More 1930s Films (The Mystery of Mr. X and Red Dust) As George Hodel's Signature M.O.?
November 3, 2016
Los Angeles, California
(This blog originally posted 12.16.2009, but have updated with photos and more-1930s-films which was cut from Most Evil I. Click on link for that PDF.)
Murder As a Fine Art Continues….
(SKH Note- Below section was included in final draft of MOST EVIL , but edited out due to space limitations. However, to my mind, it remains an important part of “the big picture” (pun intended) providing increased weight to my theory that part of George Hodel’s bizarre signature -M.O. (Murder as a Fine Art) was to include and edit scenes from 1930s films into his real life serial killings.)
1930s films as M.O.
We have examined two 1930s-period films, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) and I have suggested that Zodiac, in his 1960s murders, was borrowing themes and characters from each film. Let us now examine two additional films from that period, which I believe buttress my theory.
In February, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio distributed a U.K. made film, The Mystery of Mr. X. The film starred a young Robert Montgomery, as Sir Nicholas Revel. The story involved a mad serial killer, “Mr. X”, who uses a rapier-like sword to stab and slay unsuspecting uniformed policemen, walking their beats in different sections of London. Mr. X, after slaying his victims, then mails taunting cut-and-pasted notes to the press, and as the film rushes to its climax, our hero, Sir Nicholas, by plotting the locations of the murder victims on a city map, cleverly deduces that the killer is constructing a giant letter X, with only one killing more needed to complete his “project.” Sir Nicholas, disguised in the uniform of a Bobbie, decides to use himself as bait, and drives to the anticipated final location, where he confronts Mr. X for a fight-to-the-finish finale.
In the above film clips, we see: (a) Mr. X’s cut and pasted notes, mailed to the police, which read: “Tonight X”, and “With kindest Regards from X.” In (b) we see Mr. X slaying a downed policeman with his long sword, and Sir. Nicholas, using a London town map to deduce the exact location where Mr. X is planning to slay his final victim.
Just 14-months prior to the release of The Mystery of Mr. X, the same studio (MGM) released another film. The name of this film was, Red Dust (1932). The film starred, Clark Cable and Jean Harlow, in a romantic drama which takes place on a rubber plantation in Indochina. The story line as best I can tell, is unimportant to our investigation. However, there is a scene in the film that I consider to be exactly–on point. Again, I believe Zodiac has plagiarized and incorporated a small scene from the film and incorporated it into his real life killing spree.
In Red Dust, a man-eating tiger has attacked some villagers, and the protagonist, Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is determined to hunt it down. He solicits the help of a plantation visitor, Gary Willis (co-star, Gene Raymond) and together they set out into the jungle, to track and kill the beast.
They decide of a set trap by tying an animal to a tree in hopes that the tiger will attack the prey by night and they can shoot it. They stake-out the location by climbing the tree (a blind) and wait for nightfall. Because it would be a difficult shot in the dark of night, Gable shows his younger, inexperienced hunter an old trick. He attaches a flashlight to both of their rifle barrels, so they can simply point and shoot. The below clips from Red Dust, show their plan worked. In pitch dark, the tiger moves in for the kill, they turn on their flashlights and shoot it dead. The villagers are avenged and safe.
Gable attaching the flashlight to his weapon for a night shot and the kill
ZODIAC’S DEBUT LETTER
Let us reexamine some excerpts from Zodiac’s boastful handwritten, three-page letter to the San Francisco Examiner on 8/4/69:
… “Last Christmass
In that episode the police were wondering as to how I could shoot & hit my victoms in the dark… What I did was tape a small pencel flash light to the barrel of my gun. … When taped to a gun barrel, the bullet will strike exactly in the center of the black dot in the light. All I had to do was spray them as if it was a water hose; there was no need to use the gun sights.”
Throughout the 1930s, while attending medical school, George Hodel maintained close personal ties and connections to the Hollywood film studios. His high school friend, John Huston was a screenwriter and in 1932 had just completed writing the script dialogue for Universal‘s, Murders in the Rue Morgue, released in February of that same year. At that time, my mother, still married to Huston, was also a screenwriter (uncredited) doing freelance writing for: Universal, MGM and RKO. By 1932, Dorothy and John, after a very rocky six-year marriage, were on the verge of divorce. By then, both had been long involved in multiple affairs. Dorothy was intimate with a number of celebrity actors, which, by her own account included: Johnny Weissmuller, Sam Jaffe, and noted screen writer/director, Rowland Brown. In both the Dahlia and now the Zodiac investigation, I keep returning to a statement made by Joe Barrett, who was a roomer/tenant at the Franklin House from 1948-1950, and in a 1999 conversation with me, shortly after my father’s death, made, what I now consider an exceptionally astute observation. Joe in describing my father’s mental brilliance and genius– put it this way: [Black Dahlia Avenger, pg. 211]
You know Steve, George was gifted with a perfect photographic memory, that permitted him to absorb ideas from other people, and make them sound as if they were his own. He was super intelligent, but not particularly original.
Joe’s description is exactly what has been presented to us. Zodiac’s mind is not original, but, rather it is a moviola. Cursed with “a perfect photographic memory” he has extracted scenes and frames from this film and that one, and edited them into his own–noir horrors.
Zodiac’s 1960s serial killings are a diabolical remake of his past favorites, using real locations, real crimes, and real victims!
!! Wow Zodiac’s 1960s serial killings are a diabolical remake of his past favorites, using real locations, real crimes, and real victims!
Exactly so! Hell of an M.O. Or, more precisely, and M.O. from Hell.
So, your description as “diabolical” is right on.
You once mentioned GHH was a devotee of Fantomas. Have you delved into the movie versions, e.g., the Feuillade serials of the silent era or the Bond-era revival with Jean Marais? Fantomas is a sadistic super criminal and master of disguise. Zodiac’s costume get-up is very reminiscent of imagery from these films. Interestingly, Wikipedia notes the importance the Surrealists accorded Fantomas as a wellspring of ideas and images. The photo of GHH in his San Francisco penthouse on the cover of “Most Evil II” puts me in mind of the illustrations of Fantomas with Paris at his feet. After reading your fascinating books, I suspect that is how your father saw himself.
Hi Luigi: Haven’t really got into the weeds with Fantomas, but do believe those novels/films were a major influence on the young GHH in the 20s and 30s. May do more research on him once I get moving deeper into my final book, “The Early Years.” Yes, the imagery and megalomania “Master Criminal” is very George.
I await that last installment with great interest. -luigi
“It’s an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” — The Picture of Dorain Gray
How else could he outdo John Huston but to do a real life decades long live script. Also, I just realized from your books and other sources that the scene of the BD body placement on Norton Drive and the first two zodiac murders were at known lover lane spots. any others I vaguely recall G. French site?Gonna have to start taking notes
Hi Teresa: Yes, check out below link on “new clew” and placement of bodies on/near related victims crimes.
Steve, I think some of them were the ‘combo symbolism’ package Elisabeth for instance was an affair gone wrong so the lovers lane location, connecting by street names and former victims plus the locations were desolate plus a little abstract art.
Just watched Alfred Hitchcock’s still-powerful silent era film, THE LODGER, which you’ve cited as a likely influence on GHH based on the “Avenger” motif and JtR-based storyline. This is considered the first “true” Hitchock film. Released in the US in 1928 as THE CASE OF JONATHAN DREW, there were multiple film remakes and radio adaptations in the thirties and forties.
Further observations, including potential linkage to the Zodiac case:
1. The appearance and manner of the protagonist (played by Ivor Novello) is strikingly reminiscent of “Vernon Morel” (GHH) as described in Ted le Berton’s 1925 newspaper article.
2. “The Confession,” sent to the Riverside police and papers after the proto-Zodiac murder of Cheri Jo Bates, seems like a throwback to this rather primal story, without the Ray/Duchamp/Dali-esque trappings of the Dahlia and subsequent Zodiac crimes. There’s some talk about blondes and “brownettes” and a call to “lock up your daughters.”
3. The film anticipates the Zodiac killer’s use of a logo, which was not a feature of the JtR or Dahlia crimes.
4. The killer’s logo is an equilateral triangle, perhaps suggested by the A and V in “Avenger.” It has been argued in relation to the theory that Ted Kaczynski (a mathematical prodigy) was the Zodiac that the Zodiac’s Celtic Cross logo is actually the “unit circle” figure from geometry. Given the reference to “radians” in the Mt. Diablo code letter that does seem plausible. The standard representation of the signs of the Zodiac arranged in a circle might have prompted the idea. If this is correct, the Avenger and Zodiac logos are both out of Trigonometry 101.
5. At one point Novello is seen poring over a map inscribed with the triangle logo, plotting the position of the murders in relation to this figure. Once again, shades of the Mt. Diablo letter.
Still on Hitchcock, but turning attention to SPELLBOUND… Ben “Kingdom of Evil” Hecht’s script is chock-full of hot button material. Protagonist is a young, traumatized MD with a hypnotic effect on women, masquerading as a psychiatrist in a mental institution. Freud. Psychoanalysis. Dreams. Surrealism. Repressed memories of murder. Suggestion of an Oedipal triangle involving Peck/”maternal” Bergman/paternal Carroll. Nymphomaniac patient who secretly hates men, her subconscious resisting analysis because it “wants to continue enjoying [its] disease,” accuses psychiatrist of wanting to “feel superior.” Another patient believes he’s murdered his father — dismissed as a fantasy by the Bergman, though we are led to believe he could be right. Childhood guilt. “Transfer of affects.” Freak-out over “yonic” pattern on a table cloth. Peck’s shifting identities hidden behind initials.
The main indication this movie was important to Zodiac is that the eyes in the 1970 Halloween card seem to be inspired by the Dali dream sequence. Zodiac’s fascination with the 1952 Lady Doom comic offers corroboration, given the dream sequence also includes a gambling house, a masked figure, and a wheel representing the instrument of death. Not sure whether you credit Zodiac’s authorship of the 1971 Tahoe/Sierra Club card (it looks pretty real to me) but I see a number of possible links to SPELLBOUND there, including the convoluted reading of the “21 Club” clue in the dream interpretation scene, the references to a body hidden in the snow, and the brainstorming session between Peck and Bergman which unlocks his memory of the ski resort where the murder took place. In that session Sun Valley is referenced, which is also named in the original newspaper ad for the Incline Village condos, and the wording “Peek through the Pines” cut and pasted from the same ad is suggestive of the dolly shot going through the window that constitutes the “Eureka!” moment in the brainstorming scene. Seems like a whole lot of SPELLBOUND to me…
LW: As I mention in BDA II, Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND was one of my father’s favorite films. When he told me that back sometime in the mid-Nineties it really did not register, but fast forward fifteen years and DUH. As you say, so many connections, not the least of which is the mailing of the Juliet Stocking Mask as BDA which was taken right out of the film and MR’s 1945 photo of same.
I didn’t get into the 1971 “Peek through the Pines” Card in ME or MEII, but YES I do think the Donna Lass, Lake Tahoe disappearance was very likely GHH. QDE Sherwood Morrill of DOJ/CII confirmed the handwriting on the front of the card addressed to the SF Chronicle (also included addresses to “The Times and SF Examiner”) “Paul Averly” (Avery) was written by Zodiac.
Steve: I notice there is also a stand of pines visible behind Red Mask and the saloon girl in one of the panels of “Lady Doom and the Death Wheel.”
It looks like Zodiac also sent a taunting Christmas card to Donna Lass’s sister in South Dakota in 1974, four years after her disappearance. Perhaps he got the address from her effects. Mailed from the San Francisco area, the card shows a stand of pines covered in snow and includes the handwritten message, “Best Wishes, St. Donna & Guardian of the Pines.” The mailing of a taunt to the family recalls the Cheri Jo Bates and Suzanne Degnan cases. As for the general character of the note, I think it bears comparison with the dispatches from the Peggy Donovan and Teresa Mors death scenes written for the Los Angeles Record in 1924 by teenage homicide reporter George Hill Hodel and reproduced in “Black Dahlia Avenger.”
LW: Yes the mailing of taunts to the relatives of victims is an exceptionally unique MO even for an active serial killer. However, not so for GHH who was uber-sadistic. Obviously, he loved twisting the knife. Was not aware of this 1974 note to the sister, as mentioned, haven’t looked at that crime. So many crimes, so little time. skh
Steve: It’s thought Lass was abducted after finishing her graveyard shift as a first aid station nurse at the Tahoe Sahara casino hotel on September 9, 1970, either on the grounds or en route to her apartment a few minutes away. It could be that Zodiac’s Halloween card of October 1970 was already offering “clews” to his involvement, given the SPELLBOUND dream sequence and the Lady Doom comic are both set in casinos, plus the dream when decoded points to a body hidden in the snow at a ski resort. The haunted tree in the modified Halloween card and SPELLBOUND’s decoding of the Dali eyes as the “guards of Green Manors” represent further possible links to the Sierra Club and St. Donna cards. -LW
(Correction: The date of Lass’s presumed abduction was September 6, during the Labor Day weekend.)
It seems noteworthy that the Zodiac crime spree is bookended by ambiguous confessions to crimes in Riverside and Tahoe which are consistent with the “Lone Woman murder” MO you attributed to GHH in BDA. One wonders when this pattern started. I suspect in the 1920s, before his first marriage, given the perfect storm of circumstances you’ve documented. If so, the former musical prodigy could have had forty years of practice performing variations on a theme by Jack the Ripper between “Detectives Aghast” (1924) and “Some of them fought it was horrible” (1970). On that model, it wasn’t beginner’s luck he got away with the Zodiac crimes. He knew exactly what he was doing and pushed it to the limit. He was showing off. “Hold the applause” indeed.
Besides SPELLBOUND, another proposed reference for the floating eyes in the Halloween card is the 1965 film KWAIDAN by Masaki Kobayashi. Having watched the film, I think that such an allusion is a distinct possibility. Based on a book by Lafcadio Hearn, this poetic horror film comprises an anthology of four ghost stories derived from Japanese folklore. The episode with the floating eyes is called “The Woman of the Snow” –interestingly, in light of the Pines and Donna cards sent after the Halloween card. Thematically and stylistically the film fits perfectly with the stated program of GHH’s literary gazette, FANTASIA. Kobayashi’s use of color is striking, with splashes of crimson a recurrent motif — there’s even a symbolic, red-trimmed pair of slippers in “The Woman of the Snow” sequence. I note that FANTASIA featured a poem entitled “Ghosts” by Sadakichi Hartmann, an idol and (at minimum) acquaintance of GHH in the 1920s. Hartmann, who popularized Japanese verse forms including Haiku in the West, and Hearn were at the forefront of the late 19th Century “Japonism” craze that spawned works such as THE MIKADO. Kenneth Rexroth was also a fan of Hearn and wrote on his work. Presumably GHH was travelling to Japan quite a bit in the late sixties given he married his Tokyo office PA in 1969. KWAIDAN was shown in art houses in the United States, but I imagine the audience was limited. If this movie really did inspire the Zodiac then it’s surely another discriminator pointing to GHH as prime suspect.
LW: Yes, I saw KWAIDAN film and I’m certain that my father would have seen it. Could have been a secondary influence on his later Zodiac eyes, but I still think the primary source was SPELLBOUND and the surreal Dali Dream Sequence.
Then we have DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY following in ’47 with contributions from ManRay, Marcel Duchamp, Leger, Max Ernst and Josh White (Tamar’s sometime lover . She would later marry Josh’s protegee, Stan Wilson and give birth to Deborah Wilson (Fauna II). Lot happening from 45-48 with the two films release and all of them gathered in Hollywood.
FYI- George and June were together from 69-99 but didn’t actually get married until 1982, in Reno, just down the hill from Lake Tahoe and “The Pines”.
“George drowned himself at times in an ocean of deep dreams” (THE MERRY-GO-ROUND: THE CLOUDED PAST OF A POET, 1925). I think the Halloween card is a “Fantasia” — a free association with multiple allusions. Whether it reflects GHH/Zodiac involvement in the disappearance of Donna Lass or was only a reverie stimulated by press accounts is hard to say — it depends on where he was on Labor Day weekend in 1970. That the eye peering from the knot in the tree represents a female spirit or ghost seems highly likely.
As I’ve suggested previously, another allusion could be to René Clair’s satirical comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (1942). In that movie the original “Peekaboo Girl,” Veronica Lake, is burned at the stake as a sorceress/temptress and buried under a tree, from which her spirit issues a curse on the descendents of her Puritan accuser. I’ve suggested the “PEEK-A-BOO YOU ARE DOOMED” script around the eye is an Apollinaire-style “calligramme” representing the ghost. René Clair directed Man Ray in ENTR’ACTE (1924), and fled Europe on the same boat with Ray and Dali in 1940 (MAN RAY: AMERICAN ARTIST, p. 228). Apollinaire’s writings turned Man Ray on to de Sade (MR:AA, p. 212). See p. 58 of CALLIGRAMMES for poetry examples suggestive of the “YOU ARE DOOMED” text and the “Double H” monogram on the back of the Halloween card. Lake, of course, starred in the BLUE DAHLIA, from which Elizabeth Short got her sobriquet “the Black Dahlia.” The name “Blue Dahlia,” is the title of an old French song, but the screenwriters of THE BLUE DAHLIA might have got the reference directly from Baudelaire: “As for me, I have found my black tulip and my blue dahlia! Incomparable flower, tulip found at last, symbolical dahlia, it is there, is it not, in this so calm and dreamy land that you live and blossom?” Wheels within wheels…
A few more thoughts on the Halloween and Donna cards… The 13 eyes Zodiac added to the Halloween card, including the distinctive PEEK-A-BOO eye, can be viewed in one aspect as the 13 ghosts of Zodiac’s earlier victims (per the unreliable narrator’s running count), i.e., they represent the “paradice slaves” referenced in the Double-H calligramme on the back of the card. In another aspect, following the explicit SPELLBOUND dream analysis, they would symbolize the guardians of an insane asylum. The skeleton might be in one aspect a prospective 14th victim (perhaps journalist Paul Avery), and in another aspect the Zodiac himself, who also has aspects of victim (of Lady Doom and her real-life prototypes) and avenger (the righteous cowboy Red Mask, the crimininal mastermind Le Masque Rouge, the “Red with Rage” Red Phantom, and so on.) Concerning the Donna Card, it might reference a specific book of poems by GHH literary idol Remy de Gourmont, LES SAINTES DU PARADISE (“Women Saints of Paradise”): “Each Saint has her own section, with a picture depicting her in a setting with text describing her achievements.” Atheist, aesthete, satyr, libertine, intellectual elitist, misogynist and misanthrope, De Gourmont’s penchant for mock piety might have inspired some of the sardonic touches in GHH’s accounts of the Peggy Donovan and Teresa Mors murder scenes. Perhaps the tone of those reports offended Ted le Berthon (a devout Catholic) and fueled the peculiar animosity to the down-on-his-luck wunderkind apparent in “The Clouded Past of a Poet.” The unusual sensibility involved might also relate to Zodiac’s reaction to THE EXORCIST (“the best saterical comedy that I have ever seen”) — very few people would see the film in that light, I’m sure.
Steve: Turns out the “Snow Woman” episode was cut from the US general release of KWAIDAN after the Los Angeles premiere in July ’65, so if it influenced GHH he probably saw it in LA or Japan. Some parallels between this Lafcadio Hearn version of the “Yuki-onna” myth and the Kiyo “astrologer to the stars” psychodrama. We have the “red dress” meeting at the Biltmore in Oct ’65, proto-Zodiac murder in Riverside in Oct ’66, hinted-at burial of Donna Lass in the snow in Sept ’70, then the HC with SPELLBOUND/KWAIDAN-like floating eyes in Oct ’70. -LW