Monday, October 15, 2018

The True Story of “Hidden Figures,” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

A new book and movie document the accomplishments of NASA’s black “human computers” whose work was at the heart of the country’s greatest battles

As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.

Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

Melba Roy
Melba Roy led the group of human computers who tracked the Echo satellites in the 1960s. (NASA)
“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. Her new book Hidden Figures shines light on the inner details of these women’s lives and accomplishments. The book’s film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is now open in theaters.
“We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft,” she says. “Those guys have all told their stories.” Now it’s the women’s turn.

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1970s, Shetterly lived just miles away from Langley. Built in 1917, this research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the space race gained speed.

The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.

The first black computers didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history.

Exactly how many women computers worked at NACA (and later NASA) over the years is still unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred but other estimates, including Shetterly’s own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.

As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her girl scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates. Her father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern and becoming a well-respected climate scientist. “They were just part of a vibrant community of people, and everybody had their jobs,” she says. “And those were their jobs. Working at NASA Langley.”

Surrounded by the West Computers and other academics, it took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude of the women’s work. “It wasn’t until my husband, who was not from Hampton, was listening to my dad talk about some of these women and the things that they have done that I realized,” she says. “That way is not necessarily the norm”

The spark of curiosity ignited, Shetterly began researching these women. Unlike the male engineers, few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. Even more problematic was that the careers of the West Computers were often more fleeting than those of the white men. Social customs of the era dictated that as soon as marriage or children arrived, these women would retire to become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only remained at Langley for a few years.
Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a
Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a “celestial training device.” (NASA)
But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she discovered. “My investigation became more like an obsession,” she writes in the book. “I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.”

She scoured telephone directories, local newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names. She also chased down stray memos, obituaries, wedding announcements and more for any hint at the richness of these women’s lives. “It was a lot of connecting the dots,” she says.

“I get emails all the time from people whose grandmothers or mothers worked there,” she says. “Just today I got an email from a woman asking if I was still searching for computers. [She] had worked at Langley from July 1951 through August 1957.”

Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering; “in many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory,” Shetterly says. The researchers came from across America. Many came from parts of the country sympathetic to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, says Shetterly, and backed the progressive ideals of expanded freedoms for black citizens and women.

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

The women fought many more of these seemingly small battles, against separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings. It was these small battles and daily minutiae that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. And outside of the workplace, they faced many more problems, including segregated busses and dilapidated schools. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory that helped alleviate the shortage of housing, but the black computers were left to their own devices.

“History is the sum total of what all of us do on a daily basis,” says Shetterly. “We think of capital “H” history as being these huge figures—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King.” Even so, she explains, “you go to bed at night, you wake up the next morning, and then yesterday is history. These small actions in some ways are more important or certainly as important as the individual actions by these towering figures.”

The book and movie don’t mark the end of Shetterly’s work She continues to collect these names, hoping to eventually make the list available online. She hopes to find the many names that have been sifted out over the years and document their respective life’s work.

The few West Computers whose names have been remembered, have become nearly mythical figures—a side-effect of the few African-American names celebrated in mainstream history, Shetterly argues. She hopes her work pays tribute to these women by bringing details of their life’s work to light. “Not just mythology but the actual facts,” she says. “Because the facts are truly spectacular.

Thursday, September 27, 2018


Alan Mathison Turing
Born: 23 June 1912 in London, England
Died: 7 June 1954 in Wilmslow, Cheshire, England


Alan Turing was born at Paddington, London. His father, Julius Mathison Turing, was a British member of the Indian Civil Service and he was often abroad. Alan's mother, Ethel Sara Stoney, was the daughter of the chief engineer of the Madras railways and Alan's parents had met and married in India. When Alan was about one year old his mother rejoined her husband in India, leaving Alan in England with friends of the family. Alan was sent to school but did not seem to be obtaining any benefit so he was removed from the school after a few months.

Next he was sent to Hazlehurst Preparatory School where he seemed to be an 'average to good' pupil in most subjects but was greatly taken up with following his own ideas. He became interested in chess while at this school and he also joined the debating society. He completed his Common Entrance Examination in 1926 and then went to Sherborne School. Now 1926 was the year of the general strike and when the strike was in progress Turing cycled 60 miles to the school from his home, not too demanding a task for Turing who later was to become a fine athlete of almost Olympic standard. He found it very difficult to fit into what was expected at this public school, yet his mother had been so determined that he should have a public school education. Many of the most original thinkers have found conventional schooling an almost incomprehensible process and this seems to have been the case for Turing. His genius drove him in his own directions rather than those required by his teachers.

He was criticised for his handwriting, struggled at English, and even in mathematics he was too interested with his own ideas to produce solutions to problems using the methods taught by his teachers. Despite producing unconventional answers, Turing did win almost every possible mathematics prize while at Sherborne. In chemistry, a subject which had interested him from a very early age, he carried out experiments following his own agenda which did not please his teacher. Turing's headmaster wrote (see for example [6]):-

If he is to stay at Public School, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School.
This says far more about the school system that Turing was being subjected to than it does about Turing himself. However, Turing learnt deep mathematics while at school, although his teachers were probably not aware of the studies he was making on his own. He read Einstein's papers on relativity and he also read about quantum mechanics in Eddington's The nature of the physical world. An event which was to greatly affect Turing throughout his life took place in 1928. He formed a close friendship with Christopher Morcom, a pupil in the year above him at school, and the two worked together on scientific ideas. Perhaps for the first time Turing was able to find someone with whom he could share his thoughts and ideas. However Morcom died in February 1930 and the experience was a shattering one to Turing. He had a premonition of Morcom's death at the very instant that he was taken ill and felt that this was something beyond what science could explain. He wrote later (see for example [6]):-

It is not difficult to explain these things away - but, I wonder!
Despite the difficult school years, Turing entered King's College, Cambridge, in 1931 to study mathematics. This was not achieved without difficulty. Turing sat the scholarship examinations in 1929 and won an exhibition, but not a scholarship. Not satisfied with this performance, he took the examinations again in the following year, this time winning a scholarship. In many ways Cambridge was a much easier place for unconventional people like Turing than school had been. He was now much more able to explore his own ideas and he read Russell's Introduction to mathematical philosophy in 1933. At about the same time he read von Neumann's 1932 text on quantum mechanics, a subject he returned to a number of times throughout his life.

The year 1933 saw the beginnings of Turing's interest in mathematical logic. He read a paper to the Moral Science Club at Cambridge in December of that year of which the following minute was recorded (see for example [6]):-

A M Turing read a paper on "Mathematics and logic". He suggested that a purely logistic view of mathematics was inadequate; and that mathematical propositions possessed a variety of interpretations of which the logistic was merely one.
Of course 1933 was also the year of Hitler's rise in Germany and of an anti-war movement in Britain. Turing joined the anti-war movement but he did not drift towards Marxism, nor pacifism, as happened to many.

Turing graduated in 1934 then, in the spring of 1935, he attended Max Newman's advanced course on the foundations of mathematics. This course studied Gödel's incompleteness results and Hilbert's question on decidability. In one sense 'decidability' was a simple question, namely given a mathematical proposition could one find an algorithm which would decide if the proposition was true of false. For many propositions it was easy to find such an algorithm. The real difficulty arose in proving that for certain propositions no such algorithm existed. When given an algorithm to solve a problem it was clear that it was indeed an algorithm, yet there was no definition of an algorithm which was rigorous enough to allow one to prove that none existed. Turing began to work on these ideas.

Turing was elected a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in 1935 for a dissertation On the Gaussian error function which proved fundamental results on probability theory, namely the central limit theorem. Although the central limit theorem had recently been discovered, Turing was not aware of this and discovered it independently. In 1936 Turing was a Smith's Prizeman.
Turing's achievements at Cambridge had been on account of his work in probability theory. However, he had been working on the decidability questions since attending Newman's course. In 1936 he published On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. It is in this paper that Turing introduced an abstract machine, now called a "Turing machine", which moved from one state to another using a precise finite set of rules (given by a finite table) and depending on a single symbol it read from a tape.

The Turing machine could write a symbol on the tape, or delete a symbol from the tape. Turing wrote [13]:-

Some of the symbols written down will form the sequences of figures which is the decimal of the real number which is being computed. The others are just rough notes to "assist the memory". It will only be these rough notes which will be liable to erasure.
He defined a computable number as real number whose decimal expansion could be produced by a Turing machine starting with a blank tape. He showed that π was computable, but since only countably many real numbers are computable, most real numbers are not computable. He then described a number which is not computable and remarks that this seems to be a paradox since he appears to have described in finite terms, a number which cannot be described in finite terms. However, Turing understood the source of the apparent paradox. It is impossible to decide (using another Turing machine) whether a Turing machine with a given table of instructions will output an infinite sequence of numbers.

Although this paper contains ideas which have proved of fundamental importance to mathematics and to computer science ever since it appeared, publishing it in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society did not prove easy. The reason was that Alonzo Church published An unsolvable problem in elementary number theory in the American Journal of Mathematics in 1936 which also proves that there is no decision procedure for arithmetic. Turing's approach is very different from that of Church but Newman had to argue the case for publication of Turing's paper before the London Mathematical Society would publish it. Turing's revised paper contains a reference to Church's results and the paper, first completed in April 1936, was revised in this way in August 1936 and it appeared in print in 1937.

A good feature of the resulting discussions with Church was that Turing became a graduate student at Princeton University in 1936. At Princeton, Turing undertook research under Church's supervision and he returned to England in 1938, having been back in England for the summer vacation in 1937 when he first met Wittgenstein. The major publication which came out of his work at Princeton was Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals which was published in 1939. Newman writes in [13]:-

This paper is full of interesting suggestions and ideas. ... [It] throws much light on Turing's views on the place of intuition in mathematical proof.
Before this paper appeared, Turing published two other papers on rather more conventional mathematical topics. One of these papers discussed methods of approximating Lie groups by finite groups. The other paper proves results on extensions of groups, which were first proved by Reinhold Baer, giving a simpler and more unified approach.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Turing's work on Turing machines was that he was describing a modern computer before technology had reached the point where construction was a realistic proposition. He had proved in his 1936 paper that a universal Turing machine existed [13]:-

... which can be made to do the work of any special-purpose machine, that is to say to carry out any piece of computing, if a tape bearing suitable "instructions" is inserted into it.
Although to Turing a "computer" was a person who carried out a computation, we must see in his description of a universal Turing machine what we today think of as a computer with the tape as the program.

While at Princeton Turing had played with the idea of constructing a computer. Once back at Cambridge in 1938 he starting to build an analogue mechanical device to investigate the Riemann hypothesis, which many consider today the biggest unsolved problem in mathematics. However, his work would soon take on a new aspect for he was contacted, soon after his return, by the Government Code and Cypher School who asked him to help them in their work on breaking the German Enigma codes.

When war was declared in 1939 Turing immediately moved to work full-time at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Although the work carried out at Bletchley Park was covered by the Official Secrets Act, much has recently become public knowledge. Turing's brilliant ideas in solving codes, and developing computers to assist break them, may have saved more lives of military personnel in the course of the war than any other. It was also a happy time for him [13]:-

... perhaps the happiest of his life, with full scope for his inventiveness, a mild routine to shape the day, and a congenial set of fellow-workers.
Together with another mathematician W G Welchman, Turing developed the Bombe, a machine based on earlier work by Polish mathematicians, which from late 1940 was decoding all messages sent by the Enigma machines of the Luftwaffe. The Enigma machines of the German navy were much harder to break but this was the type of challenge which Turing enjoyed. By the middle of 1941 Turing's statistical approach, together with captured information, had led to the German navy signals being decoded at Bletchley.

From November 1942 until March 1943 Turing was in the United States liaising over decoding issues and also on a speech secrecy system. Changes in the way the Germans encoded their messages had meant that Bletchley lost the ability to decode the messages. Turing was not directly involved with the successful breaking of these more complex codes, but his ideas proved of the greatest importance in this work. Turing was awarded the O.B.E. in 1945 for his vital contribution to the war effort.

At the end of the war Turing was invited by the National Physical Laboratory in London to design a computer. His report proposing the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) was submitted in March 1946. Turing's design was at that point an original detailed design and prospectus for a computer in the modern sense. The size of storage he planned for the ACE was regarded by most who considered the report as hopelessly over-ambitious and there were delays in the project being approved.

Turing returned to Cambridge for the academic year 1947-48 where his interests ranged over many topics far removed from computers or mathematics; in particular he studied neurology and physiology. He did not forget about computers during this period, however, and he wrote code for programming computers. He had interests outside the academic world too, having taken up athletics seriously after the end of the war. He was a member of Walton Athletic Club winning their 3 mile and 10 mile championship in record time. He ran in the A.A.A. Marathon in 1947 and was placed fifth.
By 1948 Newman was the professor of mathematics at the University of Manchester and he offered Turing a readership there. Turing resigned from the National Physical Laboratory to take up the post in Manchester. Newman writes in [13] that in Manchester:-

... work was beginning on the construction of a computing machine by F C Williams and T Kilburn. The expectation was that Turing would lead the mathematical side of the work, and for a few years he continued to work, first on the design of the subroutines out of which the larger programs for such a machine are built, and then, as this kind of work became standardised, on more general problems of numerical analysis.
In 1950 Turing published Computing machinery and intelligence in Mind. It is another remarkable work from his brilliantly inventive mind which seemed to foresee the questions which would arise as computers developed. He studied problems which today lie at the heart of artificial intelligence. It was in this 1950 paper that he proposed the Turing Test which is still today the test people apply in attempting to answer whether a computer can be intelligent [1]:-
... he became involved in discussions on the contrasts and similarities between machines and brains. Turing's view, expressed with great force and wit, was that it was for those who saw an unbridgeable gap between the two to say just where the difference lay.
Turing did not forget about questions of decidability which had been the starting point for his brilliant mathematical publications. One of the main problems in the theory of group presentations was the question: given any word in a finitely presented groups is there an algorithm to decide if the word is equal to the identity. Post had proved that for semigroups no such algorithm exist. Turing thought at first that he had proved the same result for groups but, just before giving a seminar on his proof, he discovered an error. He was able to rescue from his faulty proof the fact that there was a cancellative semigroup with insoluble word problem and he published this result in 1950. Boone used the ideas from this paper by Turing to prove the existence of a group with insoluble word problem in 1957.

Turing was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1951, mainly for his work on Turing machines in 1936. By 1951 he was working on the application of mathematical theory to biological forms. In 1952 he published the first part of his theoretical study of morphogenesis, the development of pattern and form in living organisms.

Turing was arrested for violation of British homosexuality statutes in 1952 when he reported to the police details of a homosexual affair. He had gone to the police because he had been threatened with blackmail. He was tried as a homosexual on 31 March 1952, offering no defence other than that he saw nothing wrong in his actions. Found guilty he was given the alternatives of prison or oestrogen injections for a year. He accepted the latter and returned to a wide range of academic pursuits.

Not only did he press forward with further study of morphogenesis, but he also worked on new ideas in quantum theory, on the representation of elementary particles by spinors, and on relativity theory. Although he was completely open about his sexuality, he had a further unhappiness which he was forbidden to talk about due to the Official Secrets Act.

The decoding operation at Bletchley Park became the basis for the new decoding and intelligence work at GCHQ. With the cold war this became an important operation and Turing continued to work for GCHQ, although his Manchester colleagues were totally unaware of this. After his conviction, his security clearance was withdrawn. Worse than that, security officers were now extremely worried that someone with complete knowledge of the work going on at GCHQ was now labelled a security risk. He had many foreign colleagues, as any academic would, but the police began to investigate his foreign visitors. A holiday which Turing took in Greece in 1953 caused consternation among the security officers.

Turing died of potassium cyanide poisoning while conducting electrolysis experiments. The cyanide was found on a half eaten apple beside him. An inquest concluded that it was self-administered but his mother always maintained that it was an accident.

List of References (15 books/articles)
Some Quotations (9)

A Poster of Alan Turing
Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor
  1. Turing as a runner
  2. Alan Mathison Turing song by Steve Pride
  3. Obituary: The Times
  4. Multiple entries in The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

Honours awarded to Alan Turing
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
1. BMC morning speaker 1951
2. Fellow of the Royal Society 1951
3. Popular biographies list Number 57
Cross-references in MacTutor
  1. History Topics: The real numbers: Attempts to understand
  2. History Topics: Word problems for groups
  3. Chronology: 1930 to 1940

Other Web sites
  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. NNDB
  3. Turing archive for the history of computing
  4. History of Computing Project
  5. The Turing home page
  6. Virginia Tech
  7. Steve Pride (a song and video)
  8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (The Church-Turing thesis)
  9. Pass magazine
  10. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  11. MathSciNet Author profile
  12. zbMATH entry
  13. ERAM Jahrbuch entry


In THE IMITATION GAME, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the genius British mathematician, logician, cryptologist and computer scientist who led the charge to crack the German Enigma Code that helped the Allies win WWII.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sidney Lumet's Provocative "DOG DAY AFTERNOON" Backstory

The Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather. In modern times, the term refers to those hot, sleepy afternoons when dogs (and people) prefer to lay around and languish in the summer heat.
The bizarre true story that inspired ‘Dog Day Afternoon’

In August 1972, John Wojtowicz, 27, a married Brooklyn man and Vietnam vet with a stream of gay lovers on the side, decided to rob a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change.

In the aftermath of the crime, a 14-hour hostage ordeal that riveted the nation, a character based on Wojtowicz would be played by Al Pacino in the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon,” which earned six Oscar nominations (winning Best Screenplay).

While Wojtowicz’s tale on film became the stuff of legend, the man himself remained little heard from until now, with a posthumous documentary, “The Dog,” hitting theaters on Friday.

The success of Pacino’s portrayal sprang from the hero/villain dichotomy of the character. As in the real-life robbery, which took place on Aug. 22, 1972, at a Chase Manhattan branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn, Wojtowicz got both his hostages and the many onlookers on his side, positioning himself as the little guy fighting against tyranny.

“The Dog,” which shows interviews with Wojtowicz from 2002 until his death four years later, proves his reality was more outlandish than any movie.

“The Dog,” which shows interviews with Wojtowicz from 2002 until his death four years later, proves his reality was more outlandish than any movie.

The night before the robbery, Wojtowicz and his accomplices — 18-year-old Sal Naturale and 20-year-old Bobby Westenberg — stayed in a New Jersey hotel. Wojtowicz had agreed to pay Westenberg $50,000 for his assistance. For that money, Wojtowicz wanted more than just a partner in crime.

“I grabbed ahold of Bobby Westenberg and I wanted to f - - k him, ’cause he used to dress up as a girl,” Wojtowicz says in the film.

“He goes . . . ‘I don’t want you f - - king me.’ I said, ‘I’m giving you $50,000, and you’re gonna tell me I’m not getting a f - - k out of it?’ . . . So then I f - - ked him.”

The self-described “pervert” met his wife, Carmen, at a bank where they both worked in the mid-1960s. Wojtowicz was drafted soon after and had his first homosexual experience during basic training. After Vietnam, Wojtowicz (still married to Carmen) joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), but was driven more by a desire for sex than politics.

“I was a member of the entertainment committee, so I would meet and greet new gay people coming into the scene,” Wojtowicz said. “I could have sex with them quicker than anybody else, because they were just coming out.”

“He was considered a disgrace at GAA [dances]. He would fall on a couch and start having sex with somebody in a semi-public place,” Randy Wicker, a journalist who helped Wojtowicz negotiate the film rights to his story, tells The Post. “His reputation within GAA was, ‘This guy is a looney-tune.’ ”

Wojtowicz eventually left Carmen. In 1971, he met Ernie Aron, a transgender woman who went by the name Liz Eden. The two married in a non-binding ceremony that December.

Eden’s pals were not impressed.

“He was skeevy,” Jeremiah Newton, a longtime friend of Eden’s who appears in the film, tells The Post. “He was obsessed with sex . . . I thought he was pretty stupid.”

Over the following year, Eden talked about a sex change operation, which Wojtowicz was against. But after Eden tried to kill herself, Wojtowicz decided that the surgery was needed to save her life and hatched the plan to rob a bank.

As depicted in “Dog Day Afternoon,” the crime turned into a 14-hour circus that had over 2,000 onlookers on the scene rooting for Wojtowicz, who, at one point, threw money out to the crowd. Westenberg bailed before the crime got under way, Naturale was killed by the FBI and Wojtowicz wound up serving five years in prison.

Once he sold the film rights to his story, the money was used for Aron’s operation. But after the surgery in 1973, Aron — now Liz — told Wojtowicz that she never wanted to see him again. Wojtowicz slit his wrists, but survived.

He found love in prison, “marrying” fellow con George Heath — both got out in 1978 and moved in with Wojtowicz’s mother. Wojtowicz had the nerve to apply for a guard position at Chase Manhattan Bank. Instead, he found a job “cleaning toilet bowls on Park Avenue.” In the years to come, he would spend time in front of the bank signing autographs and wearing a T-shirt that read, “I Robbed This Bank.”

He died of cancer in 2006. While “Dog Day Afternoon” made him a legend, those who knew him say “The Dog” gives a truer picture of who Wojtowicz really was.

“They had no real understanding when they made [‘Dog Day Afternoon’] that John was as crazy as he was,” says Wicker. “He comes out more rational than he really was.”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Power and Importance of "In Cold Blood"

By Roger Ebert
February 6, 1968
Link to review:

"In Cold Blood" is an eerie case. Not a movie. A case. The film itself, which is fantastically powerful despite its flaws, is the last episode in a chain which began eight years ago when the Herbert Clutter family was murdered near Holcomb, Kansas. Without that murder, Richard Brooks would have been hard-pressed to make this movie, and Truman Capote would have found little employment as the New Yorker's rural correspondent.

When I was typing up the cast credits, I came to the line "based on the book by Truman Capote." Some grim humor suggested that I could keep on typing: " . . . and the murders by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock." In an important sense, this movie was created by Smith and Hickock. They spent most of their lives compiling biographies that prepared them for their crime.

Perry came from a violent childhood. His mother drank, his father flew into explosive rages, he was beaten in orphanages. Dick came from marginal poverty, a rootless existence without values. So both were "victims of society,'' in the way defense attorneys use that term. For their own victims, they chose the Clutter family--a well-off, middle-class, God-fearing family that, in every respect, lived in an opposite world.

If this had been fiction, the themes could not have been more obvious. Two opposed cultures collide. The outsiders kill the insiders in the first round, then lose the second to the hangman. But the film is not based on fiction; the Clutter murders actually happened. If you look at the list of characters you will find names like Herb Clutter and Perry Smith. Real names. Also featured in the cast are Sadie Truitt and Myrtle Clare playing themselves. They were citizens of Holcomb on the night of the murders, and they still are today.

Considerations like that make it difficult to review, "In Cold Blood" as a movie. This is not a work of the imagination, but a masterpiece of copying. Richard Brooks and Truman Capote brought technical skill to their tasks in recreating the murders, but imagination was not needed. All the events had already happened. And every detail of the film, from the physical appearance of the actors to the use of actual locations like the Clutter farmhouse, was chosen to make the film a literal copy of those events.

I do not object to this. Men have always learned about themselves by studying the things their fellows do. If mass murders of this sort are possible in American society (and many have been), then perhaps it is useful to see a thoughtful film about one of them.

And to the degree that "In Cold Blood" is an accurate, sensitive record of actual events, it succeeds overpoweringly. The actors, Robert Blake (Smith) and Scott Wilson (Hickock), are so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life. Many other performances also have the flat, everyday, absolutely genuine ring of truth to them. At times one feels this is not a movie but a documentary that the events are taking place now.

What does bother me is the self-conscious "art" that Brooks allows into his film. It does not mix with the actual events. The music on the sound track, for example, is almost conventional Hollywood spook music, as if these murders had to be made convincing. The sounds of the landscape -- the wind and weather -- would have been music enough. Again some of the photography is staged and distracting. We see Herb Clutter shaving, and fade to one of the killers shaving. We see Perry's bus transform itself into a Santa Fe train passing through Holomb. Gimmicks like this belong in TV commercials.

Another of Brooks' mistakes, I think, was his decision to write a liberal reporter into the script. This figure obviously represents Capote. He hangs around during the last half of the film, tells about Death Row, narrates the hangings and provides instant morals about capital punishment. He is useless and distracting. Brooks should either have used Capote himself or no one.

What we are left with, however, is a film that this Hollywood artiness does not damage very much. The sheer evocative power of the actual events and places sweeps over the music and the trick photography and humbles them. The story itself emerges as bleak and tragic as the day the murders first occurred. The questions raised by Smith and Hickock's senseless crime and the deaths of their undeserving victims are still as impossible to answer.

• Link to the Original Story in The New Yorker:

• Chapter by Chapter with Spark Notes: