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Published: Thursday, 10/6/2011

Hollywood's introduction to the serial killer

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Just as hemlines rise and fall, so do fashions in crime -- or, at least, its fictional representation -- evolve from decade to decade and even from year to year.

Bracketing the 1950s, a group of four crime films recently released by the Warner Archive Collection suggest just how radical those shifts can be. A pair of films from 1949, Richard O. Fleischer's Follow Me Quietly, and The Threat, directed by Felix E. Feist, reflect an entirely different set of concerns from two movies produced at the end of the '50s: The Purple Gang (1959), directed by Frank McDonald, and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) by Budd Boetticher.

In the late 1940s, Hollywood was just beginning to discover the dramatic possibilities of the serial killer: nightmarish figures who struck, not for traditional, rational reasons of love or money, but out of sheer compulsion, driven by needs they themselves could not comprehend. At first they were traditional gangsters marked by a new streak of sadism and neuroticism, embodied by James Cagney's mama's-boy train robber in Raoul Walsh's 1949 White Heat.

In The Threat, Charles McGraw plays a very similar figure, a crazed hoodlum named Red Kluger who breaks out of Folsom with only one end in mind -- to bump off the detective who arrested him (Michael O'Shea) and the district attorney who sent him up (Frank Conroy). Equipped with the growliest voice in movies, the burly McGraw became something of a star thanks to the sheer remorselessness he projects here, brutalizing confederates, cops ,and innocent bystanders alike with the same reflexive contempt for any life other than his own.

But at the same time that the movies were conjuring up figures of pure, primal malevolence such as Red, they also were exalting the latest advances in scientific crime fighting, pitting technological advancement against human regression. Just as Cagney's Cody Jarrett is done in by a primitive form of GPS in White Heat, so does Red Kluger succumb to a sophisticated use of two-way radio -- the caveman done in by advanced electronics.

More skeptical and stylized than The Threat, Follow Me Quietly introduces a strikingly modern serial killer, a faceless figure known only as the Judge, who strikes only in the rain and leaves behind notes couched in terms of biblical wrath. The detective assigned to the case (William Lundigan) becomes unhealthily obsessed with capturing the killer, and a major trope of the genre is born when his assistant (Jeff Corey) tells him, "You're getting more like the Judge every day," implying a moral equivalence of hunter and hunted.

Lundigan does little to dispel the analogy when he turns to his version of scientific methods. Using the few snatches of description he has from eyewitnesses, he has a dummy constructed to resemble the Judge -- ostensibly to jar his witnesses' memories, but in fact to provide Fleischer with the setup for one of the great shock effects of the period. With his blank face of gray felt, the dummy resembles the detective more than anyone else, and when the killer finally makes an appearance, he turns out to be so blandly nondescript that the dummy seems like a fully developed character by comparison.

The Threat and Follow Me Quietly are very much movies of their historical moment, predicated on the richly ambivalent mixture of hope and dread that characterized the dawn of the Atomic Age. Ten years later, crime films increasingly were concerned with the past, with films such as Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957), William Witney's Bonnie Parker Story (1958), and Richard Wilson's Al Capone (1959), fueling public interest in the colorful gangsters and outlaws of Prohibition and the early Depression years.

Television, by then the more popular art, threw its support behind the guardians of law and order with shows such as The Untouchables (1959-63), but the movies, increasingly in pursuit of young, outsider audiences, had discovered the anti-authoritarian appeal of '30s hoodlums.

With the James Dean disciple Robert Blake in the lead, as the beardless leader of a band of Detroit punks, The Purple Gang plays like a less-inhibited sequel to The Blackboard Jungle. Produced by the cash-strapped independent Allied Artists, the film employs a minimally rendered period setting to provide cover for a more or less frank admiration (at least, up until the last reel) of youth in revolt: teenagers with Tommy guns.

Warner Brothers, of course, had been there before, using a similar surreptitious mix of exaltation and opprobrium to drive early '30s hits such as Little Caesar and Public Enemy. The studio got back in the game with The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, a thoroughly fictionalized account of the career of a minor bootlegger and shakedown artist. Reconceived as a dashingly amoral killer with championship dancing abilities, the character might well have been played by the young James Cagney, though Ray Danton, the Warner contract player who took the role, gave Diamond a sleek, reptilian quality all his own.

At the time he directed Legs Diamond, Boetticher was coming to the end of his series of westerns with Randolph Scott, and the film reflects his preoccupation with radical individualism, in finding the limits of how far a man can go on his own. Boetticher's Diamond has the brilliant idea of stealing from thieves, setting himself up as an outsider among outsiders. But that's not enough: Eventually, he cuts off contact with anyone who might be able to compromise his independence, including his mistress (Karen Steele) and his brother (Warren Oates).

Diamond only becomes sympathetic when he encounters an outfit with more apparent power than the police and no inhibiting scruples to inhibit it: the Mafia, which Boetticher presents as the boardroom embodiment of the banality of evil, rows of little gray men sitting in prim judgment. "Who are you guys?" Diamond asks, confounded by the idea of crime without personality, stripped of style and panache. The time of the independent operator is over, absorbed by a world of employees.



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