Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald at the Movies

For those of a certain age, the mere mention of November 22, 1963 sends chills down the spine. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, fifty years ago today,  has forever changed Baby Boomers’ view of the world. We believe in conspiracies. We resist putting our faith in big institutions. We don’t quite trust anybody, either over or under thirty.

As the fiftieth anniversary drew near, several articles were written about how the Kennedy assassination gave rise to paranoid movie thrillers. A good piece in a Hollywood-based site called TheWrap mentions Blow-Up, The Parallax View and The Conversation as just three of the films shaped by what happened that day in Dallas. On television, in recent years, we’ve had 24 and Homeland. The very fact that Americans continue to puzzle over the Zapruder footage of the assassination (and that the footage were edited into Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK) shows the extent to which motion pictures are intertwined with one of the darkest days in American history.

What’s not generally remembered is that Lee Harvey Oswald, the shadowy former Marine who was long ago named Kennedy’s assassin in official reports, was captured by police at a suburban Dallas movie house called the Texas Theatre. He’d slipped inside without paying, and was watching a double bill of Cry of Battle and War Is Hell when an alert assistant manager notified law enforcement. The lights came on and, following a brief scuffle, Oswald was arrested. (After many financial ups and downs, the theatre survives today as an historic and cultural landmark.)

At the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while researching film in the Sixties, I happened upon an odd little book by someone named John Loken. Loken seems to like arcane research: his only other publication is an analysis of the possibility that the Shroud of Turin is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus. But in 2000 he released a pamphlet-sized work called Oswald’s Trigger Films. It delves into the possibility that Lee Harvey Oswald, whom Loken accepts as JFK’s lone assassin, was goaded into lethal action by the movies he favored.

Oswald frequently went to the movies alone. (His Russian-born wife didn’t understand American movies.) The Palace Theatre was a prominent movie palace seven blocks from his workplace, and clearly visible along his bus route. From November 14 through December 12, 1962, it featured a chilling drama called The Manchurian Candidate; this film (in which a young man is brainwashed into gunning down a presidential candidate) also later played at the Texas Theatre, located close to Oswald’s apartment. Loken, unlike some conspiracy theorists, doesn’t think of Oswald as a dupe programmed by outside forces into killing Kennedy. Instead he speculates that Oswald – who loved intrigue and saw himself as a James Bond-type man of action – was moved to imitate the film’s central image of an assassin on high, targeting his prey through a rifle’s telescopic sights.

It can’t be verified that Oswald saw The Manchurian Candidate. But in October 1963, according to his widow Marina, he twice watched on television a 1949 John Garfield flick, We Were Strangers, in which a Cuban patriot engineers the death of a dictator. And, just maybe, he also saw 1954’s Suddenly, in which gangsters led by Frank Sinatra plot a presidential assassination. (It was withdrawn from circulation after JFK’s death.) According to Loken, it makes perfect sense that Oswald  -- once he’d changed the course of American history -- sought refuge in “the dream world of a movie theater showing violent films.”


  1. That's a crazy piece of history. In the last year or so I've read Stephen King's speculative but well researched 11/22/63; and I've seen many varied little pieces on television - long before the 50th anniversary was near - about the woman who rented the small room Oswald was staying in at the time of the assassination; about Jack Ruby's family bearing up after his act of destiny, I've heard there are documents sealed away until the late 2100's that will supposedly bring much new light to the events of that day - not that any of us will be around to see what they are - and one wonders who will still care about it by that time. I always remember Cry of Battle and War is Hell - because they are spit out as a trivia question in the early 80's horror film Fade to Black by the murderous movie loving main character - he wields those titles at his enemies to show some of his vast movie knowledge - now I guess I do too (though I merely love movies and leave the murdering to others.) Suddenly was officially withdrawn - but it (at least supposedly) fell into the public domain and has always been available on bargain bin VHS and more recently DVD - easily found, and not a bad little movie for what it is. The last effect the Kennedy Assassination had - it nearly killed a little show that had the bad luck to premiere the next day in England - Doctor Who. The news reports on the events in Dallas left the science fiction serial's ratings in the basement. Had producer Verity Lambert not insisted on a rerun of the first episode just before the second episode's premiere the next Saturday - giving British audiences a second chance to get caught up in the serial story - the show probably would have been killed off after the first four part story ended - instead, it caught on and just celebrated it's 50th anniversary as well.

  2. I'm very glad that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't kill Dr. Who. There's a moral in there somewhere, but I wouldn't dare try to find it.