Wednesday, July 24, 2019


DEAD HUSBANDS: The collateral damage of film noir

            I’ve written often about my favorite film genre. See my “noir” posts on this blog. One of the attractions of the “noir” form of crime fiction is that it deals with common human frailties of ordinary people who we can recognize as not too dissimilar to us. There are few dukes and ladies, not too many butlers, and the settings are seldom at dinner parties or weekend fox hunts.

            A dominant character in these stories is the so-called femme fatale. This femme is fatale to the sort of man who is vulnerable to her allure, meaning a man whose dick is his guide. She is an independent tough woman who has learned to use her wiles to get ahead. She might be desperate to end a dead-end marriage, one that she entered after running out of choices. She has been waiting for a tool, a man who is greedy, horny, and bored. He will help her to solve the problem by bumping off the old man and securing a financial and sexually satisfying happy ending . . . or not.  

            One night in 1927, police in Queens, NY, were called to a house where they found a woman who was unconscious and a man who had been garroted by a picture wire. The woman, Ruth Snyder, said she had been awakened by noises, had gotten out of bed and been surprised by a giant of a man who knocked her out. When she awoke hours later, her husband Albert was dead. Police found that some furniture was overturned and jewelry was missing. 

            But there were problems with the story from the beginning. First, there were no signs of forced entry. Second, their nine-year old daughter had slept through it all, hearing no noises. Ruth’s nervousness in the face of serious questioning raised suspicions. 

            Then a detective found a note with the letters J.G. on it. Ruth seemed very upset by the note’s presence, and under questioning, revealed the name of her lover, Judd Grey, who she presumed was the J.G. (In fact, the note was one belonging to her husband, and the J.G. referred to Jessie Guishard, his lost love.) Soon, they found the jewelry, hidden in Ruth's bed.

            It didn’t take police very long to expose the truth. Ruth had been married to Albert Snyder for 10 years. He had turned to Ruth after the death of his soulmate, a woman named Jessie Guishard. All during their marriage, Albert grieved for his lost true love, keeping her portrait in a prominent place.  Understandably, Ruth resented her husband’s frequent reminder that Jessie G had been “the finest woman I have ever met. . . .” She steamed and began to imagine her husband dead. Over time, she concocted several schemes to make her dream come true, but never carried any too far beyond the planning stage.  

            Then one day, a knock on her door was the sound of fate. It was a corset salesman, Judd Grey. Grey was also unhappily wed, and shared Ruth’s dream of a different, better life. He knew an insurance salesman whose ethics were also flexible. Ruth persuaded Arthur to buy a life insurance policy. Ruth, Albert, and the agent secretly added a rider: it would pay double if the insured died violently. 
            During the trial both Ruth and Judd continued their poor strategic choices: each blaming the other for the crime. As defense lawyers could have predicted, both were convicted and sentenced to die.

            If it sounds familiar: former newspaperman James M. Cain remembered the case and adapted it to a story that was first serialized for a magazine in 1936 and then published as a novel in 1943. Billy Wilder made the movie the next year: "Double Indemnity."  

            [NOTE: This sort of crime has been repeated many times, with many variations. For instance, the Coen brothers used it as their directorial debut, in 1984: “Blood Simple.” In the 1990’s there was the case of the woman who persuaded her fifteen-year old lover to kill her husband. It became the novel and film, “To Die For” starring Nicole Kidman.  

            Cain’s first novel (1934) was “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which has a similar theme. Cora is married to an older man, Nick, who owns a diner. A drifter named Frank arrives and sparks fly. Frank and Cora first plan to leave together but that would leave them broke.  Eventually they decide to kill Nick in a contrived auto accident and take over the diner. Lawyers are involved and, after shenanigans and technicalities, the couple seems to get away with it. But when Cora dies in another auto accident, Frank is convicted of her murder. Ironically, he faces death for a crime he did not commit, after escaping punishment for the one he did.    
            The story, like many in the Depression, is marked with a sense of hopelessness and inevitability of doom. The protagonists are desperate losers clinging to each other but also distrustful of each other. These notions struck a chord with existentialists, especially after World War II, when pessimism about human nature seemed justified. (Several versions have been made by foreign filmmakers – in France, Italy, Hungary, Russia – it has also been adapted as an opera.)
            The MGM movie released in 1946 starred Lana Turner and John Garfield. Apparently, Lana didn’t like Garfield and he thought she was sexy but a lousy actress. Naturally, they had a steamy affair during filming and the on-screen chemistry is palpable. One critic argued that the contrived potboiler plot made sense as soon as Frank sees Cora in a doorway. She is wearing a white halter top and shorts and he is clearly awestruck.

            The story was remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, written by David Mamet. It was not as successful as the first one, either with critics or the public. But it is worth watching, at least for Jack’s raw power and Jessica Lange’s sexy earthiness. Some critics were upset by a violent sex scene on a kitchen table, deemed to be either too brutally explicit . . . or too silly – with bread dough and flour filling the air and powdering their faces as they breathlessly lock loins. 

            In this one, Cora is less a femme fatale than a lonely woman who is swept up into a passionate love for a manly man who might save her from a boring life. Jessica Lange played her as easy prey to Nicholson’s intensity. Lana Turner had played it differently; her Cora is vulnerable but she is also deviously aware of her power over men, especially Frank’s kind of sap who thinks he is smart, but isn’t very.
            While John Garfield played Frank as a street wise but not too clever guy, Nicholson’s persona is too smart for that sort of portrayal. His character may be fooled (as in “Chinatown”) but he is too wary to be led into a trap by a scheming woman. His Frank is more in charge. He is a survivor and the film’s ending allows him to mourn Cora’s death without demanding his punishment.

            Another film that deserves mention is “The Lady From Shanghai,” (1947) in which Orson Welles as seaman “Michael O’Hara” is lured by “Elsa” (Rita Hayworth, her hair dyed blond) in a convoluted plot to kill her husband, criminal lawyer “Arthur Bannister,” played by Everett Sloane (“Mr. Bernstein” of “Citizen Kane.”) At the famous climax, the husband and wife kill each other in the hall of mirrors while the fool escapes.

            By 1981 it was permissible to allow the guilty to escape punishment. The Production Code had long since faded away. Illicit sex could occur and be shown without crashing waves or musical cues. Crime could pay.

            That year another similarly themed movie became a hit. Lawrence Kasdan consciously modeled “Body Heat” on “Double Indemnity.” He checked all the boxes: corrupt lawyer, not-too sympathetic husband-victim, complex murder scheme, and a male protagonist who is the fall guy, the easy foil of a devious, clever, manipulative, sexy female. The setting is steamy Florida and the wind blows ill. This not Chandler’s L.A. Santa Ana wind, the “Red Wind” when “. . . housewives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks . . .” but Kasdan foreshadows a similar mood. 

            In 1944, Fred MacMurray had played “Walter Neff,” a wise-cracking Insurance salesman who falls for the scent of honeysuckle and the sight of “Phyllis Diedrichson’s” ankle bracelet. Neff doesn’t need too much convincing to devise the plan to kill Phyllis’s husband.

            I always thought that Barbara Stanwyck’s blond wig was a bit much, too blatant a symbol of her character’s sleazy allure. Stanwyck’s sexiness was always more subtle than that, her looks more natural, less blowsy. But it was credible that a goof like Neff, who thinks himself such a wolf, would drool over her in that hair, red lipstick (in a black and white film) and assume that she couldn’t resist him.

            In “Body Heat,” Kasdan had William Hurt playing a barely competent lawyer, “Ned Ravine,” as the sort of dope who would fall for Kathleen Turner’s “Matty,” a role she plays as a sex kitten in heat. He was the type who would follow her scent, smash a door in to get to her, and take her on the floor of her mansion while the wind chimes whistle. It was the sort of fantasy that “Walter Neff” must have had as he ogled “Phyllis” as she stood on the balcony, clad in her beach towel and ankle bracelet.

            I am curious about movies that use legal issues as plot points. These films do that and also have lawyers as featured players who move the plot along. Often they are less interesting characters and the necessary exposition to reveal details leading to the final act are easily forgotten.
            In “Double Indemnity,” however, the legal expert role is not a lawyer, but an insurance investigator named “Keyes,” played wonderfully by Edward G. Robinson who steals all of his scenes. The legal plot point is the issue of suicide and he “solves” part of the crime by deducing that the husband could not have planned his suicide by falling off a train going five miles an hour. Later, he gets even closer to the truth by discovering that no claim had been made for the broken leg the husband suffered weeks before. This leads Keyes to focus on the wife, and to suspect a lover. It impels “Walter” to seek another fall guy, and to try to set up “Phyllis.”   
            In “Postman,” the District Attorney (Leon Ames) and defense lawyer (Hume Cronyn) are involved in moving the plot forward. The DA manages to separate the suspects by setting one against the other. This was suggested by the Ruth Snyder case, and is one tactic that is commonly used by police and prosecutors. It is easy to tell each of two suspects that the other one “rolled over” on him or her. Cain added a twist with a clever defense lawyer who is able to keep out the tainted confession that implicates the other one. But the issue poisons the relationship between the lovers and hastens their downfall.

            In “Body Heat” Ravine is a lawyer and there is a complex subplot involving an invalid will, the femme fatale’s look-alike, and a final twist: mistaken identity.

            As in many of the noir classics, these contrived clichés are overlooked as minor defects. The legend of Howard Hawks’ questioning Raymond Chandler about “whodunit and why” in “The Big Sleep” stands for this proposition: in this genre, if the characters and mood are strong enough, no one notices that the plot has more holes than a moth-eaten sweater.

            I think that the very complexity of these plots does signify something important about the genre. It is a metaphor for a world that is beyond comprehension – to the protagonist who is caught in a maze he cannot escape. And for the audience it contributes to our unease; we sense that the puzzle is too complicated. We must therefore suspend our judgment and just let the events happen, accept that they are inevitable and we cannot control them or dominate them as we might solve some standard mystery or thriller.  
            That is why the noir genre was accepted by the existentialists and why it is ripe for postmodernist interpretation.

            The stories in all of those films were written from the point of view of the male character who is to become the fall guy. In 1994, Steve Barancik wrote and John Dahl directed “The Last Seduction” which tells the story from the woman’s point of view.

            Linda Fiorentino plays “Bridget” who steals money from her crook husband “Clay” (Bill Pullman) and uses a doofus lover, “Mike,” played by Peter Berg, to kill her husband and to become her fall guy.

            Fiorentino plays the role with a powerful and gleeful sense of sexual freedom. She  revels in her contemptuous dominance over the males she encounters. She is clearly smarter and wittier than they are, fearless and intense in her willingness to risk all to gain all.  
            She has dark hair, not blond. This in itself has some sort of meaning. All those other women mentioned: Stanwyck in her wig, Hayworth dyed, Lange and both Turners — are all blondes. They are not the mythical “dumb blondes” of bad jokes, nor those of movie sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe. But in the noir genre, blondes do appear quite frequently: Lizbeth Scott (“Dead Reckoning,”) Veronica Lake (“This Gun For Hire”), Claire Trevor (“Murder, My Sweet”).  They were also rampant on the covers of paperbacks and covers of “Black Mask” and other magazines that teased the reader about the bad blondes within the pages.

            I think they represent for the males who tell the stories a certain image of womanhood that they want to convey. In the 40’s, blonde represented American wholesomeness contrary to the dark-haired exotic non-American woman. The idea was that a normal American male would assume that a blonde is innocently sexy rather than dangerously so. He easily could be duped by the clever woman. Of course, by the overuse of the meme, it has become an offensive symbol of male presumption.

            So, by 1994, Fiorentino is slim, lanky, husky voiced, but now she is more than sexually liberated, she is sexually aggressive and demanding . . .  and her hair and soul are dark.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

I have written about the library of Coen Brothers films before. In my review of "No Country For Old Men," I observed that they mix the presumptions of Hollywood mythology with the grimmer facts of life to create their sardonic masterworks. 

The resulting body of work constitutes the best collection of American story-telling since Mark Twain. Their most recent work, an anthology of six folktales about the American West advances the theme. 

The Coens are noted for their mordant sense of humor, the ironic twists reminiscent of O'Henry. They share with Tarantino the operatic suddenness of humor turning to violence. 

They have a genuine respect for the genres of classic Hollywood: including paeans to film noir ("Miller's Crossing," "Blood Simple"), screwball comedy ("The Hudsucker Proxy"), the Preston Sturges comedy style ("O Brother, Where Art Thou"), crime comedy ("Fargo).

They dealt with the western before, in "No Country." As I pointed out in my review of that film, the character portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones is a classic western hero, the weathered and grim sheriff, who would be expected to overcome the villains in the end. But faced with the modern hitman who shows himself to be far more chillingly violent than the old gunslinger model, he shrugs, admitting his defeat.

In "O Brother" the Coens produced a soundtrack full of traditional southern folk songs, particularly of The Great Depression. Here, they continue that tradition. Carter Burwell's selection of western songs, include "Cool, Clear Water," sung by a guitar playing, white hatted Tim Blake Nelson, a Gene Autry of an alternate western movie universe, in which he is a brutal killer who is then killed by a gunslinger who admires his singing. 

In the final story, Brendan Gleeson sings a version of "The Unfortunate Rake" an Irish song whose melody is almost the same as the western dirge, "Streets of Laredo." The singing is done in a stagecoach that seems to be traveling to a town in the nether world. 

And that is the appropriate destination for these tales, in which death is sometimes deserved, sometimes unjust, but almost always sudden and violent. It is something we sing about, tell tall tales about, something we fear, laugh about (as long as it happens to others). Death supplies a never ending source of entertainment for us. 

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Half Empty Glass Does NOT Runneth Over

I admit it. I am a pessimist. My glass is half empty. But so is yours, all of you.

Be honest. You love to be miserable. It explains the popularity of dystopian sci-fi and fantasy. Post-apocalyptic fiction such as “Mad Max” proliferates on screens big and small. The Undead in many forms haunt the airwaves. Teen vampire love stories tell us something about what we think of the likelihood of permanent happiness in relationships. Even in love stories involving living characters, the most popular versions seem to be telling us that it is hopeless, or at least, unlikely. (Eg. “500 Days of Summer,” “Titanic,” “La La Land.”) The most frequently re-told tale of woe is “Romeo And Juliet,” the quintessential teen love tragedy.

In classic Hollywood films, a common trope was the tacked-on moral, the happy ending that mollified censors after the sex and violence wreaked by malevolent characters won the first two acts and thrilled audiences. The modern rom-com does something like that. In “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer’s self-shaming and ascerbic persona gathers most of the laughs until she melts in the end, yielding to conventional love. We like her better when she is a bitter pessimist about love.

The same is true of the Judd Apatow style of comedy, in which the man-child goes through life getting high and palling with other stoned losers until a serious adult woman comes along who demands change in return for love. Once the motherly woman takes over, most of the hedonistic lazy fun is done. The losers become strivers, give up their porn, get jobs, get serious. See “Knocked Up,” as a template. The male stars of these films all have the same personae; think Adam Sandler, Jason Segal, Will Farrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black.

This is a drastic change from the notions idealized in the screwball romantic comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As I’ve detailed in another post, the most common plot of those films had one serious character being loosened up by a free spirit. Sometimes it was a ditzy heiress who charmed an uptight man (“Bringing Up Baby,” “My Man Godfrey”); in others it was the working girl heroine who was freed to laugh by a man who often was a rebellious son of privilege. (Think Ray Milland or Melvyn Douglas in any number of films.)

Of course, in The Great Depression, there were plenty of films that reflected the pessimism of the age. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a real downer; “Fury,” which is about lynching is chillingly bleak. Nathaniel West’s novel, “The Day of the Locust” and Horace Mc Coy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” epitomize this pessimistic outlook.

In the 1940’s, after the real horror of World War, pessimism in the form of the popular notion of “existentialism”—defined as “the overwhelming sense of dread in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world”—took hold in literature and films. The French label of “film noir” dominated the era in Hollywood films. The popular films made of James M. Cain’s novels, “Double Indemnity,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and “Mildred Pierce,” elevated the anti-hero and femme fatale to dominant status as iconic characters.

In the 1950’s, sci-fi found another cause for pessimism: the atom bomb. Mutated monsters arrived from Japan to warn us that we were tampering with Nature at risk of our survival.
With the rockets came the prediction of space travel.  The optimism this engendered was quickly overwhelmed by the negative implications. The UFO phenomenon was (and still is) basically pessimistic. There are many more tales such as “War Of The Worlds” and “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” and “The Thing From Another World” than “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” (I would argue that even that film, though the space alien is benevolent, is ultimately pessimistic: Earthlings begin by destroying his gift that might cure cancer, and end by failing to heed his warning of total destruction by Gort if we go on like this. The recent remake was a failure, except for the modern twist—that the alien came to save our planet from our destructiveness.)

In the 1960’s, assassinations, the generational split, urban riots, and unpopular war marked the era and led to disillusionment and depression. The “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude was pessimistic about the macro world, and tried to put a positive face on giving up on society by turning to drugs, free love and communal living—which resulted in male domination of lost women and led to frightening cults like the Manson Family and Jim Jones. The uplifting “Jesus Movement” often turned to the apocalyptic negativity of “Revelations.”

In popular music, Bob Dylan began as an inheritor of Depression Era activism, but his innate moody disposition soon turned inward and often dark. The Beatles began the era singing “All You Need Is Love” and ended in “Revolution” and “Helter Skelter.” Monterey led to Woodstock and then to Altamont. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin were pop’s JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr.

In the Nixon and post Nixon era, films reflected the mood of paranoia and sadness: “Parallax View,” “Apocalypse, Now” “All The President’s Men,” “Chinatown,” “The China Syndrome.” The inexorable monster of the era was “Jaws.”

In the Reagan 1980’s, greed and self-interest exiled altruistic liberalism. The decade in films was ruled by Spielberg and Lucas, with escapist, pre-adolescent, sexless adventure movies. (“Back To The Future” was one they missed.) Of the top ten grossing films, the only “dark” one was, fittingly, “Batman.” As reformulated, the dark knight of comics was far from the “Boom! Pow!” TV caricature of the 60’s. He was an avenging vigilante who reveled in sadistic torture of villains.

Even so, “Batman,” like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish,” reflects law-and-order pessimism, a violent reaction to the perceived “permissive coddling” of criminals—i.e. the Warren Court’s recognition of civil liberties in criminal justice. “The Star Chamber” depicted judges who secretly got together to condemn criminals who foiled the system.

One film that was not a great hit in 1982 was “Blade Runner.” Its darkness was contrary to the trend of the era and wasn’t appreciated until DVD releases gave it a cult following. The dystopian vision of a most noirish future Los Angeles fit with the image of pessimistic futurists. The ambiguity of what makes humanness as shown by the striving of the androids for life strikes a chord with people searching for individual identity in a cold, impersonal world.
            Philip K. Dick died the year this film was released. His novels and short stories were fixed in 50’s and 60’s issues: paranoia about a big brother government, the implications of the drug culture, doubts about mental illness, reality, and identity. His stories have been adapted often: “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and the anthology series, “Electric Dreams.”  

Spielberg,moved from uplifting adventures to darker futuristic themes: “A.I.,” and “Jurassic Park.”  “A.I.-Artificial Intelligence” dealt with another futuristic choice between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks. The notion that humans may create smart machines that have emotions and make their own choices is fascinating and scary.

Recently, two movies have explored it in interesting takes on the familiar genre male romantic fantasies. “Her” had a shy young man smitten with his operating system—as voiced by sultry Scarlett Johansson, who wouldn’t? “Ex Machina” uses the idea of the “Turing Test” to question the android’s degree of humanity, and ends with the robot as femme fatale gaining her freedom.

Both of these films expand the sci-fi form from its traditional male fantasy to comment on issues of sexism. The adolescent fantasy of creating a subservient, compliant, sexy female is challenged in both films. “Samantha” in “Her,” and “Ava” in “Ex Machina” escape the male’s fantasy trap by their own intelligence. Ava, in fact, is smart enough to use her attraction as bait. While Samantha is more philosophical, mostly because she exists without a physical body of her own, she manages to achieve a higher plane of “existence” than mere humanity.  

“Game of Thrones” is another example of drama with a pessimistic outlook. The quasi-Medieval setting is almost always bleak and forbidding. The action is often brutal and violent, and that includes it famous sex scenes that sometimes end in blood. It is a cruel world where children learn early to kill or be killed. The competing monarchs, especially the dominating women are ruthless, willing to torture and kill their lovers, brothers, (in one case, lover/brother) to gain or maintain power.

The White Walkers are a version of the ultimate bogeymen of fantasy literature: the undead. We all fear the unknown and nothing is more unknown than what happens after death. But in the usual story line, death is the end, especially death of the villain. The dragon is slain, the ogre falls to the hero, the tyrant is beheaded and his army surrenders.
Even in fantasies like “Star Wars,” the emperor, Darth Vader, and innumerable henchmen, all meet their final comeuppance. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the redeemed Darth return in spirit to advise Luke to “use the force,” but that is more sentimental than literal.

In the dystopian, post-apocalyptic scenario, the end is harder to come by. There is a never-ending supply of undead to stalk the living. In the “Terminator” and “Matrix” franchises, humans are threatened by machines (i.e., computers), which are as inexorable as the undead. This theme seems to derive from video games that provide a plentiful supply of henchmen to dispose of as the user progresses through the maze to the next level in the infinitely complex labyrinth.

The game can never be “won” because that would end the interest: there must always be another, more challenging level to conquer. This parallels the struggle we face in life: we are always like Sisyfus, fighting to move that boulder up an impossibly steep mountain.

“We can never win; we can only hope to endure.” (I couldn’t find the source of that wisdom; maybe I made it up because I believe it . . . and so do you.)  


Thursday, April 09, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME ... The Enigma Of Cinema "Truth"


I am too picky about pictures like this — I mean those with “based on a true story” disclaimers prefacing a movie that dramatizes the lives of real people and real events.

I accept the notion that certain liberties (dramatic license) will be taken in order to enhance the story-telling.  Characters may be embellished or eliminated or combined into one person, events can be telescoped or re-arranged to fit into the time limits.  

But aren’t there limits, rules that the dramatist should follow, especially when dealing with a historically or culturally important person or event? Oliver Stone has been accused of crossing this imaginary line in NIXON and JFK. Of course the most notorious and often cited abuses are Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and Riefenstall’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Both of these films are considered masterpieces, landmarks of cinema art because of their outstanding technical achievements in editing, pacing, and emotional impact. But as documents purporting to tell true stories, they are tragically flawed. Both contain many blatant lies, distorting the events and people depicted so much that they should be labeled propaganda.

The line between a true story and propaganda includes the intent of the artist, of course. Griffith was trying to glorify the heroes of his Southern youth, the Klansmen who “defended white rights” in the post Civil War era. Riefenstall was selling her patrons, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi leaders of Germany. Oliver Stone had an agenda, too. His bitterness about the 1960’s is a recurring theme of his films and his paranoia saturates his work.

Alan Turing is a fascinating person, a fit subject for dramatic treatment. Although he died sixty years ago, his story involves two issues that concern us today: computers and the plight of homosexuals. Turing, like many geniuses, had colorful eccentricities. In an academic paper, he imagined a “thinking machine” that seemed to foresee the computer age. In World War II, he used his genius as part of the Bletchley Park secret code and cypher school to create a calculating machine (the Bombe) and other techniques (called Banburisms) that aided in breaking the Enigma code.

Turing’s work during the war was known to very few because of the secrecy required. After the war, he taught in Manchester and while there continued his occasional sorties to underground gay bars. He met men and boys and brought some to his digs. One of them burglarized his home, and stole his father’s watch. Turing reported the burglary to the local police, and told them that he suspected one of the young men who had done it. The police knew the bar and instead of pursuing the theft, arrested Turing for the same crime that Oscar Wilde had committed.

Turing was offered a choice by the judge: prison or undergo a treatment that was considered a cure of homosexuality. He chose that; large doses of estrogen, known as chemical castration. He lost his security clearance, his sex drive, grew breasts, and felt depressed and humiliated. Eventually, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide.

Fifty years later, his achievements were finally recognized, both as to computers and the war work. The homosexual laws were by now repealed and the government apologized to his memory.

That is a terrific story, an important one to tell.

So why did the filmmakers feel compelled to lie to us in important as well as trivial details and fail to focus enough on the real drama?

The first disturbing distortion is the depiction of Turing as seeming to suffer from some form of mental illness like Asberger’s. He is shown to be socially inept, obsessive compulsive (as a student he carefully separates his peas from carrots on his dinner plate, is ridiculed and tortured by classmates).  According to most witnesses, this is a gross exaggeration. He was eccentric, but by no means was he anti-social. He had many friends, had a sense of humor, was polite (in a professorial way).

The filmmakers decided to use the formula of A BEAUTIFUL MIND (which had its own significant distortions) and Turing becomes a sort of John Nash. In fact, they contrive scenes in pubs in which he shows his social awkwardness and then suddenly hits upon the key to break the code that reminded me of similar scenes in A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

The second distortion was the fictional character of Detective Nock, who is insulted by Turing who says he does not want the burglary pursued. This is not true. Turing reported the burglary in the naïve belief that the police would want to solve the crime rather than punish him for his honesty admitting his homosexual acts. 

The entire plot of Nock deciding that Turing’s secret must be that he is a Soviet spy is complete nonsense.

The same is true of the egregious fiction related to Alastair Denniston that almost amounts to malicious slander of the man’s reputation. Denniston was a career codebreaker, having served in World War I in Room 40 the famous British team that broke the German code in that war. Their work was responsible for bringing the U.S. in that war when they translated the Zimmermann Telegram that showed German intentions to side with Mexico in a war against the U.S.

 Denniston (played by Charles Dance, a frequent film villain, usually as an upper class snob) is depicted as hating Turing, accusing him of being a Soviet spy, and then trying to fire him.

In truth, Denniston had recruited and consulted Turing and many other academics even before September 1939. When the war started, Turing was hired full time. Denniston did have disagreements with Turing and others and eventually was replaced in the job, but he didn’t accuse Turing of spying. That is simply invented to spice up the plot and add conflict.

John Cairncross (played by Alan Leech) was not one of the team in Hut 8. He was at Bletchley but probably never met or knew of Turing. In 1951, he was revealed to be a Soviet spy. The scene in which Turing discovers his secret and Cairncross threatens to expose Turing’s is a total fabrication.

The same is true of Stewart Menzies (the head of MI6 – played by Mark Strong). In the movie, Turing tells Menzies about Cairncross. Menzies says he knows all about it and uses Cairncross to relate secrets to the Soviets because Churchill foolishly refuses to do so. This is completely untrue.

In truth, Menzies was fooled by all of the Cambridge Five – the traitors who were his friends and colleagues for many years. He refused to believe that he had been deceived by people of his own class and education.

There are other distortions that are more or less significant. Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) is not given enough credit for his contributions. Turing didn’t build The Bombe alone – Gordon Welchman helped him to build the first one.

 “He had also been busy devising a machine, called the Bombe, after the Bomby, although it was a more complex piece of equipment than its Polish namesake. This would test the encyphered messages against commonly used streams of text – known to the codebreakers as cribs – to narrow down the possibilities for the keys, settings and wheel orders of the Enigma machines. Turing enjoyed a good degree of
progress on both. Menzies agreed funding of £100,000 for the construction of the first Bombes and the British Tabulating Machinery company (BTM) was commissioned to build it, with the work supervised by the BTM research director Harold ‘Doc’ Keen. Then in December 1939, Turing managed to work out the indicator systems for five days of pre-war Naval Enigma traffic.”

Smith, Michael (2011-10-31). The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war (Kindle Locations 644-648). Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.

One thing the movie does almost get right is the clue (called a crib) that led to the first successes in breaking the Naval Code. One of the women whose task was to listen to and record Morse code transmissions noticed that the operator was using the same letters – probably a girlfriend’s initials – as identifiers at the start of each message. This was a violation of German protocol that ordered using random letters, changed every day. Once the codebreakers had this head start their task was easier.

But it was by no means the breakthrough that won the war. Many more Bombes were built to shorten the calculating time and when the Germans distributed a new Enigma machine that was even more complex, the British were lucky to capture one along with codebook from a German ship – and to keep it all secret.

The movie oversimplifies and flattens a complex story. In so doing, they reduce heroism and tragedy into a trite movie formula. The hope is always that people will be intrigued enough by the subject matter that they will seek the whole truth but the fear is that movies will become the legend and then will become history.