Rise of the Innocence Podcast

A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.

In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail[] to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.” 

Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.

Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.

Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.

What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.

One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?

The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.

TV Review: Murder, Mystery, & My Family

“The British justice system is the envy of the world; but, in the past, mistakes have been made.” So begins every episode of the British series Murder, Mystery, & My Family. It has an interesting, if formulaic, premise: in each episode, a relative of a deceased person who had been convicted of murder (most often hanged, but sometimes imprisoned and later died) seeks to revisit the circumstances of the crime and the trial and, possibly, obtain a judicial decision that the conviction is “unsafe” (i.e., reversible on the basis of a legal error or insufficiency of evidence.) The featured crimes are murders and serious felonies from 1970 and earlier, in which there is a question mark over the conviction.

That the investigation is initiated and driven by a family member, rather than by the legal officials–barristers Sasha Wass, QC, and Jeremy Dein, QC, as well as Judge David Radford–provides a curious emotional hook to the narratives. Even for crimes committed more than a hundred years ago, the relatives begin each episode deeply invested in “clearing the family name”–as if their dead relatives’ crimes can blemish later generations–and become even more convinced of their relatives’ innocence as the investigation progresses. When they speak of their deceased ancestors, they sound like someone testifying for a relative at a sentencing hearing today; in one case, in which several sailors were accused of harassing and raping a woman before driving her to jump off a vessel and drown, the relative referred to one of the sailors, who was hanged before she was born, as “a bit of a lad, but he couldn’t have done this.” Family ties and family shame run deep, and the relatives speak to social historians and crime writers who illuminate some of the period details: why people were having frenzied extramarital affairs shortly after the war, how poverty would have impacted family dynamic, why a doctor’s word about the medication of a patient would matter more than a nurse’s, etc. The relatives also visit the courts and prisons in which events unfolded, invariably exhibiting deep grief and distress when finding a grave or a place of execution.

While this emotional journey unfolds, Wass and Dein investigate the legal aspects of the case. They consult forensics specialists–usually pathologists and ballistics experts–as well as forensic psychologists, who read letters by the victims and perpetrators and opines as to their state of mind. They also take a close look at the court transcript. Their conversations about the evidence are a great display of the ideal roles of prosecutor and defense attorney: Dein zealously searching high and low for reversal grounds, Wass an impartial officer of the court who sometimes agrees with Dein about due process violations but whose prosecutorial lens is unmistakable in her descriptions of events (“and after they got the victim to transfer her estate, they figured they’d bump her off.”) The standard for declaring an historical conviction unsafe, per Judge Redford, seems to resemble the U.S. standard for reversal on collateral review: either a blatant legal error or new evidence that could not have been (and was not) exhausted in the proceedings many decades ago.

In both cases, they face problems of anachronisms and retroactivity. In many of the featured cases, the forensic evidence itself has long been destroyed or lost, and all the experts have to go by are reports written by doctors and scientists who might have been the luminaries of their time, but had to contend with their contemporary methods and technologies (in one memorable episode involving arsenic poisoning, we learn that arsenic occurs naturally in the body, a fact unknown at the time that the victim’s body was exhumed and examined due to uproar and conjecture.) On their face, the reports sometimes show biases (the deceased is said to have been poisoned, when the poison may well have been self-ingested.) In other cases, some forensics remain, but are difficult to analyze because their condition has deteriorated. One is left with the uneasy feeling that hundreds of cases, now final, involving less zealous relatives (and perhaps less made-for-TV facts) could be reversed on the same grounds.

As to the legal grounds, Judge Radford is put in the complicated position of calibrating what counts as due process today with the standards of yesteryear. It’s easier to find legal errors when procedure would have been unacceptable at the time as well as now, such as when the accused was not represented. One example involves the repeated uncovering of what Dein refers to as “police verbals”–unverified paraphrases of what the suspect supposedly said by investigating officers–which seem absurdly unreliable in the face of today’s UK practice of recording all police interrogations. But what about judicial remarks to the jury that would be considered biased today, and merely reflected prevailing values and mores at the time? Many such remarks feature references to gender and class that would have seemed natural and proper to judges in the late 19th century but today are beyond the pale. How Judge Radford dukes this out remains somewhat opaque because, by contrast to the approachable, TV-friendly self-presentations of Wass and Dein, the judge remains in character throughout, and is not part of the debrief at the end of the episode. Nor does his reasoning always satisfy the relatives who, when the conviction is upheld, vow to continue digging into the case.

Anyone interested in legal history, postconviction remedies, and forensics would find this show, despite its contrivances, interesting and well worth watching.

Series Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Netflix’s new docuseries about the hunt for Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, comes to our computer screens at an interesting cultural moment, in which national and state responses to heinous crimes are in flux. As the bicameral Democratic legislature of the Biden administration prepares to get rid of the federal death penalty, the Trump administration finishes its four-year tour of gratuitous cruelty with gratuitous executions happening at the eleventh hour with the blessing of SCOTUS and to the horror of the court’s progressive minority; several people have observed the irony of lethal injections happening at the federal level just as death row people here in CA get the first injection of the COVID vaccine. This throwback to bloodthirstier decades comes as a majority of Americans, for the first time since the sixties, now support life imprisonment over the death penalty. Half the states retain the death penalty and half (growing since the recession) have abolished it or placed moratoria upon its use; if Virginia moves forward with abolition, not only will it be the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but also a majority of states will have abolished/sunset the death penalty. Here in California, more people have died on death row from COVID-19 under Gov. Newsom’s moratorium than we have executed since the return of the death penalty in 1978. Ramirez himself–the subject of the new docuseries–was the 85th person to die on California’s death row of natural causes in 2013. And just recently, Joseph DeAngelo, whose horrific crimes as the Golden State Killer are eerily similar to Ramirez’s, was sentenced to life imprisonment, raising the fair question–if not him, then who?

Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.

As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.

But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)

Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix.

Book Review: Karen Morin, Carceral Spaces, Prisoners and Animals

My two biggest research interests–criminal justice and animal rights–come together in Karen Morin’s new book Carceral Spaces, Prisoners and Animals (New York: Routledge, 2018.) Morin, a geographer by discipline, applies insights from carceral geography to both human and nonhuman confinement contexts.

Carceral geography is a growing area of scholarship that examines prisons through a lens of spatiality. Building on work by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, carceral geographers problematize the overly simplistic notion of prisons as carceral spaces, arguing that prison boundaries are porous and that carceral ideologies of domination through confinement permeate spaces beyond the prison–beyond the formal dichotomy between “inside” and “outside.” Some themes studied by carceral geographers include spaces within prison and how they affect the experience of incarceration (“public” and “private” spaces within the prison; the impact of prison on the body); the interface between prisons and surrounding communities (prison towns, family members, transportation); mobility within and between prisons; and prison architecture and design. Carceral geography is directly relevant to my current research project, which is a book in progress about the COVID-19 catastrophe in California prisons; I rely a lot on the idea of prison permeability, which brings together notions of carceral boundaries, logics of opportunity (for people and for the virus,) insights from situational crime prevention, and miasma theory. In addition to this, I’m deeply interested in animal rights, and am working on a project involving the criminal prosecutions of animal rights activists who break into factory farms to release suffering animals.

In many ways, my interest in liberating nonhuman animals is an obvious extension of my interest in alleviating suffering in prisons. But the comparison is socially fraught from many directions. I often hear prison reform activists and abolitionists criticize prisons for treating people “like animals,” as if treating animals this way is fine; I’ve also heard animal rights activists criticize experimentation on animals, proposing to experiment on prisoners instead (Justin Marceau criticizes the myopic assumptions of the latter phenomenon in Beyond Cages.) I’ve also had to contend with people who find the comparison deeply offensive. Morin is well aware of these emotional and political landmines and writes:

I recognize though that the politics and ethics of making comparisons between racialized and classed human lives and that of nonhuman animals in respective carceral spaces can be problematic and fraught. It is challenging for humans who are embedded in violent, racialized, and criminalized human histories and spaces to not be offended by posthumanist comparisons to animal suffering. As noted above, the category of ‘human’ is contested in any case, and it is important to not move too quickly ‘beyond the human’ without acknowledging the continued exclusion of many human lives from full incorporation within it. And yet thinking particularly about race and animals together is important, precisely because of the way that racialized people have been and continue to be animalized in carceral spaces (Chapter 3). Moreover, the carceral logics of domination are intertwined across human and nonhuman groups. To take one more example, as Deckha (2013b) has shown, animal anti-cruelty legislation has the double effect of selecting certain animals for protection while targeting the behaviors of certain minoritized populations of people as deviant and transgressive. Meanwhile, industrial practices involving the dominant culture – as well as the abuse and killing of most animals – remain immune from critique.

Morin, Karen M.. Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) (p. 15). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

This avenue is deeply productive, not only because the analogies and similarities are analytically interesting, but because solidarity across movements is essential for success. Morin’s analysis ties together the prison-, agricultural-, and medical industrial complexes, showing the intricate connections between them and the profit logics that underpin them.

Morin’s book proceeds to analyze a series of contexts in which she sees parallel developments between human and nonhuman carceral spaces. She compares execution chambers and slaughterhouses, discussing the notions of “humane” slaughter and of death sentences that are supposedly not “cruel and unusual.” She discusses the intersection of the medical and carceral spaces in the context of medical experimentation. She even asks difficult questions about prison boundaries when discussing zoos and supermax facilities. The book also makes an important contribution to two seemingly unrelated growing literatures: the one about forced labor in prisons and the one about the possibility and structure of labor rights for nonhuman animals. Throughout these topics, Morin shows deep sensitivity to the broader social structures that allow cruelty to persist.

My favorite part is Morin’s comparative analysis of prison towns and cattle towns. She shows how the introduction of an exploitative industry into a “company town” shapes the economy and the tenor of the entire town, without granting much in the way of economic benefit to the town itself (by contrast to the industry that exploits the town.) Morin doesn’t explicitly say this, but a big thing here seems the creation of a municipality that is collectively impermeable to compassion, which I think is a serious issue even when the industry is profitable.

We often talk about dehumanizing conditions in prisons. But perhaps the question is not whether or not we’re all human; the question that should matter is whether we are sentient and whether we suffer. A few years ago I read Michael Dorf and Sherry Colb’s Beating Hearts, which compares the logics of sentience underpinning the pro-life and animal rights movements and finds a way to reconcile them into a cohesive pro-choice and pro-animal perspective. I think there’s a way for advocates and activists to find peace with Morin’s comparison in a way that allows them to support both movements.

Morin admits that she has not analyzed all the scenarios that her comparison speaks to, and I found at least two that I would like to read future works on. The first has to do with the concept of overcrowding. Morin discusses issues of caging in depth, but the book does not delve into the movement toward humane farming and “cage-free” chicken facilities. Now a major selling point for eggs and for pig meats, the notion of no-cage or no-crate is deeply misleading, and some states, such as California, use various parameters to try and measure overcrowding. I’ve seen parallel developments in the context of prison population reduction orders. It’s no big secret that I think the measuring yard used in Brown v. Plata–percentage of design capacity systemwide–was deeply shortsighted, and a more careful calculation of minimal per-person area, as in other countries, would have helped us mitigate the COVID-19 catastrophe we’re experiencing right now.

The second issue I would want to read more about has to do with movement strategy, and with the reform-versus-revolution debate in the prison advocacy community. There is a parallel debate–quite a heated one–in the animal ethics community, between animal welfarism and animal liberation. Movement strategy and tactics, attention to incremental reform, and the use of the criminal justice process to challenge cruelty and obtuseness are relevant to both movements, and I think there’s more room to write about this.

These two issues notwithstanding, the book makes a fascinating read. Unfortunately, Routledge has priced it quite prohibitively, but prospective readers should know that you can rent it from Amazon for a reasonable price.

Noir City Online: A Woman’s Face (1938)

In an effort to set aside the horrors of the present, I am returning to the online Noir City International festival to enjoy this dark Swedish musing into criminality and its causes, A Woman’s Face (1938.) It stars one of my favorite actresses of all time, Ingrid Bergman, in one of her last Swedish roles before being catapulted to Hollywood stardom.

Bergman plays a woman with a disfigured face who leads a criminal extortion gang. When she tries to steal money, she sustains an injury and is caught by the homeowner, a plastic surgeon; he learns more about her and decides to fix her face. His kindness gives her a chance at redemption and at overcoming the trauma of her disfigurement. But the gang has already set in motion a plan that requires her to insert herself as a governess in the home of a dignitary and play a role in the murder of his little grandson so as to affect inheritance plans.

I was engrossed in this movie, which is notable because, as mother to a small child, films with plots endangering children are often too much for me. It didn’t help my blood pressure that the child in question, Lars-Erik, looks and talks a lot like my own son! But the film was captivating because of the origin story of Anna’s criminality. This is not the only noir to suggest that the trauma of physical disfigurement can push people into criminal careers; consider Peter Lorre’s The Face Behind the Mask (1941.) But there are a few notable things here.

Deviance–to the extent that we can even agree on its definition–is complicated. From the 1920s to the 1950s, lots of theories for explaining it emerged, many of them looking at juvenile delinquents’ backgrounds. Some theories attributed it to lack of legitimate opportunities and others to the presence of role models in crime. There’s a wonderful book by James Bennett, Oral History and Delinquency, which goes into how criminologists of the early 20th century dug into people’s narratives about their backgrounds to seek an understanding of how they drifted into criminal behavior. The idea that a person’s experiences, the twists and turns of life, are important milestones in a path toward or away from crime, is again important in criminological theory: life-course criminologists look for milestones in encouraging criminality and desistance.

The thing about narratives, though, is that it’s dangerous to overgeneralize from anecdotes. One needs to systematically analyze life stories of many people to find generalities; not all people who go to college or marry desist from crime, and certainly most of the people who grow up in poverty and trauma don’t go into crime. Which is why the constant reliance on psychological trauma as an explainer of villainry, a-la origin stories of comic book villains, is fascinating and at the same time discomfiting. This is part of what I struggled with when viewing A Woman’s Face: the narrative suggests that Anna’s entry into a criminal life is a direct consequence of her disfigurement, whereas the external remedying of this disfigurement holds the key to her own redemption. It’s a powerful story, and I don’t want to reject its power outright–I know what a difference changes in appearance and external circumstances can make. But I also know some very conventionally beautiful and fortunate people who engage in quite a lot of villainy, so I would enjoy the narrative for its own sake and hesitate to generalize too much from it.

Either way, this is a fantastic flick–far superior, in my view, to the later American remake with Joan Crawford. I hope you enjoy it!

Noir City Online: Razzia sur la chnouf (France, 1955)

Another cinematic joy in this year’s online version of my favorite film festival: The amazing Jean Gabin stars in this French version of a Damon Runyon underworld yarn. For a country less aggressively moralistic and puritan than the U.S., I was surprised to see the movie open with a warning about drugs a-la Reefer Madness.

This becomes important throughout the movie. One of its most interesting characteristics is the juxtaposition of the drug trafficking operation as a business and as a crime with real victims that causes real suffering. It starts off with Gabin’s character “Henri from Nantes,” returning to France after learning the business in the United States; he’s being brought aboard the drug organization to make it more efficient, as if he were someone who just returns to a senior management position at Peugeot after spending a few years with the Ford factory. The way he surveys the organization and scolds his underlings is sometimes reminiscent of a Dilbert cartoon. And the romance between him and Lisette, who works the bar that doubles as the front for the drug operation, progresses like an ordinary workplace romance. I was reminded a lot of The Wire’s Stringer Bell and his efforts at introducing business norms and concepts to the drug crew.

At the same time, we’re not spared a tough look at the horrors and victims of drugs, especially through the character of Léa (marvelously played by Lila Kodrova.) Léa hits rock bottom several times during the flick, and Henri’s pity for her is evident. The killing of the courier at the beginning of the movie, too, is a reminder of the inherent violence and danger of the trade. Henri’s nighttime journey through the scarier, sadder, more risqué corners of his organization makes for some wonderfully lyrical, tragic moments (as well as some super-dark cinematography):

I don’t want to discuss the plot too much, because it would ruin this fabulous movie for you, but I will mention that the movie raises some interesting questions about the extent to which governments can go with entrapment.

Noir City Online: Leave Her to Heaven (United States, 1945)

Over the years, I developed a pretty strong stomach for noir plots, and can usually watch them without blinking; since the birth of my son, though, pure, unmitigated evil, especially toward children and vulnerable people, is really trying for me. I was surprised to find the anti-heroine of Leave Her to Heaven, Ellen, so monstrous that I had to stop watching the film several times.

So much has been written about femmes fatales that I’m hardly going to innovate anything on the subject, but I did want to draw a strong parallel between Ellen and the absent protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The film is one of my favorite flicks of all time, especially because of the nightmarish Mrs. Danvers, and because Maxim fills me with ambivalence and dread. But what’s interesting about it is that the dead Rebecca is present throughout the film.

Even though Rebecca and Ellen are very different characters–Ellen is an obsessive lover (first of her father, then of Richard), whereas Rebecca is filled with contempt for Maxim, they share the scary, Hitchcock-esque characteristic of being able to put in place machinations from beyond the grave that make things unbearable for the living (there are also some Agatha Christie characters like that, especially in the short stories.) This sort of plot twist would strain credulity in the hands of less capable actresses than Gene Tierney, but she manages to introduce Ellen’s perversity so gradually that, halfway through the film, one realizes that her evil is utterly believable.

The juxtaposition of bad Ellen and good Ruth plays on a stereotype that many feminist criminologists have highlighted as a shortcoming in media representations of female crime, and it’s a steady cliché of the genre. I would have enjoyed Ruth more if she had more backbone and a bit of an edge, but films dominated by a stereotypical femme fatale seldom leave room for more than one interesting, complicated female character (this, by the way, is part of why I love Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill so much.) Ruth is a literary device for highlighting Ellen’s perversity. My former teachers and now colleagues Odeda Steinberg and Mimi Ajzenstadt conducted a phenomenal study a while ago, in which they examined newspaper coverage of trials of female criminals. They expected to find demonization all over, and instead they found feminization–incessant preoccupation with looks and stereotypically feminine behavior of the defendants. This may fall in line with Manheim’s chivalry theory, hints of which Malcolm Feeley and I found in the treatment of female offenders from the 19th century onward. Ellen’s conventional good looks, her athleticism and prowess, and her diabolical streak tick all the demonization/feminization boxes. As someone astutely commented on Twitter, none of this would’ve been more alarming in black and white–“the overly rich colors lend create a their own world as garish nightmare.”

Watch Leave Her to Heaven here:

Noir City Online: Rusty Knife (Japan, 1958)

Had lots of fun this evening at Noir City International watching the fantastic Yakuza film Rusty Knife. The plot is thrilling and engaging: Postwar city Udaka is run over with gangs mixed in political corruption, complete with the recent suicide of a local politician–except it turns out it wasn’t suicide. The prosecutor receives an anonymous letter from a gang member; the author had been a witness to the murder and staging of the crime scene as a faux suicide by the powerful Katsumata gang. When Katsumata finds out, they start looking for the snitch by process of elimination. One of the last men standing is Tachibana, a bartender recently returned from a prison sentence for the murder of the man who raped his fiancée and drove her to suicide. Tachibana wants to go straight, but he’s besieged from all sides: the prosecution and the police want him to testify against Katsumata, and Katsumata’s men are trying to hound him down. Complicating matter is his youthful sidekick Keiko, the daughter of the murdered politician.

Even though I’m far from an expert on Japan’s organized crime scene, I love Japanese crime movies, especially the classics from Nikkatsu studios. Some of the plot lines and styles are quintessentially Japanese, but some are very universal. This film spoke to me in two ways. First, Tachibana comes off as an incredibly sympathetic character, and the pressures he’s subjected to were complicated and realistic. As opposed to Jean Gabin’s Charles in Any Number Can Win, Tachibana truly wants a quiet, uncomplicated life, but can’t seem to catch a break. The film made me wonder whether people who come home after a prison sentence in Japan have an easier time clawing their way back into law-abiding life than people in the United States, whose reentry journey is mostly marred with crippling poverty. I’ve read that the length of life sentences in Japan continues to rise, and was interested to find out about the recent release of the man who’s served the longest sentence in the country‘s history–note that his name and crime have been kept out of the papers to help with his reentry. It’s hard to imagine such concessions here. It has also been interesting to learn that there’s a lot more interface between prisons and the surrounding community, which should help with the inevitable culture shock of returning to the outside society.

The film also made me think of plea bargaining, confidential informants, and the power of prosecutors in and out of court. David Johnson’s groundbreaking book about Japanese criminal justice highlights the extent to which the system there relies on confessions, and the ensuing pressures by the prosecutorial machine to confess. The prosecutor’s relentless pressure on Tachibana in this movie tarnishes the boundaries between “good guys” and “bad guys” somewhat, though Katsumata definitely takes the cake as the story’s sadistic villain. It’s interesting, though, that I found myself rooting for Tachibana and Keiko and wishing that the prosecutor wasn’t embroiled in any of this.

It’s a gem of a flick, and you can find it on the Criterion Channel. Here’s the trailer:

Noir City Online: Any Number Can Win (France, 1963)

Here’s one more post reviewing the terrific flicks shown as part of the AFI and the Film Noir Foundation’s festival Noir City International, and this time it’s the French Any Number Can Win, starring the phenomenal Jean Gabin and a (super young and handsome) Alain Delon. It’s a wonderful heist movie: the Gabin character, Charles, has just come home after a long period in prison. Contemplating his grim chances at reentry with his wife (they have such a great relationship) he realizes that going straight isn’t worth it. He partners with Francis (Delon) and Louis (Maurice Biraud) to plan a big heist at the outrageously named Palm Beach Casino.

Lots of fantastic things happen; the cinematography is phenomenal, as is the ensemble acting, especially the dance of suspicion between Charles and Francis. But from a criminological perspective, what sticks out is the use of physical environment as a partner in crime as well as an incriminating accomplice. This dovetails with a theory that came to prominence in criminology in the 1980s, Situational Crime Prevention. Despairing of grand theories involving the criminal’s character or big social structures, leading criminologists at the time turned their attention to the physical environment of crime, to check whether it creates opportunities to commit crime or to avoid detection. The leading theorists advancing these theories seem to assume some rationality and planning on the part of criminals (there’s still excellent work being done on this, specifically regarding burglaries and poaching), and are looking for ways in which the setups in stores, for example, entice stealing, hinder detection, and enable getting away. This theory was very attractive to the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, respectively, and shaped much of the physical environs in both countries. If you’ve ever seen an athletics store with a display wall with only one sneaker, or a park bench with armrests in the middle (to prevent sleeping) you’ve seen situational crime prevention in action.

Anyway, the way this plays out in Any Number Can Win is fascinating. According to Charles’ plan, Francis takes a room in a mansion next door to the casino, and rents a pool cabana. It turns out that the air vents in the cabana lead to the ventilation inside the casino, and the entire plan is based on using the infrastructure between the two buildings effectively. This means we get to see Delon in some hairy situations, which require athleticism and agility, such as crawling through air vents or leaping inside an elevator shaft. But what makes the plan appealing is also what brings about its inevitable failure: the environment does not cooperate. I won’t tell you what happens–I’ll just mention that some of the most fantastic 1960s-style resort extravagance ends up tripping our fellows and sabotaging their best-laid plans.

A great accompanying read to this movie is Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Noir City Online: El Vampiro Negro (Argentina, 1953)

Long-time readers know that the highlight of my year is Noir City, the fantastic film festival at the Castro Theatre, created and sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation. As this year’s events were gradually canceled, I started preemptively mourning the ten days I typically spend glued to my seat (audience left, near the exit) watching twenty-something phenomenal films.

Much to my delight, the Film Noir Foundation and the American Film Institute are hosting the program online, at this link. The movies come with terrific introductions by Eddie Muller, known to us noiristas as “the Czar of Noir” and other members of FNF, as well as expert film critics and scholars. I thought it might be fun if I supplemented some of these with a bit of criminological commentary.

This first comment is about the fantastic film El Vampiro Negro (Argentina, 1953), which starts with a title frame explaining that the film is based on real-life events from Europe. Indeed, like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), El Vampiro Negro is based on the life and crimes of Peter Kürten, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” Both films are excellent and, while cinephiles and Lang fans may see this as blasphemy, I think that El Vampiro Negro is the best of the two, for various cinematic and criminological reasons. Both Peter Lorre and Nathán Pinzón are excellent in the respective title roles of the serial killer, and the atmosphere is well-captured in both, but I think that the Argentinian script’s inclusion of the nightclub singer, played by Olga Zubarry, makes such a terrific, truly moral, appealing counterpart not only to the rotten morality of the serial killer, but also to the hypocrisy of the prosecutor. One roots for Zubarry’s character as she plays an important role in catching the criminal.

But more importantly, the inclusion of the nightclub singer provides a much more interesting criminological statement. In M, the murderer is apprehended and tried by a kangaroo court of the underworld, in which a “prosecutor” and a “defense attorney” respectively argue for positions corresponding to the classicist (“he chose to do evil and we must deter others!”) and positivist (“he can’t help himself!”) schools of criminology. This dichotomy emerges in El Vampiro Negro as well, not through a kangaroo court but through scenes from the murderer’s trial, which are interestingly portrayed at the beginning of the movie. I think the playwright made this decision because the film wants to say something more interesting.

At some point in the movie, there’s a scene from the prosecutor’s home life, including his wife, who is disabled. Later, the prosecutor befriends the nightclub singer, coming to her home, and warning her that her daughter might be taken away from her because of her occupation. He then bemoans his own loneliness, tells her that she, too, must be lonely, and makes his move. The nightclub singer–what a terrific character!–pushes him away, screams at him that he’s scum and that she prefers the lowlifes from the club, and throws him out of her home.

The inclusion of these two scenes frames the main dilemma in the movie in a much more interesting way. It’s not just a good-versus-evil flick (though the serial killer is, indeed, evil), and it’s not just a choice-versus-predetermination flick (though the serial killer does evoke this conversation): it’s also a conversation about the hypocrisies of the lawmakers themselves and their audacity to judge others. This folds in labeling and conflict theories, which I think make the latter film richer from a theoretical perspective.

Watch both (M; El Vampiro Negro) and tell me what you think!