Thursday, April 05, 2012

Thomas Doherty: Portraits of a Serial Killer -- A time-honored public enemy, from Dirty Harry to Zodiac

Portraits of a Serial Killer: A time-honored public enemy, from Dirty Harry to Zodiac
by Thomas Doherty
Moving Image Source

In Adaptation (2002), screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the voice of weary experience, remarks that the serial killer is Hollywood’s hoariest cliché, the overexposed go-to-guy for the inspiration-impaired hack. Point taken—but the perp has certainly earned his star billing on the multiplex marquee. The serendipitous release in recent months of two serial-killer-centric DVDs—Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (a two-disc edition and an "ultimate collector's edition" from Warner Home Video) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (Paramount Home Entertainment), a film from the 1970s and a film about the 1970s, both stalked by the same serial killer—traces the emergence of a predator whose criminal profile, once a blurry police sketch, has sharpened into a wanted poster more photogenic than the western outlaw, urban gangster, or corporate mobster.

The common source for both films—deep backstory for Dirty Harry (1971), narrative arc for Zodiac (2007)—is the Zodiac killer. In 1969, the Zodiac began a slow burn spree that claimed five (confirmed) murder victims in and around San Francisco, a relatively low body count that belies the city-wide terror incited by a territorial predator with a penchant for epistolary expression. Taking a page from Jack the Ripper, the self-christened Zodiac sent ominous ravings and coded messages to Bay Area newspapers, bragging of his homicides and threatening, in his most chilling taunt, to shoot children on school buses, or, as he phrased it, to "pick off kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Going on hiatus as suddenly as he opened fire, the Zodiac eluded capture and denied the reassurance of a case closed.

The investigation came to a more pleasing conclusion at the movies. In Dirty Harry, the opening salvo in what turned out to be a bellwether franchise for both Hollywood and Washington, a squinty, flinty Clint Eastwood incarnated a vigilante detective whose fidelity to Fourth Amendment niceties was retro even by 1972 standards. “Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda?” barks the exasperated DA after Harry tortures a confession out of his suspect-nemesis, a frothing psychopath named Scorpio (played with rabid relish by Andy Robinson), a Zodiac stand-in whose nom de plume also elegized an Age of Aquarius-Haight Ashbury scene gone bad. Though ripped from contemporary headlines, Scorpio could claim a long lineage in American cinema, from the psycho who pushed old ladies in wheelchairs down staircases (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, 1947) to the psycho who played old ladies in wheel chairs (Anthony Perkins in Psycho, 1960). In terms of temperament, MO, and clinical termscondition, Scorpio was a wack job, or, as Detective Callahan famously tagged him, a punk.

Yet even as Harry fired his .44 caliber Magnum into Scorpio’s chest, the smirking psychopath was being supplanted by a more lethal criminal type. Abetted by the mobility and anonymity of urban life, a feeding ground teeming with hapless prey (typically, young female hitchhikers), and a police force not yet equipped with computer databases, a cohort of less literary, publicity-shy serial killers thrived throughout the 1970s.

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