"The widow had been shot through the head and the daughter drowned in muddy water scooped from her mother's grave." That hard-boiled account of two 1949 murders comes from an Associated Press article that ran in countless family newspapers, including The Globe and Mail.
Everyone wanted to know about the fat divorcee and balding Romeo – as the press called Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez – who murdered lonely women and then pleaded insanity by confessing in detail to what AP called "abnormal sex practices." But the pair's trial and execution at Sing Sing were just the preamble to their movie career.
The story of the "Lonely Hearts Killers" has been retold in at least five feature films, each with varying claims on the truth. "This is a true story," insists an opening title card in the bleak first adaptation, Honeymoon Killers (1970), though the dialogue is obviously made up. Fabrice Du Welz, the Belgian director who brings his harrowing and poetic Alleluia to the Toronto International Film Festival next week, acknowledges its link to Beck and Fernandez only at the end of the film, and says he didn't want to cling to the documented story. "For me, 'true crime' is just a starting point to make fiction, to build characters, to build a world," he said in a Skype interview.
But there's obviously something about a murder that actually happened that gives even an altered retelling a different kind of appeal from any purely fictional narrative. The germ of reality makes it a deed that could have happened in our own community, to people like us, but that circumstances allow us to regard from a fascinated distance. True crime is "a quasi-fantasy genre," writes City University of New York English professor Jean Murley in her 2008 book The Rise of True Crime; it invites us to fill gaps in fact or motivation with our own fears and anxieties. It also allows us to seize on a particular crime or criminal as symbolic of what's wrong with society or with the human animal.
Real murders have been recounted in plays, ballads and epic poems for centuries, but "true crime" is the creation of a modern society equipped with many ways of talking to itself about what it fears most. The first mass-media crime story may have been the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders in London, which reverberated so violently through the penny press that Thomas De Quincey saw signs of panic hundreds of kilometres from the scene of the crime. Tales of lurid murders became such a public diversion that De Quincey satirized the mania in three essays called On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.
Edgar Allen Poe anatomized the symbiosis of crime and media in his 1842 story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, most of which is an analysis of news reports scarcely altered from real crime coverage of a murder in New York. Michael Winterbottom's The Face of an Angel, also new at TIFF this year, is a jaundiced descendant of Poe's story, offering a thinly disguised account of the Amanda Knox murder trial through a thick lens of sensational media coverage.
True-crime media tend to shrink the perceived distance between "normal" society and violent crime, though the supposed nature of the disruption has shifted with changes in society and detection standards. The fallen sinners of the 18th century and the moral lepers of the early 1800s, writes Murley, gave way to the clinically interesting fiends studied by the behavioural sciences of Victorian times and the 20th century. Advances in forensics and DNA testing – the basis of TV series such as CSI – have fostered what Murley calls the fantasy of the "transparent" criminal and victim, who are expected to yield all their secrets in the crime lab. In all eras, the thundering focus on hideous deeds has skewed people's notions of how prevalent violent crime may be.
"True crime is a way of making sense of the senseless, but it has also become a world view," Murley writes, "one that is suspicious and cynical, narrowly focused on the worst kinds of crimes, and preoccupied with safety, order and justice." The media industry that helps feed that world view is the target of Winterbottom's film, which seethes about the venality of crime reporting without finding a fresh and interesting way to dramatize or discuss it.
Alleluia is more like a trip into an inferno of the heart. "I tried to be attentive to my characters, to how they hunger for each other, how they help and destroy each other," Du Welz said. Yet in many ways, his film, though set in France, is the most faithful of the Lonely Hearts Killers movies to historical details, including Fernandez's belief that voodoo increased his attractiveness to women.
Most true crime postulates a lone individual gone bad, which makes it easy to isolate them as a monstrous deviation from normality. Alleluia emphasizes the fatal chemistry that produced a murderous impulse in two people who might never have killed had they not met. Beck and Fernandez, like the drifters in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, bring a disturbing reactive aspect to violent crime, as something that may just be waiting for a fluke combination of actors in order to burst forth.
Bursting forth is always a crucial move in true crime. Several bogey-figures have come to the fore since the Lonely Hearts Killers died, from the teen and thrill-killers of the fifties, to the psychopaths of the 1960s, the sociopaths of the 1970s, the serial killers of the 1980s, the domestic slayers of the 1990s and the mass shooters of the 2000s. The common thread is always the monster within, the secret demon nestled inside an apparently normal person. Films and TV dramas have always kept up with current crime fashion, while implying that they will show us what only the killers and their victims saw and heard.
The crime itself can be by an unhinged millionaire sports philanthropist such as John Du Pont, the focus of Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (which gets its Canadian premiere at TIFF on Sept. 8); or a systematic criminality that envelops a whole society, as in a TV remake of the Neapolitan mob story, Gomorrah (two episodes of which debut at TIFF Sept. 6). Roberto Saviano, whose reportage novel is the basis of both the series and the 2008 film Gomorrah, has said that although everything shown is true, "each story is mixed with other stories, maybe of rival clans or of clans from other territories … each character is the sum of lives of different people."
That's a telling description of how everyone can adapt true crime to their own recipe. Part fact, part fiction, and suffused with fantasy and politics, it offers a feast of misdeeds at which we can all find a place.
Alleluia plays at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema on Sept. 9 & 11, and the Scotiabank Theatre on Sept. 13. The Face of an Angel premieres at the Winter Garden Theatre Sept. 6, with further showings Sept. 8 & 14 at the Bell Lightbox. Foxcatcher screens at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 8 and the Princess of Wales Theatre on Sept. 9. Gomorrah plays Sept. 6 at the Scotiabank and Sept. 13 at the Lightbox.