What is it about ‘murder’ we continue to find so fascinating? Mercifully, most of us lack the impetus to commit one. I will also venture a guess none of us would want to play the part of the victim either. Yet, splashed across the tabloids, reconstituted as fiction for novels, made into serialized TV dramas and/or movie ‘thrillers’ – murder most foul is undeniably something we instinctively love to watch. I suspect crime in general all appeals to our inner Sherlock Holmes or Jessica Fletcher; figuring out who done it, how they dun did it and what in the hell they did it for; the endless pursuit of possibilities firing our collective powers of deduction. That is one explanation anyway. Except that the logic behind our unsettling admiration for the perfect murder gets complicated in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990) primarily because its subject matter is Claus Von Bulow; arguably one of the 20th century’s most misunderstood villains.
Born Claus Cecil Borberg, of German/Danish extraction, handsome and suave to a fault, but later accused of injecting wife, Martha Sharp Crawford ( – nee von Auersperg from a first failed marriage, and, better known to the world as ‘Sunny’ Von Bulow) with a lethal dose of insulin: there is a lot more to Claus than first meets the eye. He was a man who seemingly perverted the legalities of the criminal justice system on two continents as well as the time-honored precept, ’crime must pay’; having lived with the decaying corpse of his own mother in their London flat for nearly a week before her death was even reported to the local authorities. The morbidity of Claus’ crime against Sunny (if, in fact, under the legalese of devil’s advocacy, one had been committed) is only matched by our insidious desire to know all we can about this rather aloof scion. He practiced law; then, married rich in 1966. He had affairs with prominent socialites, but favored prostitutes. He flaunted the obviousness of his deception in the face of public decency and moral outrage through not one, but two murder trials – the first, marred by imperfect ‘tampered’ evidence and ending in a hasty conviction of 30 years. This was later overturned on appeal in what many continue to regard as a gross miscarriage of justice.
The wealthy really do live and die by a different set of rules. Those still in doubt of this maxim, or the double-edged sword of Damocles, need look no further for proof than to Hillary Clinton’s recent and shameless exoneration of criminal charges by the FBI for leaking highly classified government correspondences via her private email account – a similar crime for which WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange continues to pay the price and remain under ‘house arrest’ abroad; already indicted before any such investigation into his actions or his motives has been properly ascertained. But I digress. In preparing his movie, based on Alan Dershowitz’s infamous ‘tell all’ about Claus Von Bulow’s second trial, Reversal of Fortune steadily evolves into a diabolically delicious melodrama. At one point an exacerbated Dershowitz (played to perfection by the late Ron Silver - who died of esophageal cancer in 2009) glowers with intellectually frustrated resolve. “You’re a very strange man,” he tells Claus, who (played with chilling brilliance by Jeremy Irons) slyly suggests, “You have no idea.” The curious - often wickedly barbed - camaraderie festering between these two men, neither trusting of the other, and, quite often adversarial to a fault, fuels Nicholas Kazan’s magnificent screenplay with an acidic tension; infectious, vivid and thoroughly satisfying. Reversal of Fortune isn’t a ‘whodunit’ per say, despite the fact we really do not know if Claus is guilty of the crime of murder as charged. True enough, as trial number two commences, Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) lays demure and unknowing of the tsunami in media coverage her drug-induced coma has caused; oblivious to these public outcries for justice on her behalf. Sunny eventually died, some 28 years after slipping into her persistent vegetative state.
But what really happened inside the impossibly lavish Newport, Rhode Island estate that served as the couple’s unhappy home from 1966 to 1988 remains largely a mystery between Sunny, Claus and their God – or reasonable facsimile. While speculations have run wild in the interim, the reality is neither Sunny nor Claus was without their flaws; some greatly exaggerated by jealous, disdained ex-lovers on both sides, and, pure conjecture put forth in the tabloids, expounded upon as popular opinion, and, given the credence of ‘reasonable doubt’ by an ambitious Rhode Island prosecuting attorney. It all makes for a nice, dirty little scandal, n’est pas? And at some level it seems to fit the public’s appetite for seeking revenge on Claus – a man of means largely acquired through marriage, who could easily be made the scapegoat to satisfy our collective vitriol in believing the worst about people we secretly envy. This film review is not a treatise, exoneration, nor defense of Claus Von Bulow. In point of fact, he is probably guilty of something: if not the fatal injection, then definitely other despicable behaviors that likely prompted an emotionally distraught and knowingly unloved spouse to punish herself with unhealthy indulgences contributing to her untimely predicament.
Kazan’s screenplay assumes no moral judgment on the matter either; probably to escape a liable suit. Frankly, his is a fairly clinical approach to the facts; putting forth several alternative theories to the crime as bloodless and contradictory as the actual case formulated by the Rhode Island D.A. What remains utterly fascinating about Reversal of Fortune is its performances; particularly the combative and threadbare détente of necessity between Ron Silver and Jeremy Irons, and to a lesser degree – Glenn Close, whose present day paralysis is counterbalanced with a more vibrant turns as the omnipotent narrator of what amounts to a series of titillating flashbacks; some replaying the moment of coma over and over again to hammer home the particulars of the case; others illustrating how a seemingly perfect marriage – or perhaps, bittersweet affaire de coeur – could turn so utterly desolate, then tragic within a few short decades. There are other players to consider; Annabella Sciorra’s sassy Sarah – Dershowitz’s former attachment and student; square-jawed, Jack Gilpin as Peter MacIntosh, lead investigator on the case, who ultimately assumes the position of Dershowitz’s co-council at trial; Fisher Stevens – as delectable slime ball, David Marriott (a sort of precursor to Kato Kaelin); Christine Baranski as Andrea Reynolds; Claus’ latest flame and utterly bigoted gal pal (“Get the Jew, I said.”); and veteran actress, Uta Hagen, as Sunny’s devoted maid, Maria. The aforementioned do not necessarily get a lot of playtime in this movie, but each distinguishes his/her self with memorable moments of introspection that stand out in relief.
We begin with a truly outstanding aerial shot, flying over Newport, lensed by cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli; the helicopter track smooth as silk as it sails past sunlit waterfront properties of the ultra-wealthy, lawns perfectly manicured. However, as we are soon to learn, something is decidedly remiss behind these elegant facades. Mark Isham’s sinister score punctuates the moment with minor chords as we descend from heaven into the corridor of a nearby hospital where the catatonic Sunny Von Bulow lays; breathing from a ventilator with other various and sundry medical apparatuses monitoring her blood pressure, urine flow, heart rate and so on. We hear Sunny’s voice from beyond; smarmy, seemingly enjoying this vicarious ogling of her well-preserved and lingering corpse. In short order, we are given a recap of Claus’ first trial and conviction on the charges of first degree murder; a conviction all too likely not to stand on appeal. But lest we forget – as though Sunny would let us – that gin and insulin and destiny play funny tricks.
We regress to a modest wooden two story; home of Harvard law professor and practicing attorney, Alan Dershowitz. Alan’s basketball practice is interrupted by a phone call he was not expecting. Two of his clients, whom he knows to be innocent, have just been sentenced to die in the electric chair. Smashing his cordless telephone against the pavement, Dershowitz is beside himself until his son, Elon (Stephen Mailer) informs his father someone named Claus Von Bulow is on the other line. Believing the call to be a crank, Alan takes matters into his own hands and is visible stunned when he realizes the voice at the other end really is Von Bulow asking him to take his case and file an appeal. It dawns on Dershowitz that in accepting the challenge to free Claus he could use the fee to file a litany of appeals in defense of his other clients. And so the initial meeting between Claus and Alan commences with Dershowitz’s skepticism firmly in place; unabated after meeting his client’s latest plaything, Andrea Reynolds - a waspish doyen, too arrogant to realize she is revealing her own bigoted contempt for the Jewish people.
To break the ice, Claus suggests he and Alan have lunch at Twenty-One; Alan frankly revealing to Claus that his case holds very little interest for him, but that there remains one benefit to his otherwise disadvantaged odds of winning on appeal. “Everyone hates you,” Alan explains. “Well, that’s a start,” Claus concurs. Alan’s students are initially appalled by their mentor’s consideration to defend Claus; Alan explaining that if lawyers only defended innocent people there would be virtually no employment in his profession for this aspiring brood. Conceding that, as an exercise alone, the case has its intrigues – if not its merits – one by one the students rally around the cause; congregating at Dershowitz’s home and taking over several rooms on the upper level to launch their private investigation of the facts. Alan’s former lover, Sarah is at first disgusted by Claus, who makes light of the public’s vitriol with devil-may-care jest that seems unscrupulous and callous at best; even telling jokes about his supposed attempt on Sunny’s life; referring to a fear of insulin as ‘Claus-trophobia’.
As Dershowitz’s defense of Claus kicks into high gear, we are treated to various flashbacks that superficially explain the first act of the Von Bulow’s life together, as well as Sunny’s first and second comas. However, the picture being painted herein is hardly flattering. It seems Sunny would have preferred Claus to remain her kept man; his insistence on working as a trade advising attorney on Wall Street incurring her formidable ire. “You’re the prince of perversion,” she hisses, her insinuation taking on double meaning as we learn that during their marriage, Claus was heatedly involved with soap opera star, Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty), as well as indulging his more immediate lusts on a steady stream of high-priced prostitutes. We also catch glimpses of the Von Bulow’s attorney, Robert Brillhoffer (Thomas Dorff) and Claus’ stepson, Alexander (Jad Mager), who together with devoted housekeeper, Maria is responsible for locating Sunny’s medical bag, filled with prescription drugs and encrusted needles of insulin later used at trial to frame Claus of Sunny’s attempted murder.
In his impassioned appeal, Dershowitz argues any and all of this evidence could have been tampered with after the fact. Moreover, tests conducted by several independent labs indicate false positive matches for insulin even when no insulin was present. Armed with this new evidence, Dershowitz prepares to go to trial. Regrettably, Alan’s previous interviews with one, David Marriott – a known drug dealer and pimp who swears he supplied both Sunny and Claus’ stepson with illegal drugs – has tape-recorded all of their conversations; then doctored the tapes to imply Alan was paying him for fabricated evidence to win his case at any and all costs. Threatened with the very real possibility of not only losing the case but disbarment, Dershowitz fights back, discrediting Marriott to clear his name before proceeding to trial. The movie concludes with Claus’ exoneration. We return to Sunny’s bedside where her voiceover muses with devilish satisfaction, “This is all you can ever know”; an evasive comment suggesting there is so much more to tell. We see Claus enter a local convenience store/pharmacy, buying a pack of cigarettes from the congenial clerk (Constance Shulman) whose blood runs cold after she suddenly recognizes Claus from his picture splashed across the tabloids on a nearby magazine rack. “Will there be anything else?” she nervously asks. “A vial of insulin,” Claus replies with a sinister grin and a wink, “Just kidding.”
Reversal of Fortune is a movie that relies heavily on performance and more along the lines of a stage play than a motion picture; its’ three act structure fairly transparent though never uninspiring. What is exceptional about the movie is its dialogue; direct, concise, full of revelations about its characters, and, potently emoted by its three galvanic stars. Jeremy Irons is the more varied of the lot and it won him a justly deserved Best Actor Academy Award. Here is an elegant, if bone-chilling Venus fly trap of a bon vivant, drawing his prey with the fragrant whiff of moneyed treats. Irons, who I continue to admire and quite simply wish would do more (he can read the telephone book for all I care), is a supreme thespian slotted into the ‘untouchable’ category with few contemporaries. But Ron Silver’s Dershowitz is not so easily played by Claus; nor is he seduced into thinking his overturning of the original verdict necessarily equates to a triumph. “Legally, this was an important victory,” Silver’s Dershowitz sternly reminds Claus before leaving him to his own accord, “Morally…you're on your own.”
And hence, so is the audience – left, as it were – to mull over the facts, the impressions, the misrepresentations, and the machinations in this salacious game of judicial Tiddlywinks; splitting hairs with manufactured and re-evaluated evidence of the crime that may or may not conclude Claus’ innocence or guilt. In retrospect, Claus’ perverted nature and sense of entitlement made him his own worst enemy. Yes, he was a philanderer. Or no - his was an open marriage to Sunny; his so-called affairs, mutually agreed upon beforehand. A philanderer and cad do not necessarily a murderer make. And for what purpose would Claus murder his wife. For money? He already had plenty of his own. For greed? Possibly, though there is little to suggest Sunny Von Bulow denied her husband anything throughout their stormy alliance. To get on with another of his more intimate playmates? The last time I checked, divorce was still preferable to murder. Alas, the public is always ready to condemn the accused and deify the victim – particularly one who cannot speak for herself. Yet, Sunny Von Bulow was hardly a saint. She was, in fact, prone to fits of violence and bouts of extreme depression. How much of this was brought on by her genuine unhappiness in the marriage? Ah, now therein lies the truer crux in this investigation; a hidden place within spousal privilege the public never saw at trial and is likely never to unearth again.
We have Claus’ side and that is all. But even as the old adage goes, about there being three sides to every situation – his, hers and ‘the truth’ – Reversal of Fortune is exceedingly clever at playing both sides (his/hers) off the middle (the truth…or at the very least, reality as perceived by Nicholas Kazan). And Kazan has done a rather exemplary job of distilling Dershowitz’s book about the trial into a thoroughly fascinating character study that gets to the heart of the matter without artistic license making wild allegations that would further cloud the public’s perceptions about these two people we only ‘think’ we know. In the final analysis, Reversal of Fortune is an engrossing drama about an utterly charming devil. Claus Von Bulow – unrepentant, slick and stylish, left to enjoy life and Sunny Von Bulow’s money; a pariah in the minds of many, or an innocent man wrongly accused to satisfy our collective jealousies about the idle rich? It is very likely we will never know. Perhaps, it’s best we don’t.
Warner Home Video’s DVD of Reversal of Fortune is disappointing. First, it is sourced from a print rather than an original camera negative, and, with rather obvious damage and vertical scratches running down the screen just left of center during the entire opening credit sequence. Second, there is a considerable amount of edge enhancement that crops up in vertical and horizontal detail throughout the wainscoting inside the Von Bulow’s mausoleum-like mansion. Third, contrast appears to have been ever so slightly boosted. Color is fairly accurate and grain – if not entirely pleasing – is nevertheless never obtrusively digitized. Fine detail waffles between mid-grade and less than. The audio is 2.0 stereo. This is primarily a dialogue-driven movie, shot on location with various overdubs – some quite obvious. The limitations in sonic fidelity are tolerable however. Dialogue sounds mostly natural but effects – such as they are – seem rather tinny and flat. The unforgivable sin herein is extras. We get an audio commentary from director, Barbet Schroeder and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. We ought to have at least a featurette – if not a full-blown documentary – on the making of the movie, but also the back story behind the real Claus and Sunny Von Bulow. Bottom line: Reversal of Fortune on DVD is weak but not outright terrible. The movie is exceptional. I would sincerely attempt cartwheels if the Warner Archive ever gets around to remastering this one for Blu-ray!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)