The most iconic movie in American, if not world, history was shot on November 22, 1963, with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera owned and operated by the cofounder of Jennifer Juniors, a Dallas, Texas, womenswear company. The movie—which soon became known as the Zapruder film, so called after its maker—is silent and less than thirty seconds long, yet it was effectively squelched for more than a decade. Select frames from the film were published in such magazines as Life—Abraham Zapruder sold the copyright to Time Life the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film’s subject—just as frames were published in the Warren Commission’s voluminous report on the Kennedy assassination, but, except for bootleg copies, the film itself was unavailable to the public. The Warren Commission had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist and repatriated defector to the Soviet Union, was solely responsible for the death of Kennedy, firing three shots at the presidential limousine from the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked for $1.25 an hour as a stock boy. The FBI had likewise concluded that Oswald acted alone, and many assumed that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had established the Warren Commission precisely to corroborate the FBI’s finding and to quiet talk of conspiracy. The scarcity of the Zapruder film had the opposite effect.
Oswald’s own death at the hands of Jacob Rubenstein, a strip-club owner with the appropriately seedy alias of Jack Ruby, was and is the cornerstone of conspiracy talk. This murder, which occurred in the basement garage of Dallas City Hall two days after the Kennedy murder, was broadcast live on national television, but the footage of it, including NBC News correspondent Tom Pettit’s stunned narration—“He’s been shot. He’s been shot. Lee Oswald has been shot”—has been largely eclipsed by the photograph snapped by Bob Jackson of the late Dallas Times-Herald. In fact, excluding the Zapruder film, the Jackson photo may be the most famous image ever made of murder underway, more famous than any image from the Hollywood gangster movies called to mind by the familiar scene in that basement garage: Jack Ruby’s hit man sent to silence Oswald’s self-described patsy. The boss, offscreen, was waiting for the phone to ring with confirmation that the patsy was dead.
I was a preschooler when I first saw the Jackson photo. The home encyclopedia was a must for pre-Internet American families, and I would scrutinize the Jackson photo in ours, trying to make sense of the pain inflicted on this pitiful boy. That’s what I took Oswald to be: a boy, possibly a teenager (he had recently turned twenty-four), smaller than the men who circled him, dressed informally while the men all wore suits and ties, his forehead bruised, his eye blackened. I could tell he had a black eye, despite his squint that, together with his open mouth, made him look like a baby crying for milk or affection. But he was right to cry, I thought, since he’d obviously been beaten, and now he was being shot by a man in a dark suit while a man in a light suit restrained him and the other men watched blankly, as if they deeply approved. What had this boy done to deserve such treatment? He killed the president, my parents explained, but to me that didn’t justify the beating and the shooting. I empathized with Oswald as a fellow child who was sometimes punished in error, and I wanted to believe that was true of him.
Then I saw the Zapruder film. I don’t remember the year, but I was in middle school, and a visiting lecturer—it may have been Mark Lane, the author of three books critical of the Warren Commission—screened a bootleg copy of the film at the University of Virginia in my hometown. The film was shown again that night on the local news. Here, said the anchorman, is proof that John F. Kennedy was shot from more than one direction, and sure enough, the fatal bullet caused Kennedy’s head to snap backward, not forward as it should have done if the bullet had come from the Texas School Book Depository. The official story was a lie: that disturbed me more than the sight of Kennedy’s brain exploding out of his skull. Oswald may have shot at the president, but he hadn’t killed him. The real killer was someone else, someone across the street from the Book Depository on the so-called grassy knoll, and he was still at large, if he hadn’t been silenced like Oswald. Who was he? Were there other gunmen besides? The government knew. The government had to know. The government was part of the conspiracy, and if it had lied about the source of the fatal bullet, it might have lied about Oswald altogether. Maybe he was as innocent as I had once wanted to believe, with no involvement in the Kennedy case aside from his role as the patsy.
The Zapruder film had a similar effect on millions of Americans when it eventually aired on national television, making conspiracists of many who had previously accepted the official story. Fantastic theories proliferated. Kennedy was shot with a gun disguised as an umbrella. He was shot by his limousine driver. There were two Oswalds: the real one and a Soviet doppelgänger. Ruth Paine, the Quaker friend of Oswald’s Russian wife, Marina, was a CIA operative who helped to frame Oswald. J.D. Tippit, the patrolman gunned down by Oswald (or his doppelgänger) forty-five minutes after he gunned down Kennedy, was an underworld hit man, like his accomplice, Jack Ruby.
But sight is one thing and interpretation another. In 1986, London Weekend Television staged a mock trial of Oswald in which forensic pathologist Charles Petty testified that the backward snap of Kennedy’s head could not have been caused by a strike from the front because “the head is too heavy; there is too much muscular resistance to movement.”
“So,” asked prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, “the killings that people see on television and in the movies, which is the only type of killings most people ever see, where the person struck by the bullet very frequently, visibly, and dramatically is propelled backward by the force of the bullets—that’s not what actually happens in life when a bullet hits a human being?”
“No, of course not,” answered Petty. “No” would have been sufficient. The additional words imply exasperation or amusement with “common sense” derived from Hollywood.
Petty was the medical examiner of Dallas County and an adviser to the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which reinvestigated the Kennedy case partly in response to the questions raised by the Zapruder film. Based on acoustical evidence since discredited, the HSCA decided that there was “a high probability” that a second gunman on the grassy knoll had fired one of four, not three, shots at Kennedy. But the second gunman missed. The fatal headshot was fired by Oswald from the sixth floor of the Book Depository, the HSCA echoed the Warren Commission. Computer recreations of the assassination, using the Zapruder film as a model, have corroborated that Kennedy was struck from that sixth-floor window, but was it Oswald who fired from it? Norman Mailer’s words in the matter could as well be mine: “If one’s personal inclinations would find Oswald innocent, or at least part of a conspiracy, one’s gloomy verdict, nonetheless, is that Lee had the character to kill Kennedy, and that he probably did it alone.” However: “The odds in favor of one’s personal conclusion can be no better than, let us say, 3 out of 4 that [Oswald] was not only the killer but was alone. Too much is still unknown about CIA and FBI involvement with Oswald to offer any greater conviction.”
So Mailer writes near the end of Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, the 800-page tome that he moved to Minsk to research in the early nineties. Oswald met and married Marina in Minsk, and he was constantly watched there by the KGB, his apartment bugged, his conversations recorded. Mailer had unprecedented access to Oswald’s KGB files, and he interviewed at length the KGB agents assigned to Oswald, whose mediocrity puzzled them. Could the CIA have sent this lightweight to the U.S.S.R.? No, the KGB ultimately decided, and he was of no use to them, either. It’s difficult to imagine American intelligence agencies—or the Mob or Lyndon Johnson or Fidel Castro or any of the other stock players of conspiracy theories—appraising him differently. Gauche and fractious, with self-regard disproportionate to his modest gifts, he could only have been a patsy in a conspiracy of any kind. Jack Ruby, meanwhile, mocked by those who knew him as “Sparky” for his short fuse, is another poor fit in a scheme orchestrated by professional assassins to execute the president of the United States. Rather, Sparky seems to have ignited at the sight of Oswald’s smirk—Oswald appeared always to be smirking—exactly as he told the Dallas police and, later, the Warren Commission. Plot determines character in conspiracy theories, as it does in Hollywood movies. People are what the setpieces require them to be: spies, patsies, doppelgängers, accomplices, or hit men armed with lethal umbrellas.
I had a disturbing dream about Oswald when I was in my early twenties. I was Oswald in the dream, and I was standing on the roof of a tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side—I was then living in such a building—while a crowd on the street cheered Kennedy’s approaching motorcade. Manhattan had morphed into Dallas on November 22, 1963, and there was a rifle, leaning against the parapet, that I was compelled to pick up and fire. I had no choice. It was like the butterfly effect in reverse: I would nullify everything that had happened since the assassination—every birth, marriage, discovery, invention—if I didn’t go through with it. I fired a single shot while averting my eyes, but I knew from the uproar below, a great collective cry, that I had struck Kennedy, and a second later I heard heavy footsteps inside the building on the stairs. A vigilante mob was coming for me and, trapped on the roof, the only escape was to leap over the parapet to certain death. I woke just as the door to the roof crashed open.
Clearly, my empathy with Oswald had survived childhood. I had read about him since and recognized some overlap. We both came from fractured families, though my parents divorced when I was ten and his father died before he was born. We had both been indifferent students considered odd by peers, though I wasn’t as socially inept as he was. And we were both ambitious, though the mark I hoped to make on the world was a scratch compared to his chasm. First I had to escape from Virginia, and escape is a persistent theme in Oswald’s life, if we can agree that not every fact of his life is a “fact.”
It begins early. Lillian Murret, Oswald’s aunt, told the Warren Commission that, when she cared for him as a toddler, he “started slipping out of the house in his nightclothes and going down the block and sitting down in somebody’s kitchen. He could slip in and out like nobody’s business. You could have everything locked in the house, and he would still get out.”
That was in New Orleans, where Oswald was born. He started school in Dallas, and at twelve, he and his garrulous mother, Marguerite, moved to New York, where he became a chronic truant, spending his days riding the subway or haunting the Bronx Zoo. He loved animals, Marguerite recalled for the Warren Commission, but the captivity of the zoo animals may have mirrored the captivity that he felt at school or at home with Marguerite. Her two older sons left home as soon as they were able, and one of them, Robert, has said that, despite Marguerite’s “tremendous” influence on Lee, he, like his brothers, “always was trying to get away from her.”
At sixteen, back in New Orleans, Oswald tried to enlist in the Marine Corps and was rejected as too young. His second effort, at seventeen, was successful, but if he was seeking more than just an escape from home, he was evidently disappointed: in Moscow in 1959, while his bid for Soviet citizenship was being weighed, he said that he had “been waiting [to defect] for two years, saving my money, just waiting until I got out of the Marine Corps, like waiting to get out of prison.” So he was quoted in a United Press International story by Aline Mosby, one of two journalists to interview him in Moscow. Oswald spouted Marx to Mosby—he became a Marxist, he claimed, after a stranger in New York handed him a leaflet about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government as Soviet spies—and he hinted at classified information gleaned in the Marine Corps, but Mosby thought him “a rather mixed-up young man of not great intellectual capacity or training, and somebody that the Soviet Union wouldn’t certainly be much interested in. But he had this cover of conceit that—oh, that they were just going to welcome him and welcome him into the hierarchy, that he’d be having lunch with all the top leaders, Khrushchev or whoever was in power then, and would be given a dacha and a big apartment and a car or something.”
Instead, he was given a mundane job at an electronics factory in Minsk, the capital not only of Belorussia but of boredom. There, as a kind of unicorn, he was popular for the first time ever. He had a steady girlfriend, another first, but she declined his marriage proposal, and five months later he proposed to Marina Prusakova, a comely nineteen-year-old he had known for two weeks. This rush to marry is a classic rebound move, the vengeance of the spurned, but he had already queried the American Embassy in Moscow about returning to the U.S., and Marguerite would have to accept reduced stature in his life if he returned with a wife, he may have reasoned. Oswald was “completely relieved of his illusions about the Soviet Union,” an Embassy official wrote on his behalf to the State Department in Washington. This official, Richard Snyder, has been linked by conspiracists to the CIA, but Oswald noted his dissatisfaction with Minsk in his “Historic Diary,” and it was further confirmed by his friends there to Norman Mailer.
By the time Marina’s U.S. visa had been approved, she and Oswald were the parents of a daughter, June. He expected media interest when he arrived back in Texas. There was none. He got a job as thankless as the one he had held in Minsk, and he and Marina fought and separated, as they would do again and again, but they were living together in the Dallas district of Oak Cliff when Oswald took a shot at Major General Edwin Walker with the same Mannlicher–Carcano rifle found in the School Book Depository after the Kennedy assassination. That Oswald took a shot at Walker with any rifle is disputed, of course, but the HSCA concluded that “the evidence strongly suggested that Oswald attempted to murder General Walker.” The rifle and a Smith & Wesson revolver were ordered by mail from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago and Seaport Traders in Los Angeles, respectively, by an “A. Hidell” of Dallas, and Oswald’s handwriting matches the handwriting on the order forms, though that too is disputed, of course. What isn’t disputed is that someone fired a single bullet through the window of Walker’s study and narrowly missed his head as he was figuring his taxes at nine p.m. on Wednesday, April 10, 1963. But for that bullet, Walker would be forgotten to all but a handful of scholars, and were he still alive, he might prefer to be forgotten as the segregationist who incited a deadly riot at the University of Mississippi when a black student, James Meredith, enrolled there. Walker also incited an appalling attack on U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, a crypto-communist in the minds of Walker and his fellow patriots of the hilariously named National Indignation Committee, when Stevenson spoke in Dallas a month ahead of Kennedy’s disastrous visit there. One wonders how Walker squared his politics with his secret homosexuality: in the late seventies he was twice arrested for “public lewdness” in restrooms.
In any case, Walker was the “fascist” cobra to Oswald’s Marxist mongoose, and an assassinated cobra would have been a significant boost to Oswald’s spirit at that point: he had recently lost his latest job at a graphics firm. But though he believed he had killed Walker when he fled into the night, he had failed, and two weeks later he moved to New Orleans, boarding initially with Lillian Murret, the aunt whose house he could always escape from as a toddler. This period of his life would lead, after his death, to an investigation by Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, and the trial of a local businessman, Clay Shaw, accused of plotting with Oswald to assassinate Kennedy. Shaw was acquitted, as anyone who’s seen Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK knows. Nevertheless, JFK spawned, possibly, as many conspiracists as the Zapruder film, which was subpoenaed by Garrison and copied and leaked by his associates: the original bootleg version.
Oswald now became an activist for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro organization with a New Orleans chapter started by its sole member: Oswald. Nor did he try to recruit new members. This smacks of conspiracy to some—the chapter was Oswald’s FBI or CIA cover—but it’s just another escape to me: Oswald was again hoping to defect, this time to Cuba. However, since “it was illegal at the time for a United States citizen to travel to Cuba,” writes Edward Jay Epstein in Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, “he would have to obtain his visa at a Cuban Embassy outside the country, and to do that, he would need some credentials to prove that he was a supporter of the Cuban government.” Hence the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and Oswald’s attempted infiltration of an anti-Castro group: if he could somehow subvert the group or, at least, learn of its plans, that too would look good in Havana.
But he couldn’t get a visa when he applied for one at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. Some insist that an Oswald imposter made this trip to Mexico City to lay a foundation for Oswald’s impending frame-up, but “the majority of the evidence tends to indicate that this individual was Lee Harvey Oswald,” the HSCA determined. Either way, Oswald returned to Texas, where Marina and June were now living in the Dallas suburb of Irving with Ruth Paine, a schoolteacher who wanted to better her college Russian and was, like Marina, separated from her husband. Oswald badly needed a job—Marina was pregnant with their second daughter, Rachel—and one morning at a neighborhood coffeeklatch, someone mentioned a relative who worked as a stock boy at the Texas School Book Depository. At Marina’s urging, Ruth phoned the Book Depository and asked the manager there about job openings. The manager’s trusty name, Roy Truly, hasn’t altogether precluded him from the suspicion of conspiracists. He hired Oswald the next day.
Oswald’s final residence was an Oak Cliff boarding house where he registered as “O. H. Lee.” An alias serves a practical purpose, of course, for someone with real or imagined cause for anonymity, but it can also serve as a fantasy escape from a fixed identity, and this one is key to the Kennedy assassination: when Ruth, again at Marina’s urging, phoned the boarding house five days before the assassination and asked for Lee Oswald, she was told that no such person lived there, and Oswald admitted to the alias when he called Marina during his lunch break the following day. Marina was all too aware of his aborted defection to Cuba and his attempt on Walker’s life, and that he was renting a room under an assumed name was, to her, a disturbing sign of new intrigue. They didn’t speak again until the evening before the assassination, when he showed up at the Paine house. He wasn’t expected. It was a Thursday, and he usually came on Friday after work and stayed through the weekend, but he told Marina that “he was lonely because he hadn’t come the preceding weekend, and he wanted to make his peace with me,” as she related to J. Lee Rankin, chief consul of the Warren Commission.
MR. RANKIN. Were you upset with him?
MRS. OSWALD. I was angry, of course. He was not angry—he was upset. I was angry. He tried very hard to please me. He spent quite a bit of time putting away diapers and played with the children on the street.
MR. RANKIN. How did you indicate to him that you were angry with him?
MRS. OSWALD. By not talking to him.
MR. RANKIN. And how did he show that he was upset?
MRS. OSWALD. He was upset over the fact that I would not answer him. He tried to start a conversation with me several times, but I would not answer. And he said that he didn’t want me to be angry at him because this upsets him.
On that day, he suggested that we rent an apartment in Dallas. He said that he was tired of living alone and perhaps the reason for my being so angry was the fact that we were not living together. That if I want to he would rent an apartment in Dallas tomorrow—that he didn’t want me to remain with Ruth any longer, but wanted me to live with him in Dallas.
This is bizarre behavior for a man in a conspiracy to assassinate the president. Why is he offering to rent an apartment in Dallas on the day that he knows he’ll be shooting at Kennedy—he’s locked into place by others who will kill him, we can be sure, if he tries to back out—and presumably go on the lam afterward? Meanwhile, if he’s a clueless patsy, why has he parted with routine, turning up on a Thursday night after telling his ride to Irving—Oswald didn’t own a car—that he needs to pick up curtain rods for his room in Oak Cliff? There are indeed curtain rods in Ruth Paine’s garage, but they’ll still be there in the morning, while Oswald’s rifle—it’s stored in the garage, as Marina knows but Ruth doesn’t—will be missing.
No, there’s only one way that I can read Marina’s account of that night: Oswald has a choice to make. He has planned the assassination, on his own, but he’s conflicted about whether to go through with it, and he has placed the final decision in his unwitting wife’s lap. If she will forgive him and come back to him, he won’t sneak into the garage and wrap the rifle in brown paper and, so disguised as “curtain rods,” smuggle it into the Book Depository in the morning. He doesn’t hate Kennedy as he hated and undoubtedly still hates Walker, but he will try to kill him because the opportunity is there, and to quote Mailer: “The assassination of a President would be seismographic in its effect. For Americans, the aftershocks would not cease for the rest of the century or more.”
But Marina is ambivalent about reconciling. She wants to remain at Ruth’s house through the holidays, she tells Oswald, and he finally gives up and goes into the living room, where he watches television.
MR. RANKIN. Did he say anything at all that would indicate he was contemplating the assassination?
MRS. OSWALD. No.
MR. RANKIN. Did he discuss the television programs he saw that evening with you?
MRS. OSWALD. He was looking at TV by himself. I was busy in the kitchen. At one time when we were—when I was together with him they showed some sort of war films, from World War II. And he watched them with interest.
The subject of movies will come up again in Marina’s Warren Commission testimony, and it suggests a question: if our perceptions of the Kennedy assassination have been influenced by movies, what influence did movies, and pop culture generally, have on Kennedy’s presumed assassin?
When Oswald was a truant in New York, his brother Robert has said, he would “do the things he always liked to do—got to the movies if he had the money, go to the library and read if he didn’t have it.” This is a rare reference to Oswald’s interest in movies, but no titles are specified, and we don’t know what sort of movies he preferred as a child. What we do know is that he was arrested for truancy at the Bronx Zoo and sent by a judge to a reformatory where he was evaluated, on separate occasions, by a psychiatrist, Renatus Hartogs, and a social worker, Evelyn Strickman, whose reports are, in certain respects, almost identical.
Hartogs: “Lee has a vivid fantasy life, turning around the topics of omnipotence and power, through which he tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustration… Lee limits his interests to reading magazines and looking at the television all day long.”
Strickman: “He acknowledged fantasies about being all-powerful and being able to do anything he wanted… it was finally learned that Lee spent all of his time looking at television and reading various magazines.”
It’s easy, if not safe, to guess that young Oswald’s fantasy life was fed by television and magazines, though, again, no titles are specified. Marguerite Oswald told the Warren Commission that her son “loved comics, read comic books,” and she was confirmed by the testimony of Edward Voebel, Oswald’s sole friend in New Orleans after he and Marguerite returned there. “…I can say for certain that the only thing that Lee would be reading when I was at his home would be comic books and the normal things that kids read,” Voebel responded to a question about rumors of Oswald’s familiarity with Marx at fourteen. Voebel dismissed those rumors as “a lot of baloney,” yet in October 1956, days before he turned seventeen and joined the Marine Corps, Oswald mailed a handwritten letter to the Socialist Party of America in which identified himself as a Marxist and said that he had “been studying socialist principles for well over fifteen months.” What got him started? The leaflet about the Rosenbergs that he mentioned to Aline Mosby in Moscow? Possibly. But he may have been trying to impress Mosby with his early interest in causes and current events while concealing his true inspiration: I Led 3 Lives, a television series based on the “true story” of an advertising executive who spied on communists for the FBI and vice versa. The series ran from 1953-1956, which times perfectly with Oswald’s remarks in his Socialist Party letter, and he was a devoted viewer, according to his brother Robert, who has Lee “still watching [the show] when I left [home] in 1952.” That would be impossible, obviously, so we can’t be sure that he’s misremembering more than just the year. But if Lee was nevertheless a fan of I Led 3 Lives, its inevitably villainous communists may have appealed to him in the same way that some prefer the vampire to the vampire slayer, just as the protagonist’s clandestine life may have appealed to him as a particularly secretive teenager of the fifties, when the spy was emerging as a pop-culture ideal. Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, was published in 1953, and Oswald borrowed four subsequent Bond novels—Moonraker, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and From Russia, with Love—from the New Orleans Public Library in the early fall of 1963. (John Kennedy was another avid reader of Fleming’s Bond novels.) Meanwhile, in her book Marina and Lee, Priscilla Johnson McMillan recounts a night in Minsk when the Oswalds saw a movie about a Nazi spy “who got off scot-free, unlike Soviet movies in which the enemy spy always got caught,” and as they walked out of the theater, Lee told his wife, “I’d love a life like that… I’d love the danger.”
McMillan was the second journalist to file a story about Oswald in Moscow. In a coincidence that wouldn’t manifest as one until November 1963, she had worked as a researcher for John Kennedy when he was in the U.S. Senate, and after he was assassinated, she interviewed Marina exhaustively for the book she spent twelve years writing. It will come as no surprise that McMillan has been tied by conspiracists to the CIA, but hopefully we can trust what she has to say on small matters like movies, beginning in Minsk, where Oswald seems to have gone to the movies quite a bit. Of course he did. There was nothing else to do. In his apartment, he would sit by the window and, with binoculars, “scan the horizon and in particular, the main street of Minsk to his left, to see what was playing at the movies.” He often went to the movies alone, Marina told McMillan, leaving her behind with June, and he did the same in Dallas, Marina told the Warren Commission: “He wanted to take me but I didn’t understand English.” As for New Orleans, McMillan writes that “Marina sent [Lee] to the movies so she could catch up on housework or have a little time for himself.”
Oswald had fairly eclectic taste in movies, if we can judge by those he saw in Minsk, as listed by McMillan and the KGB. There’s Lili, an MGM release about a provincial girl who joins a circus. There’s Roman Tikhomirov’s adaption of the Tchaikovsky opera Queen of Spades, which Oswald saw repeatedly. There’s the Bulgarian war movie Komandirat na otryada, and there’s a French comedy, Babette s’en va-t-en guerre, co-starring Brigitte Bardot and her then-husband, Jacques Charrier. Babette is set during World War II, like the Bulgarian movie; Oswald saw them, and three other movies, two of them dealing with war, over the course of five days in September 1960, and immediately afterward he went on a hunting trip with a shotgun that he had bought in August but hadn’t yet used. In Oswald’s Tale, Mailer connects the dots: Oswald was “filled by now, one may assume, with images of himself as a participant in war movies.”
Marina told McMillan that Oswald, in Minsk, was given to singing a particular song while he wrote in his Historic Diary, and “it was not until years later that she found out it was the title song of the movie High Noon, the story of the sheriff of a small Western town who, against the wishes of his wife and without any help from the townspeople, is brave enough to stand up to a band of outlaws who are out to take over the town. [Oswald] saw the movie in Fort Worth in 1956 on the enthusiastic urging of his brother, Robert, and they loved to sing the song together. He may also have seen it again when he was in the Marine Corps, and it is apparent that the theme of the movie and its title song, the conflict between love and duty, made a deep impression on him.” McMillan speculates that Oswald was similarly torn between love and, as he regarded it, duty at Ruth Paine’s house the night before the Kennedy assassination.
Researcher John Loken draws a much more direct line between movies and the assassination; in his book Oswald’s Trigger Films, Loken argues that Oswald was inspired to buy the Mannlicher–Carcano rifle after seeing The Manchurian Candidate in late 1962 or early 1963, when it played at the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff, where Oswald was living at the time (and would live again), and the Palace Theater in downtown Dallas, where he was then working (and would work again). The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer in a style that owes much to Alfred Hitchcock, is about a former prisoner of war programmed by his captors to assassinate a presidential nominee, only to gun down his virago mother and buffoonish stepfather, a U.S. Senator modeled after Joseph McCarthy, in the film’s climactic scene. Loken points out that the Carcano’s “short length, its scope, and its military origin made it…very similar to the ‘Soviet Army sniper’s rifle’ featured in The Manchurian Candidate.” Loken further believes that Oswald might have conflated the stepfather character with General Walker, and as a bonus, Angela Lansbury, stellar as the assassin’s mother, would have evoked Marguerite.
There’s no record of Oswald having seen The Manchurian Candidate, though Loken devotes pages in his book, footnotes and maps and newspaper clippings, to establishing its likelihood. But The Manchurian Candidate is only one of Loken’s three possible “trigger films,” and the other two were mentioned by Marina to the Secret Service, which led to a brief discussion of them during Marina’s Warren Commission testimony.
MR. RANKIN. Do you recall films that [Oswald] saw called “Suddenly” and “We Were Strangers” that involved assassinations?
MRS. OSWALD. I don’t remember the names of those films. If you would remind me of the contents, perhaps I would know.
MR. RANKIN. Well, “Suddenly” was about the assassination of a president, and the other was about the assassination of a Cuban dictator.
MRS. OSWALD. Yes, Lee saw those films.
MR. RANKIN. Did he tell you that he watched them?
MRS. OSWALD. I was with him when he watched them.
Oswald was visiting Ruth Paine’s house for the weekend. Marina was then pregnant with Rachel, and she estimates that they watched Suddenly and We Were Strangers, back to back on television, “some five days” before Rachel was born on October 20, 1963.
MR. RANKIN. Did you discuss the films after you watched them with your husband?
MRS. OSWALD. One film about the assassination of the president in Cuba which I had seen together with him, he said that this was a fictitious situation, but that the content of the film was similar to the actual situation which existed in Cuba, meaning the revolution in Cuba.
MR. RANKIN. Did either of you comment on either film being like the attempt on Walker’s life?
MRS. OSWALD. No. I didn’t watch the other film.
Loken doesn’t believe that Oswald watched it, either, at least that night. Suddenly—which, like The Manchurian Candidate, starred John Kennedy’s friend Frank Sinatra—is a hostage drama about an ill-fated plan to shoot the unnamed president from the window of a house commandeered by hoods. They’re contract killers, without valor or ideals, and the movie is dull, though it may not have been dull to audiences when it was released in 1954. Even so, I can’t see it having much or any emotional resonance with Oswald, who was nothing if not idealistic and—in his own mind, we can surmise—valorous. Meanwhile, Suddenly doesn’t appear in the television listings of either major Dallas newspaper in October 1963. Loken theorizes that Marina, who told McMillan that she “dozed through the first movie” and most of the second watched by Lee that night, in fact caught glimpses of The Asphalt Jungle, which aired just before a ten p.m. broadcast of We Were Strangers on Saturday, October 12, and “a Secret Service agent…trying to help Marina recall…‘prompted’ her with the misinformation that Lee had seen Suddenly.” Whatever the case, as Marina dozed, she felt Lee, beside her on Ruth Paine’s sofa, “sit up straight and strain toward the television, greatly excited,” McMillan writes, continuing with a synopsis of We Were Strangers:
Based on the actual overthrow of the Machado dictatorship in Cuba in 1933, the movie stars John Garfield as an American who has come to help the cause of revolution. He and a tiny band of cohorts plot to blow up the whole cabinet, including the president, at a single stroke. The plot fails and Garfield dies, but the people rise up in small groups all over Cuba and overthrow the dictatorship.
Marina remembers the movie’s end—people were dancing in the streets, screaming with happiness because the president had been overthrown. Lee said it was exactly the way it had once happened in Cuba. It was the only time he showed any interest in Cuba after his return from Mexico.
We Were Strangers was directed by John Huston (who also directed The Asphalt Jungle) on location in Havana in 1948. I saw it for the first time after reading Loken’s book, and while it’s dated, with the usual Hollywood corniness and contrivances, it holds up better, in my view, than The Manchurian Candidate. I can easily imagine Oswald being galvanized by it. Marina told the Secret Service that “Lee did not like the picture as he said that was the way they did in [sic] in the old days”—she seems to be referring to the assassination method—but she also said he watched the movie twice, and sure enough, it had a repeat showing at one p.m. on Sunday, October 13, according to the Dallas Morning News. If Oswald didn’t like We Were Strangers, why, Loken asks with italics I’ll duplicate here, did he watch it twice? And what does it prove either way? Loken supports his “copycat” theory of the Kennedy assassination with the documented influence of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver on John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan. But Hinckley is a simpleton compared to Oswald, who’s been dead for fifty years exactly as I write these words, yet remains enigmatic to all except those who would convict him without the trial he never had or exonerate him on the basis of intuition and innuendo, quack scholarship and flaky evidence, and a paranoid and adolescent mistrust of perceived authority of any kind.
He escapes us.
Few have ever escaped to the movies as literally as Oswald did on November 22, 1963. He disappeared from the Texas School Book Depository minutes after the shooting in downtown Dallas, where a steamfitter named Howard Brennan, standing on the street below the Book Depository, saw him, or someone who resembled him, in a window of the sixth floor, withdrawing a rifle and watching the departing limousine “as though to assure himself that he hit his mark.” If this was Oswald, he may have been thinking of the Walker shooting, when he fled before he finished the job. But that was at night, with no one around, and now, at half past noon, he was probably counting on the bedlam below to obscure his exit from the building, which he knew would be quickly sealed. He caught a city bus, and when it stalled in traffic, he disembarked and took a cab to the boarding house in Oak Cliff: the housekeeper, Earlene Roberts, saw him there, rushing to his room and, a minute later, rushing out the front door. But Howard Brennan’s description of the gunman had been dispatched to cops all over Dallas, and one of them, J.D. Tippit, stopped Oswald—he would soon be identified in a police lineup by a waitress named Helen Markham—as he walked along an Oak Cliff street. Oswald and Tippit talked for a moment, and after Tippit stepped out of his car, Oswald removed a revolver from the pocket of his “Eisenhower” jacket and opened fire, shooting Tippit four times and turning to go before turning back to deliver the coup de grâce, a bullet to the head. Then, emptying shells from his revolver, he took off on foot. We don’t know if he was already headed to the Texas Theater, where conspiracists have him trysting with confederates, but that’s where he would spend his final moments as a free man, watching War Is Hell, which was playing with another war movie, Cry of Battle. Oswald liked war movies, as we know.
Norman Mailer once said that while he largely dismissed the Warren Commission’s investigation, there was nevertheless a wealth of detail in its report, so that “historians in two hundred years will be going through it to get an idea of what life was like in America in that period.” He meant the sort of everyday detail that’s rarely of interest to conspiracists. We learn from the report, for instance, that tickets at the Texas Theater cost ninety cents for adults, fifty cents for teenagers, and thirty-five cents for children; and when Julia Postal, the ticket seller, is asked if matinees are cheaper than evening shows, she replies in charming Texanese, “No, sir; we don’t change prices. Used to, but we don’t.” We learn that she kept a transistor radio in the box office, and she turned it on after her daughter called to say that the president had been shot; and she tells us a little about her background: “Was born here in Dallas and…went to California and finished up [school] out there…I worked at the Paramount Theatre, and Graumans, and R.K.O. Used to work for the Pantages.” Mrs. Postal made a career of working in movie theaters, not only in Dallas but, we discover with a touch of surprise, in Hollywood, and November 24, 1963, the day that Oswald died, marked the eleventh anniversary of her employment at the Texas. She had probably sold a ninety-cent ticket to Oswald more than once in the past, though she doesn’t say she did in the Warren Commission report, but Oswald didn’t buy a ticket for the double feature of war movies; he ducked inside the theater while Mrs. Postal was distracted by the commotion caused by the Tippit shooting, the squad cars racing past the Texas with shrieking sirens. However, Oswald had been followed by a shoe salesman named Johnny Brewer, who worked nearby and thought Oswald was behaving suspiciously. “Well,” says Mrs. Postal, “just as I turned around then Johnny Brewer was standing there and he asked me if the fellow that ducked in bought a ticket, and I said, ‘No; by golly, he didn’t.’” She too thought Oswald had been behaving suspiciously—she noticed him just before he mysteriously vanished—and she called the police and “seemed like I hung up the intercom phone when here all of a sudden, police cars, policemen, plainclothesmen, I never saw so many people in my life.” There would be more: the police attracted a growing crowd of civilians who quickly decided that the president’s assassin was inside the theater and called for his blood. “That is when I really started shaking,” Mrs. Postal says. “I had never seen a live mob scene.” This means, of course, that she had seen mob scenes in movies.
But I can’t find any mention in the Warren Commission report of the last movie seen by Oswald. It was written, directed, and produced by Burt Topper, who also has a supporting role as an actor, and while the film is set in Korea during the Korean War, it was shot in Southern California, where Topper worked for American International Pictures, which specialized in the kind of low-budget exploitation movies that Topper made not only for AIP but as an independent: The Diary of a High School Bride, Devil’s Angels, Thunder Alley. Going by what remains of it, War Is Hell isn’t, strictly speaking, an exploitation movie, but only the first thirty minutes or so have survived with the soundtrack intact, and the soundtrack is damaged, so that the actors speak at a speed that deepens and distorts their voices. This includes Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II and a native Texan who mostly appeared in B Westerns, and Murphy doesn’t so much act in War Is Hell as legitimize it with his presence, introducing the movie with a brief sermon about combat psychology. “A man will not be strong enough to face any really critical situation unless he has the right equipment,” he says, looking squarely at the camera and the audience, “and the most modern weapons are not enough. He must be armed with moral strength as well.” Is this what Oswald saw when he entered the theater? Did the words have any effect on him? And what did he think of the battle scene that followed Audie Murphy’s speech? Did the screen violence seem ridiculous compared to the real thing? Did the heads of the actors snap in the right direction?
But he probably looked at the screen without really seeing it, preoccupied with more pressing matters. Soon the house lights would rise and the police would step from behind the curtain, interrupting War Is Hell a half hour after it started, and now that half hour is all that’s left, the movie cutting off at the approximate moment that its most notorious viewer was apprehended. Oswald would say, as the police approached him, “Well, it’s all over now,” and reach for his revolver, and in the ensuing struggle he would receive the bruises and the black eye that distressed me as a child when I stared at the Bob Jackson photo. The police would lead him in cuffs outside, and he would scream about police brutality when the police were his only protection from the mob that wanted to lynch him, just as there was a mob that wanted to lynch me in the dream I had about Oswald, the dream in which I was Oswald and killed Kennedy without trying and could only escape by leaping to certain death. Or maybe it wasn’t certain. Dreams are like movies, where anything can happen. Arms can become wings. Asphalt can become feathers. A lynch mob can back down, no longer sure of the truth, and a bullet to the head or gut can be reversed, and the dead can live again.