Mad Max · Cecil Hotel · Robert Maxwell
Plus: A look back at a true-crime classic
|Best Evidence||Feb 16||3||10|
Max Wade’s sentence was just cut. Who’s Max Wade?, you might be asking. Of course, I have an answer: he’s one of my biggest Why Hasn’t This Been Adapted Yets?
Back in 2014, the teenager from the tony San Francisco suburb of Marin County was sentenced to 21 years to life after he was convicted of attempted murder and for the daring Mission Impossible-style theft of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s bright yellow, $200,000 Lamborghini.
It’s a case that was blanket-blogged by New York Magazine at the time, but the truly definitive telling is Chris Roberts’ remarkable San Francisco Magazine longread Mad Max, which took a deep dive into how “a 17-year-old from swanky Tiburon” ended up in San Quentin. Here’s a snip:
The theft took place around 4 a.m. on March 8, 2011, a full 13 months before the shooting, at 999 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, one of the two buildings in the British Motor Cars luxury automobile complex. A few days before, Fieri, a flashy, over-the-top chef from Santa Rosa who made a name with shows like Guy’s Big Bite and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, had taken in his Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder—painted look-at-me yellow with the vanity plate “GUYTORO”—for servicing. The car was in the second-floor bay, keys inside, waiting to be worked on.
The thief broke in by rappelling to the second floor (police haven’t said how he attached the rope to the roof) and slipping through a window that had been left conveniently, if mysteriously, unlocked. (The building’s janitor—who was supposed to be long gone but, for unexplained reasons, was still working that morning— might have cleared up the mystery, but he has, even more mysteriously, vanished.) The window faces Olive Street, a shadowed, one-way alley squeezed between the dealership’s two buildings. Once inside, the thief moved fast, cutting the lock on one of the roll-up steel doors that open onto Olive Street. Leaving the office and the other luxury cars untouched, he went straight for the Lamborghini, started the engine, put the car in gear, and drove out the door without tripping the dealership’s motion sensors or perimeter alarms (another mystery). When employees arrived, they found the door still raised, as well as the climbing rope in a duffel bag, a pry bar, bolt cutters, and a water bladder. The car, meanwhile, had long since disappeared across the Golden Gate Bridge.
But it didn’t disappear, not really: Police thought they knew exactly where it had gone. At around 4:40 a.m., a yellow blur was captured by traffic cameras positioned on Tiburon Boulevard off 101—a little-known security system that records every vehicle traveling in and out of the town of Tiburon, one of the nation’s richest zip codes. At about 6:15 a.m., the car was caught again, breezing past the same bank of cameras in the opposite direction, toward the freeway. This time, it bore a license plate that had been ripped off an Audi coupe the day before, also in Tiburon. Whoever the thief was, he was very familiar with petty crime in one of the choicest areas in Marin. And that, Tiburon cops told the SFPD, pointed to one person: Max Wade.
Wade’s 26 now, and has spent the last several years in San Quentin — the infamous Marin County prison where the Night Stalker spent his last days, and where Scott Peterson now resides. As of 2019, it was home to the largest death row in the nation. His stay at the prison will be shortened by a decade, the Bay Area News Group reports, after Judge Kelly Simmons reconsidered sentencing penalties related to the gun charges Wade faced at his original trial. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, this means Wade will be eligible for parole in 2025, right about the time he turns 30 — and after almost half his life in jail. — EB
Wow, people really don’t like Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. By “people” I mean critics, and I also mean “not Sarah,” whose Primetimer review, as you likely recall, was mixed to positive (I’d characterize it as a C+). But other reviews are blistering. Check it out:
Netflix's Cecil Hotel is a bloated, irresponsible mess [CNet] “It's not just bad. It's dull and confusing.”
Netflix makes rare true-crime misstep with salacious series on L.A.’s Cecil Hotel [LA Times] “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel falls in love with the crime lore aspects of the case, and feels more exploitative than revealing, like a production from the far reaches of basic cable — but with a bigger budget, more archival footage and a narrative stretched out over multiple episodes.”
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel [The Hollywood Reporter] “I felt legitimately embarrassed for every person in the docuseries … though not nearly as embarrassed as I felt for the journalist who has to talk about the Japanese horror film Dark Water and its American remake (‘If you reduce the plot of Dark Water down to its basic elements, it's almost the story of Elisa Lam,’ the journalist says).”
Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel review – not spooky, just desperately sad [The Guardian] “The half-serious implication of Crime Scene is that the Cecil hotel was haunted by some malevolence forces – such as a vampire Lady Gaga, as in American Horror Story: Hotel. Although, the reality was much less mysterious: if you dump a load of desperate people in an insecure environment, violence will probably ensue.”
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel Threatens to Fall Down Its Own Rabbit Hole [Variety] “It’s really too bad that it takes three full episodes of melodrama and rampant conspiracy theories before Crime Scene shows its ultimate hand. If my job weren’t to watch and review the entire thing, I would’ve tapped out in frustration two episodes earlier.”
I’m about two-and-a-half episodes in and I think it’s…fine? I’m pretty familiar with the Lam case and haven’t seen or heard anything new, but director Joe Berlinger has kept me engaged enough that I haven’t picked up my phone to fuck around on it too much. I, too, get C+ vibes — good enough for a lazy day, but not enough to intently binge. But I am not watching it for review purposes. That’s a different discipline, and it’s one where many seek to suss out directorial intent.
I’m wondering if that’s what critics are picking up on, because based on this New York Times interview Berlinger did in support of CS:VCH, his ambivalence about true crime as a genre is growing more and more intense. Here’s what I mean:
Even Berlinger has reservations about the genre. His recent body of work comprises several TV docu-series about sensational crimes, including Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. But call him a true-crime filmmaker and he bristles.
“I’m described as a true-crime pioneer,” he acknowledged. “I liked the pioneer part. The true-crime thing makes me a little nervous because I think of myself more as a social justice filmmaker spending a lot of time in the crime space.”
He added: “I do think there’s a lot of irresponsible true crime being done where there’s no larger social justice message or there’s not a larger commentary on society. It’s just about wallowing in the misery of somebody else’s tragedy without any larger purpose.”
It’s hard not to think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as I read this, and his well-known hate of Sherlock Holmes. He created the fictional detective, who made him rich and famous, but he grew to despise the character and the conventions of the genre. Berlinger made his name (and, presumably, his bank account) telling crime tales, and now seems stuck within a genre that he’s not that wild about.
Do you think that discomfort with the subject matter is what reviewers are picking up on and responding to so harshly? Or are there other things about the series (or the case) that keep if from success? — EB
Ghislaine Maxwell’s dad was not a great guy. That’s the premise of “All in the Family” and “Heart of Darkness,” a recent two-part Air Mail longread that feels like a ’80s/’90s-era Vanity Fair piece. This makes sense, as Air Mail is a publication from longtime VF editor Graydon Carter, who departed the magazine in 2017.
That means your interest level in the report might be predicated on your nostalgia for that era of the glossy — a time when thousands and thousands of words, all in punishing small type, would be regularly devoted to the dreadful behavior of the wealthy and ostensibly “well-bred,” while the rest of the mag tried to convince us that appearing wealthy and “well-bred” was a desirable goal.
So that’s how we end up with a two-part series on Robert Maxwell, whose life of scandal and alleged fraud has been the subject of report upon report. It’s a subscription-only read (Air Mail is $9.99/month), and I have to be honest: After consuming both parts, I felt a little slimy and gross, the same way I’d feel when I read those fusty VF stories back in Carter’s heyday.
Does one need to spend one’s dwindling time on this earth reading about a rich shithead whose unpleasantness (anti-Semitism! The aforementioned fraud!) seems pretty par for the course for rich shitheads, even if he might have died under mysterious circumstances — especially given the rich supply of excellent true-crime writing on people who are not rich shitheads? Am I supposed to believe that the reason his daughter allegedly assisted a monster is because she was raised by a rich shithead, though many people who are raised by rich shitheads grow up to be average to decent people? Are you sick of me saying “rich shithead” yet?
I wouldn’t ordinarily spend this much time talking about a just so-so set of articles, but I’ve been hit by so many online suggestions to subscribe to Air Mail to read the two-parter that I thought you might have, too. If you already pay to read Air Mail, sure, why not, here they are, odd-seeming headlines and all. But if you don’t — and you don’t have a particular attachment to Carter’s VF days — this is OK to skip. You’ll be fine. — EB
10 Rillington Place is 50. In a nifty retrospective, the BBC looks back at the groundbreaking true-crime classic about serial killer/alleged necrophile John Christie, who not only killed at least eight people but who was the subject of an investigation so badly bungled that another man was hanged for some of his crimes.
It’s a shocking story, and Richard Fleischer’s 1971 adaptation “is arguably still the most accomplished British true-crime film ever made,” Adam Scovell writes in a lengthy piece that contextualizes the film against the late-’70s cultural landscape.
The film, however, is as much about the era as it is about murder. Above and beyond Christie, Fleischer avoids nostalgia and creates a damning portrait of the times. Beginning in the Blitz, 10 Rillington Place dares to show the era's hardship, turning London into a grim, barren realm where figures like Christie prey on vulnerable people, shaken of their senses by the bombs raining down. It's the same world captured in Henry Moore's drawings of the times and the dark novels and plays of Patrick Hamilton. A muted palette shows a desperate city drained of colour and hope.
Authenticity was vital to Fleischer, so he went full tilt in his production. The real Rillington Place features, the street's demolition postponed while filming took place. The actual interiors of the flat Christie lived in were not used, except for a few shots of Christie looking out of the window, due to fears of the occupants not being allowed back in again before the building was knocked down. But Number 7 was instead used for the majority of the filming. This choice of location in itself is unnerving, showing how little elaboration was necessary on the part of the director. The decrepit nature of the street feels like a time capsule, one containing the traumas of the post-war years in its darkened bricks and mortar.
Intrigued? Here’s Scovell’s full look at 10 Rillington Place, and if you’re down to watch it, it’s available to stream for free if you use Amazon Prime. — EB
Wednesday on Best Evidence: I am sure Sarah will take a break from setting up her new true-crime bookshop to come up with something great.