As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ’40s – ’70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
What if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t died at the handgun of Jack Ruby? What if the assassin in one of the most defining moments in US history actually stood trial for his crime, before a jury of his peers? Would the evidence persuade you to convict? Or would you find him not guilty or even more so, innocent by reason of insanity? That is the provocative proposition offered by director and conspiracy theory expert Larry Buchanan as he gives the most infamous killer in American memory his day in court in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Gone are the “grassy knoll” and “military industrial complex” rantings of Olive Stone and in its place are stark, cold facts. For 90 minutes, we hear a string of witnesses for the prosecution and defense, circumstantial evidence versus a plea of psychosis. Then we, the audience as jury, are given the charge and hear impassioned closing remarks from both sides. Was Oswald the President’s killer? Or was he an insane schizoid who failed to know right from wrong?
Having deflated one myth, Buchanan moves onto another, the notorious crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Using newspaper accounts, the still living eyewitness reports, and personal recollections from the family of Texas lawman Frank Hamer, we get the standard slaughter and sin narrative about this deadly duo. Personal details are revealed and sleazy tabloid gossip is fostered. All along, the efforts of Hamer to bring the two to justice are documented in near superhero revelry. It is only at the end, when we witness the death scene and autopsy photos of the craven couple, that we get a sense that these murderous monsters were even close to being human. And Buchanan jacks up the controversy factor further by giving former Barrow boy Floyd Hamilton a polygraph test—onscreen—to debunk some of the folklore surrounding the couple. Gruesome, gripping, and egregious at times, thanks to Buchanan’s digging, displaying, and reenactments, we truly experience The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde.
True Crime titles are probably the most forgotten exploitation genre, along with monster myth bashing (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) and the search for ancient astronauts (the name Sun International Pictures alone will make many a person who grew up in the ’70s cringe with recognition). Probably no other director within this exclusive arena had more passion for the subject than Texas titan Larry Buchanan. From the assassination of JFK to the death of Marilyn Monroe and rock legends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Buchanan has carved a niche out for himself presenting fact based dramatizations and documentaries attempting to get to the truth of some of the great urban legends of our times.
Of the two films mentioned here, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most cinematically interesting. Utilizing a style that would later be adopted by almost all fact film creators, Buchanan mixes modern interviews, press clippings, dramatic readings, old photos, recreations, scrapbook items, props, and stock footage to paint a low-budget Ken Burns look at rural American crime in the early 1930s. Mostly a pro-police response to the glorification of violence in Arthur Penn’s seminal Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway drama Bonnie and Clyde, The Other Side focuses on Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, picturing him as a tireless proponent of justice who wouldn’t rest until these abhorrent human abominations faced the wrath of moral society. A good percentage of the time is spent highlighting Hamer’s career and accolades, and it almost overwhelms the real focus of the film. But Bonnie and Clyde are such oddly compelling criminals (he of minimal stature and bisexual tastes, she of near dwarf proportions) that they can’t help but become anti-heroic icons. Buchanan brings a lot of new material to the table (the gay angle, the injury to Bonnie in a fire that left her crippled), but the main reason for this film is the final few minutes. Here we see vintage movie footage of the dead duo in their death car, some rather morbid morgue photos, and, most compelling, a lie detector test interview with an ex-member of the Barrow gang. Under the polygraph’s watchful needle, we learn new (and supposedly) true facts about these criminals and their crimes. The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde delivers on its title’s promise and will linger in your imagination for days.
The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the other hand, is a rather dry, non-dramatic courtroom recreation of an imaginary trial of the dead assassin of President Kennedy. So close to the event that it caused a stir upon first release, this movie supports the “single killer” theory forwarded by the Warren Commission and makes a fairly convincing case for Oswald’s lone involvement in the crime. Using actors as witnesses (many of who read their “testimony” off cue cards or lap notes), we get a standard prosecution of the case, complete with all the evidence that we have heard debated and berated for the last forty years: the rifle ordered by Oswald, the FBI marksman who recreated the killer’s rapid fire assault on the President with similar timing and accuracy, the Marxist agenda, and the hatred for Kennedy’s Cuba policy. Missing are any references to a second assassin, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film (there is a mention of a “movie” to be placed into evidence, but it is quickly dismissed and we move on), or any Oswald/Ruby connection. It’s fairly clear that Oswald would have had a hard time defending himself against the mountain of circumstantial evidence and we really learn nothing new. And oddly, there is very little fire in this film about the greatest tragedy (after the 9/11 attack) to befall this nation. Except for the final moments where we get the closing arguments and a few words from the technical consultant on the film, the rest of the film is interesting, if not very compelling or exciting. Like most real life courtroom dramas, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a rote retelling of somewhat compelling facts and that is all.
Though biased and skewed and definitely lacking in gore or girlies, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde are still wonderfully sensational stories of crime and punishment. History (or at least one version of history) comes alive thanks to Larry Buchanan’s passion for their truth (or at least his concept of it).