I watched AUTO FOCUS (2002) yesterday for the first time. I remember reading good things about this film when it was released but, like so many films over the last decade or so, I just never got around to seeing it. When I found a DVD of the film at a local public library sale (three DVDs for a buck), I figured, what have I got to lose?
AUTO FOCUS is the story of the life and death (murder actually, by person or persons unknown) of actor Bob Crane, who played the lead role in the hit CBS TV sit-com HOGAN'S HEROES which ran for six seasons. The film opens in 1964 with Crane (brilliantly played here by Greg Kinnear), working as a disc jockey at a Los Angeles radio station. When Crane gets the part of Hogan, he begins to fill his nights by playing drums in strip clubs. Crane, a family man with a beautiful wife and three adorable kids, had a severe problem that only got worse over the course of his tragic life. He was a sex addict, bedding any and all young women who crossed his path. To make matters worse, he was an amateur photographer who took photographs of his partners and their sexual shenanigans.
Crane is soon aided and abetted in his sexual adventures by one John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe at his creepiest). Carpenter works in the fledgling video recording business and he supplies Crane with one of the first home video cameras and recorders, an immense reel-to-reel monstrosity. Before long, Crane and Carpenter are having sex with various women on a nightly basis and documenting everything to watch (and get off on) later.
Crane's marriage comes to an end but he takes up with actress Patricia Olson (who played Colonel Klink's secretary on HEROES). They wed and have a son but with HOGAN'S HEROES having run it's course, Crane finds himself out of work and hard to hire. He begins doing dinner theater and constantly begs his agent, Lenny (Ron Liebman) to get him work. He's cast in a Disney film, SUPER DAD, which bombs and when the studio finds out about Crane's sexual addiction, he's blackballed from working at that studio.
Patricia eventually files for divorce and Crane spirals down a rabbit hole of sex and desperation. Having hit bottom, he decides he must get his life back together, stop his sexual escapades and cut off his enabling relationship with Carpenter. Carpenter doesn't take this news well. On the morning of June 29th, 1978, someone (the film is careful not to show the identity of the killer), bludgeons Crane to death with a camera tripod as he slept in his bed in a rented apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The film ends there but supplemental material on the DVD goes further into the Crane murder case. Carpenter, although a chief suspect at the time of the murder was never arrested and charged with the crime. Evidence was mishandled and some crucial pieces went missing. In the days before DNA testing, the prosecutor could only identity blood stains found in Carpenter's car as being the same blood type as Crane's. With only circumstantial evidence to go on, the county attorney refused to bring the case to trial. Ten years later, the case was reopened and Carpenter was finally formally charged but with no new evidence to present in court, he was eventually acquitted and the Bob Crane murder case remains officially unsolved to this day.
AUTO FOCUS features spot on art direction and gorgeous cinematography by Jeffrey Greeley and Fred Murphy. The period details are perfect and everything is bright and sunny in the first half of the film which takes place in the pop 1960s. As the film moves into the 1970s, the look of the film darkens and the camera work becomes more jittery, nervous and anxious. Director Paul Schrader knows a thing or two about men obsessed with sex (and other things). Schrader's screenplays for Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976) and AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980) both touch on this thematic concern. Schrader does a great job here taking Crane, Carpenter and the audience down a very dark and twisted rabbit hole. The script, by Michael Gerbosi (adapted from the book THE MURDER OF BOB CRANE by Robert Graysmith) is also first rate.
AUTO FOCUS is sexually explicit and is definitely not for children. It's a dark and disturbing film but it's also extremely compelling and watchable. For those of us who grew up watching HOGAN'S HEROES, it's hard to believe that the beloved Colonel Hogan led such a twisted double life. After seeing this film, I doubt I'll ever watch an episode of HOGAN'S HEROES in the same way again. Thumbs up.