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The Killer Within

The title of this film caught my eye because it is so similar to one of my favourite novels by one of my favourite writers: The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson.

pulpy goodness, mmmm...

But Bob Bechtel is no Lou Ford. Aside from being a killer, that is.

Thompson’s Lou Ford is a brutal, unfeeling sumbitch who’d just as soon shoot you in the eye as pass you the salt and pepper. Bob Bechtel, contrariwise, is a schlubby-looking senior who happened to have shot a fellow college student at point-blank range while the latter was lying asleep in bed. Bechtel blamed his action on bullying he’d had to put up with throughout his life, up to and including alleged abuse by the boy he shot. (Incidentally, that claim is disputed by friends and fellow students from the time.) Bechtel was put away in a hospital for the criminally insane for 5 years and then released because the family of the boy he’d killed declined to press charges.

Fifty years later, filmmaker Macky Alston was there to chronicle the reactions of family, friends, employer, and students (Bechtel is a psychology professor (!) at the University of Arizona) when Bechtel finally came clean with them about his past. There is a certain conceit to the documentary, however… Supposedly, nobody but his wife knew about Bechtel’s past when the big revelation was made, but it was Bechtel’s daughter who invited Alston to do this film and throughout it, she comes off as a preening, self-absorbed twerp. I doubt she intended to make that impression…

Nevertheless, it is a little chilling to see how emotionally flat Bechtel is when speaking of his crime. And when he goes back to the scene of it–accompanied by his wife, his daughters, and Alston–he seems completely apathetic about the whole thing. Mebbe it’s just because he’d had 50 years to emotionally accustom himself to what he’d done. Or mebbe he should’ve stayed in the psychiatric hospital a little longer. (Dunno. I’m not a doctor; I just play one on tv.)

Is there a story here? Or was a story manufactured here? We don’t see too much of others’ responses to Bechtel’s revelations aside from his daughters. At the Q&A by Alston and the daughters after the screening, they told us that it was remarkable but their dad had not received any negative responses from family, friends, and others he’d told about his past.

I think there is a story here, but I don’t think it was told as well as it might’ve been. I think I’d’ve been a little tougher on my subject if I’d been the filmmaker. And I’ve certainly shunted the look-at-me daughter to the side. And delved a little deeper into the claims by the victim’s brother and others who were in college with them at the time that Bechtel’s allegations of bullying by his victim were specious. There’s more to this story than Alston gives us.

But it makes an interesting companion-piece to the other documentary I saw at the festival.

→ originally published 2006-09-18

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