Friday, November 21, 2014

Ed Wood's BLOOD SPLATTERS QUICKLY: 'Scene of the Crime' (1972)

"Scene of the Crime" shows Ed Wood experimenting as a writer.

NOTE: This article is part of my ongoing coverage of Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

This story appeared in Body & Soul.
The story: "Scene of the Crime," originally published in Body & Soul magazine, July/August 1972, Pendulum Publishers, Inc.

Synopsis: Rance Hollerin, reporter for KTTN-TV News, broadcasts from the parking lot behind the Happy Supermarket, where pretty young Miss Penny Carlyle has recently been murdered by an unknown assailant. Concealing his identity with a mask or stocking, the murderer emerged from the shadows, grabbed the young woman, stabbed her repeatedly in the breast with a large knife or razor, and ran away. Hollerin interviews a dozen witnesses to the crime, all of whom had the opportunity to help Miss Carlyle but did nothing. These people (Mrs. Clem Polosky, Harry Kline, Jim Ready, Larry, Mary Myers, Tom, Laura, Bob, Dick, Marty, Jean, and Norm) are a cross section of the population: young and old, male and female. All had excuses for not wanting to get involved, most of which boil down to the fact that they didn't want to get injured or killed themselves. Hollerin is appalled by this and wonders aloud how these people can sleep at night. One final witness, a man named Norm, says he would have run to the young woman's rescue "if someone else had moved first."

Wood trademarks: Yet another character named Rance (this is the fourth in Blood Splatters Quickly); alcohol (Penny purchases whiskey at the grocery store, while one of the witnesses is a liquor store owner); repeated use of the expression "ma'an" (Wood's preferred spelling of "man" when that word is used as an exclamation); copious amount of blood and guts (a staple throughout Blood Splatters Quickly); sensational news coverage (cf. Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda?, Meatcleaver Massacre); reference to prostitution (Jean thought Penny and her murderer were a hooker and her john), the word "fluff" (Dick describes Penny as a "little piece of fluff"); symbolic resurrection of the dead (Jean says the victim was screaming loud enough to wake the dead); reference to making movies (Bob thought Penny and the killer might have been "play acting" for "hidden cameras"); use of the word "bastard" (classic Wood pejorative); phrase "That was a mighty big knife he was carrying" (compare to Glen or Glenda's "That's a mighty pretty dress you're wearing"); victimization of women by men (constant theme in these stories); war (Bob is a veteran).

Excerpt: "Crazy character like that swinging a knife makes him just about the tallest creep in the world. I'm a truck driver. Now where would I be for making a living if one of my hands got stuck and it became useless? You don't know of any one handed truck drivers do you? Naw... I figure if somebody's out to get killed then that's their business... all their business and I can't get in the middle."

Reflections: Before we examine the moral and social implications of "Scene of the Crime," which is one of the preachier stories in this collection, it is worth pointing out that this particular tale is something of a stylistic exercise for Ed Wood. Rather than traditional prose, "Scene of the Crime" is formatted more like a script for a radio play. It consists of nothing but dialogue, with each utterance given its own attribution in italicized capital letters and separated by blank lines. Like so:
NEWS: It would seem there were a considerable amount of people on the street this morning... yet the tragedy happened? 
TOM: She's an old lady*, what could she have done against a bruiser like that? 
NEWS: You seem to be a strapping young man? 
TOM: Truck driver. Acme Truck Lines. Four blocks down the street.
*Here, Tom is referring to Mary Myers, another witness, not the victim.

And so on. Whether "Scene of the Crime" was a repurposed, slightly refurbished screenplay or whether Ed Wood simply wanted to try something different for a change, I don't know. I can say that, as someone who has attempted to write fiction, it can get awfully tiresome putting those "he said"s and "she said"s into your stories. And this format also allows Eddie to ditch the scene-setting and descriptive passages, which can also be a chore to write. If what you really want to write is dialogue, why not just get right to it and dispense with the formalities? Not that it's appropriate for every story, of course. Something like "Dracula Revisited" is virtually all scene-setting and atmosphere-building. But the formatting change makes "Scene of the Crime" stand out from its brothers in a collection like this.

Kitty Genovese
As for the plot of "Scene of the Crime," it seems to be inspired by the crime-ridden neighborhood where Ed and his wife Kathy were living in the 1970s. According to Nightmare of Ecstasy, a nearby 7-Eleven was attracting a bad element to the area surrounding the so-called "Yucca Flats" apartment complex. "It was a nice little building," recalled Paul Marco, "then all of a sudden that 7-Eleven came in, and it became quite a hustler place." Neighbor Shannon Dolder, who lived in Ed and Kathy's building, remembered: "Two prostitutes were murdered in the Hollywood 8 Motel, right around the corner on Cahuenga, on the other side of the 7-Eleven." During those same grim years, Ed was also frequently mugged on his way to and from the neighborhood liquor store. It's no surprise, then, that he would write a story whose jumping-off point is the brutal murder of a young woman who has just purchased a bottle of whiskey.

The real focus of "Scene of the Crime," however, is not on the murder itself but on the inaction of the bystanders. This, I would guess, was inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder case in 1964. Genovese, a Queens, New York resident, was stabbed to death by a man named Winston Moseley, who remained a prisoner until his own death in 2016. What made Genovese's case remarkable were the reports, later shown to be exaggerated, which claimed that numerous bystanders failed to come to the young woman's aid or call the police. A contemporaneous New York Times headline declared: "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." Posthumously, Genovese became synonymous with the so-called "bystander effect," in which people are less likely to act when others are present. Among the excuses given by the witnesses in Ed Wood's story:

  • "There was a lot more people closer than me... right over here on this side of the street."
  • "I thought it was some broad having a fit."
  • "You never know what a crazy creep with a knife is going to do."
  • "Me and Jim both have families. They need us alive and kicking."
  • "I'm not well you know! Arthritis... Lumbago... I don't see too good!"
  • "I didn't pay much attention."
  • "I got a baby fourteen months old. Now what would he do without his momma?"
  • "I just couldn't believe my eyes. I was stunned. I guess I was near shock."
  • "We've got our own lives to live."
Maybe I'm overreading, but I couldn't help but notice there were twelve witnesses and one victim. Could Ed Wood have been attempting some kind of biblical parable by making Penny Carlyle a Christ-like martyr who dies for the sins of mankind? In any case, on his 1967 Pleasures of the Harbor LP, Texas-born folk singer Phil Ochs released what might be the definitive song about the bystander effect, an ironically upbeat number called "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends." It makes an ideal soundtrack to "Scene of the Crime," as its lyrics neatly parallel the plot of this story. It, too, seems to have been partially inspired by the Genovese case. Enjoy.

Next: "In the Stony Lonesome" (1972)