George Hodel Thoughtprint: Part II, Was the "Dead Again" 1940s Noir Thriller Used as a Taunt by a Real Life Killer?
December 20, 2016
Los Angeles, California
Below is a follow-up to my earlier post, “Another George Hodel “Thoughtprint”: Seeing Things As they Are, Not As They Appear to Be.”
LW (Luigi Warren) and Ryan’s posted comments:
Steve: Those appear to be vintage, German-made Kismet Art Deco scissors. FWIW, “Kismet” means “fate” or “destiny,” so perhaps they are a visual pun on your father’s part. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 whodunnit “Dead Again,” partly set in 40s Hollywood and featuring nods to Man Ray and Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” a pair of vintage German scissors is a key clue to the identity of the murderer. Make of that what you will. -LW
I find it odd that GHH simply didn’t get rid of the scissors the same way he did the knives, and instead gave it to you. Do you think he was purposely giving you a thoughtprint–in the same way he took you on a hot air balloon ride over San Francisco–as if to say “it’s right under your nose but you still can’t see it”? Ryan
I had seen “DEAD AGAIN” shortly after its release in 1991, and enjoyed it, as a noir thriller. However, since all things suggesting the possibility that my father, George Hodel might be connected to murder(s) would not enter my consciousness, until after his death some eight years later, of course, no connections could or would be made. Moreover, by that time, even unto the present, I had forgotten the details and storyline in DEAD AGAIN.
Last week, thanks to LW’s references to Kenneth Branagh’s film, …”Dead Again, partly set in 40s Hollywood and featuring nods to Man Ray and Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and a pair of vintage German scissors being a key clue to the killer” and his admonition to “Make of it what you will” I wasted no time. I rented and rewatched the film that very night.
Before I continue, please take two minutes and watch the original 1991 Dead Again trailer here.
Dead Again (Paramount Pictures 1991) has an exceptionally strong cast: Kenneth Branagh (stars and directs) Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, and Robin Williams.
Mike Church is a Los Angeles private detective who specializes in finding missing persons. He takes on the case of a mystery woman whom he calls Grace. She is suffering from amnesia and has no memories of her own. She keeps having nightmares involving the murder of a pianist, Margaret, by her husband Roman Strauss in the late 1940s. In an attempt to solve the mystery about these nightmares, Church seeks the help of Madson who is an antiques dealer with the gift of hypnosis. The hypnosis sessions will soon begin to reveal some surprises.Written by Sami Al-Taher <[email protected]>
As I began the film, I decided to attempt to watch it through my father’s eyes. View it using his thoughts, his experiences, his mind. For the next 107 minutes I imagined I was George Hodel, the cinephile, having returned to San Francisco after living abroad for four decades. (Dead Again was released in August, 1991, just ten months after GHH’s return and leasing of his penthouse apartment in downtown San Francisco.)
Rather than presenting a lengthy narrative attempting to describe the many “connections” and not wanting to present spoilers, (as I highly recommend this film to all my readers), here are a few bullet point connections:
Location set in Hollywood literally blocks away from George Hodel’s1940s Franklin House. (One of the scenes is shot on Shakespeare Bridge on Franklin Avenue, just 12 blocks east of our Sowden/Franklin House.)
Period bounces back and forth from Los Angeles of the present (1991) filmed in color to LA of the 1940s, filmed in black and white.
Involves a December 1949 murder trial in downtown Hall of Justice. (George Hodel was on trial for incest in the same courthouse in December, 1949.)
Newspaper clips from Dead Again trial summary as shown in the opening credits of the film.
The prime suspect is a musical prodigy pianist/composer who is convicted of murdering his wife during a jealous rage, by stabbing her with a large pair of German made scissors.
As pointed out by LW in his comment, the film pays homage to GHH’s favorite film, “Spellbound” and to winks and nods to surrealists Dali and Man Ray by reproducing some of their major artworks as graphics and paintings in various scenes, and slightly modifying the artists originals with a “scissors motif.”
Scissors as shown in Dali Dream Sequence scene in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)
Scene in Dead Again Man Ray’s original photo with violin F-Holes replaced with scissors
Scene in Dead Again Dali’s original Melting Watches replaced with scissors
My reaction? Two words. BLOWN AWAY.
Based on the subject matter and how it was presented I have no doubt that George Hodel in watching this film, must have lit up like a pinball machine. Lights and bells had to be going off every few minutes as he watched it. (They did in my mind and I was only pretending to be thinking as my father would.) How much more real for him!
So, back to Ryan’s original question and LW’s admonition to “Make of it what you will.”
Do I now think that his giving me the pair of German scissors was a thoughtprint, much like the taunting balloon ride he gave me (the then unsuspecting big city homicide detective/son) over his Bay Area killing fields as Zodiac?
I DO. As Ryan pointed out, why not just throw the scissors away, as he had purportedly had June do with all their household large knives?
We have seen his need in all of his many crimes to provide so many twisted “clews” as “catch me if you can” taunts.
This one was another. This was not the loving gift from father to son. It was not personal. Rather, it was another mock from serial killer to homicide detective. A very subtle and private joke, saying and proving to himself, that in his words, “I AM CRACKPROOF.”
Steve: Any idea how old the scissors are? I’ve seen an ad for a similar Kismet model specifying it dates from thirties, consistent with the Art Deco design. If they were used in GHH’s crimes it could potentially have been as a weapon, or in the “paste up” of taunting letters to police and press. OTOH, it looks like Zodiac actually had scissors as well as a gun concealed on his person when he killed cabbie Paul Stine in San Francisco, and used them to remove a swatch of Stein’s shirt as a trophy. At least, looking at the evidence photos of Stein’s bloodsoaked shirt, I would guess that’s how the swatch was removed. -LW
LW: Don’t know a date on the scissors, but they could go back to the Thirties or Forties? (GHH was a man who kept his things in mint condition. The Breitling Navitimer watch which he purchased in the early 50s, likely wore on his later killings, then gifted to me, remains mint.) But, my hunch is that the scissors was not used in any of his crimes. We know his weapon of preference on the Gladys Kern knife attack was a military K-Bar knife. Pocket knife on Cheri Jo Bates and a “long bladed bayonet type knife on the Berryessa attack. On the Paul Stine shirt,t I’ve heard both “ripped” and “cut” and am guessing he most likely used a pocket knife to remove the swatch from the shirt. The gifting of the scissors could have come down to simple timing. Never thought of them as a weapon until seeing the movie, saw it, and decided to get rid of them “just in case” and perhaps I showed up and he just couldn’t resist “the irony.” Thanks again for pointing me back to the film. skh
Steve: The biggest “Easter Egg” in DEAD AGAIN relates to the casting of Derek Jacobi and to his breakout performance in the BBC’s 1976 production of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius.” I doubt your father would have picked up on the clue — it’s really one for Brits of a certain age. BTW, that is the same Robert Graves, poet/classicist/mythologist, who wrote “The White Goddess” and brought the Ogham “tree alphabet” to the attention of a wide audience. If GHH ever saw “I, Claudius” (perhaps on PBS after his return to the US?) I think it would have tickled his fancy. For instance, the portrayal of the Empress Livia, the ultimate controlling matriarch (an inspiration for Livia Soprano), and of Queen Messalina, the ultimate ravaging strumpet, or the (highly controversial at the time) scene where Caligula, having impregnated his own sister and desiring to achieve godhood by emulating Jove, ties her up, cuts open her womb and devours the foetus. Pretty decadent stuff. -LW
LW: Yes, loved the original PBS I CLAUDIUS series with Jacobi. Had to laugh when they used the stuttering bit in Dead Again with him. He’d had plenty of practice for it, that’s for sure. Hadn’t made the Robert Graves connection. Guess everything really is connected to everything else in life, with just a few degrees of separation. Dad was so well versed in mythology that I’m sure there will be more connections to be found in “The Early Years” once I get stuck into it. Best Regards and Happy Holidays and New Year. skh
Wasn’t sure how widely I, CLAUDIUS was seen in the US, but I’m glad you got that reference. To quote from one of my all-time favorites, BLUE VELVET, “It’s a strange world.” Happy Holidays to you, Steve.
Another possible movie reference in the scissors gift might be to KISMET, which has been filmed several times including 1920, 1930, 1944 (with Marlene Dietrich) and in 1955 as a musical. Reading the plot synopsis, it seems like a piece that might appeal to a fan of CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and THE MIKADO. The lyrics to the song “Was I Wazir?” from the musical feature the same sort of ghoulish humor found in “I’ve Got a Little List,” e.g.:
They always seem to remember
When I begin to dismember them
Arm by arm and ear by ear and joint by joint!
The time we caught the man who said I wasn’t nice
I confiscated his mother
And then did something or other
Involving her dissolving
In a vat of lime!
I wonder if you father was familiar with any of these productions.
LW: I’ll bet he was familiar with the lyrics. Sounds right out of his playbook alright. Sardonic gallows humor. Somewhere in a blog or writing, I mentioned the anecdote told to me by my younger brother Kelvin. As he tells it, he and his little girlfriend were playing in the inner courtyard at the at the Sowden House. Must have been around 1947, so the two of them would have been 5ish? They ran inside, and dad was at his desk in the library, and they ran over to talk to him. He said something to the little girl like, “Mary, you are so cute; I think I will unscrew your head from your body and keep it right here on my desk as a paperweight.” (Or, words to that effect?) Both children thought it was funny and ran off and played outside. (Not so funny anymore considering what we now know about GHH and considering it was likely just a year or so after the Degnan child murder/decapitation.) Majorly Sick!
P.S. Working on a major “thoughtprint” just discovered which I hope to post in the next day or so. Happy New Year!
Steve: I notice the score of the 1955 version of KISMET was adapted from the music of the great Russian nationalist composer and brilliant physician-chemist Alexander Borodin. Doubt he would have missed it. Here’s to a happy and productive 2017! -LW
Steve: Checked out the plot of the musical KISMET in more detail on Wikipedia and found much that GHH might have enjoyed. The convoluted storyline unfolds in atmosphere of oriental exoticism among the fleshpots of old Baghdad, replete with minarets, harems, slave girls and scantily-clad dancers, all set to the lush melodies of Alexander Borodin. The hero is handsome chick-magnet Hajj, “a wily poet who talks his way out of trouble several times.” In the final act, after various masquerades and intrigues, Hajj tricks his nemesis, the Wazir of Police, into taking a dip in a pool and murders him by holding him down until he drowns. In so doing, Hajj extricates his beautiful daughter, Marsinah, from the clutches of the wicked police chief. Hajj exposes the Wazir’s corruption to the Caliph, who concludes that the murder was justified and lets him off with a nod and a wink. At his own request, Hajj is sentenced to internal exile, “banished to some dreadful oasis … at least a week’s journey away by camel.” As a bonus, he gets to take the police chief’s sexy, vampish wife-of-wives, Lalume, whom he has previously seduced, along for the ride. All ends happily for Hajj. -LW
Turns out there was a very lavish 1920 movie version of Kismet which hit Pasadena movie houses in April 1921. Sans Borodin melodies, but with extra torture, on-screen murder, revenge and “oriental cruelty.” Between that and the now-lost 1921 Americanized Fantomas movie serial, young George probably had a lot of movie inspiration to fuel his imagination going into his first murder.
Steve: I just watched THE RED SHOES (1948) as you mentioned your sister Tamar likened GHH to the Boris Lermontov character. Very helpful for understanding what kind of person he was. I guess they don’t make them like that any more, or not often at least. One loose screw away from Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. -LW
LW: Yes, it’s been a long time since I watched that classic film. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll have to check it out again this weekend. I do know it was high on my dad’s list of favorites. steve
Anton Walbrook’s portrayal of Lermontov is utterly compelling: an egomaniac maestro type, an aristocratic dandy with impeccable taste, charming and considerate but with a controlling, sadistic streak, playing God from his villa overlooking the bay of Monte Carlo. Walbrook goes full psychopath in the 1940 version of GASLIGHT and in THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1949). GASLIGHT put me in mind of the incident between GHH and Lillian Lenorak. (BTW, I do wonder if the GHH story has influenced some of Woody Allen’s later films via the Lenorak-Farrow connection.) THE QUEEN OF SPADES is a very Russian tale of gambling, madness and murder based on a story by Alexander Pushkin. Interestingly, the Comte de Saint-Germain, an almost-mythical 18th century international man-of-mystery, features as a character in this sinister tale.
Speaking of Russians, did you know that SLAve (or sLAVe) is an old Byzantine Greek word for “Slav?” Peculiar people, the Persians. Yes, death is feminine. Meanwhile, cancel the Count Marco column…
LW: Speaking of GASLIGHT (1944) you probably recall that Ruth Spauldings close friend was Marion Herwood who was costume designer for that film. Best I can tell, the timing suggests that Marion with Ruth was GHH’s personal secretary at the same time, 1943-44? She also went on from there to be the costume supervisor and wardrobe designer for 15 more films including: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Clock, Valley of Decision, The Thin Man Goes Home, The Hoodlum Saint, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, and No Minor Vices. Marion married and became Marion Herwood Keyes and eventually relocated to the Great NorthWest where she died at the advanced age of 105! In the “small world” Dept a year after marrying Kiyo, in 1964, we bought a mansion in Laurel Canyon originally built by film director, Tay Garnett, who had sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Lash LaRue (cowboy actor and fastest whip in the West) Mrs. Lash was a friend of Kiyo’s and we bought it from them at the outrageous price of $37,550. (Now worth many millions) Bottom line, Tay Garnett was the director of The Postman Always Rings Twice. As I always say, “You cant make this Sh#* up.” SKH
I just watched Dead Again and was likewise blown away. Thoughtprints everywhere. The fact that GHH gave you these scissors back in 1995, then later on June gives you his photo album makes it all the more likely to me that the nude is Beth Short and she is likely in the chair in his library/study at the Franklin house in the chair that so matches the background. I speculate that she was drugged and he took this photo before he began the ordeal. (His “before” trophy photo and we have all seen the “after” trophy shot taken by Gene Fowler on Norton Ave.)
Hi Dan: Yes, I agree that it was a “trophy posing” of her body in the Living Room and she was either heavily drugged and unconscious or dead at the time. The 2014 Biometric Facial Recognition coming in at a remarkably high positive match of “95%” increases the probability it was Elizabeth. Re. the Dead Again film, I’m sure GHH saw it. LA Noir coming out just ten months after he returned to the U.S. Best, Steve