THE “TRUSCOTT FILM”: SOMETHING EDIBLE IN A YEAR OF FAMINE
THE “TRUSCOTT FILM”: SOMETHING EDIBLE IN A YEAR OF FAMINE
RECOMMENDATION FOR MERCY directed by Murray Markowitz
Murray Markowitz’s new feature, Recommendation For Mercy, based on the rapemurder trial of Steven Truscott, is the best Canadian film of 1975. Granted, it’s a lean year. But compared to the stale bagels and borschty kitsch of Lies My Father Told Me, the earnest but pointless Sudden Fury, or the appallingly vapid It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, Markowitz has put together a salable and enjoyable piece of serious entertainment.
The scriptwriters, Fabian Jennings, Joel Weisenfeld and Markowitz add nothing to what is public knowledge about the Truscott case, and take no liberties with the basic facts about the 14-year-old boy who was convicted of murder in 1959. The question of his guilt or innocence aroused a national controversy, and helped make two books. Bill Trent’s The Steven Truscott Story and Isabel LeBourdais’ The Trial Of Steven Truscott, national best sellers. The film avoids the two main pitfalls one might expect to entrap a young film maker on this particular subject (Markowitz is 30 and on the basis of his two earlier features, More Than One and August And July, seems to have highly intermittent taste): Recommendation neither tugs the heart nor jabs the ribs protesting capital punishment.
The film unfolds like a gradually darkening dream—an idyllic summer in a small Northern Ontario community suddenly goes wrong and no one can make sense of it. All people know is that a 13-year-old girl has been raped, brutally beaten and strangled, and a spidery web of circumstantial evidence links the slaying to a young boy named John Robinson.
“I was once held overnight in an Ottawa jail on a rape charge,” says Markowitz, “Fortunately the next day the police got the facts straight and dropped the charges. I was the last person known to be with the girl but it was her own boyfriend who attacked her and beat her up. That’s how I know a little of what it feels like to be Truscott. We’ve never met, we’ve never talked, but I feel completely sure of his innocence.”
The film’s few flaws—an overloud. emotionally unsubtle musical score by Don Gillis, and too many fast, irrelevant flashbacks by editor George Appleby who won an Etrog for similar work on Paul Almond’s Isabel—are far outweighed by its strengths: sensitive camera work by Richard Leiterman, and superb performances by a group of young people—Michele Fansett, Karen Martin, Mike Upmalis, Robb Judd—with little or no previous experience on stage or in films. For the lead role of John Robinson (as Truscott is called in the film) Markowitz claims to have auditioned more than 3.000 actors or non-actors before choosing 16-year-old Andrew Skidd from the Guelph, Ontario, area. It is Skidd who holds the film together and though it may be years before he gets as good a part again he could well become a major actor. The film takes no sides but Skidd’s presence is a silent, persuasive argument for Truscott’s innocence.
Originally Markowitz intended Recommendation For Mercy to be a low-budget film (around $125,000). But after the critical and box office disaster of August And July (a talky documentary about lesbianism) regular sources of film production money refused to back him. So he dug in and went around selling shares of $5,000 and $10,000 each—“somewhat like Israeli war bonds”—until he had enough to start principal shooting. He ran up huge lab bills and thoroughly exhausted every cent of his credit to get the film made; worse perhaps, his Duddy Kravitz scramble for money, his constant wheeling and dealing alienated so many in the industry that I couldn’t find anyone—fellow directors, producers, CFDC officials—who had a good word to say about him. The film finally cost $500,000—one of those crazy, courageous, egotistical gambles that paid off by the skin-of-its-teeth. Much of that cost may be due to the waste of inexperience, but we would have a much livelier film industry in Canada if more directors took an interest in modern social issues.
Quick Ma, the penicillin!
THE PARASITE MURDERS directed by David Cronenberg David Cronenberg’s schlocker The Parasite Murders is the niftiest war on nerves since Night Of The Living Dead. It’s a film about a new venereal disease that drives people sex-crazy. He is not a shallow sensationalist; the revulsion with bodily processes that characterizes Parasite Murders stems from Cronenberg watching the protracted and horrifying death of his father from cancer three years ago. Like Roman Polanski, one of his favorite directors, he seeks commercial metaphors to release intensely private feelings.
Four years ago, when the working title for the film was Orgy Of The Blood Parasites, the Canadian Film Development Corporation told Cronenberg (then 28 and the director of two highly praised experimental features which didn’t earn a cent) that “horror films” were not part of the corporation’s mandate. He kept rewriting the script trying to please CFDC officials until finally, with begrudging reluctance, they let him have $70,000. At this year’s Cannes Festival the film was sold to England, Germany, Australia, Spain, Latin America and 10 countries in the Far East. It picked up an advance of $ 150,000 from American International Pictures for the U.S. distribution which was almost as great as the film’s entire budget. In short, Parasite Murders is one Canadian film that didn’t cost taxpayers a cent.
“The CFDC still treats me like a hangnail,” says Cronenberg, “or worse still, a blood parasite, even though my film is one of very few to earn back its costs, even before it opened.” Cronenberg is working on a new film. Pierce, as a follow-up. It’s about a demented gynecologist with unspeakable bedside manners. A sure sign of probable commercial success—the CFDC hates this one too. JOHN HOFSESS
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