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STUDIO: Seminal Films
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes
• Bonus interviews with John Waters and others featured in the film
• Filmmakers’ commentary
A documentary about the godmother of crime scene investigation, who happened to love playing with dolls.
Directed by Susan Marks, narrated by John Waters, featuring David Fowler, Naren Shankar, and Katherine Ramsland.
The real world of forensic medicine and science isn’t about driving Hummers and that Who song no one can get out of their head. Sometimes it’s about staring at dollhouses for hours on end. Of Dolls and Murder looks at the work of Frances Glessner Lee, a woman who revolutionized forensics with her incredibly detailed dioramas of actual crime scenes. The film also examines the personalities of various experts in the field, including homicide detectives and pathologists. It’s a brief, uneven doc, but a worthy one for true crime fans.
Most girls (or boys) use their dollhouses to create idyllic domestic environments where Ken comes home from work and Malibu Barbie already has dinner on the table. He’s so proud that Skipper got all A’s on her report card – shit like that. But back in the ’30s and ’40s, an innovative woman named Frances Glessner Lee used dolls to recreate every detail of actual crime scenes. These miniature dioramas, known as “nutshells,” were created as a way for homicide detectives and other police to sharpen their skills. Of course, the immediately appealing thing about these nutshells is that dolls (on a 1:1 scale) are used to recreate gruesome murder scenes: shootings, suicides, entire families who were shot up, and a wealth of other horrific crimes. It’s really juicy stuff.
The amount of detail she put into every nutshell is incredible: from the way a chair was overturned to how ajar a window sat. Frances was exact with every minutiae that may have been important. These amazing nutshells are used as the framework for Susan marks’ brief and uneven documentary, Of Dolls and Murder.
The film looks at modern forensic science and the detectives, lab personnel, and pathologists who work in the field. It strips away the glossy illusion presented by shows like CSI. Many of the experts interviewed in the film talk about the “CSI Effect,” which is how the show warped everyday people’s idea of what the hell an investigator actually does. I knew so many goofballs in college who wanted to get into forensics because they believed they all drove Hummers, wore $5,000 Armani slacks, and went to orgies on the weekend (I’ve never seen the show, they do that, right?).
Unfortunately, not a lot of personal information about Frances exists. Due to this lack of material, only a small amount of time is spent on looking at her background and what got her into forensics. She came from wealth and during the time (early 1900s), women were expected to be stay at home matriarchs. Frances shrugged off those antiquated expectations and went on to kick much ass in the world of forensics. Through her nutshells, she became the first female member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. And they’re still used today to train detectives. That’s a pretty badass legacy in my book.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the doc are when detectives are analyzing the nutshells (which are stored in Baltimore under glass cases). There’s something genuinely entertaining and interesting about seeing these burly detectives hunched over a dollhouse, moving their flashlights around the tiny rooms, sipping coffee and analyzing blood splatter. As they explain in the doc, it’s not about the police “solving” the murders within the nutshells, it’s about honing their observation skills in regards to the indirect evidence: newspapers on the floor, how the table was set, stuff like that.
A handful of nutshells are looked at in extreme close-up detail as John Waters narrates the stories behind them. The whole doc has a TruTV, matter-of-fact vibe to it, so Waters’ serpentine voice adds a lot of entertainment value. And the cinematography during these nutshell close-ups adds a surprising amount of depth. Another interesting bit of the doc is a visit to the “Body Farm” in Knoxville, TN. Here, donated corpses at various stages of decomposition are strategically placed to recreate crime scenes for research. The woman who runs the farm is disturbingly dry when she talks about maggots and bodies in trunks. It’s a huge turn on.
The doc jumps around a bit too much, making it very uneven at times. For the most part, it’s a very interesting film that covers a lot of ground in its 70 minutes. It’s a compelling look at some of the various personalities involved in forensics medicine, which does take a special type of person. I know I couldn’t cut open dead bodies all day at work and not take that shit home with me. The ones who can are doing an immeasurably important service: speaking for the dead. True crime fans and doll enthusiasts will definitely not wanna miss this one.
THE PATRON SAINT OF FORENSICS MEDICINE and THE MISSING NUTSHELLS provide some more information on Frances Gessner Lee and her nutshells.
There are two brief but entertaining audio interviews with John Waters, who discusses what he finds interesting about murderers and true crime. He’s one eloquent fellow who knows his lurid interests very well. Even if you don’t dig his movies, you can’t deny he’s not interesting as hell to listen to.
AUDIO COMMENTARY WITH DIRECTOR SUSAN MARKS, PRODUCER-EDITOR JOHN DEAN, and OTHERS: I’m surprised there’s a commentary for such a short doc. Regardless, it’s an energetic track that covers a lot of the making-of basics. Marks is especially enthusiastic about the subject matter.
Rating: Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars