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September 2011

The Todd Killings

cast: Robert F. Lyons, Richard Thomas, Belinda Montgomery, Gloria Grahame, and Edward Asner

director: Barry Shear

93 minutes (R) 1971
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Warner Archives
NTSC DVD Region 1

RATING: 8/10
review by Richard Bowden

Todd Killings poster
The Todd Killings

In 1968, director Barry Shear directed his first theatrical feature, Wild In The Streets. Featuring a younger generation who, with the help of LSD are eventually able to take over, then run the country, this was a movie which was both an amusing fantasy for the hopheads of the time as well as positing a powerful, if unlikely, enfranchisement of the youthful and disillusioned. Roll on two or three years, and the hippie dream had gone bad. Charles Manson had murdered Sharon Tate, the Vietnam War soured and Shear made The Todd Killings.

Based on the real life crimes of 'the Pied Piper of Tucson', thrill-killer Charles Schmidt, Shear's second film offered a completely different, and far more salutary, view of youth than his first - in fact, arguably rejecting any empathy with it at all. Starting in strikingly edited fashion with the hurried burial of a victim and ending with the police recovering the bodies of two others, The Todd Killings is a work whose negative view of a generation and its alienation is unrelenting, bleak and compelling. The "fictionalised dramatisation" stars Robert F Jones as 'Skipper' Todd, a charismatic 23-year-old slacker, drug dealer and would-be song writer living in the small Californian town of Darlington.

Todd lives off an allowance from his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes, her last film), who runs an old people's home. Worshipped by a clique of younger females, Todd's own view of his dissipated lifestyle is characteristically cynical: "fornication isn't much (but) it's about all Darlington has to offer." It's only when he is attracted to the initially standoffish Roberta (Belinda Montgomery) that things get more complicated. At the same time, Billy Roy (Richard Thomas) arrives back home in town, fresh out of reformatory, and he quickly rediscovers his love for an old school sweetheart and is taken under Skipper's doubtful wing.

Although from this summary it seems a film with two infatuations at its heart, The Todd Killings is not a romantic piece. On the one hand we have Skipper, scheming and callous towards Roberta, while on the other there is Billy Roy, na´ve, confused and, ultimately, just as cruel towards his own girl. Neither relationship will end well. In this they are typical of the party and drug set around them, where the only real relationship is with hedonism. Others have noted the fractured and documentary style employed by the narrative, reflecting the lack of real focus in the young lives of Darlington.

Only Roberta gets some real sympathy, but ironically it's her will-she won't-she attitude towards Skipper and his actions which make up some of the film's less successful elements. When we first see her, she seems a cut above the rest of her sex; her continued affection towards Skipper, even after the most serious suspicions emerge and rape, considerably reduces her standing. Ultimately, even with her self-awareness and conscience, she is barely different from the others.

In the first half of the film, Shear breaks up the presentation Skipper's sometimes frantic, always shallow existence with more formal, considered shorter scenes, as the young man is interviewed in turn by police and military (he dodges the draft by pretending to be gay). At other times too, when faced by the establishment, Skipper acts the considerate, polite young man, and initially impresses Billy Roy's parents by his manner.

At first, he also seems to fool his former teacher, who's out trying to save local bored housewives from their own intellectual "death sentence" with reading groups of Moby Dick. At one point, he recalls Skipper as one of his brightest former students, but now the young man is as dismissive of literature as of anything else. But we know that the slimy charmer is already a murderer, his secret buried out in the desert - just as his real character is usually buried beneath a fašade for his elders. In fact, with one notable exception, Skipper's violence is hidden from the audience as well. It is Shear's achievement that he makes something shocking and memorable out of the coldness which remains, in an exploitation piece par excellence.

It's hard to think of another film quite as nihilist as The Todd Killings, a movie in which murders are committed just to see what it feels like, or because there's "nothing else to do," and in which a shiftless society of teenagers seem alienated from the magnitude of their actions. Other films have shown rebellious and disenchanted youth, but few are so thoroughgoing and so completely dark. For Skipper, one of the most despicable emotions is pity; and his lack of empathy with others is echoed back by his loose circle of friends whose only concern, even when the full horror of his crimes is revealed, is what to do when he's no longer around. (In fact the original shooting script was apparently called 'What Are We Going to Do Without Skipper?') Some have compared Shear's film to (I think less bleak) River's Edge (1986), while passing similarities can also be seen in another favourite, Mean Creek (2004). A further film based on Schmidt's real life crimes, Dead Beat (1984) is not in the same league.

By turn charming, dangerous and self-centred, Jones' charismatic portrayal as the murdering misogynist is unforgettable, while The Todd Killings further benefits from an excellent supporting cast which, besides Bel Geddes, also includes Gloria Grahame, and Edward Asner. With hindsight, Richard Thomas' casting shortly after this as TV's John-Boy Walton, where he was to co-star in a completely different moral universe, gives his pathetic appearance here particular resonance. A pathetic figure, he is easily led in a world where nothing matters and "there's the crap, and the way you want to live." All of this is aided by some excellent cinematography as well as an outstanding, sometimes frenetic musical score by Leonard Rosenman. Earlier in his career, the composer had worked on Rebel Without A Cause. One wonders what he felt creating music for another, if later generation, equally estranged, but with a much more dangerous alienation, in which personal angst is almost entirely absent.

The current DVD is unfortunately sourced from the "best video source available," which means the picture is not as sharp as one might hope and the full Panavision ratio is missed. There are no extras worth the name. It's something of scandal that a properly done release is not yet available or that this is 'region one', only. This one looks like the same version which appears, somewhat rarely, on British TV (minus some of the nudity) but, until things are done properly, it will have to do. If you haven't seen The Todd Killings, then it may be one of the best films you've hardly heard of. If you have, then you'll surely welcome any chance to see it again.

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