Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Michael Gerbosi (from Robert Graysmith’s book The Murder of Bob Crane)
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Defoe, Maria Bello
Auto Focus begins in 1964 when Crane (superbly played by Greg Kinnear) is a well-established DJ in the Los Angeles radio scene. He’s married to Anne (Rita Wilson, in a nicely understated performance), they have three children, they go to church, and he even has some healthy—or seemingly healthy—hobbies: photography and playing the drums. In stark contrast to the other real-life example studied to date, Boys Don’t Cry’s Mid-western misfit Teena Brandon, Bob Crane and his family epitomise the American Dream and Bob himself meets every definition of a good man. Yet Crane’s sexual urges—under control at this time—will lead to exactly the same tragic end.
Being in Los Angeles, Crane isn’t satisfied with radio and wants to get into acting. His break comes when he’s offered the lead role of Colonel Robert E. Hogan in a new TV comedy series set in a World War II German prisoner of war camp. The premise is daring but the script is genuinely funny and Crane takes the part. Auto Focus faithfully reconstructs the birth of Hogan’s Heroes, even down to Kinnear wearing Bob Crane’s actual leather jacket from the show.
On the set of Hogan’s Heroes, Crane meets John Carpenter, ostensibly a Sony technician who installs hi-fi equipment. But Carpenter, played with a brilliant mix of braggadocio and neediness by Willem Defoe, was more than just someone who knew how to twiddle a knob; his real job seems to have been providing celebrities with Japanese home electronics to stimulate demand. Given Crane’s interest in photography and Carpenter’s in celebrities, the attraction is mutual.
Carpenter soon has Crane down at Salome’s strip club, playing the drums while the girls do their thing. Keeping time for the club’s house band provides an avenue for Crane’s previously latent sexuality to emerge; the drumming lends a degree of psychological legitimacy to his presence at the club. The real Bob Crane possibly thought—and even believed—that his interest was the music, but in this he was deluded. He spends less time with his family and more in Carpenter’s murky orbit, initiating a slide into the Hollywood underworld that gradually destroys Crane’s version of the American Dream and, ultimately, Bob Crane himself.
Like other characters with such dangerous impulses—Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Harry Black and Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Robert in The Comfort of Strangers—the question arises as to why Crane didn’t make healthier choices. Why didn’t he stick to sex with Anne? In social terms she was Crane’s legitimate sex partner. But Anne, like most women of her day, was trapped in a mesh of severely limiting sexual covenants by her own shame; being a good housewife in 1960s middle-class America involved childrearing, churchgoing and baking apple pies rather than sexual experimentation and home porn. Sex for pleasure equates to lust, and lust is verboten. Exactly why lust has historically been socially illicit—and still significantly remains so—will be explored later in Sexcatraz. For the highly sexual Bob Crane it meant that sex with his wife was most likely infrequent, brief and dull: an insult to the term ‘vanilla’. Once his sexual flame was kindled it was inevitable he would gravitate to Salome’s strip joint and the shadow-land beyond.
At first Anne suspects nothing, accepting Crane’s absences due to his rising stock. Carpenter, who has a sinister ability to shape-change to exploit different situations, passes himself off as Crane’s manager and invites women back to his house with Crane on the pretence of showing off his latest Japanese toys. But the actual toy that Carpenter wants to demonstrate isn’t a piece of technology; it’s a blood-operated piston inside his pants.
Crane soon finds himself in Carpenter’s kitchen, alone with a woman who wants the reflected glory of having screwed a TV star. “I’m married,” he simpers. “So am I,” she levels before offering him a sexual carte blanche. Crane places his order with a timid question: “Can we do it with the lights on?” It’s a tiny beat, perhaps even an ad-libbed line that could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. In fact the actor fought to keep it in the film against Schrader’s initial judgment. It’s a telling comment about sexual mores, even in the present day: sex is unconsciously regarded as something that should be done in the dark. Every time Bob Crane had sex with Anne it probably occurred in their bedroom, at night, with the lights out, the door closed and the curtains drawn. Why? Because of the underlying shame: the unspoken belief that because sex is shameful it should not be witnessed, even by its participants. Confronted with a more openly sexual woman, Crane’s first desire is simply to observe the sex act and his own participation in it: the wonder in her eyes, the arch of her body, the place where she ends and he begins.
Bob Crane finds the combination of fame, money and women irresistible. How frequently Carpenter leveraged Crane’s stardom to attract women can be gleaned from their catchphrase, “A day without sex is a day wasted.” After filming it’s off to Salome’s. Crane gets the big introduction from the MC and plays the drums while Carpenter hits on the women. Afterwards it’s out with the cameras and off with the clothes. Both of Crane’s previously healthy hobbies have morphed into accessories to his sexual cravings. The power of these cravings can be grasped by realising exactly how much he stood to lose: his family, reputation, career and marketability. Eventually Crane lost them all and more besides, unable to escape the downward pull of sex addiction.
Definition: Sex addiction
Addicted: “physically dependent on a particular substance; devoted to a particular interest or activity.” (Oxford English Dictionary) A compulsive involvement with physical sex and/or pornography in response to overwhelming sexual urges.
From a clinical perspective, sex and pornography addiction do not exist because they lack the physical dependence noted in the first part of the dictionary definition. However, from a behavioural perspective, sex and porn addiction are very much alive and kicking. A brief visit to any of the online porn addiction forums leaves no doubt that many people are suffering enormously from frequent, overwhelming sexual urges that are expressed through compulsive sex or porn binges. The dictionary definition seems weak, anaemic, lacking; it gives little sense of the all-consuming pull of compulsive behaviour, the helpless feeling of swirling down a vortex into oblivion. To manage the torrent of sexual urges welling inside him, Bob Crane slips into a specific cycle of behaviour in which the actual sex is only one step in a process:
- An overwhelming urge
- Gratification of the urge
- Brief respite from the urge
- Guilt and shame about the urge
- Determination to control the next urge
Then it’s back to the top and the cycle repeats. At the top of the cycle the addict concedes that this time—just this time—they cannot control their urge and will gratify it. Instead they promise themselves they will stop the next urge. The problem with the next urge, like tomorrow, is that it never arrives; the addict is only ever dealing with their current urge. This cycle is common with compulsive behaviour, including cigarettes, drugs and alcohol addiction, self-harm, pornography, or—as in Bob Crane’s case—actual sex.
Crane’s behaviour affects not only his marriage but also his ability to play Colonel Hogan. He begins an on-set affair with Sigrid Valdis, who plays Colonel Klink’s secretary Fräulein Hilda in Hogan’s Heroes. Valdis’ real name was Patricia Olson; Maria Bello plays the role of Hilda-cum-Sigrid-cum-Patricia with absolute verve. The film’s highlight is a fantasy sequence during the shooting of a Hogan’s Heroes episode when Crane’s mind spins off into a dream where Patricia has an orgy with the show’s leading lights. The palette turns a grimy green, foreshadowing the colour degradation that Schrader will take to the limit as the film heads for its sordid ending. Patricia vamps for the camera—Carpenter, with his home equipment—while Colonel Klink fondles her breasts and Sergeant Schultz grins inanely. Crane looks on in confusion, momentarily aware that something’s not right but unable to figure it out. Anne appears at a window with their children. “Fuck her, Bob,” she intones monotonously. A moment later, Crane snaps back to consciousness; he’s just messed a take on the set of Hogan.
The film neatly illustrates Crane’s cyclical behaviour as he tries to manage his sexual urges. One minute he sees video footage of Carpenter’s hand touching his backside during a “group grope” and ends their friendship; the next his insatiability puts Carpenter back in the frame. One moment he tells Anne their relationship is fine; the next he tells Patricia—who, in the film at least, genuinely loves Crane—he will leave Anne and marry her. In her exasperation Anne searches Crane’s den and finds shoeboxes crammed with snapshots of his infidelities. In their final confrontation Rita Wilson plays Anne low and straight as she ends their marriage. In sexual-political terms Anne is an upholder; confronted with evidence of Crane’s misdeeds she responds not through violence but—like Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here—through rejection. Crane is left squatting on the kitchen floor in a sea of Polaroids, garish reminders of his compulsive conquests spilled across a white tile floor.
Anne’s departure frees Crane to marry Patricia in a blaze of publicity on the set of Hogan’s Heroes. Momentarily it seems like Crane’s fortunes are on the rise: Patricia is not only less inhibited than Anne; she also accepts his philandering. If ever there was a moment when Bob Crane might have pulled his life together, this was it. The moment is all too brief; the power of Crane’s urges too strong, the slope too slippery. From here his trajectory is entirely one way; Crane is on the Sexcatraz equivalent of Death Row. Hogan’s Heroes ends in 1971 and, with rumours of his nightly activities swirling around gossip-hungry Hollywood, Crane finds himself out of work. His agent, played with fatherly concern by Ron Leibman, manages to get Crane the male lead in a travelling dinner theatre play. The play is lousy but it puts Crane in front of a lot of female fans from his Hogan days. Despite his diminished status Crane is still able to trade his past stardom for sex.
By now Carpenter has left Sony. He’s no longer a Merlin drawing the latest whiz-bang gadgets from his magician’s hat to flatter young women into shedding their skin; he’s a middle-aged man sucking on the drying teat of Crane’s dwindling fame. The shift in power from John Carpenter to Bob Crane is brilliantly handled by all concerned—writer Michael Gerbosi (based on Robert Graysmith’s book The Murder of Bob Crane) and director Paul Schrader as well as Kinnear and Defoe. Crane and Carpenter’s relationship is a classic case of co-dependence; actor Willem Defoe likens them to a husband and wife. Initially, Carpenter exploits Crane’s fame to procure women for them both. Once Carpenter loses Sony’s patronage he becomes an embittered figure, increasingly reliant on Crane to feed his own appetite; this role-reversal is nicely portrayed by a rueful Carpenter donning Crane’s Hogan’s Heroes jacket and cap.
Crane’s second marriage heads the same way as his first. He admits that Carpenter is his “only friend;” whether there’s any true friendship between them or whether they were merely thrown together by their shared hunger is never neatly answered. What is made clear is the deterioration in the beauty of their conquests. After hooking gorgeous young women in the mid-1960s, barely a decade later all they can snare is middle-aged women with swollen waistlines and pendulous breasts. No matter. In they go.
In their last sexual hurrah, Crane and Carpenter hit the 1970s swinger scene. Paul Schrader brought in a real swinger group to film the scene and they spent the entire day on set having sex. The ghost of Bob Crane would have approved. As Crane’s disintegration accelerates Schrader degrades the quality of his images, slowly moving to grainier film stock and bleaching the colour from the palette. Gone are the bright pastel shades of Bob and Anne’s all-American family; instead the colours are grimy greys and greens, heading into dun browns. We are watching a man rotting alive.
Somewhere in the miserable tread of the travelling play Crane takes stock of his life. In a soulless bar in Scottsdale, Arizona, Crane tells Carpenter that he is ditching “the broads.” Carpenter knows this means ditching him and an argument erupts. Later, Carpenter phones Crane from his motel room. It sounds like two lovers after a tiff, but only one of them wants to make up. Defoe’s performance as the insecure Carpenter, massaging his own crotch while he alternately begs and bullies Crane over the phone, is superb. But Crane refuses to be swayed. That night an unknown intruder breaks into Crane’s motel room and bludgeons him to death with a tripod. On that blood-spattered note Auto Focus fades to black.
John Carpenter was tried for the murder of Bob Crane but acquitted due to a lack of evidence. The killer’s identity remains unknown. From the perspective of Sexcatraz, it doesn’t really matter who murdered Bob Crane. Whether it was Carpenter, a vengeful husband or a random tripod-wielding homicidal Scottsdale motel intruder, Crane’s self-destructive arc meant that sooner or later he would come to a sticky ending. While Hogan’s Heroes is remembered with affection, Bob Crane is an unlamented figure and Paul Schrader can be commended for his humane treatment of a difficult subject.
It is fascinating to ponder what might have become of Bob Crane had he not been murdered that night in Scottsdale. Would he have ditched “the broads” and pulled his life together? Or would any respite have been brief, a momentary blip on Crane’s unstoppable downward trajectory? In the next film, the protagonist reaches the conclusion that there is only one exit from the path of sexually assured destruction. This film is David Mackenzie’s stylish British drama Asylum.
 The shame-based compulsion to have sex in the dark to avoid being witnessed manifested in the actions of Josef Fritzl, who always turned the lights off before raping the daughter he kept imprisoned in a cellar beneath his house for over 20 years.