minded and tolerant (even of the Mob, though not, of course, of domestic abuse) as they can be. Jack Starr is Mike Hammer, but decidedly soft-boiled. And yet it’s all part of that funny brand of liberalism that tells us women are men’s equals, so long as they’re beautiful, stacked, and sex-crazed.

Anyway, the story is about what happens when one of the players in the comic imbroglio gets murdered. It’s lightly written, a fast read, and kind of fun if you’re into comic books. But it is a crime novel: don’t let it mug you.