A Cast of Killers
It is easy to see why Vidor was interested in making a film about Taylor’s murder. The case involved many of the elements of a typical Hollywood scandal: sex, blackmail, drugs, the possible involvement of both a studio and the police in a cover-up, and a cast of characters that included well-known actresses.
The case was complicated from the beginning. When the police arrived, the house was filled with people who had a stake in Taylor’s life, death, and reputation. A studio executive was burning papers, the popular actress Mabel Normand was looking for her letters to Taylor, and a man claiming to be a doctor pronounced Taylor dead of a stomach hemorrhage: Only after he left did the real coroner arrive, turn the body over, and discover a fatal gunshot wound.
True to the model of the modern existential detective story or a film noir, as the investigation proceeds the evidence becomes more and more inscrutable, if not contradictory. Taylor, it turns out, had changed his name and left a family behind years before coming to Hollywood, and his murder may have involved someone from that shadowy past, perhaps even his brother. The suspicion is raised that Taylor may have been homosexual and thereby vulnerable to blackmailers, and yet, at the same time, the continuing presence of the beautiful starlet Mary Miles Minter and her domineering mother, Charlotte Selby, raises the possibility that the murder was the result of another kind of jealous rage. It is a testament to Vidor’s patience and unusually keen analytic ability that he ultimately found his way to the person who was undoubtedly the murderer.
Kirkpatrick deserves nearly as much credit as Vidor, though, because he not only unearthed the materials which Vidor had sealed in a strong-box when he concluded his investigation in 1967, but also has worked them into a compelling, dramatic story. At one point in his research, Vidor was asked why he wanted to dredge up the sorry details of a mystery from a long-gone era. Vidor’s reply was that it would make a good story, and people love a story, especially if it is true. That remark could well have been the epigraph for A CAST OF KILLERS, which is indeed a good story and frighteningly true.