A KIND OF MURDER
A KIND OF MURDER
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
A KIND OF MURDER is the latest in a long line of Patricia Highsmith thrillers to transition to the big screen, introducing viewers to Walter and Clara Stackhouse, a seemingly perfect married couple living in the New York City suburbs whose lives are torn apart in the aftermath of a savage murder that comes to enthrall Walter, a successful Manhattan architect. Played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel, the Stackhouses reflect all that is perfect and prosperous on the surface of American life in 1960.
The film is adapted from Highsmith's third novel The Blunderer, published in 1954 following the success of her 1950 debut novel STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which Hitchcock adapted into the suspense classic the following year. A KIND OF MURDER is not the first screen adaptation of The Blunderer — French director Claude Autant-Lara's released LE MEURTRIER (THE MURDERER; English title ENOUGH ROPE) in 1963 — though it remains the first English-language treatment of the novel. Adapted by Susan Boyd and retitled A KIND OF MURDER, this latest version examines the idyllic façade of the suburban Stackhouses, moving their story line from its original setting in the Eisenhower era to the dawn of the Sixties — a new decade for America after years of post-war recovery and prosperity.
Much like last year's CAROL, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, A KIND OF MURDER is a fascinating exploration of human relationships and the messiness that ensues from our deeper instincts. "Considering the era in which she was writing, Highsmith had a fearless ability to portray her characters as fully formed people," suggests Christine Vachon, whose Killer Films produced both CAROL and A KIND OF MURDER. "She was not afraid to dive into the dark psyche of human beings and had incredible insight into the psychology of those characters. That's what makes her stories incredibly relevant and timeless."
Prior to directing A KIND OF MURDER, Welsh-born Andy Goddard helmed episodes of "Downton Abbey" and "Doctor Who" as well as the Elijah Wood feature, SET FIRE TO THE STARS, depicting poet Dylan Thomas' first trip to America in 1950. With his sophomore feature, Goddard found himself riveted by Highsmith's web-like psychodramas. "She's almost like a brand unto herself in the way she created a particular kind of psychological thriller," Goddard insists. "I saw both The Blunderer and Susan's fantastic adaptation of that novel as taut page-turners that felt like a throwback to film noirs of the '40s and '50s and Hitchcock thrillers like THE WRONG MAN."
Screenwriter Boyd was equally ensnared by Highsmith's work. The first novel she read by the author was The Blunderer, when she was a student. After thrilling to that book, she devoured the rest of the author's considerable oeuvre. "I love the fact that in her work there are no moral guidelines," Boyd admits. "There is often little distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. I've always found this exhilarating." Bringing The Blunderer to life on screen was a long-held ambition for Boyd; for years she attempted to secure the rights to the novel, to no avail. "There have been various attempts over the decades to bring the novel to the screen without success," she explains. "Highsmith once even paid a friend $8,000 to write a screenplay, but that film was never made."
In 1987, when she was employed in publishing at William Heinemann, Boyd met Highsmith and began working with her. She was in charge of the publicity campaign for her late novel Found in the Street, which resulted in scheduling a round of interviews with the author, who was then based in Switzerland. "She hated the whole publicity circus but was always polite and generous to me," Boyd continues. "We were constantly aware that she wanted to be back in her Swiss bunker writing." Boyd never mentioned her ambitions to adapt The Blunderer for the screen, but continued pursuing the rights to the novel after Highsmith died in 1995.
What intrigued Boyd about The Blunderer was its complexity and sophistication, and the fact that it was the Highsmith novel that stayed with her the most after re-reading it many times over the years. "I was drawn to the character of Walter Stackhouse, a man, who, on the surface, appears to have it all," Boyd explains. "He's the embodiment of the mid-century American Dream, but he feels alienated. His marriage to Clara is deeply unhappy and his fantasy that she is no longer in his life leads him into classic Highsmith territory."
Boyd was also drawn to the novel's vacillating theme of innocence and guilt and how it pertains to Walter as his character changes over the course of the story. "How guilty are you if you truly wish another person dead?"
The murder suspect is the Newark antiquarian bookseller Kimmel, played in the film to chilling effect by British character actor Eddie Marsan. As Walter begins to fantasize about murder, he's drawn deeper into his relationship with Kimmel. "I loved the way the book plays with the concept of guilt in the mind," Boyd admits. "A wonderful cat and mouse game ensues between these two men, and it was fascinating to see where it led."
For Marsan, the script was a gripping read from beginning to end, feverish and precise in its depiction of three characters engaged in brutal psychological and physical struggle. "It's a story of men and their egos and low self-esteem," Marsan insists. "Kimmel was a great part for me — my homage to Raymond Burr in REAR WINDOW."
Boyd also loved the novel's setting — Manhattan and Upstate New York in the 1950s — and found herself attracted to Highsmith's preoccupation with class and the alienation that was surfacing in the middle class of 1950's America. But she opted to set her adaptation in 1960, a markedly different time and place than the author's chosen time period. Goddard was impressed by Boyd's creative choice. "The year 1960 is where the post-war era ended — that perfect vision of 50's suburban America," he insists. "At the dawn of 1960, America was looking for a new kind of optimism, unaware of the darkness roiling underneath. As we now know, the decade that followed became one of the most turbulent in modern history, with the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam just around the corner. The thin wedge between what was and what's about to be gave our story a pressure cooker-like tension. Susan enmeshed the Stackhouses in this looming darkness."
Production designer Pete Zumba was also intrigued by this pivotal period in American history and culture. "The time was just an endless road of visual storytelling opportunities," Zumba insists. "New York City was at a cultural crossroads and our characters in the film mirrored that. It was also a fascinating transition point in U.S. history — America's military presence was escalating in Vietnam, Castro assumed power, J.F.K. defeated Nixon, and John Coltrane came into his own." Thus the American cultural moment became a rich storytelling opportunity for one New Yorker's descent into darkness.
At the heart of Walter's discontent is his marriage to Clara. The romance is over, and his wife harbors serious mental problems, including paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior. She has become possessive and domineering, convinced Walter is having an affair. Walter himself has developed a propensity for telling lies — little lies at first, to his architecture clients, and to Clara, followed by bigger lies that once told seem to make his life much easier to endure. "Walter superficially appears to have everything, he's the white-collar all-American guy," explains Goddard. "Yet we come to discover that unhappiness lurks within. The crime stories he writes are a conduit for all the angst and anger in his marriage. The Walter we initially meet is not the same man underneath. He is a man of two faces."
As A KIND OF MURDER progresses, Walter becomes intrigued by Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), a nightclub singer he meets during a gathering in the Stackhouse home. When Clara attempts suicide he is drawn even further towards Ellie, whose Bohemian existence in Greenwich Village provides the perfect antidote to his stultifying marriage. When Ellie can no longer satisfy his restlessness, murder begins to preoccupy his thoughts. His cat-and-mouse game with suspected killer Kimmel — and the police detective Lawrence Corby (Vincent Kartheiser) — takes over the story. Walter begins trailing Kimmel, and after a shocking turn in Walter's own life, Corby starts tracking him. "Like a fly to a spider's web Walter becomes enmeshed in a real-life murder investigation," explains Goddard. "For him it's a cautionary tale — he winds up in the midst of a crime saga not unlike one of the pulp stories he writes in his spare time."
The three men form a twisted triangle of suspicion and deception that results in Walter's life becoming unraveled. He becomes a suspect in another murder, which bears an eerie resemblance to the brutal killing of Kimmel's wife. The web of lies he spins are blundering attempts to clear him of any suspicion — but the closer he's drawn to Kimmel and his motives, the more Detective Corby comes to believe there are two killers lurking in his midst. "There's a comedic version of our movie with a protagonist who keeps making all these mistakes — but that's not our movie," insists Patrick Wilson, who plays Walter Stackhouse in A KIND OF MURDER. "What I loved about this character is in each scene of the script there's one little lie he might have told or a choice he might have made differently that would have placed him on another path. I wanted to scream at Walter, Just tell the truth! Why are you hiding it? It was fun as an actor to find those little moments."
Goddard was a fan of Wilson and his diverse body of work before he set about casting A KIND OF MURDER two years ago. Wilson has appeared in everything from HBO's "Angels in America" and FX's "Fargo" to LITTLE CHILDREN, YOUNG ADULT, THE CONJURING and the unsettling psychodrama HARD CANDY, in which he played a suspected sex offender ensnared in a vicious game of cat and mouse with a 14-year-old conquest, played by Ellen Page. "What Patrick brought to Walter Stackhouse was this wonderful sense of ambiguity, which is very much a part of Highsmith's work," explains Goddard. "At any given time we are questioning and doubting Walter's motives." He also cast Wilson because he looked the part of a 1960s architect who seemingly has it all. "Patrick cleans up very well in a roll-neck sweater and knows how to light a cigarette like Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman did," he continues. "He knew how to carry himself in a way that was so believable for that era."
Wilson for his part devoured Boyd's meticulous adaptation of The Blunderer. "I read the script and loved it immediately, it was different from anything I'd been a part of," Wilson says. "Typically you set up your protagonist and antagonist but in this one the detective comes in and the roles switch halfway through — my character becomes the antagonist. It's a very interesting pairing, these three men, with Detective Corby trying to solve the crime, Walter's fascination with murder in general, and Kimmel's attempts to evade both men."
Wilson and co-star Jessica Biel had appeared together previously in THE A-TEAM (2010) but did not work closely on that production. As Walter and Clara Stackhouse, a married couple torn apart by mental illness, mayhem and murder, they worked together in intimate quarters for much of the film's production. Goddard had seen Biel in THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL, the 2013 Sundance psychodrama about a young woman who becomes obsessed with her next-door neighbor (played by Biel), a single mom harboring a twisted secret. Goddard was impressed with Biel's performance specifically for the choice she made playing a mentally unstable character. "Her work in that film offered clues to the kind of Clara Stackhouse I thought she could play," Goddard explains. "In Highsmith's novel, Clara has few redeeming features — she's a harridan, a pantomime villain. Jessica knew right away that people who live in isolation aren't really like that — Clara's afflictions come from someplace else. Jessica took clues from the novel and facts from the script and plotted out Clara's backstory, shining new light on who this woman was. She offered flesh tones of sympathy so that Clara felt more well-rounded than the witch depicted in The Blunderer."
Biel — best known for playing eldest daughter Mary Camden for multiple seasons of TV's hit family drama "7th Heaven" — jumped at the chance to play a more ambiguous and conflicted character, someone who is steeped in fear, anxiety, depression, suspicion and jealousy. "She's wrapped up in her own world and own mind and she can't help herself," Biel explains. "I loved the fatal flaws in Clara, how she appeared to be perfect but was in fact imperfect. She's complicated, fragile, aggressive and unpredictable — she had so many dualities. This was appealing to play from a creative standpoint because A KIND OF MURDER is really a study of flawed people, and why we do the things we do."
Biel found it particularly challenging to bring to life the intimate scenes between Walter and Clara — drawing her much closer to her former A-TEAM co-star than she imagined — in addition to bringing out Clara's tumultuous inner life. "It's a challenge to walk a fine line with someone you care about but in your heart you know is not there for you anymore," Biel explains. "Clara also has these personal issues she's attempting to deal with, her manias, neuroses and pathos, which boggle her mind. Walter may be the blunderer of Highsmith's title, but it's Clara that blunders everything emotionally. I found that aspect of her character fascinating."
Another challenge for Biel was donning the period wardrobe worn by Clara during several domestic scenes in the Stackhouse home, revealing clothing that is at once elegant and refined — but also oppressive, restrictive and borderline suffocating. 'When you step into the clothes, shoes, nylons and undergarments of this woman, you step into the person she really is," Biel insists. "You're there emotionally and mentally already, but the physical aspect of Clara's clothing sort of zips it all up. You've stepped into an entirely different skin."
Free-spirited nightclub singer Ellie Briess represents unbridled freedom in the face of Clara's prim suburban repression — foreshadowing the liberation of women that became part of the decade's social upheavals. "Ellie is an aspiring artist, a beatnik, who lives in contrast to the Stackhouses' lifestyle and existence," says Haley Bennett, the actress cast as Ellie. "She comes in like a breath of fresh air and lures Walter into this vibrant underground world that liberates him." She also wears clothing that is markedly different from Clara's confining petticoats, in keeping with the character's liberating force. "Ellie wears pants — she's a total contrast to Clara and the other women you see in the film," Bennett insists. "Her wardrobe is reflective of the change that was starting to happen in the early '60s. She's sexier and cooler than the other women, but still feminine in a very different way."
For the role of Ellie Briess Goddard knew he needed to cast a young actress that was beautiful and spirited, but who could also sing. One of the film's most memorable scenes is the nightclub performance by Ellie of the heavily symbolic number "I Can't Escape From You," written by Leo Robin and Richard A. Whiting for the 1936 Paramount musical RHYTHM ON THE RANGE, later recorded by Bing Crosby, and covered in 1954, the year of The Blunderer's publication, as a standard by Carmen McRae. "The movie deals with different kinds of entrapment and the desire to be free," Goddard explains. "One of the many things Haley brought to the movie was her fantastic singing voice — she recorded multiple takes of 'I Can't Escape From You,' each one more brilliant than the last. It's a fascinating song that lyrically taps into the themes and motifs in our story. It's an articulation of Walter's angst — a siren call for him, sung by the woman who takes him away from his drab suburban life."
Bennett made her acting debut playing a young pop singer in the 2007 romantic comedy MUSIC AND LYRICS, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. She performed several songs for the film's soundtrack, signing with a subsidiary of Epic Records that same year to record her debut album. Although she has gone on to appear in large-scale studio productions like THE EQUALIZER with Denzel Washington and forthcoming works including Warren Beatty's untitled Howard Hughes project, a remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN directed by Antoine Fuqua, Terrence Malick's WEIGHTLESS, and the adaptation of the bestselling novel THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Bennett remains a committed singer for whom "I Can't Escape From You" is a career highlight. "It's a lovely song," Bennett insists. "It was great fun making it Ellie's own."
Bennett's Ellie is the rare ray of light in an otherwise dark vision of American mid-century life. But it's the triangle of antagonists in A KIND OF MURDER — Walter Stackhouse among them — that comes to dominate the movie, in keeping with Highsmith's predilection for excavating the insidious nature of the sociopaths, swindlers and murders that peppered her novels. A tense, gripping knot develops between Walter, Kimmel and Detective Corby, who smells guilt in both men and doesn't always play by the book in his efforts to obtain justice. "The relationship between these men is classic Highsmith in its complex web of guilt, lies, deceit and doubt," insists Goddard. "Turbulence develops in the second half of the movie and at any given time two of these three characters is playing cat and mouse." Before the film's gripping denouement, which plays out in the labyrinth of cellars under a Greenwich nightclub, one of the three men winds up dead.
For the role of Kimmel, the stone-faced antiquarian book dealer, Goddard required an actor who could quietly hold his own in the subtle dance that develops between Kimmel, Walter and Corby. He found his Kimmel in the British actor Eddie Marsan, a recurring presence in the works of Mike Leigh (including roles in 2004's VERA DRAKE and 2008's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY) and a prominent face on British and American television, with recent roles in "River" (2015), "Ray Donovan" (2013-present) and the recent TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke's historical novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in which Marsan played the reclusive magician Norrell. "Eddie is one of our finest character actors and I've wanted to work with him for quite a while," Goddard insists. "He brings a less-is-more stillness to Kimmel — there's a beauty and the beast element to both Kimmel and Walter in the way that both men dance around each other in their complicated dynamic. But Eddie also brings an empathy and humanity to what is at heart a very layered character."
Marsan was attracted to Kimmel for the working-class striver's preoccupation with ego and self-esteem. "He's an intelligent man but he has very low self-esteem — and an even lower status in the world," Marsan explains. "He wants to be free from the restrictions placed on him, and from the restrictions he's put on himself through his low self-regard. He's superior in intellect to anyone else in the film, but he's also subservient owing to his working-class caste. This was a fascinating contradiction for me as an actor."
In the middle of Kimmel and Stackhouse comes Lawrence Corby, the ambitious detective who tenaciously follows both men into a bloody showdown. As Corby, Vincent Kartheiser was no stranger to appearing in mid-century garb, having played contentious adman Pete Campbell over the course of seven seasons on "Mad Men." Says Goddard of casting Kartheiser, "I knew Vincent, like Patrick, would clean up well and look great in a seersucker suit and gumshoe hat because of Vincent's work on that iconic show. But more than that he brought a restless, wired energy that was key to this character. Corby's relentless pursuit of Kimmel threatens to be the detective's undoing — until he meets Walter Stackhouse, intensifying his obsession with bringing suspected criminals to justice."
Kartheiser was attracted to the Corby character for a variety of reasons — one being that he had never played a police detective in an eclectic career that has included roles as diverse as TV's "High School U.S.A.," the indie psychodrama ALPHA DOG (2006) and the big-budget sci-fi mindbender IN TIME (2011). On a deeper level, he was attracted to the investigator's escalating obsession with justice, which erupts in a kind of mania when his two suspects become entwined. "When the movie begins you think Corby is the man who will bring the murderer to justice and everything will end smoothly," Kartheiser explains. "But my character shifts. He's not like the sleuths we typically know from classic detective fiction and movies. He wants to take down criminals at any cost. And he wants to garner attention from it."
To prepare for the role, Kartheiser signed up for detective courses on the Internet in order to see what a man like Corby would be required to do on the job. "It's really about observation," he says of his character's consuming métier. "In today's world, with forensics and DNA samples, the job of detective is very different from what it was like during the time of our story. But at the core it's the same — reading people, being able to observe the little things in a situation, and identifying the mannerisms that stand out in a potential suspect. Cops spend all day long seeing the worst in every individual. They have to be suspicious — it's their job. The biggest challenge for me was putting aside any empathy I had for these characters."
Another key character in A KIND OF MURDER — and in the works of Highsmith in general — is New York City and its environs. Like last year's CAROL, MURDER employed Cincinnati as a production stand-in, owing to that city's treasure trove of intact vintage architecture. "All period films have their unique challenges," insists Pete Zumba, A KIND OF MURDER's production designer. "But Cincinnati more than held its own as a substitute for era-specific New York City."
After turning for visual inspiration to the midcentury work of New York School photographer Saul Leiter (1923-2013), Zumba and his design team scoured the streets of Cincinnati for suitable substitutes, marveling at how much the Ohio industrial city still resembles the very specifically rendered Manhattan of Highsmith's imagination. Civil engineer John A. Roebling inaugurated his namesake suspension bridge there in 1866 before he set about constructing the Brooklyn Bridge, and many buildings in Cincinnati's city center remained intact, including Cincinnati Union Terminal, an art deco gem that was used as a story location for the film's many transit scenes. Outside the city was a bountiful supply of mid-century residential marvels, including the modernist wood and glass structure that served as the Stackhouse home in suburban Westchester.
Interiors were meticulously preserved or reconstructed to reflect the surface tension still present in American life following the perfectly manicured Eisenhower Era of the 1950s. In contrast to the sharp lines and airy, naturally lit open spaces of the Stackhouse residence is the claustrophobic and cluttered Newark bookstore run by Kimmel — a design highlight for Zumba with its precarious shelving and tenebrous, overstuffed corners reinforcing Kimmel's murky motives. "Highsmith, Susan Boyd, Andy Goddard and Eddie Marsan created such a dark, layered character in Kimmel, I enjoyed the challenge of bringing his complex world to life."
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