A procedural mystery inspired by the murder of Lynne Harper in 1959, Murray Markowitz’s Recommendation for Mercy hews fairly closely to the facts of the actual case, though its emphases and values are far more in synch with the 1960s and 1970s than the 1950s. The filmmakers obviously believe that the Crown’s case against Lynne’s classmate Steven Truscott, who was eventually convicted of the murder, was at the very least sketchy and decidedly circumstantial, though they never go so far as to explicitly argue for his innocence.
The film’s protagonist, John Robinson (Andrew Skidd), is a popular 14 year-old who lives in a small Ontario town. He spends his free time hanging with his two friends, Frank (Rob Judd) and Brucie (Mike Upmalis). Frank is a bully and braggart who spends most of his time persecuting, or beating up, the chubby Brucie – when he’s not boasting about his sexual escapades to John. (John commits the cardinal teenage sin of confessing that he’s a virgin to Frank.)
John spends most of his time daydreaming about sex and pining for Fran Bailey (Michelle Fansett), the daughter of the richest man in town. (John’s father works at the meat packing plant owned by Fran’s father.) One evening, John offers to give Fran a ride on his bicycle to the highway just outside the town. The next morning, Fran’s father reports her as missing and John is immediately targeted by the police. He was the last one to be seen with her and there are no witnesses who can or will corroborate his version of the events. John claims he drove her to the highway and left her there, but the kids he sees along the way either don’t see him or (more likely) don’t wish to tell the truth for fear of repercussion from their parents.
Further complicating issues for John are his friends. Both Brucie and Frank lie to the prosecution about whether they see John that evening. Frank also claims that John confessed to him that night, something we never see so we cannot readily accept it as truth. Frank is, of course, less than reliable. He’s given to outbursts of largely inexplicable rage and John claims he saw both Frank and Brucie that night in the general vicinity. Moreover, Frank only recalls John’s “confession” during the trial (there’s no mention of it earlier) – and there’s a strange encounter between Brucie and Frank in a pool hall where Brucie basically admits they’re fabricating their whole story – perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate himself to Frank, his persecutor.
One of the strongest points about the film is its presentation of adolescent/schoolyard politics. Frank pushes Brucie out of the tree house they hang out in, then tears up his nudie pictures and beats him mercilessly. When John intercedes and hauls Frank off, the terrified and humiliated Brucie blames John for the beating (he erroneously believes, or wants to believe, that John just stood there and watched) instead of his actual tormenter, perhaps because he’s mortified that John saw the events or because he’s too terrified of Frank to hold him accountable -- or both. The kids’ testimonies during the trial are packed with speculation reflecting both their age; their conflicted positions; and their desire to reflect the sentiments of the townspeople (and their parents) who have already convicted John.
Nora (Karen Martin), Frank’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, who has also been hitting on John falsely testifies that John tried to take her into the woods that night and claims that John pursued her, when in fact we know this not to be the case. We assume that she’s jealous and hurt that John prefers Fran to her, but in a later scene (after she’s testified), Nora breaks down in front of Frank, overcome with guilt – and it’s clear that Frank may have even more to hide than we’ve assumed. (Earlier in the film, Frank basically offers Nora to John, as a demonstration of his sexual prowess, power and experience – and as a means of ingratiating himself to John.)
The film takes a rather audacious approach to the events. We never see the actual murder. Instead, the filmmakers leap (unannounced) into John’s fantasies and nightmares about the murder as well as speculations about who else might have committed the crime (including Fran’s older boyfriend, a soldier who owns a red convertible). But the source of these alternate theories isn’t always clear. This strategy forces us to consistently question what we see, and offers us a fairly in-depth portrait of the torments John experiences during the trial. Among the fantasies are John’s vision of his own execution presided over by the doctor and Frank as well as different versions of the crime with a number of perpetrators. Frequently, these sequences are undercut by inconsistencies. For instance, John is wearing different clothes in his fantasies/nightmares, but this only tips us off to the fact that these scenes aren’t supported by others in the film. We constantly remain unsure about the veracity of what we’re witnessing.
As with the actual prosecution’s case, the fictional prosecutors rely entirely on circumstantial, suspect (the key witnesses are children, some of them younger than eight years old) and hearsay evidence to get a conviction. The key forensic evidence is the contents of Fran’s stomach which the local doctor (a gasbag who’s rather fond of his own voice) uses to establish the time of her death, very conveniently setting it in a tiny window which buttresses the case against John. The actual doctor who examined Lynne Harper’s body came to a similar, equally convenient conclusion, then later revised his conclusion, something the original jury never heard. (This fact wasn’t tabled in some of Truscott’s appeals either.) Like Truscott, John never testifies in his own defense. Both the cops and the prosecution ignore salient details which might exonerate John. The cops don’t bother to pursue various leads and hinge everything on armchair, amateur psychology while the prosecuting attorney is more concerned with Frank sounding consistent on the stand than addressing his convenient memory.
Beyond its rather daring approach to the events and its insightful foray into schoolyard politics, the film is notable for its exploration of class dynamics in small town Ontario and contemporary attitudes about sexuality. The kids are divided by class. Fran belongs to the upper echelon (which may be one of the things that makes her so attractive to John); John and Nora are, at the very least, lower middle class, coming from relatively stable homes with some sort of parental presence, while Frank and probably Brucie come from less reputable families. The judge and prosecutors have quasi British inflections which mark them as educated while John’s father and the cops sound like hosers. In a rather unconvincing speech late in the film, when it’s clear the trial is not going well for the accused, John rails against the links between money and power, accusing Fran’s father of paying for the experts the prosecution throws at him. It’s not entirely credible that a 14 year old would come up with this explanation, though the speech John delivers is realistically convoluted. (The script, by Markowitz, Fabian Jennings and Joe Wiesenfeld, is a little too fond of speechifying and explaining people’s motives and misgivings as evinced in the scene where Bailey has his foreman fire John’s father from the meat packing plant or when the cops argue about whether they really have a case against John or whether he’s just the easiest, most available target.)
Sexual repression and the cultural reluctance to discuss sexuality play key roles in the film. John is so mortified when the doctor discloses that he found semen in his underwear (and cuts around his groin and reddening of his penis) that he’s rendered speechless. Indeed, there’s a furtive, shamed aspect to the kids’ interest in sexuality which seems pretty accurate for both the 1950 and early 1960s. (This is perhaps heightened for contemporary viewers by the slightly awkward sound recording and slightly fuzzy visuals -- the result of the blow-up to 35mm – which suggests a kinship, at least in production values, to AIP exploitation films or pornographic movies.) In this sense, the film presents John/Truscott as a railroaded youth, a sensibility much more akin to the 1960s than the 1950s. The sense of persecution is especially evident in the climactic scene, in which John rehearses a parole hearing speech after he’s served several years. He seems broken and troubled – and it’s the first occasion in the movie where he comes to close admitting guilt. (Truscott steadfastly denied the accusations.)
At the time of the events, the case was notable both for the extremely sordid nature of the crime (which shocked 1950s sensibilities considerably) -- and because Truscott was tried as an adult and sentenced to death. During the 1960s and 1970s there was an ongoing debate about capital punishment in Canada. In 1975, Markowitz told the Toronto Star’s Frank Rasky he became interested in the Truscott case while writing a paper on capital punishment as a student – and because he was once falsely accused of sexual assault. The case was heavily scrutinized and much of the criticism and disgust hinged less on Truscott’s innocence than the ugly possibility of the state executing a 14 year old boy. The filmmakers were quite conscious of the hysteria generated by the case. (John and his police escort are attacked when they leave the courthouse.)
They were also very aware of the near religious faith many of the characters have in authority. This sensibility was perhaps common that period in North American history (many of the townspeople assume John is guilty because he’s been accused), and was frequently pilloried in Canadian movies from the 1950s. (See, for example, Sidney J. Furie’s 1959 debut A Dangerous Age and Don Owen’s seminal 1964 effort Nobody Waved Goodbye.) Markowitz also told the Star he ran into resistance from the local community while shooting. Many of the location shoots were cancelled when the owners found out the movie was based on the Truscott case (something Markowitz had denied earlier), a problem which he blamed on the local paper, The Guelph Mercury. The paper denied this. (The murder of Lynne Harper and the criminal proceedings against Truscott inspired some of the events in Ann-Marie McDonald’s novel The Way the Crow Flies.)
Recommendation for Mercy was not the only true crime movie to emerge in the 1970s nor was it the only one by Markowitz. A few years later, Markowitz made I Miss You Hugs and Kisses, a far more notorious and far less aesthetically successful film, also based on a famous criminal case. The film starred Elke Sommer, Donald Pilon and boxer George Chuvalo and was based on the criminal charges against Peter Demeter, a prominent, Hungarian-born developer who allegedly sought to have his wife killed in order to cash in on her insurance policy. Demeter claimed that his wife was killed because she backed out of a plot to kill him. At the time, many doubted whether Demeter had received a fair trial. Where Recommendation was thoughtful and at times daring, I Miss You veered more towards the sordid side. (Barbara Amiel and George Jonas’s By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter offered a much more thoughtful analysis of the case, contrasting the Canadian legal system with the American one, and contending that Canada’s looser regulations regarding evidence made it far easier to convict Demeter.)
Steven Truscott’s murder conviction was eventually overturned in 2007.
Recommendation for Mercy was made cheaply and garnered almost three quarters of a million dollars at the box office. At the time, that would have made the film one of the most successful English Canadian releases ever. Yet, the film – perhaps because of the sordid nature of the case and/or its unavailability – is seldom mentioned or recalled. Ironically, given the care the filmmakers took in presenting the events, the film was released in the United States as Teenage Psycho Killer.