Screened at Toronto (Special Presentation)

Dir: Paul Schrader. US. 2002. 104mins

Director Paul Schrader mixes a potentially lethal cocktail of sex, celebrity and scandal in Auto Focus, a solid, absorbing but far from completely compelling biography of troubled 1960s TV star Bob Crane. Greg Kinnear does a fine job of capturing the callow charm and blissful lack of self-awareness that seem to have defined the Crane persona but his story is never as fascinating nor as meaningful as Schrader appears to believe. Critical enthusiasm should allow it to make waves in the specialised, niche market, but a mainstream breakout seems unlikely, especially when many cinemagoers are unlikely to remember who Crane was.

A minor television actor and popular Los Angeles radio host, Crane's big break came as the star of the television comedy series Hogan's Heroes, a top-rated fusion of Stalag 17 and Sgt Bilko that ran from 1965 to 1971. The film is particularly effective in recreating the show, with spot-on impersonations of its regular stars, notably Kurt Fuller as Werner Klemperer and Michael Rodgers as Richard Dawson A genial, easygoing family man, the eager-to-please Crane claims he can be the next Jack Lemmon. The success of the television series confirms his career aspirations but his newfound celebrity status also places him in the path of irresistible sexual temptation.

Befriended by seedy technical wizard John Carpenter (Dafoe), he starts hanging out in smalltime strip clubs, playing the drums as a release from the pressures of the show. Before long, his passion for voyeuristic new video technology and pretty women have become twin addictions that tarnish his career and destabilise his life. Reduced to dinner theatre and guest spots after his time in the limelight has passed, he doggedly pursues a credo that "a day without sex is a day wasted".

A tasteful handled depiction of Crane's tawdry journey from hanky panky to hardcore, the film paints him as a rather sad figure, unable to recognise the perversity in himself that he is so ready to condemn in others. In many respects, he is a typical Schrader character who life is ultimately defined by violence, self-destruction and the tension between convention and outrage. However, there is none of the intensity or tragic grandeur that Schrader the writer found in turning Jake La Motta's story into Raging Bull.

Press notes make the spurious claim that the film is a chronicle of American male sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s, but this is no Boogie Nights: other than passing references to the mainstream success of Deep Throat or the Watergate break-in there is little attempt to place a personal story in any social or historical context. Equally, the film is unable to bring any fresh perspective to Crane's brutal murder in an Arizona motel room beyond restating the most obvious theory that the killer was Carpenter, and this lack of fresh revelation or insight lends a slightly disappointing air to the film's closing stages. Still, there are many compensations along the way, not least the performances of Kinnear and a very creepy Dafoe as his soulmate in sleaze.

Prod co: Focus Puller (Propaganda Films/Good Machine)
US dist:
Sony Pictures Classics
Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Pat Dollard, Alicia Allain
Exec prods:
Trevor Macy, Rick Hess, James Schamus
Michael Gerbosi based on the book The Murder Of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith
Fred Murphy
Prod des:
James Chinlund
Kristina Boden
Angelo Badalamenti
Main cast:
Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman, Michael McKean