Hit Man

4 minute read

Phil Spector had two sensational careers: one in his 20s, as the most gifted and distinctive producer in the history of pop-rock; the other in his 60s, as the nutso recluse convicted in 2009 of second-degree murder in the death of actress Lana Clarkson in his Hollywood mansion. A half-century after he created the “wall of sound”–that dense sonic joy and torment that seemed to originate in some teen cathedral and blast out of your AM car radio–listeners can still feel the juice of such primal singles as “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” But the dominant Spector image is of an old coot in court, coiffed in wild wigs, as the prosecution details his love of guns and abuse of women.

In the movie Phil Spector (premiering March 24 on HBO), writer-director David Mamet tries to create a third Spector: a blend of the brilliant but crazed kid and the crazed but brilliant old man. Aided by the fearless performances of Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as his attorney Linda Kenney Baden, Mamet nearly pulls it off. This is Mamet’s strongest drama in at least a decade and a seductive, devious essay on the tortured celebrity soul.

First words on the screen: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.” But the movie does depict a Phil Spector familiar from the many profiles and biographies written about him, and it does plant a reasonable doubt regarding the guilt of the accused. So you may be forgiven for thinking that the opening statement is itself a work of fiction–or the bald assertion that lawyers make about their clients in the vagrant hope that any subterfuge might stick to the wall.

Whether writing a biopic or a biofic, a dramatist must unearth his characters’ streaks of heroism and secret sins, must act as both prosecutor and defense attorney. Mamet begins as the first and segues to the second. Nick Stavros (John Pirruccello), an ex-cop working for the defense team, predicts a guilty verdict on the basis of the jurors’ animosity toward a gun-crazy guy in a mansion: “He’s a freak. They’re gonna convict him of I-just-don’t-like-you.” Spector certainly has his freak on when Kenney Baden first visits his mansion, which looks like an upscale version of the haunted house above the Psycho motel: stuffed birds, creepy wallpaper, tremulous violins and a horror-film startle at the sudden sight of a face in the mirror. When Spector enters, in full rant against the Kennedy family, it’s as if Kenney Baden is confronting not Norman Bates but his dead, dotty mother.

It’s a splendid rant, though–an aria of deranged high notes and cogent low ones. (Later, Pacino-Spector gets to top this with a burst of fury at the defense lawyers, followed by genial compliments.) Kenney Baden, suffering from an awful cold that will turn into pneumonia–thus depriving Spector of her counsel at the second trial, which resulted in his conviction–is eventually roused to defend him. “You might want to trust me because I’m the last person who both a) believes in you and b) has the power to help your case.” By now, Mirren has seized the film’s focus as the persistent voice of reasonable doubt in the viewer’s head–the heroine who dares to walk into the Minotaur’s cave.

Outside the courtroom, a reporter approaches Spector and says, “I’d like to be inside your mind for just five minutes.” His tart response: “You wouldn’t like it.” As a juror, you might not like it either. But this is a movie–call it true-crime fiction–that revels in proximity to a weird man: Mamet’s “Phil Spector.” Come closer and peer into the cage where the old monster with the strange mane dwells. There he licks his wounds, and roars.

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