BEFORE I EVEN BEGIN my review, let me preface it by saying there's no way I can avoid the occasional use of explicit sexual language that may make some readers uncomfortable or upset. "Auto Focus" is, after all, about Bob Crane, and it doesn't exactly focus on the man's acting career, but rather on some of his more bizarre sexual habits. At this point, if you're still wondering who Bob Crane is and why you should care, there's probably no need for you to read on. On the other hand, if you're fascinated by the strange life and bizarre death of the leading man from "Hogan's Heroes," you're in the right place.
Now that we're no longer in mixed company, let's begin.
Why are people fascinated by Bob Crane? He made his name off of one quirky sitcom and tried to trade off of it long after the show was cancelled. And as for his sexual proclivities, they aren't too unheard of, considering the activities of other public personalities--some rumored to involve gerbils or dressing in women's lingerie and taking a bite out of their partners' backs. In terms of multiple lovers, Crane's list is nothing compared with Gene Simmons's and Wilt Chamberlain's, and nobody has made a serious movie about either of them.
But there's that cult following of "Hogan's Heroes." Kitschy and campy, it was a sitcom set in a World War II POW camp. With a laugh track. As a kid, coming home from school, I used to watch reruns of "Hogan's Heroes" and I've probably seen every episode. Hogan always struck me as a rather charismatic figure. I loved how he always outsmarted Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. And, as a kid, I remember wondering what happened to the guy who played him.
Then People magazine came out with its "Where are they now?" issue. I eagerly skipped to the section on the cast of "Hogan's." I was stunned to learn of Crane's terrible murder in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1978. I remember it well because it was the first time I ever saw the word "bludgeon." Then I read on about how the murder was unsolved and, even more shocking, that he was a "film buff," so to speak.
I used to think the fascination in Cranology was a small subset of the pop culture world, but do a Google search of the actor and you'll come up with more than 16,000 entries. Amazingly, there is an audience for "Auto Focus." It is also helped by the fact that "Auto Focus" boasts a cast that includes Greg Kinnear (as Crane) and Willem Dafoe (as Crane's unsavory swinger buddy John Carpenter) and is directed by Paul Schrader, who directed "Affliction" and "American Gigolo" and wrote "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."
The movie starts out fresh and clean in a DJ's booth in Los Angeles. It's 1964 and Crane is at the top of his radio career, when he was dubbed "King of the L.A. Airwaves." This world of cornball humor stands in stark contrast to a much darker world to come, soon after Crane's decision to star as Colonel Robert Hogan. His first wife, played by Rita Wilson, is wary of a show that supposedly jokes about the Holocaust and life in a concentration camp. (Crane immediately corrects her, saying that it's a POW camp.) But the show, debuting in September of 1965, is an improbable hit.
(As a strange cultural side-note, CBS's Friday night lineup that season was: 7:30-8:30 "Wild, Wild West"; 8:30-9:00 "Hogan's Heroes"; and 9:00-9:30 "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.")
The success of "Hogan's Heroes" catapulted Crane to stardom. It also made his penchant for nude photography (something he was doing even in the 1950s) an all-consuming project. Though he claims he never cheated on his first wife, Ann Terzian, "Auto Focus" suggests his philandering began towards the end of their 22-year marriage.
Pivotal to the story line in "Auto Focus" is John Carpenter, a technician on the leading edge of video tape recording, who took part in many of Crane's adult films, both as crew and cast, so to speak. They worked as a team, with Crane using his fame to snare women and "Carpie" providing the electronics to satisfy their film fetish. It is here where "Auto Focus" spends most of its time, with full-frontals of women and lots of simulated sex.
What you begin to realize is that this sort of behavior knows no limits. Crane enjoyed watching himself having sex with different women. Sometimes he would have sex while watching himself having sex on screen. (Imagine if he videotaped himself watching himself having sex and then having sex while watching himself watch himself. Where does it end?)
All of which eventually migrated into his public life. According to Robert Graysmith, author of "The Murder of Bob Crane," the actor showed "Hogan's" cast-mate Richard Dawson "hundreds of pornographic Polaroids--most showing young women performing fellatio on Bob--that were strewn around in the rear of his auto." Dawson--no angel--was horrified.
After "Hogan's Heroes" ended in 1971, Crane's agent had trouble finding work for him. As a result, Crane ended up on the dinner theater circuit, which wasn't a bad gig--earning him anywhere between $110,000 and $250,000 per year. But much of his salary, he complained, went to divorce settlements, including a bitter one after the breakup of his second marriage to former "Hogan's Heroes" costar Patricia Crane (she played Klink's secretary).
His obsession with big breasted women also began to take control of him, overruling the internal censor that we all have which keeps us part of polite society. After one dinner theater performance, he turned to a fellow actress on stage and said, "Did you see her? Did you see that big-titted whore out there?"
"Auto Focus" posits that in the end, Crane wanted badly to change. But then one night he was bludgeoned to death. Two blows to the side of the head with a blunt instrument that was never found. (Schrader takes the liberty of suggesting the weapon was a missing camera tripod.) The film also strongly implies that the murderer was his friend Carpenter--in something of a homosexual homicidal rage. Indeed, in 1992, Carpenter was charged with killing Crane but later acquitted. Some, including Robert Crane Jr., consider step-mom Patti "a prime suspect." (Experts, however, believe that only a man could have done the level of damage to Crane's skull while keeping the blood spatter on the ceiling to a minimum. You can find the complete autopsy report here.)
For those interested in figuring out the unsolved murder, "Auto Focus" is unsatisfying. Instead it concentrates on the downward spiral of a seemingly nice guy who loved his kids and his wife but had an uncontrollable sex addiction he brushed off as "art" and as "normal."
Crane often said, "I don't drink. I don't smoke. Two out of three ain't bad." But he was clearly in need of counseling. In the end he spliced reruns of "Hogan's Heroes" with copies of his naughty home movies to merge his two fetishes, celebrity and pornography.
The performances in "Auto Focus" are compelling. Kinnear's Crane comes off not only as a sex addict but also as a tortured soul, prone to depression, and terribly lonely--thereby creating his constant need for women. Dafoe's Carpenter is at times sleazy, creepy, needy, and vulnerable. (As a side note, character actor Kurt Fuller plays a terrific Werner Klemperer, having mastered the almost musical tone of Klink's famous yell: "Hogan!" Michael Rodgers is an adequate Richard Dawson--who in real life originally tried for the role of Hogan himself and became Crane's rival swordsman on the set.)
People may see "Auto Focus" to satisfy their curiosity about the life and times of Bob Crane. But in Paul Schrader's lurid rendering of him, you come out of the theater wishing you simply knew him as that charming, grinning, dashing Colonel Hogan.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.