Reading the Screen: It’s a (True) Crime
Posted by: David Pitt
Have you seen Billionaire Boys Club, the 1987 two-part TV movie about Joe Hunt (compellingly played by Judd Nelson) and his band of wealthy young friends who passed off a Ponzi scheme as an investment club and, oh by the way, murdered a couple of people? For years there was an abridged VHS version that looked like it was chopped up by someone who’d never seen the actual movie, but now there’s a DVD edition that lets you see the whole thing. I urge you to check it out.
I also urge you to check out Sue Horton’s The Billionaire Boys Club (1990) and Randall Sullivan’s The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image and Murder in Los Angeles (’96), two books about the Joe Hunt case. They approach the case from slightly different angles — Sullivan’s book is a bit glossier, too — but they’ll give you a good sense of the very special kind of demented egotism that drove Hunt. The TV movie was based, in part, on Horton’s then-unpublished book, too.
(Interesting trivia: a couple of kids watched the miniseries and — or so the story goes — were inspired to murder their own parents. Their names were Lyle and Erik Menendez.)
In Cold Blood (1967) is considered, and rightly so, a classic true-crime movie. It’s based on the landmark 1966 book by Truman Capote , and if you haven’t read it, you’ve missed one of the great ones. Capote tells the story of the Clutter family, murdered by a couple of ex-cons, as though he were writing a novel, with heart-rending drama and nailbiting suspense. He pretty much invented an entire genre with the book, the nonfiction novel, and a lot of people have written good true crime using the same approach. None of them as well as Capote did, though.
Serpico, released in 1973, is another film based on a classic book. Peter Maas’s Serpico (also released in ’73) is a riveting biography of the New York cop who did the right thing — he testified at a commission investigating corruption in the police department — and almost lost his life because of it. It’s a splendid book, a story of heroism in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform. I mention this one because, frankly, almost nobody I talk to about it is even aware there was a book.
Catch Me If You Can, the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, is based on the autobiography of Frank W. Abagnale, a security consultant who, in his younger days, was an accomplished con man and check forger (among other things). The movie is a lot of fun, but it turns Abagnale into a likeable rogue — played charmingly by Leonardo DiCaprio – and it turns his life story into a cat-and-mouse game. Nothing wrong with the movie, but until you read the book you really don’t know Frank Abagnale, or his spectacularly eventful criminal career.
The Deliberate Stranger is a 1986 TV movie about Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, see this article at crimemagazine.com). The movie is based on Richard W. Larsen’s gripping 1980 book Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger. Larsen, a Seattle newspaper reporter, knew Bundy before he was revealed to be a serial killer, and he followed the case through the 1970s. There are several books about Bundy, the most famous being Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1980) — which was also made into a TV movie — but Larsen’s has been, for some reason, overlooked. Which is a real shame, because it’s very well written, and offers some interesting insights into the pleasant young man who was, in his spare time, a brutal killer.
The movie is excellent, by the way, but here’s the part that might seem a bit weird: Bundy is played by Mark Harmon. Hard to imagine the likably cranky guy from NCIS playing a serial killer? Actually it’s perfect casting: Bundy himself was a real charmer, an attractive, smooth-talking man who kept his dark side (mostly) hidden out of sight. Harmon is chilling, and for me it’s by far his best performance.
There are dozens of true-crime movies that are based on books, but I won’t take up any more of your time here. (If you want to talk more about this sort of thing, let me know — you can leave a comment just down there, look, right there at the bottom.)
Update June 4:
I finally watched Richard Fleischer’s excellent 1968 movie The Boston Strangler, which was based on Gerold Frank’s riveting 1966 book of the same name. (I’d stayed away from it on VHS and television, because I’d heard that the pan-and-scan version ruined the movie.) We know today that Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to the stranglings, was almost certainly not the culprit, but this doesn’t diminish the impact of Frank’s compelling book (which is a model of how to write true crime). And it certainly doesn’t diminish the impact of Fleischer’s movie, with its brilliant performance by Tony Curtis and its startling, revolutionary use of split-screen techniques. If you like true crime, both the book and the movie are indispensable.