A Blackly Sardonic Telling of Abe Lincoln: ‘Crime Classics, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln’

However uninspiring and predictable most mainstream cultural “events” can be, they at least sometimes provide incentive to explore the peripheries of an issue, event, or its previous cultural representations. Whatever its actual merits as a film, the cultural machine behind forcing attention towards Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in the cinemas (and gathering beyond-predictable, manufactured-in-utero Academy Award buzz) at least acts as a cultural reminder that our increasingly fragmented cultural environment still, on some level, shares some kind of history. For at least a passing moment, disparate groups and generations might turn their attention towards a single idea and offer up some conflicting opinions and perspectives, before returning once more to the solipsistic world of filter bubbles and cultural fragmentation.

Spielberg couldn’t represent more of a traditional white, middle-class, conservative hegemony, of course, which is why it’s no surprise that his Lincoln is still ultimately restricted to the deified image of Lincoln with a few (worthwhile) concessions to the realities of politics, and with black voices and faces restricted to admiring commentators and noble bystanders.

In many ways, Lincoln would be more interesting without Lincoln in it; Spielberg just can’t help but go into sentimental overdrive (even though the film is probably about as restrained as Spielberg can get) when dealing with the iconic figure, and his fixation on nuclear family turmoil and hoped-for unity is – as with almost about all of Spielberg’s films – detrimental to all other points of intrigue and interest. To Spielberg, the story of Lincoln’s America (like every other story Spielberg tells) really is just that of one big, broken family.

Much more interesting is the band of political lobbyists (played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) who go about gathering votes from the self-interested ambitious and the weak-willed. The somewhat distasteful politics isn’t avoided in Spielberg’s film, but the actual process is mostly reduced to a number of comic interludes. But they make an important counter-point to the most intriguing figure in the narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens. Where compromise and self-interest bring many votes to Lincoln, Stevens is a staunch and open believer in authentic racial equality – not merely the compromised legal equality that Lincoln (due to political necessity only, it is implied) instead pursues.

Because Stevens’ role in Spielberg’s narrative is ultimately to succumb to Lincoln’s requirements for compromise, the film’s social and political message is the usual one: compromise brings success, while firm adherence to principle can only lead to the exact opposite of the desired outcomes. In Lincoln, Stevens’ role is to tone down his principles and accept the benefits of a partial victory.

It’s easy to see how this is a desirable message, especially when the political environment seems to be so heavily partisan; the idea that party members would reach across the aisle seems like the only solution for political turmoil. And perhaps it is; but the simple notion that compromise is a basic requirement of all key political decisions is one that’s fraught with danger. When exactly does that compromise kick in, and when does it let up?

Compromise is a nice concept, but the imprecise notion tends to fall apart once the practicalities are considered: a compromise on cuts and spending is hardly the same as a compromise on who is to be given legal equality and access to human rights. A compromise on where to hold trials for terrorism suspects isn’t the same as a compromise on whether or not they have legal rights. If Stevens was fighting for the kind of equality that we now (mostly) see as inviolable a hundred years before we actually achieved it, the film’s simple response of “not now” and its glorification of the short-term victory downplays the key historical point that there were always agitators, “radicals”, and progressives who fought for what we now hold dear but are silenced by the lethargy and inertia of the public and the political system.

Lincoln presents a victory, but the film wants us to overlook the fact that, at the same time, it also achieves it through a staggering, crushing defeat that perpetuated suffering and inequality. Maybe there was no better option for action – but we shouldn’t assume this quite so safely.

Tellingly, Spielberg stacks the deck when it comes to Stevens’ back-peddling: a key black character (or as close as the film gets) walks out with a hint of despair when Stevens compromises to support Lincoln, only to return moments later to celebrate the following partial victory. In this view of history, the great opportunities lost are to be quickly forgotten. When Lincoln and Stevens do sit face to face to discuss the benefits and conflicts of compromise and principle, the scene is weighted heavily towards Lincoln, who tells a simple (and simplistic) parable about avoiding pitfalls to close the discussion. To make sure we know which side we’re supposed to be on, Spielberg lets Lincoln’s story linger for a moment, holding the scene in weighty silence, before cutting away, literally giving Lincoln the last word and letting the moment of silence confirm its profound finality (as though Stevens couldn’t come up with a similarly folksy response to a flawed analogy).

Stevens’ closing moments in the film are also handled questionably. When the thirteenth amendment is passed outlawing slavery, Stevens takes the document home and offers it as a “gift” to his black lover and housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), bluntly reinforcing, as noted by Kate Masur in the New York Times, the notion that the achievement is a gift from white America to a passive and uninvolved black community. Just as bad, it fits perfectly into that idiotic notion of Hollywood “motivation” that is so loved by the uncreative and those lacking real human insight. With “love” as Hollywood’s primary currency, it’s not hard to see this as a film-maker’s hint that Stevens’ beliefs are propelled by his love for his black housekeeper, rather than the fact that his belief in equality may be “self-evident” and that his love for Lydia Smith may stem freely, naturally and “unmotivated” from it.

Nevertheless, Lincoln at least raises worthwhile points of discussion about the political process, even if Spielberg’s goal seems to have been to merely hint at them in order to validate his extremely traditional portrayal of Lincoln as well as to downplay the notion of “radicals” as key figures in history and society.

Retro Remote of course can’t let the topic go without at least touching on the peripheries, as promised back in paragraph one… Retro Remote is no expert on cultural representations of Lincoln (and doesn’t have the time to become a 20 minute Wikipedia expert right now), but thought Spielberg’s film was a good opportunity to draw some attention to a neglected classic of radio drama, the 1953-1954 anthology series Crime Classics.

Crime Classics has already been discussed in a previous column, so this column is less interested in filling in the gaps about the series than in taking advantage of the current popular interest in Lincoln to draw some attention to an intriguing series that was one of the high points of radio drama (just as radio drama was dying out, alas).

“The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” from 9 December 1953 is something of an anomaly for Crime Classics. While the series is defined by a certain brand of flippantly fatalistic nihilism – thanks chiefly to its smoothly disengaged narrator Thomas Hyland (played by Lou Merrill) – the presence of Lincoln at the centre of the drama takes away some of the series’ bite. As blackly sardonic as the series could be, Lincoln seems to be one of the few characters given a smidgen of dignity. Still, that kind of respectful, dignified approach wasn’t really what the series was about, so it’s not surprising that Lincoln only really makes a cameo appearance. When he does appear, he’s passive and essentially ineffectual. Troubled by a dream foretelling his own death, Lincoln is, in the miserable world of Crime Classics, already more or less a walking corpse: as morbid a symbol of imminent doom as in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Passerby” (6 October 1961).

The world of Crime Classics is always cruel, petty and miserable. Death and murder come about simply through the idiotic wants of the selfish and the stupid, too weak-willed to do anything but respond to their most base instincts. The characters in Crime Classics rarely converse, even when drawn into their terrible deeds by love; instead they grunt primal impulses or coo their moral obliviousness as a kind of mating song.

Normally the narration is content to quip about such misery and death like the crypt-keeper in ’50s EC horror comics (I wouldn’t be surprised to find a connection between the series and horror comics), the sardonic delivery making it impossible to determine if it’s displaced despair or actual indifference that drives the offhand delivery. For Lincoln’s death, the disgust at this miserable conception of the world emerges a little more openly: not so much for John Wilkes Booth but for John F. Parker, the guard who abandoned his post and who, like most of the miserable creatures in the series, simply has no sense of anything in the world beyond himself and his own desires. The question of exactly how Parker received and retained his post is touched on, but is interrupted before we can speculate on any answers.

The use of sound in the episode is simple but typically confident and evocative. The assassination is presented only through the sound of Booth’s footsteps as he enters the theatre and approaches the president’s box. Only the slight increase of volume of the play being performed indicates his location; after all, we all know where he’s going. Footsteps might be the most basic of radio drama sound effects, but here they alone build a tangible sense of location and suspense. After the narrator’s announcement of Booth’s entry to the theatre, it’s a full minute and 20 seconds of silence – save for footsteps and the sound of the play being performed in the background – before the sound of the gunshot draws the drama to a close.

Just as evocative is the sound of uncontrollable wailing that opens and closes the episode, emphasising the gridlock of despair that the series thrives on. Retro Remote would occasionally fall asleep listening to Crime Classics at night, and has been woken up more than once by the fairly spooky sound of inconsolable wailing in this episode (not a pleasant experience).

“The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” isn’t a prime example of the joys of Crime Classics, if only because the hint of historical respect for Lincoln is so out of kilter with the sardonic nihilism and offhand reporting of misery that gives the rest of the series such a unique flavour (although Thomas Hyland is a little more like his usual self in his casual description of the assassination attempt on Secretary of State William H. Seward the same night). Still, it’s a strong example of evocative radio drama and a reasonable enough entry-point into the series for those who might be after a fairly obscure piece of Lincoln-related pop culture (last I checked, it wasn’t listed in the all-knowing Wikipedia’s “Abraham Lincoln cultural depictions” page).

Since the Crime Classics episode ends with a gunshot, anyone looking for the rest of the story (John Wilkes Booth’s part, anyway) can finish things off with the appropriate episode of You Are There, “The Capture of John Wilkes Booth” (5 June 1949).

For those after some slightly less-gloomy Lincoln-related pop culture, you can’t go past Anthony Mann’s 1951 thriller The Tall Target, now released through the Warner Archives, a tense, taut, atmospheric thriller (DVD Savant Glenn Erickson makes some good points about its similarity with Richard Fleischer’s great 1952 The Narrow Margin). Lincoln even comes out of it OK at the end.