Category Archives: True Crime

“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side”

The other day I watched River’s Edge, a 1987 film based on a 1981 crime. I’d say it falls in the Law and Order category of true crime, as a fictionalization of real events. The gist of the story is that a teenage boy killed his girlfriend, then told people about it at school and brought them to see the body. It took a couple days before anyone reported it to the police, due to confusion, loyalty, and distrust of authority. The community, the media, and the film ask What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society?

The news story:
California Suburb Sorts Out Fear and Confusion in Teen Slaying

I saw this film when it was new in a theater, at a showing that was so packed that we had to sit in the front row. I remember this made for a very intense experience, right in front of the screen, right in front of the speakers, viewing at an uncomfortable distance and angle. The discomfort of the experience accentuated the discomfort of the film. Most of my friends saw the film when it made it to HBO, and interpreted the film as a kind of black comedy. To me, that said something about the difference between seeing a movie in a theater and watching one in the living room.

What is wrong with kids these days? What is wrong with our society? Answers offered included media violence, marijuana and heavy metal music, which were often considered to be causes of the decline of western civilization in those days.

“You interest me” the police officer says as he interrogates the teen for reporting the murder. What interests me is that I can empathize with the kid. Who is prepared to deal with a situation like that? How would they know how to behave? One of the reasons people kept quiet about it was they knew no good would come from going to the authorities. It would only mean trouble. The movie, and the real life story, don’t do much to counter that sentiment.

Rewatching it in light of events of the past few years, I thought of how the kids’ struggle with confusion and loyalty in the face of a heinous crime is hardly just a problem for youth. How do officers react when they witness one of their own doing something wrong? Or indeed members of any tribe? Perhaps one function of true crime narratives is to help us think through these things.

The other stories

I watched Ridley Scott’s pseudo- true crime film All the Money in the World yesterday, after having had it sit by the TV for two weeks while I was too busy. It’s about the kidnapping and ransom of J Paul Getty’s grandson in the early 70s. Maybe I should have read Martin Weller’s review before I put it in my queue. Given that Scott made it, I expected it to be a well-made film, but to me the focus was on the wrong story. Weller mentions Getty’s “otherness,” the dehumanizing aspect of his massive wealth, which would have been worth exploring. The movie instead focuses on the family tensions. I’m sure people can relate to that, and it’s what studios want, but personally, I’m not really interested. I would be much more interested in the kidnappers’ story. Wikipedia tells me that they were ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia group I had not heard of. In the film, a motley group nabs young Getty out of the blue, has trouble negotiating the ransom, and basically sells the crime to a larger organization. That’s the story I want to know about. It reminds me of Jim’s take on The Iron Heel, where a story mentioned in passing seems more compelling than the story that’s primarily being told. While the elder Getty operates in a metaphorical cut-throat world, the ‘Ndrangheta inhabit a real one. I wonder about the inner workings of the business deals and decisions that go on there. How was that sale made? What goes in to it? Or the impending decision to cut their losses? What price does the original kidnapper pay when the job fails? Shifting the perspective might have made for a more interesting tale.

Broadband: Make it a Commodity like…uh…a Pork Belly


Click image for Simpson’s take on Enron scam

I just finished watching the 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and it reinforces David Simon’s theory of America as Horror Show. What’s more, it was just a small taste of things to come in 2008 with the global financial meltdown at the hands of the world’s most “trusted” financial institutions.

Anyway, I learned a bit about how Enron defrauded state’s like California out of tens of billions of dollars through loopholes in the legislation for the recently deregulated energy utility market. Through redirected energy and fabricated shortages, Enron could sell California back it’s own energy at an insane markup (kinda like academic publishers :) ). Enron moved from a company that dealt in natural gas to one which manufactured several high-profile gimmicks while hiding its losses in order to trump up its stock value. The Wall Street analysts had as muc h to with the Enron scam as anyone.  It was basically one big lie cashing in on capital running amok.

One of its scams that caught my attention was Enron’s foray into the bandwidth commodity market, in particular teaming up with Blockbuster to deliver on-demand video through their network provider Enron Broadband Services.  What’s funny about that is we were talking about the history of the web tonight in The Internet Course  looking at the emergenc eof the web,  Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. One of the details omitted from that history was the Dot-Com Bubble of the late 1990s. Enron was playing on just that market hype when they made the broadband announcement, and it suggests how their fraud was all about creating a compelling narrative regardless of what was possible (true of the dot-com boom more generally). In fact, broadband was just another utility to be deregulated and you could argue that was what the 30 second commerical is really arguing for. What if broadband was a pork belly?* What if broadband was a basic right, a public utility affordable to everyone so we could avoid the pillaging of the public that was Enron?

Paul Bond and I had talked about including this documentary in the True Crime course if we teach it again, and after watching it I would say absolutely. It frames one of the most heinous premeditated crimes committed against the citizens of the U.S. and beyond in the past thirty years: corporate crime kills!

* Turns out pork bellies are no longer a commodity anyway.

Curtains for crime time

curtains for crime time

Our True Crime class has come to an end. As all of the students have been saying, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it. And it was worth it because of the students – the truecrimers – they rose to every challenge we gave them. Jim tells all about it with his usual eloquence and enthusiasm.

I approached this course from my librarian’s perspective. I’m interested in information literacy as a necessary component of lifelong learning. I’m also interested in information literacy as something beyond bibliographic instruction in how to use the library. It starts with creativity and curiosity, which we in the profession define down to “identifying an information need” and culminates in communication, the creation and presentation of information outputs. We had curiosity built-in from the start. All the truecrimers shared our fascination with these stories. We pushed them to exercise creativity, and what they came up with in their videos was remarkable. But there was also creativity in their wiki work, where they made decisions on how to break down the readings, what extra information to bring in, and what they came up with for discussions questions. The wiki, the videos, the discussions and the blogging were all forms of communications and presentation. We dispensed with the traditional research papers, yet achieved the same thing, or perhaps achieved something more, and everyone had a great time doing it.

We could have gone further into evaluating some of the information sources. I would have liked to see the class use more library resources and less Google. But we did get at some of those conversations. I think the class started to think twice about taking things at face value, and they had the experience of drawing on primary sources.

It was a lot of fun working with Jim and the group. I take something away from it professionally as well as personally though. It gives me a success story of a different way to run a class, and a different way to work with faculty. I don’t know if my own institution would give me the freedom to experiment like that, but I can tell the tale and maybe spark some ideas and start some new things.

Oh, and I got the term “crimer” from the Crimer Show on Twitter:


Image credits:
Crime scene part one cc2006 paral_lax
stage curtains from Sherane’s Closet


True Crime: Some Final Thoughts and Videos

I’m sad to say the True Crime Freshman Seminar Paul Bond and I taught this semester has come to an end. We watched the final vidoes last night, and they’re working on posting their final reflections to the course blog so this semester can quickly become a memory. But before it vanishes entirely, I want to get a few final thoughts down about the experience as well as share out the final three videos the students did for the course.

Below are somesome thoughts about the process.

Two-HeadedGiantSharing the teaching responsibilities for this course with Paul Bond was awesome. I think Paul and I have developed a good groove between this course and Hard Boiled.  The bestthing about co-teaching the course was that it forced me to do a few things I might not otherwise. First, we spent more time than I might alone shaping and re-shaping the syllabus by throwing ideas off one another. Second, we spent more time conceptualizing the structure of the class. We made the experience a true seminar that put the students in charge of the readings and discussion each week, which forced them to actively particpate, discus, and create. This was crucial for me because given an option, and if I was solo, I would have talked and talked and talked. Finally, Pual taught me how to teach this stuff by doing it, his weekly blog posts on the readings were awesome, and as trucrimer Shelby pointed out in her final reflection “Enjoy Paul….he has the best Posts of the class.” I couldn’t agree with that more.

Video Production

Image Credit: Paul Bond

Image Credit: Paul Bond

The video production element of this class was intense, and this was a trial run to see the idea of a seminar or content class like this can simultaneously become a video production shop—turns out it can. But it’s a hell of a lot of work, just ask any of the students :) The student groups produced eleven  videos over the course of the semester, and they consistently got better as they went on. I really enjoy trial by fire when it comes to teaching, and the video production process really got them working together as a course community quickly. Rapid prototyping of video premises, scripts, costumes, settings, etc. was the magic of this class. We didn’t give them much time, we pushed them to be creative, and eventually it started to pay off. Not all the videos were great, mind you, but with little or no direction they eventually starting making some really compelling and creative commentaries on the works we read. I also wanted an alternative to the research paper/essay—I figure they’ll see enough of that over their four years—I wanted them to have fun creating and they did. You’ll see some evidence of this  below.

Group Presentations and Wiki

il_fullxfull.156688661The last thing I’ll say is that I couldn’t have been happier with the structure of the group presentations and wiki. Students compalined it was a lot of work and we read too much and made too many videos—but isn’t that the point? They should feel the pain, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no folling around! There were five groups, and each group was tasked with uiding a discussion for two separate weeks and framing the context for dicussion on the course wiki. I was amazed how well they did with this for the most part. We spent the semester pushing the groups to move from simply summarizing the works we discussed to actually enagaging the historical context, themes, how they relate to other works we’ve read, and some broader signifiance cultually. It wasn’t always easy or successful, but by having them run the discussion we had a much cleaer understanding of where they stood in relationship to the texts. What’s more, it was a major boon for discussion, interaction, and a general sense fo community for the class. This course had, by far, the strongest sense of community and shared experience of any course I ever taught—and for me that is the real point of a Freshman Seminar. Mission accomplsihed, Bond!

In short, the truecrimers ruled!

Final Videos

Now, the final thing I want to share are the final videos the students created for the course. Is I mentioned earlier there were 11 videos in all created, and you can see them all here (along with a few clips from movies we watched). The following videos were by three separate groups of students. They were charged with trying to integrate various characters, readings, and situatiosn from the entire semester into a 5-7 minute video—while at the same time examining some of the themes in the class.

The first video is dating gameshow called “Baggage” in which various criminals we read about this semester share their baggage with the lucky contestant. It is a testament to how funny and entertaining these students could make the situations, characters, and themes.

Dinner with the Killers
This video was fascinating to me because it actually had the scholar Steven Pinker, whose Ted Talk we watched at the beggining of the semester, having dinner with various criminals we read abut over the semester. Turns out Charles Manson and Nat Turner get into a brawl over Manson’s theory of Helter Skelter.

Wax Museum
The final video was a bit disjuncted and their could have been a bit clearer narration around the bits, but the ideas was excellent. Created a wax museum of murder scenes that a curator takes you through and explains the details and their signifiance. I would love to rework this for another version of this course—the ideas is so cool—execution a bit rough give the time limitations. That said, there are some awesome moments.

Talkign with Paul alst night after the class, the thing that struck me with this setup is that I would now feel comfortable re-imagining this as an online, open course now with the video production, wiki work, and distributed possibilities for building these beyond the class—it could bea blast. I hope we get to teach this again soon so we can start experimenting with the next stage of this class. Until then.

Locations from Goodfellas and Wiseguy Mapped

Every time I’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodefellas (1991) (which is more than a few) one of the things that always strikes me is how familiar I am with the built environment of the film. I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, Baldwin to be exact. So many of the scenes where Henry Hill is courting Karen at the beginning or when he’s is driving around like a paranoid maniac towards the end are landscapes that almost seem like polariods from my childhood.

Goodfellas Google Maps

But what I didn’t realize until reading Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, is just how much truth was behind that cinematic impression. The last place Henry Hill lived and dealt drugs from before he was “pinched” was in Rockville Centre, one town away from where I grew up. In fact, while reading the book I realized most of the film took place ehere I grew up, it was a bit crazy to come to that realization. I was the same age as Henry Hill’s kids. He was of my parents’ generation. He was South Shore trash, just like me ;) Part of the joy of reading this book for me was Hill’s insistence on naming people and places so regualrly. While this might come with the territory of being an informat, it also effectively maps a whole universe of working class gangsters right in my boyhood backyard.

View Locations from “Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas” in a larger map

I’ve recently written about true crime on Google Maps, and while I was Google searhcing some of the addresses referenced in Pileggi’s book, I discovered that someone already created a Google map for the film and the book. The web is such an amazing place.

The working class gangster

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

henryWe talked about nature vs. nurture with In Cold Blood. Thomas Firestone, in “Mafia Memoirs: What They Tell Us About Organize Crime” talks about the differential association theory, which “argues that people become criminals because they ‘learn’ criminal behavior from role models, usually friends or family members.” That seems like environment more than nature or nurture. It’s part of both but not really either. As I see it, nature is something inherent in the person, and nurture is something that is done to the person. What I get from the theory is that the nature of the environment nurtures criminality in the individual. The gangsters in Goodfellas were the neighborhood symbols of success, a thing to aspire to be.

This strikes me as similar to Monster Kody Scott’s situation. I’m not sure to what extent the Crips represented success in those days, but it was better to be part of a gang than to be independent (a victim). The gang offers a sense of community, a family, and gives direction and purpose, however senseless those might be. The life doesn’t end well, but does anyone else’s? It reminds me of William Fly – he had to have known that he would be killed at sea or hung on shore, since no one retired after a successful pirate career. It was just better to be able to do what he wanted, even if only for a few months, than to endure the life of a worker at sea.

jimmyGoodfellas also shows a different side of the Mafia from most gangster movies. They tend to focus on the top guy, the gangster royalty, the Little Caesar, the Scarface, the Al Capone, the Godfather. The characters in Goodfellas are the working class mafia. According to Firestone’s analysis, I should be classifying them in feudal rather than corporate terms, but serf doesn’t sound right. Henry appeared to be wealthy, but in the end he was just living from score to score. Jimmy made a lottery level score with the Lufthansa heist, but looked like he was working on skid row more than easy street afterwards. And Paulie, the closest thing to a boss man in the movie, was working a grill in a restaurant before he got picked up by the police. So it’s like the Fly life – it looks good when it’s going good, but it only ends up bad.

Wall Street, the Other Mob

Wallstreet-BullI loved the passage in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy where Henry Hill talks about how the Wall Street bankers took the mob to the cleaners.

When stolen securities got big, we used to have Wall Street types all over the place buying up bearer bonds. They would send them overseas, where the banks didn’t know they were stolen, and then they’d use the hot bonds as collateral on loans in this country. Once the stolen bonds were accepted as collateral, nobody ever checked their serial numbers again. We’re talking about millions of dollars in collateral forever. We got robbed on those jobs. At that time we didn’t have any idea about collateralizing foreign loans. The bankers took us to the cleaners. We got pennies for the dollar. (128)

This bit struck me as prescient. In the mid-1990s the mob was deeply involved in Wall Street, with boiler room stock hustlers that would sell phony stocks and ultimately cash in on millions they missed out on, according to Hill, in the 60s and 70s. I love the idea of Wall Street bankers and brokers as the original gangsters, the true mobsters cleaning up on untraceable bonds (which are all the rage again) of which your average wiseguy couldn’t fully comprehend the value. What’s also interesting in the context of this book is that Wall Street is framed for what it is: the most lucrative hustle going. A fact that has never been more apparent when the global depth of the junk bond fiasco became apparent in 2008.

Paul and I talked about doing a larger segment of this course on corporate crime. One possibility was including the documentary Enron: The Smartest Man in the Room which is an examination of one of the largest business scandals in U.S. History. We passed cause it was somewhat late in the planning, but if we do this one again I think we could and should do a whole section on corporate crime.

And as fate and luck would have it, Martin Scorsese is coming out with a film this Christmas titled The Wolf of Wall Street, which is based on a memoir of pennystock boiler room broker from the 1990s Jordan Belfort. Interesting enough, there was a film made in 1929 with the same title—coincidence? I think not. Is this an update of Goodfellas for the Wall Street era? Probably not, this will probably be a lot more like the mediocre film on the topic Boiler Room (2000).

Anyway, here is the trailer for the film. And you can be sure the tale of unmitigated criminal greed on Wall Street has only just begun to be told in popular media—looks like the mob angle could be next with  Mob Street.

Goodfellas: I’m Here to Amuse You

Cinephilia and Beyond Screenshot

Cinephilia and Beyond Tumblr

I’ve written before about love of Tumblr before on this blog, and one of the most consistently brilliant Tumblr blogs I follow is the all-things-film tumblr Cinephilia and Beyond. If you love movies, this is an amazing resource.

Anyway, over a year ago the Cinephilia blog, doing what it does so well, posted an all but comprehensive article filled with resources about the 1991 film GoodfellasIt has the original film script, images from set, a documentary about the making of the film, a documentary about Henry Hill, an article about Henry Hill’s experience in the Witness Protection Program, Scorsese and his mom on Letterman, and much more. It’s an example of just how amazing this blog is, it understands that at its best blogging is an aggregation of awesome resources that leads the visitor on to further explorations and discoveries.

At the time I filed this post away because I knew I was already thinking about teaching a course on true crime, and both Nicholas Pileggi‘s 1985 book Wiseguy and Scorsese’s film were strong candidates. Lo and behold, a year later I am happy to share this amazing post for the True Crime class (and anyone else that loves Goodfellas—who doesn’t?) so that you have no shortage of material to amuse yourself after watching the movie.


Now the Cinephilia and Beyond blog is an open educational repository I can get behind!



“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” What a genius script looks like. Read, learn, and absorb: Goodfellas [the screenplay] by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese [pdf1, pdf2]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)



The 30-minute documentary Getting Made: The Making of Goodfellas, also included on the Blu-ray release, has recently been put online for your viewing pleasure. Going through the pre-production, shooting, release and more, a few of the film’s iconic scenes (including Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci‘s dinner exchange, as well as the extended steadicam shot) are discussed — all with the insight from editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s a fascinating inside look at the making of a masterpiece and one can check out the documentary below, then head over to Amazon to stream the film for free and pick it up for cheap on Blu-ray, if you don’t own it yet. [thanks to A Bittersweet Life & The Film Stage]

The legendary Steadicam shot in Goodfellas through the nightclub kitchen was a happy accident — Scorsese had been denied permission to go in the front way and had to improvise an alternative.




By now you’ve heard the news that former gangster-turned-mob informant Henry Hill passed away last Tuesday, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of moviegoers who’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (itself based on the life of Henry Hill) and often wondered just how the guy managed to survive long enough to die at the age of 69 without being whacked by those he turned against. Clues to that mystery may be found in this documentary, called The Real Goodfella, which is one of the more fascinating docs on the real-life man behind the character Ray Liotta so memorably portrayed on screen. Featuring in-depth interviews with Hill, FBI agents, Martin Scorsese and more, the 47-minute doc uses dramatized reenactments to piece together what really happened versus what Scorsese chose to use for his film. You can watch the entire doc below, which dates back to 2006. —Erik Davis

  • Interview with the real gangster behind Goodfellas, Henry Hill [pdf]
  • A recipe for the mouthwatering prison dinner from Goodfellas:

6 onions peeled and finely diced
75g Cotswold gold rapeseed oil or olive oil
A teaspoon of salt
300g minced beef
300g minced pork shoulder
300g diced English rose veal flank
30g Cotswold gold rapeseed oil or olive oil
250g beef or brown chicken stock
10 cloves garlic peeled
100ml white wine
150g tomato puree
750g ripe vine tomatoes (chopped) or equivalent weight of quality chopped tinned tomatoes
A pinch of salt
Good grind of black pepper

Just like the guys in Goodfellas, I like to serve this with a char grilled 34 day aged hanger steak cooked medium rare, a bottle of Chianti and good crunchy country bread (to soak up all those wonderful juices and flavours).

Yes, indeed, The Godfather is masterful. The Sopranos? We never missed an episode. But you want to talk about a movie that leaves a mark? Twenty years after the release of Goodfellas, the good people behind it—Scorsese, Liotta, De Niro!—re-create the making of the truest, bloodiest, greatest gangster film of all time.Getting Made The Scorsese Way