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The Boston Phoenix Death at the Box Office

Hollywood makes movie capital out of the ultimate punishment.

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  The recent legislative debate over reinstituting the death penalty in Massachusetts rehashed many familiar arguments, pro and con. The issues of deterrence and retribution, of the arbitrariness of imposition and the possibility of wrongful death, of the right of the state to kill to punish the act of killing -- all crackled with varying degrees of clarity on the television news and on talk shows, in newspapers, in bars, and over dinner tables, as well as in the State House. Surging through it all, of course, was outrage and bewilderment at the heinous murder of young Jeffrey Curley. How to fill the void left by such a violation? How to relieve the grief and rage?

Such has been the role of capital punishment through the millennia. Since at least the time of Hamurabi, states have inflicted an array of ingenious punishments that would challenge a studio special-effects department to re-create. All to restore the sanctity of the codes by which a community remains civilized -- in particular the dictum "Thou shalt not kill." To provide, too, a ritual for citizens' edification and enjoyment.

That is, until a century or so ago, when executions ceased to be public events and became private affairs between the authorities and the condemned. Until then, the public execution was the means through which we could indulge the taboo impulses of killing and vengeance in safety and under the sanctions of law and righteousness. Now, we have movies. The spectacle of permitted slaughter has moved from the reality of the public square to the illusion of the multiplex.

Maybe that's why Hollywood's depiction of capital punishment invariably condemns the practice -- Tinseltown sees it as a potential rival. The death penalty has been shown on screen as an iniquitous abomination that strikes the innocent and the downtrodden more often than the guilty or the privileged. True, it's sometimes seen as the instrument of redemption, but that despite, not because of, its intentions. Instead of ridding us of the evil it targets, Hollywood has argued, the death penalty implicates us in that evil. It is a bloody circus manipulated and exploited by hypocrites in the government and the media.

Such is the suggestion behind one of the earliest films to feature the subject. In the unlikely guise of a screwball comedy, Lewis Milestone's adaptation The Front Page (1931) cynically juggled the petty passions and politics behind a pending execution. An unemployed accountant, desperate and addled, has shot a policeman. On the eve of his execution, the mayor and his administration scramble to ensure there will be no reprieve -- the election is next week, and votes depend on it. Meanwhile, the press exploits the situation for sensational stories and sales. Particularly interested is the editor of a city daily who sees the execution as an opportunity to re-enlist an ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien), determined to leave journalism for marriage and an honest life.

Through the intervention of rapid-fire wisecracks, slapstick coincidences, gleeful treachery, and a rolltop desk, justice is done. But the fate of the condemned man is secondary to the personal and political agendas of the major players. In Howard Hawks's sparkling remake, His Girl Friday (1940), the condemned man is even more secondary: the gender of Hildy gets changed, and the editor/reporter relationship becomes a romantic pas de deux between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It's funny and delightful, but in the background still looms the shadow of the gallows.

Later films would regard that shadow more seriously. Based on an actual case, Robert Wise's I Want To Live! (1958) tells of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward in an Oscar-winning performance), a bad-luck party girl who falls in with the wrong crowd and is implicated in murder. Headed by a cynical muckraker, the press denounces Graham as "Bloody Babs," a witch fit only for the gas chamber. The atmosphere of blood lust and retribution sways the system to convict and condemn despite flimsy evidence. Too late, the muckraker realizes that his newspaper has doomed an innocent woman and tries to undo the smear campaign.

Media manipulation is the focus also of Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (1958), but with a twist. Based on the real life Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing of the 1920s, it's the story of two brilliant, spoiled rich kids (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) driven by Nietzschean pretensions to kidnap and murder a young boy. They've committed the perfect crime, they believe, and Dillman tries to ensure their success by meddling with the police and press. His false leads backfire, however, and the outraged community and media turn on them in fury. The accused pair, arrogant and uncontrite, seek salvation from a Clarence Darrow-like lawyer played by Orson Welles, whose inveterate opposition to the death penalty is challenged by the enormity of the crime.

More shameless than the Compulsion killers in both her crimes and her manipulation of the media is Dawn Davenport (Divine) in John Waters's supremely irreverent Female Trouble (1975). A rebel against her kitschy suburban background, Dawn sinks into an underworld of strippers, psychos, and hair stylists. Goaded by a pair of Manson-like beauty-salon entrepreneurs who believe crime is art, she engages in a killing spree, beginning with her insufferable out-of-wedlock daughter and ending in a performance-art shootout involving a trampoline, a fish, and such shouted imprecations as "I blew Richard Speck!" Glorying in her vilification by the press, she welcomes her date with the electric chair as the equivalent of an Oscar. Rather than exorcising society of evil, Waters suggests (he dedicated the film to Manson henchman "Tex" Watson), her execution elevates her to the top level of its pantheon -- celebrity.

Submerged in the raunchy antics and outrageous anarchism of Female Trouble is the implicit verdict of its title: Dawn's fate has less to do with justice than with the inferior social status of her (his?) gender. That's true also of Graham in I Want To Live! And it's clear that class and disenfranchisement lie behind the destiny of the poor shmuck in The Front Page and His Girl Friday. Oddly, part of Darrow's defense in Compulsion is a variation on this pitch -- if we don't give the same justice to the rich as we give to the poor, what will become of us?

The O.J. Simpson case would probably have reassured him. The point remains germane, however: as Tom Kalin demonstrates in Swoon (1992), his mannered rendition of the Leopold-Loeb case, the public outcry against the killers may well have been inflamed by the fact that the two were Jewish -- and apparently gay. Those condemned tend, in movies if not in real life, to come from groups outcast from and ill treated by society -- that favorite Hollywood stereotype, the underdog.

It's a type we all identify with to a certain extent and at certain times, and what we want in a Hollywood fantasy about the travails of underdogs is some kind of redemption. That's certainly the case in one of the earliest depictions of the death penalty on the screen, Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1928): without capital punishment, it seems, the world itself would not be saved. This messianic motif recurs in Jack Conway's adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Ronald Colman is a brilliant but dissipated London barrister, Sydney Carton, who defends Jacobin aristocrat Charles Darnay from a false charge of treason. He sees some chance of rehabilitating his wasted life in the kindness of the man's beautiful companion but then is resigned to despair when the two marry. Through a ruse, Darnay returns to a Paris in the throes of the Terror and is condemned to the guillotine. Carton sees his chance to do "a far, far better thing" and the film ends with a quote from John, "I am the Resurrection and the life . . . "

Not only the victim is redeemed in films of this type; so is the community that condemns him. In Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney is a career criminal who returns to his old slum community to be revered by the new generation of roughnecks, the Dead End Kids. Old ties draw him into murder; he's caught and condemned. A childhood chum, now neighborhood priest (Pat O'Brien), begs him to forgo his last scrap of selfhood -- his dignity. Cagney goes to the chair yellow, his adoring fans renounce him, and the secret sacrifice saves a generation from crime. In Santa Fe Trail (1940), Raymond Massey's John Brown gives an Old Testament-intense anti-slavery speech from the scaffold while a saddened Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland look on: his body must pay for his crimes, but it's all right because we know his truth will go marching on.

It follows that the death penalty might not be such a bad thing if it could save the soul of one person. Which may, unintentionally, be the message of Tim Robbins's highly praised Dead Man Walking (1995). Based on real-life cases taken from anti-capital-punishment crusader Sister Helen Prejean's book of the same title, it's the story of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a man condemned in the cold-blooded killings of two teenagers. He beseeches Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon) to help in his appeal. She finds her Christian ideals challenged by Poncelet -- an unapologetic racist and Nazi sympathizer. Although insisting on his innocence, he tries hard to live up to the label of irredeemable monster that society has given him. With his appeals running out, however, and flashbacks of the horrible crime recurring, Prejean persuades Poncelet to let the truth set him free.

Poncelet might not have come to terms with his conscience without the cruciform specter of the lethal-injection machine hovering over him, but that does not mean Robbins is condoning capital punishment. The death penalty does not free society of evil, this and other films insist -- it implicates us and compounds the evil. In Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood (1967), based on Truman Capote's bestselling account of a true case, a pair of drifters (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson) descend on an idyllic middle-class Kansas family and butcher them. Brooks tries to humanize the pair -- and, thanks to the electrifying performance of Blake, largely succeeds -- even as he seeks to prove the inhumanity of the system that methodically prepares to put them to death. In the end, the state's will is done, and over Blake's dead form appear the words "In Cold Blood."

Grim though it is, In Cold Blood still allows us the distance of outrage. Not so Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing (1988). A young man murders in excruciating detail (it is the longest murder scene in cinema) a random cabdriver. He is tried and sentenced to death and, with the same remorselessness, murdered by the state. It is not entertainment; it is nearly unwatchable. Despondent, the boy's defense attorney shouts, "I hate it! I hate it!" Until we can say the same, the killings will go on.

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