The Menendezes · White House Farm · Nicky Scarfo
Plus Kevin Smokler on activist documentaries.
|Best Evidence||Jan 6, 2020||3||4|
Greetings and salutations! Mostly archival material today — and the weekend discussion thread for B.E. subscribers is still going strong too. Want to talk about the last true-crime book you quit? Hit that button; it’s just $5 a month!
Below: two made-for-TV Menendez projects face off in an entry from August 2012! — SDB
Two TV movies about the Menendez case came out within five weeks of each other in 1994: Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders, and Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills the next month. The pair is incorrectly recalled by many as one massive miniseries starring Edward James Olmos and featuring a Freudian wig-snatching on a staircase — if it's recalled at all; the pursuit of a certain white Bronco less than a month after Killing aired more or less deleted Lyle and Erik Menendez's story, in fictional form or non-, from the cultural consciousness.
It's hard to keep them straight even if you do remember when everyone recognized Jerome Oziel's name, and why. The short version: Honor is the one with the wig snatch; Killing is the one that subjects us to Olmos's O face. The short version makes Honor sound way better, or at least less disturbing — but is it? Should you bother watching either of them? Let's run the numbers.
Honor, a two-hour TV movie, is based on a book by Ron Soble and John Johnson called Blood Brothers: The Inside Story of the Menendez Murders.
I don't know Soble and Johnson's book, but I have read Dunne's articles on the case several times; in my opinion, it's his best work, his prose tidy and direct. I don't think the source material has much bearing on the onscreen results, though — not as much as whether the case and all of its attendant details hold up at a distance. The Menendez defense team did its best to complicate the story, but 20 years later, it's pretty straightforward: Lyle and Erik did it, and claimed José drove them to it with tyrannical tennis coaching and/or sexual abuse involving a pencil. (I can't remember where I put my damn car keys, but I didn't even have to look up that pencil detail. Bleh.) You could probably get away with two nights of screeching flashbacks and shocking defense motions back in '94, but today a shorter treatment serves the material better.
Honor also aired on FOX, and you'd better believe they spread some of that Melrose mustard on it.
Acting: The Parents
Honor stars James Farentino as José and Jill Clayburgh as Kitty. Farentino plays José as a blowhard, large and yelly but not truly intimidating; it's either an inspired choice, in which the film is commenting on whether the brothers could legitimately have perceived José as a danger to them versus as a garden-variety dickhead dad…or it's Farentino playing a variation on the same "Doug Ross's glad-handing dad" character he always does. Clayburgh's portrayal of the white-wine weeps is professional-grade, and she doesn't try to get too subtle with things.
Killing features Olmos and Beverly D'Angelo in the parental roles. D'Angelo is fine. Olmos is terrifying. The role is one-dimensional, and the film spends far too long on the idea that José is the worst father of the 1980s, but Olmos imbues the part with genuine menace.
Acting: The Brothers
In Honor, we have Billy Warlock as Lyle and David Berón as Erik. Berón has moved into voice work almost exclusively; Warlock you may remember from Baywatch, and he's worked steadily in soaps. Warlock's performance is more a feat of athletics than of acting, as the script asks a lot of him, including screaming from underneath a sheet of glycerin while wearing a Cosby sweater, re-enacting scenes from Lyle's notorious screenplay, firing Erik the Sam-the-Eagle glares around the courtroom like bottle rockets, and getting his wig snatched off. Berón is harder to assess. The screenplay paints him as somewhat slow, and he fulfills the spec.
It's Damian Chapa as Lyle and Travis Fine as Erik in Killing. Chapa and Fine bear stronger physical resemblances to the brothers, but neither is good. Fine in particular seems to think he's in a silent movie.
No contest. Lyle's wig is a key point in the case, and the Honor version is slightly more blatant. But Honor not only has his mom rip the merkin off his head; it gives José and the Asian prosecutor horrible hairpieces as well.
Hilarity of Tertiary Casting
Honor does well here. The bitchy team owner from Major League plays Leslie Abramson; Jerome Oziel is played by Hey, It's That Guy! Stanley Kamel, a.k.a. "the big boss Bruce on Melrose who hanged himself in Amanda's office"; and Erin Gray (the Ricker's dad's girlfriend on Silver Spoons) (didn't have to look that shit up either) (sigh) is prosecutor Pamela Bozanich.
But you can't count Killing out: Kim "Third Watch" Raver and Josh "Scandal" Malina in small roles, and Dwight "Howlin' Mad Murdock" Schultz as Dr. Oziel.
(So Bad It's) Good?
Neither is good. Neither is quite bad enough, either; Honor is kind of fun with a peanut gallery, but Killing is mostly dull, even the horrendous dummy "effects" during the actual murder scene.
You may want to use the films' opinions on the brothers's guilt as a guide. Both movies agree that they're guilty, but Honor's view of Lyle and Erik's cravenness is much dimmer. Killing makes José so sinister and unsympathetic that you may wonder why someone else hadn't shot him years before.
Honor has a slight but distinct edge here; it's shorter, it's marginally more fun, and it has the big wig moment you remember. But the real advantage goes to the late Dunne, and reading his work on the murders and the trials is two hours better spent. He'll inevitably irritate you at some point, but mostly his balance of intel and flavor is on point and puts you right in things.
Past Blotter guest Kevin Smokler wrote a “Lineup” piece for the blog back in 2016 about true-crime documentaries who changed the fates of the participants. With Surviving R. Kelly: The Reckoning out last weekend, it seemed like a good time to revisit this one. — SDB
True crime documentaries fall into three categories: Unsolved, solved, and allegedly solved wrong. Group #1 has an unfinished tale to tell and therefore seems a better fit for episodic television where we don't expect every plot to arrive at a sharp point, every true crime to have a corresponding true criminal. Documentaries about solved crimes, on the other hand, are by definition completed stories. They often look at an incident from long ago (Crazy Love, The Seven Five), owing to the time needed for all parts of the story to end, or zoom out from the crime to focus on the anguish of the victim's loved ones (Dear Zachary, 3 ½ Minutes Ten Bullets) or the reactions and character of the community where the crime took place (Happy Valley, Shenandoah). Having a verdict already on the record liberates the filmmaker from merely presenting evidence, and can shift her focus to what the evidence resulted in and meant.
The "allegedly solved wrong" true-crime doc, meanwhile, argues that the evidence resulted in a wrong verdict, and is therefore a miscarriage of justice. The miscarriage can be as specific as an innocent person being found guilty, or as broad as the systematic failure to prosecute rampant criminal behavior. In both cases the filmmaker wants to not just tell the story of a crime but to have her movie rewrite that story's final chapter.
It's a goal with a foot in each of the paradoxes of documentary filmmaking and true-crime storytelling -- to witness real life with a camera, but also change it; to give the "right" answer to events that can never really be explained.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed after stopping a car for driving without its headlights on. The car allegedly contained both Randall Adams, a 28-year-old Ohioan who'd only been in town a few days, and David Harris, a south Texas teenager who had stolen the car from his neighbor and met Adams the night before when Adams's car ran out of gas.
Adams was arrested for the shooting, convicted of murder, and sent to death row even though Harris had driven back home and bragged to his friends about killing a Dallas police officer. Through re-enactments and an eerie score by Philip Glass, director Errol Morris builds a case that the Dallas district attorney's office, knowing it couldn't get a death-penalty conviction for a minor like Harris, tried to pin the murder on Adams even though the evidence told them otherwise. In the film's closing moments, Morris plays the audio of Harris admitting that he knew Adams was innocent but lied to save himself.
As a result of The Thin Blue Line, Randall Adams's case was overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals and the Dallas County DA declined to re-prosecute. Upon his release in 1989, Adams sued Errol Morris for the rights to his life story and won them back in a settlement. He died at the age of 61 in 2010, having never received money from the Texas for his wrongful imprisonment. David Harris was executed on Texas's death row in 2004 for an unrelated murder. The actual killer of Officer Robert Wood has, officially, never been found.
The Thin Blue Line has been called one of the greatest documentaries of all time. It not only made Errol Morris famous but increased both the public profile of documentary film by demonstrating its social power, and showed how well documentary storytelling and true crime went together. Serial came about in a world The Thin Blue Line had created.
Twenty-two years and five documentaries later, Errol Morris again found himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit filed by one of his subjects. In late 2011, Joyce McKinney, who had been featured and interviewed by Morris in Tabloid, alleged the director and his producer Marc Lipson had both defamed her character and deceived her into thinking their movie was an exploration of paparazzi journalism, instead of unpacking the 1977 story that made McKinney the tabloid toast of Great Britain.
In September of that year, an American Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson vanished from a suburb in Surrey County. When he reappeared three days later, Anderson claimed he had been abducted, then imprisoned and raped by McKinney. McKinney claimed the two were in love and Anderson had gone with her willingly. Her arrest and prosecution set off a scandal-sheet arms race between the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail to see who could get the real dope on "the case of the Manacled Mormon," or at least pretend to in order to sell the most newspapers. McKinney would end up jumping bail and getting sentenced in absentia to a year in prison.
McKinney has already lost many of her claims in the initial hearing and on a 2013 appeal. Yet she and Morris will still be heading to trial on February 29th of this year, on a still-pending claim that Tabloid caused McKinney emotional distress.
Without meaning to, Errol Morris seems to have a) potentially ended up in a legal proceeding as nutty as the one at the center of Tabloid and b) raised a pile of sobering issues for documentarians regarding the relationships they must cultivate with subjects and the movies that emerge from those relationships.
Paradise Lost (1996, 2000, 2011)
For over two decades, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and the late Bruce Sinofsky documented the case of three teenagers from West Memphis, AR -- Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin -- accused of the murder of three eight-year-old boys from the community. West Memphis skewed politically conservative and Evangelical Christian; the accused wore their hair long, liked heavy metal, had some previous run-ins with the law and were not model students at school. Berlinger and Sinofsky were convinced that these superficial details had made it too easy to suspect and then convict the "West Memphis Three" of the crimes in the absence of any real evidence. Citing The Thin Blue Line as an inspiration, the filmmakers hoped their work would right a criminal investigation and trial (Misskelley and Baldwin received life terms, Echols a death sentence) gone horribly wrong.
The first volume of the series included footage of John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the murdered kids, showing the filmmakers a knife that contained trace of both his blood and the victims'. Berlinger and Sinofsky handed the knife over to the police, who found the DNA evidence inconclusive. Byers returns as a suspect in Volume 2 but is given a polygraph test and passes.
The third film opens with the West Memphis Chief of Police giving the Paradise Lost films credit for reopening the investigation. By the closing scenes, the Arkansas Supreme Court has granted a new trial, but the three defendants enter an Alford Plea (a guilty plea with an assertion of innocence) that results in their release after 18 years in prison.
The Central Park Five (2012)
On the evening of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili was beaten and raped while jogging in New York City's Central Park. Police arrested five young men from nearby East Harlem who confessed to the crime. At the time, the Central Park precinct of the NYPD had seen a rash of groups of teenagers assaulting pedestrians, bicyclists, and joggers in the park. Violent crime citywide was peaking and the media seized on the case of the "Central Park Jogger" as proof of just how low things had sunk in Gotham.
Father-daughter filmmakers Ken and Sarah Burns, along with Sarah Burns's husband David McMahon, argue that "The Central Park Five" had been bullied into first a confession by an aggressive police department, then a criminal conviction by the city and its media who needed suspects that fit a sociological profile and supported a headline, instead of whom the evidence suggested committed the crime.
Inspired by Sarah Burns's undergraduate thesis on racism and media coverage of the event, The Central Park Five concludes with the 2002 confession of Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who lived near the scene of crime, and the vacated convictions of the five teenagers, now grown men. The men would sue the city in 2003 for malicious prosecution, a case that took a decade and a new mayor to settle. In 2013 The Central Park Five won a Peabody award and the filmmakers urged the city to settle; the next year, new Mayor Bill de Blasio honored a campaign pledge and reached a $41 million settlement with the innocent. Outtakes from the film were subpoenaed as evidence.
The Invisible War (2012)
Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar and winner of a Peabody, The Invisible War looks unblinkingly at the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the United States military. The film estimates that nearly 500,000 women in uniform have been sexually victimized by another serviceperson, with the Department of Defense estimating that less than 2 percent of reported assaults result in a conviction annually. Women in the armed forces are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.
Director Kirby Dick and producers Amy Ziering and Tanner King Barlow spoke to survivors, members of Congress, and high-ranking military officials to assess both the cause and fallout of this epidemic: a self-policing military that allows criminal complaints to handled by commanding officers (who can serve with, or be, the accused); fear of reprisal from one's colleagues; threats of punitive assignments and demotions. Survivors speak of the trauma of the crime as well as the loss of trust in both their fellow soldiers and the institution to which they have pledged their lives.
After viewing The Invisible War, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a directive in April of 2012 requiring all sexual-assault cases to be adjudicated by colonels and generals instead of commanding officers. The New York Times credits the film with spurring congressional hearings on rape and sexual assault in the military in late January of 2013. Two weeks before, President Obama had signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, which formed special investigative units to handle sexual-assault charges, and implemented policies to prevent professional retaliation against survivors.
The Los Angeles-based organization Not Invisible, formed in the wake of the film, has as its mission to change military policy, aid in the healing of survivors, and assure that "the 2.9 million active-duty and reserve personnel in the U.S. Armed Services are able to serve with dignity and pride, and without fear of rape." — Kevin Smokler
Her.ie calls ITV’s White House Farm “the next true crime series everyone is going to be talking about.” The crime in question is, unsurprisingly, what Wikipedia calls the White House Farm murders: in August of 1985, Nevill and June Bamber, their daughter Sheila, and Sheila’s 6-year-old twins were killed with a shotgun at their Essex farmhouse. The Bambers’ son, Jeremy, was eventually convicted of the killings (and is one of the few prisoners in England serving life with no possibility of parole), but maintained his innocence, and as initial theories of the case pointed to Sheila thanks to her schizophrenia diagnosis, it seems the outcome has been “contested” ever since. That’s part of what the six-part series will take on when it drops Wednesday January 8 on ITV…and if I lived in ITV’s catchment area, I’d set my DVR. If, like me, you don’t, should we make an effort to see it via other means?
It’s produced by New Pictures, which Her.ie also notes produced The Missing, a scripted series about a long-ago child abduction that I found very compelling and atmospheric, so that’s a good sign — and unsurprisingly, various Game Of Thrones-ians fill out the acting roster.
And we actually won’t have to wait long if we have access to HBO Max; the service picked up the rights in November, so eventually it’ll make its way here. Readers, if you’re watching/planning to, report back! — SDB
We don’t do a ton of mob/organized-crime coverage around here, because IME a lot of it is 1) samey and 2) mediocre. But I enjoyed George Anastasia’s Blood & Honor; Nick “The Crow” Caramandi handles a lot of the narrative, and his voice is unique. I talked about the book, and legends of the Scarfo crew, in 2012. — SDB
"Bruno was the consummate racketeer. Scarfo, on the other hand, was a gangster."
It's about the self-destruction of the Philly mob, so: pick your felony. But implied also is a metaphorical crime, an affront to the old-time Mafia code that kept the bullets in the drawer, and mouths and wallets closed. Angelo Bruno, head of Philadelphia's Mob presence, kept it tight; he was a businessman. His "successor" — if we can use that term for the man who sped up his own succession by murdering the boss — was notorious short fuse Nicodemo Scarfo. Scarfo, now in his eighties, remains in the federal pen at this writing, and wound up there because everyone he hadn't already had killed knew the paranoid little psycho would get around to it eventually if they didn't turn state's witnesses.
George Anastasia's chronicle of the Philly mob's '80s implosion is seeming proof that a physical crime-book template does in fact exist. It's a black paperback, lettered in white and reflective red; its title 1) contains two of the several dozen standard-issue true-crime-title nouns and adjectives (here, Blood and Honor; see also "mortal," "fate," "mystery," "cruel," e.g.) while 2) telling prospective readers next to nothing about the particular or criminals under discussion. That information is customarily the purview of the subtitle, and Anastasia's is accurate, to a point — "Inside the Scarfo Mob — the Mafia's Most Violent Family" — but it fails to describe the unique retro texture of the narrative. "One Man's Napoleon Complex Devolved Into Paranoid Psychosis and Destroyed an Underworld Institution: An Oral History by Protected Witness Nick 'The Crow' Caramandi" comes closer.
What the book gets called isn't up to Anastasia, but how it's structured is, and it's smart to let the Crow do a lot of the talking, more or less uncut. I love the oral-history format, vintage-Interview-magazine transcripts that leave in every "uh" and "you know"; nothing against glossy standardized usage, of course, but part of the point of getting a quote is to get a sense of the person giving it, and if it's too shined up, the reader's mind can just slide right over it and not catch on anything. Anastasia no doubt sanded off a few edges, but he lets you hear Caramandi:
So I'm waitin' for the guy. All of a sudden I see a guy turn the corner and this guy's got a jacket on. Hey, it's a hot summer day. It musta been a hundred degrees that day. No way, I thought. So I said, 'Shorty, there's something wrong. Get that bag and put it under that car.' I walk to the corner and I see a bunch of guys coming up one way. I look down the street and I see like the whole area is surrounded. They're zeroing in on me. All of a sudden, here comes a fuckin' helicopter. They got a fuckin' helicopter. (79-80)
It can get confusing when Caramandi takes a sidebar about some jabroni who's over at his sister's, his sister who dated one of the seventeen Johnnies in the book, but the dark fact is, you needn't bother keeping the players straight…because within a few pages of when you've finally figured out who's on which crew or is that guy with Salvie Testa or getting stalked by him or what, whoever it is gets killed or goes into witness protection. Everyone's always switching sides, killing each other so Scarfo doesn't decide to have them killed, on and on. Everyone's named Phil. On occasion, the timing of a hit, or Caramandi's comments on it, recall an episode or demise on The Sopranos.
Other times, it puts me in mind of my grandmother — not because she ran with the Scarfo crew, and even typing that gives me a giggle. Louise didn't go over to a friend's house for sherbet of a summer afternoon without white gloves on. But she did allegedly have a relative who allegedly did a few sub-Donnie-Brasco-level errands for alleged Scarfo associates to pay his alleged gambling debts; more to the point, she grew up in South Philly, and when Caramandi is talking, I can hear her accent. A Philadelphia accent is difficult to reproduce — "hurry" is "herry," "merry" is "murry," "way" is "wey" and no it's not quite the same diff. Anastasia has a few locutions of his own that capture the way that part of the country speaks, or used to, himself — "$80 slacks" on page 277. "It was time, at the end of each month, to send the 'elbow' money down the shore" on page 302.
Grandma is surely clawing her way aboveground as we speak to chastise me for associating her with That Thing Of Not Hers, so I'd better wrap it up here. Blood and Honor isn't just for folks whose ancestors met on the Sea Isle City boardwalk, or fans of The Sopranos, though those people might get more out of it. It's a briskly paced snapshot of a turning point for the Cosa Nostra, in Philly and elsewhere, in the late '70s and early '80s, and nestled in it is a nifty oral history of honor among thieves. Anastasia is a respected reporter on the Mob beat who turns up regularly as an expert on shows like Mobsters, and he uses the word "flimflam" about a dozen times, which isn't something you can say about too many books. The pictures seem a bit sparse — if you show $80 slacks in the first act, they'd better etc. — but of course these guys make a business practice of invisibility. — SDB
Tuesday on Best Evidence: Monster: DC Sniper and Dutch police pods.
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