Auto Focus Review

From 1964 until the last episode was filmed in 1971, one of the most popular American television series thrived, catapulting its leading man from semi-popular radio personality and bit player, to bonafide star - the program was Hogan's Heroes, an unlikely situation comedy set in a German POW camp during WWII - the lead actor and series' namesake was Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), an affable, good-looking guy-next-door, who seemed genuinely grateful to have landed such a plum role - 7 years after the series ended, he would be found murdered... bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Arizona Hotel room.

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Auto Focus

, based upon the novel The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith, is primarily the story of Crane's relationship with John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a charismatic video technician and celebrity groupie he meets by chance (or was it orchestrated) who hung around studio lots and dressing room trailers earning a living by keeping Hollywood stars supplied with the latest in audio and video equipment - he also played a tragic part in outing, then aiding and abetting Crane's hidden sexual addiction - an addiction that led to his downfall both personally and professionally, and one that ultimately cost him his life.

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The film begins with Crane's life as a likeable, respected, family man and TV star. He works hard, is dedicated to his wife and three children and longs for stardom. They live in Suburbia, attend church regularly and enjoy all the trappings of a comfortable middle class life. All that changes when he meets John Carpenter. Carpenter introduces him to the strip club circuit, and soon Crane, a frustrated musician, is playing the drums nightly in seedy clubs and having sexual encounters with random women. The two men form a strange, yet oddly intimate bond and Carpenter begins capitalising on Crane's love of photography and fascination with video equipment. They share the same women, they photograph each other's sexual exploits, travel together and Carpenter's burgeoning, but unrequited homosexual attraction to Crane begins to take hold.

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Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Taxi Driver) takes the bull by the horns and never looks back. We are asked to be the conscience for a man who didn't possess one (Crane really and truly never saw what all the fuss was about). There are breasts, naked bottoms and full frontal nudity, but, for all its bare flesh and sexual situations, there is nothing erotic about this film. The on-screen sex shows two men who are more aroused watching the finished version of their sexual acts on video tape, than they are in actually performing them live with their women. Greg Kinnear's performance as the ill-fated Crane is nothing short of brilliant. Although he bears a small resemblance to Crane, the secret to Kinnear's success was in his ability to capture Crane's voice and facial mannerisms and more importantly the essence of the Hogan's Heroes star. Willem Dafoe gives John Carpenter just the right balance of charm, loyalty, creepiness and neediness. His scenes with Kinnear in the second half of the film are riveting. Rita Wilson does a fine job as Crane's first wife Anne, his high school sweetheart of 15 years and a supportive, self-sacrificing mother to his children. Maria Bello (who portrays Crane's Hogan's Heroes co-star and second wife Patricia), Ron Leibman (Cane's agent Lenny) and Kurt Fuller (outstanding as Colonel Klink) round out a wonderful supporting cast.

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The Picture

The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer is near-perfect. A special film stock was used to give it a 60's look. Schrader's use of brilliant colour and steady camera work in the first half of the film, giving way to a bleached-out look and jittery shots to underscore Crane's downward spiral in the second half is both effective and moving. Skin tones are natural, and there is little grain, but noticeable edge enhancement is present.

The Sound

A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is provided, but with the exception of a few scenes ( a dream sequence and some ambient sounds) there is little surround utilisation. The dialogue and Angelo Badalamenti's score sound clear and hiss-free, but the volume level seems to be a bit low - Kinnear and Dafoe in their commentary mention a scene in particular where the music is loud and the dialogue barely audible. A French sountrack in Dolby 2.0 Surround is offered as well as optional English and French subtitles.


Chapter Stops and Menus

There are 28 chapter stops which consist of stills from the film set four at a time against a static background and five static menus. The main menu is an animated mix of 60's photos and graphics and features bouncy jazz music. The navigation is a bit annoying (or I am just really thick), because for some of the features, you have to click to the right of the text you want in order for the icon to appear, then you click on the icon - It took me a while to figure that one out, Einstein that I am.

Director's Commentary

Note: I actually watched/listened to all three commentaries start-to-finish (106 minutes each) consecutively. *pats self on back*

Director Paul Schrader handles this commentary solo, but provides loads of technical information about the film, the actors and how it all came together. I enjoyed it almost as much as the Kinnear/Dafoe commentary... almost.

Writer & Producers' Commentary

Writer Michael Gerbosi, and producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski provide this commentary. They spend a lot of time explaining how Gerbosi came to buy the book rights for The Murder of Bob Crane, and how the producers took a chance on making a film out of it. Although they are all pleasant and the commentary is full of anecdotes and info, it is the weakest of the three.

Cast Commentary

Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe team up for this VERY entertaining commentary. They get on well and talk about everything, from the problems with the different hairstyles, to Kinnear learning to play the drums to location shooting and praise for their co-stars. The best of the three, but just barely over Schrader's commentary.


The documentary is entitled Murder in Scottsdale - it covers the actual murder of Bob Crane, and is broken up into two parts - they can be viewed separately, or played consecutively - Part 1 is 27 minutes long and includes interviews with the District Attorney, Carpenter's defense attorney, investigating officers, the grown children of Bob Crane from his first marriage, and Robert Graysmith, author of the book The Murder of Bob Crane (the novel upon which the film is based) - Part 2 runs a little over 22 minutes and shows where the investigation stood ten years after the murder - despite a disclaimer, I need to reiterate that some of the pictures shown are very graphic and may be disturbing to viewers. These include actual crime scene photos (in colour) of Crane. They are both excellent documentaries.

Making Of

Your standard 'making of' feature, with Director Paul Schrader, cast members, and Crane's oldest son who worked on the film as a technical advisor.

Deleted Scenes

Five deleted scenes with optional commentary from Director Schrader.


The following trailers are shown:

1)Auto Focus
2)Auto Focus (Redband Trailer - rated R)
3)Blind Spot: Hitler's Private Secretary
4)Love Liza
5)The Man From Elysian Fields
8)Talk To Her

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You don't have to be a fan of Hogan's Heroes, or even know who Bob Crane is to appreciate the film. On its own, it is a fascinating study of one man's addiction and the co-dependency he shared with his friend - a friend who was as much in need of recognition as Crane was in need of sex. Columbia has put together an excellent DVD with three strong commentaries and the fascinating Murder in Scottsdale documentary. I would highly recommend the viewing and subsequent purchase of Auto Focus - a deeply-disturbing, but brilliant film with superb performances about an American Dream gone horribly wrong.

9 out of 10
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