TCM Spotlight: True Crime
Thursdays beginning 8 p.m. | 25 Movies
Just like readers the world over, film audiences love a good crime story. When that story comes from real life, “ripped from the headlines” as they say, it adds an extra level of fascination to the experience. This month, TCM turns the spotlight on movies based on True Crime – some recounting the actual events, others loosely inspired by them, and some taking liberties with the facts to create cinematic myths and legends out of notorious criminals.
The mayhem and mischief kicks off in prime time January 6 with Alfred Hitchcock’s experiment in “single take” storytelling in Rope (1948), inspired by the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb case, when two wealthy young students murdered a 14-year-old boy as a demonstration of their social and intellectual superiority. Farley Granger and John Dall play the murderers and James Stewart is the acquaintance horrified to discover his philosophical musings have inspired the fatal act. Hitchcock used long takes framed and edited to appear as if the entire 80-minute story was captured in a single shot in real time with no cuts.
The evening continues with films based on real-life criminal couples. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the leaders of the Depression era crime duo, changed the face of cinema and ushered in a new era in American filmmaking. Badlands (1973) was Terrence Malick’s highly influential directorial debut based on the 1958 murder spree of a young Midwestern couple (played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek). The Honeymoon Killers (1970) follows the deadly trail of Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) and Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), the “lonely hearts killers” of the 1940s.
Also showing that night: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), about a series of murders and attacks in 1946 in Texarkana, where it was shot, and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), based on a 1950 killing spree and co-written and directed by one of the only female directors of studio-era Hollywood, Ida Lupino.
The line-up for January 13 includes stories that focus on the aftermath of murders and the toll they take on survivors, law enforcement and the pursuit of justice. In Cold Blood (1967) is adapted from Truman Capote’s book about two men executed for the murder of a Kansas farm family. While not shrinking from the horror of the act, Capote’s unique take was an attempt to understand the backgrounds of the murderers. The Boston Strangler (1968) stars Henry Fonda as the detective who wrested a (disputed) confession from serial killer and rapist Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). The critically acclaimed The Onion Field (1979) features a powerful performance by John Savage as a police officer whose life goes downhill after escaping death at the hands of the killer (Golden Globe-nominated James Woods) who shot the cop’s partner (Ted Danson, in his feature debut). The British-made 10 Rillington Place (1971) details the 1950 murder trial and subsequent execution of an illiterate man (John Hurt) accused of killing his pregnant wife and baby daughter, a crime later proven to have been carried out by a neighbor, serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough).
Also that night: the teen murder drama River’s Edge (1986), an early Keanu Reeves role, called by Salon magazine “the darkest teen film of all time”; and the low-budget The Strangler (1964), inspired by the DeSalvo murders in Boston.
The films showing on January 20 have less to do with murder but are no less gripping. The French Connection (1971) won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director (William Friedkin) and actor (Gene Hackman). Editor Gerald B. Greenberg also earned an OscarÒ for his handling of one of the most intensely thrilling chase scenes put on film to that date. The story follows New York Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s (Hackman) efforts to break up a narcotic ring. Al Pacino had one of his most memorable roles in Sidney Lumet’s bank robbery/hostage drama Dog Day Afternoon (1975), delivering the classic rant “Attica! Attica!” Natasha Richardson plays the title role in Patty Hearst (1988) about the 1974 abduction of the newspaper heiress and the purported brainwashing that transformed her into a gun-toting member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The film was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) and directed American Gigolo (1980) and The Card Counter (2021).
Murder comes back to the forefront in the other two movies playing that night. The would-be cautionary tale about single women and casual sex, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), stars Diane Keaton and Richard Gere in an early role. Bob Fosse’s last picture, Star 80 (1983), is about the killing of Playboy centerfold and aspiring starlet Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) by her estranged husband (Eric Roberts).
The Spotlight series wraps up on January 27 with movies from the 1940s and 50s. Of particular note are two classics of film noir, a lesser-known Hitchcock film and a multiple award winner that Charlie Chaplin called “the greatest movie ever made about America.”
Barbara Stanwyck is the seductive housewife who leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray down the path of murder, fraud and betrayal in Double Indemnity (1944). Director Billy Wilder and his co-writer, classic crime author Raymond Chandler, adapted a novel by another icon of the “hardboiled” school of fiction, James M. Cain, loosely inspired by the sensational trial and 1928 execution of convicted husband-murderer Ruth Snyder. Cain said he also took inspiration from an earlier book, adapted to film as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981).
Director Phil Karlson (Kid Galahad, 1962; Walking Tall, 1973) depicted the assassination of an Alabama politician who vowed to clean up the widespread corruption of the titular town in The Phenix City Story (1955). In 2019, the film noir classic was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Alfred Hitchcock made one of his few pictures based on a true story – the case of an innocent man charged with a crime and the devastating effect it had on his wife’s mental health – in The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. Although not as widely seen or loved as the director’s other work, this film was praised by the Cahiers du Cinema critics (especially Jean-Luc Godard) and has been cited as an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).
George Stevens won the Best Director Academy Award for the lush yet dark romance A Place in the Sun (1951) in which a social climber (Montgomery Clift) in love with a wealthy debutante (Elizabeth Taylor) is convicted of the accidental(?) murder of his working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters). The multi-award-winning film, admired by Chaplin, was based on the 1926 Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy, the title of a 1926 play and a 1931 screen version.
Legendary criminals are at the heart of the Spotlight films Dillinger (1945) and Al Capone (1959). Two others tell the stories of women accused of murder: Madeleine (1950), about a Scottish woman who walked free after her 1857 trial, and I Want to Live! (1958), for which Susan Hayward won a Best Actress OscarÒ as prostitute and petty criminal Barbara Graham. The movie made a case against capital punishment by strongly suggesting Graham was innocent, but the accuracy of that has been widely disputed.