An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

An American Tragedy is a book by Theodore Dreiser.  It is a long complex novel, but in its essentials it boils down to this:  boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, boy meets another girl he likes better, boy kills the first girl, boy is executed for murder.

They have names, of course:  the boy is Clyde, the first girl is Roberta, and the second girl is Sondra.  Now, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

The first film adaptation, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, made in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  In most respects, the second adaptation is a much better movie.  It was directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift as Clyde = George; Shelley Winters as Roberta = Alice; and Elizabeth Taylor as Sondra = Angela.  (For the sake of consistency, I will continue to the use the names in the novel.)

But in one respect, the first adaptation is better, and so much so in this respect that I prefer this version to the second.  In the movie An American Tragedy, Roberta is played by Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Roberta is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  On the contrary, she seems suited for roles in which she is a hardboiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Roberta, however, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her, and we do a little bit, but the fact is that we never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil our sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likable actress, like Jane Wyatt, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.

In other words, if A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Roberta who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that Clyde would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be no great loss, and we end up feeling sorrier for Clyde, played by the likable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Roberta.

Why Isn’t There a Children’s Day?

When children are at an early age, they learn about Mother’s Day.  About a month later, they learn about Father’s Day. Actually, Father’s Day is just another Mother’s Day in disguise. You see, if it were really a holiday for Dad, Mom would let him go to the pool hall or bowling alley and swill beer all day with the other fathers.  But no, Dad has to stay home and play the role of the fully domesticated male, whose life centers around the family, which is just the way Mom wants it.

In any event, it doesn’t take long for children to ask, “Why isn’t there a Children’s Day?” to which the standard answer is, “Every day is children’s day,” by which is meant that parents spend their lives doing stuff for their children, so if the kids think they are going to get a special day on top of that, they can forget about it.

But maybe the children have a point.  Adults get special treatment and consideration, if they have children.  For example, I have heard stories of parents getting off work to take care of their children while their single coworkers have to stay late and make up the difference.  Moreover, I have heard of criminals getting leniency if they have a child they have to take care of.  In other words, having a child can get an adult benefits that his or her childless counterpart does not.

All this is anecdotal, however.  I have no statistics.  I don’t have any children either. But what I do have is the movies.  And since art reflects life, and life reflects art, then from what I see in the movies, I figure something must be going on.

There was a time when the heroes of crime dramas and westerns were mostly childless adults.  Occasionally, a child might be featured to give the audience something to worry about, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or to provide a point of view, as in Shane (1953).  But mostly, children were marginal characters, if they appeared in a film at all.

In the 1980s, heroes started becoming family men, as in Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988), and children played larger and larger roles, as in Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991), both of which feature heroes who are mothers. In fact, God himself became a child in Exodus:  Gods and Kings (2014).

Recently, however, the villains have started having children too.  Now, it was one thing when the heroes were portrayed as having children, for that was only supposed to make us love and admire them even more.  But when the villains have children, it definitely interferes with our natural desire to see them come to a bad end, and so much so, that they typically get away with their evil deeds.

We were able to forgive Vito and Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), for instance, because they both loved their children.  But that movie was, at that time, an exception. Usually, gangsters died the way the title character of Scarface (1983) did.  Scarface might have been married, but that did not impede his glorious, blood-splattered death, especially since his wife was a sourpuss.  If they had had a child, however, the final scene where Scarface introduces the horde of killers to his “little friend” would have been spoiled by our misgivings on that account.  Actually, one of the reasons we liked Scarface was that he refused to fulfill a contract, because it would have meant killing the man’s wife and child too. But as long as the child was not Scarface’s, we still got to see him pumped full of lead.

For this reason, villains seldom had children in the movies.  But that has changed. Now villains have children much more often, and such is the sanctifying nature of those children that these villains are redeemed.  In other words, we no longer want them to die in the end.  In fact, they even get to live happily ever after.

For example, in Gone Girl (2014), a woman fakes evidence to make it look as though her husband murdered her, so that he will go to prison.  She leaves town with a lot of money, but when she is robbed, she needs to figure out another plan. She looks up an old boyfriend and goes to stay with him.  They start having sex, and just as he is getting to the good part, she slits his throat. Then she tells the police the guy abducted her. Normally, she would be punished for her crimes, as she rightly deserved.  But at the last minute, she turns out to be pregnant. Oh well, that changes everything.  Now her husband takes her back, and they live happily ever after.

Because this pregnancy saves this woman at the last minute, we are abruptly jolted from wanting her to get her just deserts to wanting her to get away with it all on account of the baby she is going to have.  Other movies, however, let us know about the children in advance, so we know to pull for the bad guy right from the beginning.  Moreover, they usually provide us with a throwaway villain who doesn’t have children, so that we can still enjoy seeing him come to a bad end, while allowing the villain who does have children to get away with it.

For example, in Hell or High Water (2016), which is a modern western, two brothers rob banks.  We really aren’t worried about the banks losing money, because wasn’t it the banks that caused the Great Recession somehow? Anyway, one brother is mean and vicious. The other is basically a nice guy. Guess which one has children. That’s right, even though innocent people are killed in their crime spree, the one with the children gets away with it, especially since he only wanted the money for those children.  There is a hint that the surviving bank robber will eventually get his just deserts at the hands of a retired sheriff, but we don’t really buy it.  If it didn’t happen on the big screen while we were watching the movie, it just didn’t happen.

In the movie Don’t Breathe (2016), there are three villains.  One villain is really disgusting, obnoxious, and mean.  We know that he has been put in the movie to satisfy our need for justice, to see a bad guy get what he deserves. Needless to say, he doesn’t have children.  A second villain is a nice guy, but he doesn’t have children either, so he too is doomed.  Being nice is not enough.  A third villain, a young woman, has a young sister that she takes care of, all motherly like, so we know she is going to get away with her crimes.

These three villains burglarize houses.  They decide to escalate to a home invasion of a blind man, who they figure has lots of money stashed away in the house.  The blind man lost his daughter in an automobile accident, so that makes us really feel sorry for him.  Turns out, however, that this guy has the woman who killed his daughter chained up in the basement, so he is a villain too, actually a worse one than the three burglars. The blind man got the woman pregnant, because he wanted a replacement child.  Oh, well that’s different.  I mean, if he wants a child, he must be all right.  Except, we are a little bothered by the idea of his raping the woman he has chained up. But never fear.  He didn’t rape her.  He artificially inseminated her.  When that woman ends up getting killed, he plans on making the female villain take her place, artificially inseminating her too.  But she gets away. So, in the end, the female villain gets away with her crimes, because she has a little sister she loves and takes care of. And the blind man who is a monster gets away with his crime, because he lost a child and just wanted another one.

And so, if these movies are any indication, having a child will let you get away with murder and other such horrible crimes.  At the very least, they give you an excuse to get off work early. Therefore, it is time for adults to show their appreciation and declare a national Children’s Day.

Wilson (1944)

Having finished watching Wilson, I decided to compare it with other biopics of American presidents.  I was surprised how few presidents have had movies made based on their lives.  Abraham Lincoln gets the award for having the most, and he is the only president so featured prior to Wilson save Andrew Johnson.  After Wilson, there is a movie about Andrew Jackson in the early 1950s, and that is just about it until we get to the 1960s when American culture underwent radical change with the movies following suit.  And needless to say, movies about presidents after Nixon and the Watergate scandal would never be the same.

Regarding the pre-1960s biopics of American presidents, it is clear why they are so few in number.  They are insufferable, being both boring and cloying.  Notwithstanding all the money that was spent on the elaborate sets in making the movie about Woodrow Wilson, it is completely lacking in entertainment value.  Nothing bad about Wilson is depicted.  For example, we don’t find out anything about what a racist he was.  But those who produced this movie were not content simply to omit anything even slightly negative in his character.  Like those who made movies about Lincoln during this period, they felt compelled to go way beyond mere omission and make the case that Wilson was no mere ordinary mortal, but rather was too good for this world, on a moral and spiritual plane high above his contemporaries, all but canonizing him for sainthood.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

If you want to get the cut of a man when you first meet him, you might mention the movie A Fistful of Dollars.  If he says he never heard of it, or that he remembers seeing it a long time ago, or that he did not care for it, or that it was too violent, or that it was one of his favorite movies, or any number of other such responses, then you are probably talking to an ordinary human being with whom further conversation may be pleasant and agreeable.  But if he suddenly gets a contemptuous look on his face and says in a disdainful manner that it was a based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo ( 1961), which was vastly superior, then you know you have the misfortune to be talking to a culture snob with whom any further intercourse is to be avoided at all costs; unless you yourself are also a culture snob, in which case you two deserve each other.

A similar shibboleth would be the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which case a culture snob will inform you of the vastly superior Seven Samurai (1954) by the same director.  To philistines like me, however, the only redeeming value of those two movies by Akira Kurosawa is that they paved the way for A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven, which are actually quite good, as opposed to the vastly inferior Japanese originals.  Of course, the story in Yojimbo was not original either, for it too has antecedents.  Those who are interested can read a fairly thorough account in Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.

The basic idea is that of a man playing two warring factions against each other as he seems to be on one side and then the other as suits his purposes.  As for A Fistful of Dollars in particular, the central character is played by Clint Eastwood.  Eventually, this character, who would also appear in the sequels For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), would become known as “the man with no name,” but here he is given the nickname “Joe.”

Joe is a hired gun who drifts around looking for someone to pay him for his services.  Soon after arriving in San Miguel, a small Mexican town, he finds out that there are two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, the former making their living dealing in liquor, the latter in guns.  They periodically load up on and guns and liquor, take them north across the border, and sell them to the Indians.  Both families want complete control of the town, and Joe hires out first to one side and then to the other, making more and more money as he does so.

At that level he is completely amoral.  However, he forms a friendship with Silvanito, the bartender who tries to get Joe to leave town before he ends up being killed like so many others, and Piripero, the undertaker who makes a good living making coffins for all the men who get killed in the feud between the two families.  And Joe also takes pity on an innocent family, in which the wife is held as a sex slave by Ramón Rojos.  He helps that family escape, but is almost killed as a result.  In the end, the Rojos wipe out the Baxters and then Joe wipes out the Rojos.  Inasmuch as Joe gave all his money to the family he rescued, he leaves San Miguel no better off than he arrived.  But that’s all right, because he will simply move on to another town where he will find someone willing to pay for his services.  In other words, the business about the family aside, he is still an amoral hired killer.

It was the amoral quality of this movie that was the most problematic for the censors when the movie needed to be edited for television after ABC bought the rights to broadcast it in the late 1970s.  The censors were old hands and bleeping out bad words, snipping out nudity, and reducing or minimizing scenes of violence, but these tried and true techniques were not enough.  No matter how much of the violence was suppressed, the amoral character of the man with no name still came through.

Then someone came up with a brilliant idea.  Instead of cutting stuff out, why not add stuff in?  So, they filmed a prologue in which some guy dressed up to look like the man with no name is let out of prison on condition that he will work undercover for the Unites States government, with the job of eliminating the two rival gangs of San Miguel.  Legitimate government agents have gone there undercover, but they have all been killed.  It is Joe’s job to pretend to be a hired gun who cares about nothing but money.  If he succeeds in eliminating the Rojos and the Baxters by playing off one side against the other, he will receive a pardon for his crimes.

To those who were familiar with the movie, it was obvious the prologue was not part of the original.  For one thing, Joe’s poncho was too long.  And why would a prisoner be allowed to wear a poncho anyway, along with his boots, cowboy hat, and cigar?  At one point, we see a close up of Clint Eastwood’s face, which is clearly taken from a scene in the movie.  But usually the Eastwood replacement keeps his hand on his cigar while he smokes it so he can conceal his face.  He is told by Harry Dean Stanton, the warden, not to talk, so the censors didn’t have to worry about faking Eastwood’s voice. Finally, when this fake Joe is given his pistol, the barrel is longer than the one used in the movie.

Notwithstanding all these clues, a lot of people thought this was part of the original movie.  Another of Sergio Leone’s movies, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), had had a lot of footage cut out for theatrical release in the United States, but which was added back in when it came to television.  As a result, it was thought by many that something similar had happened here.  It even fooled Peter Bondanella, who refers to this prologue as if it were part of the original movie in his book Italian Cinema:  From Neorealism to the Present.  At least, that’s what he wrote in the first edition in 1983.  Whether he has corrected it in subsequent editions, I cannot say.

What really fascinated me about this prologue was that even though I knew it for what it was, it contaminated my viewing of the rest of the movie.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that Joe was really not just a hired gun, but actually an undercover agent.  In fact, some of the dialogue in the movie almost seemed to encourage the idea.  For example, at one point, Ramón says of Joe, “I don’t like that Americano.  He’s too smart just to be a hired fighter.”  When I heard that, I involuntarily thought, “He’s right.  Joe is actually working for the United States government.”  Many years have passed since then, and I have seen the movie many times during those years, but to this day, when I hear Ramón deliver that line, that involuntary thought pops into my head.

“Morning Joe” Needs a Divorce

For a long time now there have been rumors about a romantic relationship between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, cohosts of Morning Joe.  I never gave those stories much credence. When a man and woman spend a lot of time together for whatever reason, then if they seem to be physically suited to each other, we naturally put them together sexually in our imagination.  So even if we never play cupid in deed, we often do so in thought.  However, when Mika disputed a point Joe was making a couple of weeks ago, he said she was being “rude” and “snotty.” That’s when I said to myself, “I guess those rumors must be true.”  As it turns out, they plan to get married.

Let me confess that I am a naïve bachelor who does not always understand all the wicked ways of the world.  Not only have I never been married, but I have never lived with anyone either, save when I was growing up and living with my parents, whose screaming arguments provided at least some secondhand knowledge as to what marriage must be like.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something about marriage that releases us from the norms of polite conversation, allowing people to say vicious things to each other that they would never dream of saying even to people they dislike.

The question that poses itself to me is this:  Is it the sexual nature of a relationship that allows people to feel they can be rude to each other, or is it is the fact that they live together?  I have never had a roommate, so I cannot say how simply living with someone would affect my sense of etiquette regarding him. And in any event, people rarely have the same roommate for very long. Similarly, I never had a girlfriend for more than a couple of years before she would break up with me, so I cannot be sure about the effect that sex has on polite behavior over a long period of time.

There are plenty of people that are either married or living together, but they are not likely to be completely forthcoming about any discord between them behind closed doors, even if I had the bad taste to come right out and ask them about it. One does get hints, however.  When I used to go dancing, I found that it was not uncommon for a married couple to have dancing partners other than each other. Those that did not could often be seen quarreling on the dance floor.  I play bridge a lot now, and there too have I found that married couples tend to have partners other than each other. Mind you, dancing partners and bridge partners will often become lovers and may even marry; but when the marriage comes first, it is less likely to lead to such partnerships.

I once had a girlfriend who decided to go back to college and get a degree. Sometimes she would have classes in the morning and then again in the afternoon, with a couple of hours to kill in between.  She lived too far away from the campus to go home, but my apartment was much closer.  So, I gave her a key so that she could use my place to have lunch and study while I was at work. Because she brought her own lunch, she would clean up her containers afterwards.  But when she was through, she would leave a sopping wet steel wool soap pad in the bottom of the sink.  The first time that happened, I simply squeezed the pad and put it back in the soap dish at the top of the sink, thinking no more about it.  A couple of days later (her classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays), there was the soap pad again lying in the bottom of the sink sopping wet.  When it happened a third time, I knew this was no mere oversight, but a serious character flaw.

So, did I say anything to her about it?  Absolutely not.   I loved her with all my heart, and our romance was nothing but sweetness and light.  Why would I want to spoil the good feeling between us over a lousy soap pad? True, I probably went through soap pads a little more often than had previously been the case, but men have shelled out a lot more money than that for the sake of love, so who cares about a few extra bucks now and then?  And yet, the thought occurred to me: How long would I tolerate that sopping wet soap pad in the bottom of the sink if we were married?  This was a complete counterfactual, of course, but the question intrigued me nevertheless.  I could not say from experience, but intuitively I suspected that eventually in this hypothetical marriage, I would have reached the point of not being able to stand it any longer. At some point I would have felt compelled to ask her not to leave the sopping wet soap pad in the bottom of the sink and would she please squeeze it out and return it to the soap dish where she found it!

All to no avail, of course, because you cannot change someone after you marry him or her.  The net result would have been a source of contention and irritation between us.  So, why would I have introduced this discord into our marriage when I was prudent enough not to do so when we were just lovers? If the latter would have been unwise, so too would be the former. And yet, I somehow just knew that there was no way we could stay married for twenty or thirty years without the subject of those soap pads coming up. It simply could not be endured!

Reflecting on this, I concluded that when a man and woman are not lovers, they unconsciously are aware that they might be someday, and thus they are on their best behavior, even if they never consciously intend to date each other.  And even if they do become lovers, they remain for a while on their best behavior lest they foul their little love nest by quarreling.  But as the passion wears off, people get to the point that they just don’t care about being nice anymore. Lovers not living together can simply break up or even just drift apart, and roommates can move out, but married couples don’t have the same easy options, and thus the pressure builds up.

I used to work at a department store that had a policy about married coworkers. If two people in a store got married, one of them had to transfer to another store. Presumably, no one wanted to have to listen to a squabbling married couple.  And I understand that in gambling casinos, married couples are not allowed to play at the same poker table, probably for the same reason.

And so it is that it would probably be for the best if either Mika or Joe left Morning Joe and found employment elsewhere. Sure, they got past the “rude” and “snotty” business.  Perhaps that is what led Joe to propose to Mika, as if to make up for being so hateful.  But that won’t last.  Morning Joe is my favorite talk show, but I shudder to think how things will unfold as the years of marriage wears them down.

Inside Llewn Davis (2013)

The Coen brothers have made a movie about a self-important, obnoxious bum who sponges off people because he believes he was meant for better things than holding down a job.  But such a movie, without any frills, would immediately be dismissed as irritating and boring.  And so it needs some frills.

First, they decided to make this bum a folk singer.  They had previously made the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), which succeeded with people that liked the music, although it failed miserably with anyone that did not.  So maybe they figured this movie would appeal to people that like folk music.  And even if the folk music in the movie is pretty bad, at least as far as the music performed by the title character is concerned, we know we are supposed to overlook the fact that he is a self-important, obnoxious bum because he is an artist, and that means we are supposed to care.

Frill number two is a cat.  Having a cat continually appear and then disappear gives the movie a motif, making it appear that there is some deeper, hidden meaning to it all.  There isn’t, but something has to get this movie on its legs.  The cat eventually turns out to have the name Ulysses.  Gosh, you mean the return of the cat is like the return of Ulysses?  Well, telling a dumb story with parallels to The Odyssey worked for James Joyce, so maybe the Coen brothers figured it would work for them too.  And it recalls the main character in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?  So make that two dumb movies by the Coen brothers that are supposed to be spiced up somehow by alluding Homer’s epic, with the second one also alluding to the first.

Finally, there is a time loop.  Sort of.  Except that in the second iteration of the time loop, the cat does not get away.  Now, there are some pretty good time loop movies.  Dead of Night (1945) was the first movie I know of to try this, and it worked fairly well.  And, of course, the greatest such movie is Groundhog Day (1993).  But does a time loop belong in a movie about a folk singer?  I mean, some genres don’t really mix well.  It’s like a movie that starts out as a murder mystery, and halfway through, while we are trying to figure out who done it, Godzilla comes to town.  However, the Coen brothers were desperate for another frill to keep this movie from seeming to be what it really is, and so a time loop is what we get.

Capricorn One (1977)

Shortly after we put a man on the moon, a conspiracy theory emerged that it never really happened, that the whole thing was filmed in the Arizona desert.  Say what you will about conspiracy theories, they can make the basis of some pretty good movies.  Capricorn One is just such an example.  Instead of the moon, the plot of this movie consists of an effort to fake a manned mission to Mars.  It seems that Congress is ready to cut NASA’s budget at the first opportunity, and when it turns out that the planned mission would fail, certain bigwigs at NASA decide to fake the Mars mission to keep that from happening.

Reluctantly, the three astronauts go along with the hoax, because the conspirators have threatened to kill their families if they don’t.  Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden), a technician at mission control, figures out that the television signals are really coming from somewhere on Earth, about three hundred miles away.  He tells his superiors, but as they are in on the conspiracy, they tell him not to worry about it, but it is clear that they are worried about him.  He tells his friend Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) about the signals one night over a game of pool.  Just then, Caulfield is called to the telephone, which allows some henchmen to spirit Whitter away.

Subsequently, the computer simulation of a spaceship returning from Mars shows that the module lost its heat shield on its return to Earth, which would mean the death of the three astronauts.  They realize that the conspirators will try to kill them to cover things up.  They escape and steal the jet that took them to their isolated location.  However, they run out of fuel and have to land in the middle of a desert.  When they get out of the jet, one of them delivers the greatest line of the movie:  “It looks like we’re on Mars.”  The rest of the movie is about Caulfield’s attempt to figure out what is going on and the astronauts’ attempt to escape, until the two stories merge when Caulfield saves the only surviving astronaut, Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), the two of them blowing the conspiracy wide open when they show up at Brubaker’s funeral.

As good as this movie is, it has the two unfortunate and unnecessary flaws that plague most conspiracy theory movies:  there are too many conspirators, and they overdo their efforts to control what happens.  In this movie, when Whitter disappears, Caulfield goes to his apartment, which he has been to many times before over the years.  When he arrives, there is a woman pretending that she is the occupant of the apartment and that she knows nothing about Whitter.  The apartment has been completely redecorated and refurnished, and there are stacks of magazines addressed to this woman.

This is totally absurd.  The simplest thing to do would be to just let Caulfield go to the apartment and find that no one is home.  Sure, he could report his friend’s disappearance to Missing Persons, but people go missing all the time.  There would have been no need to include that woman as part of the conspiracy, not to mention all the people needed to completely renovate the apartment.  Oh, and the people in the leasing office are part of the conspiracy too, because they show him rental receipts from her for over a year.  And the personnel department at NASA is in on it too, because they say they have no record of Whitter ever working there, and they have never heard of him.

By letting Caulfield knock on the door and find that no one is home, nothing would have been lost but the absurdity.  He could still have continued to investigate based on Whitter’s remark at the pool table.  Moreover, the woman in the apartment claiming to be the tenant and the scrubbed records in the personnel department at NASA only confirm that something insidious is going on, thereby guaranteeing that Caulfield will start investigating; whereas if Whitter had merely disappeared, Caulfield might have shrugged the whole thing off.

During the time that Caulfield was at Whitter’s apartment, the conspirators were busy sabotaging his automobile.  Said sabotage consisted of causing his car to suddenly accelerate after he is on the road for a while.  When this happens, the brakes fail, the gearshift disengages, and the ignition switch comes loose.  Boy, did those mechanics work fast!  Miraculously, Caulfield survives when his car gets to a raised drawbridge, causing him to plunge into the river.

Now, there must be easier ways to assassinate a pesky reporter than by sabotaging his car.  I would have shot him with a silencer when he entered Whitter’s apartment and just left the body there.  Maybe Whitter would have been blamed for the murder.  In any event, if they were going to kill Caulfield anyway, what was the point of the elaborate charade with the woman in the apartment, the leasing office, and the personnel department?

But why kill Caulfield at all?  In fact, why kill Whitter?  If the conspirators had managed to successfully kill the three astronauts, the signals Whitter was concerned about could have been dismissed as a computer malfunction.  And if he persisted with his story, most people would laugh him off as some goofball who is into conspiracy theories.

I said that there was an easier way to get rid of a pesky reporter, and that is by shooting him.  That apparently occurs to the conspirators too.  Brubaker tried to give his wife (Brenda Vaccaro) a secret message while pretending to be on his way back to Earth, indirectly referring to a town called Flatrock, which features a movie set for making Westerns.  In other words, it is fake, just like the Mars landing.  When Caulfield drives out to Flatrock, the conspirators, who apparently followed him, try to shoot him.  Now, the place looks deserted, so the conspirators could have just walked up to him and put a bullet in his brain and then driven off without any witnesses, but they fire a couple of shots at him from a distance and then drive off without finishing the job.

But we’re not through.  Now some Drug Enforcement Agents that are also in on the conspiracy plant some cocaine in Caulfield’s apartment and arrest him for possession.  I guess they figured that since they couldn’t kill him they would settle for locking him up.  Of course, he gets out on bond, but I suppose they didn’t count on that.

All right, so this movie is not realistic, if by “realistic” we mean the sort of thing that could actually happen.  But it is realistic in the sense that it matches the outlandish imaginings of people that espouse conspiracy theories, such as the one that we faked the moon landing.