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0:22:49 The Signature

The Signature

By Eileen Smith Zulli and Jeannine Capecci

[1] It is important to remember that with any historical docudrama, the people and events were real and did happen. Perhaps the director or actor has taken poetic license with events or characterization, but most often those ideas came from somewhere other than their own minds. Somewhere along the line, the suggestion for how to portray something or someone had to be present. In the case of Charles Lindbergh, mountains of film footage and documents exist portraying him as both hero, after his transatlantic flight in the 1920's, and villain, regarding his anti-Semitic speeches pre-World War II, but never really exposing the real man. It is therefore difficult to understand the things that he said and did, because we never really get close enough, despite the cameras and microphones. In the films made about his life, for example The Spirit of St. Louis, the criticisms lay totally in the area of his personal life. Who was he? The Spirit of St. Louis depicts an adventurous spirit guised in a humble and private cloak. But nowhere in that film do we see any more than what Hollywood wanted to project, a hero. Even in later films and documentaries we still get very little of what was going on behind the stoic, never-wavering expressions the camera caught. When giving the job of portraying a man like this to Hollywood, the lens gets even murkier. What we are left with is conjecture, director's viewpoint, and actor's presentation. In The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case(1976), all these things must be considered.

[2] The Lindbergh of this 1976 made-for-television film is very two-dimensional if not flat. When we first see him, as he reacts to the disappearance of his first child, we are treated to an unemotional and almost uninterested man, in stark contrast to what we of the early 21st century would expect. Perhaps because we are often bombarded with scenes of people overemoting, this Lindbergh comes off cold and downright unlikable. One particular scene of the film sticks in our minds as a defining portrait. The scene is titled "The Signature" in the scene log and begins at counter setting 0:22:49. The setting is March 9, 1932, and the scene begins in Lindbergh's garage with Colonel Schwarzkopf answering the telephone. This is the first contact with Dr. John Condon, who will become a key player in the story. Dr. Condon gives Col. Schwarzkopf his credentials and asks to be put through to Lindbergh. Of course, because of the high incidence of crank callers and quacks trying to get their fifteen minutes of fame, Schwarzkopf screens the call but ultimately decides to patch it through to Lindbergh's study, all the while listening in.

[3] What we see next is an exchange via telephone between Dr. Condon and Lindbergh. Dr. Condon is trying to explain that he has been contacted by the kidnappers to act as a go-between. The fact that Condon is authorized to accept the money for the kidnappers immediately throws suspicion on him. However, his eventual revelation about the signature at the bottom of the letter gets the attention of both Lindbergh and Schwarzkopf, as no one but the Lindberghs and the NJ State Police working on the case have seen it. This scene shows the first real progress that the investigation makes and is pivotal since Dr. Condon and his subsequent identification of the kidnapper, "John," will be the foundation on which the investigators base their case.

[4] Despite his reservations about letting another supposed crackpot speak to Lindbergh, Schwarzkopf is persuaded by Condon to allow him to speak to him. Our first view of Lindbergh is of him seated at his desk in the study, casually reading a book and eating his dinner. What is director Buzz Kulik trying to say to us with this image? There are several observations that we made, although the film never really affirms or denies our findings. First of all, for a man who has recently lost his only son to kidnappers, he is absolutely calm and seems to be going about the same daily activities he did before the kidnapping. In fact, we are reminded of the very first scene of the film where Lindbergh is told of the baby's disappearance, where he is sitting again in the study reading a book. Kulik has established that this is a normal event for Lindbergh, although given the situation it is seen as mere nonchalance. Up to this point in the film, Kulik makes no effort whatsoever to bring the audience into Lindbergh's private mind. The book he is reading in "The Signature" scene is half read, which suggests that it is an activity he has been pursuing for some time.

[5] The phone call is put through, and Lindbergh answers with the same indifferent tone that we have heard up to this point. There is not even a glimmer of hope in his voice as he talks to a man who may have information on the whereabouts of his son. There are two possible explanations for this. History tells us that kidnapping during the depression was not an uncommon thing, and that children of well-to-do families were often taken for ransom, the ransom paid, and the child returned unharmed. It was a sort of depression-era cottage industry. Is it this knowledge that drives Lindbergh's calm demeanor? Is he so certain of the safe return of Charles Jr. that he can eat his supper, read a book, and field phone calls from probable suspects and informants? All this is believable, except for the fact that Kulik never establishes this as a possibility. Again we are brought back to the fact that this film never explores any part of Lindbergh-the-man in depth. The second explanation is the simple fact that Lindbergh has come to expect these types of phone calls and approaches them with indifference. This is probably what the director was going for, however, in the course of the film, he only offers scant evidence that this was the case, and that Lindbergh was at this point completely disheartened.

[6] The eating in the scene is perhaps the most disturbing part. Eating is an ordinary, everyday occurrence. We must eat in order to live, and our moods are sometimes reflected in how much and how often we eat. If it is unfair for us to assume that Lindbergh should be unable to eat and perform daily functions while the fate of his only son is in question, then it is also unfair for Kulik to present us with a man whose desire for normalcy is so staunch, so rigid, that he seems as unfeeling and heartless, if not more so, than the kidnapper himself. This Lindbergh chews away his supper while Condon reads him a note from the kidnapper, takes bite after bite, and continues to glance at his book while listening. What evokes the most disdain for this Lindbergh is the incessant chewing. The director focuses in on Lindbergh's chewing so that it is obvious that the audience is supposed to notice it.

[7] We finally get some emotion out of Lindbergh when Condon mentions the signature at the bottom of the letter. Here we see as excited a Lindbergh as we are going to get. He stops chewing and looks up at the camera, though not directly into it. This is perhaps part of the Kulik's plan not to let us in too close to Lindbergh. For some reason he does not want us to get inside but instead only offers us the surface, which was probably based on old newsreel footage and interviews. This director does not take it upon himself to try to reconstruct or deconstruct Lindbergh for us. He does not make him into an untouchable hero or a reproachable fiend. He makes him neither sympathetic nor empathetic; however, he does make it difficult, especially with this scene, for us to genuinely like him.

[8] Finally, when we look at the scene as a whole, we see that it is not designed to make us feel comfortable at all. The scene is framed in a very small space. Although Lindbergh is in his spacious study, we see only him sitting at his desk, close-up, the dinner plate, the book, a creamer and sugar bowl, and the telephone. Dr. Condon is also framed in a very tight space in the confines of a telephone booth. Schwarzkopf as well is seen framed not in so small a space but rather in the darkness of late evening in the garage, where the light is very low. There are elements of entrapment in the scene that Kulik presents us with. Perhaps he is suggesting that we have reached a point of no return, and that from now on, the action will lead us to an inevitable end. We ultimately feel that the three men enframed in the scene will never quite be able to break out of the events that are about to envelop them.