Dead Man's Line
Review by Mark Schwab
July 2nd, 2018
In the brilliant (and criminally underrated) 1993 Joel Schumacher thriller FALLING DOWN, Michael Douglas plays an unemployed defense engineer who walks across Los Angeles on foot (his car has broken down) to try and get to his estranged daughter's birthday party. Along the way, violence and tragedy stick to him like his shirt in the LA heat as he begins to lash out at a society who has rejected him across the board. In Alan Berry's stunning feature documentary DEAD MAN'S LINE, he has managed to show us a real-life version and it's impossible to not draw parallels.
If you watch or follow enough media today - both broadcast and social - you could easily fall into a deep sense of unease. Forget former President Carter's famous "malaise" description; a lot of people currently feel that we are on the edge of an almost literal civil war because too many people are just getting too angry over too many things that they simply cannot control because of "them". And who are "them"? Take your pick - the Trump administration, the Democrat party, certain Supreme Court Justices...fill in the blank. Make enough people economically poor and politically powerless for a long enough time and something has to give.
On February 8th, 1977 Anthony ("Tony") Kiritsis was tired of feeling powerless against "them" - in this case a mortgage broker named Richard C. Hall whose company owned the note on some land that Kiritsis was working hard to develop. Tony walks into Hall's office with a sawed-off shotgun and takes him hostage. His shotgun is specifically rigged by having it wired around Hall's neck and back to Tony's hand - any major movements, or even if Tony simply falls down (i.e. shot by police) and Hall's head gets blown clean off. Live and in color.
Incredibly, I had never heard of this case. When I sat down to watch this, I was completely and totally in the dark about all that was to follow. And you should be as well. The archival footage assembled here is jaw-dropping, expertly edited and the filmmakers seemed to find literally everyone still alive (nearly 40 years later!) who played witness to this incident. It is one of the most suspenseful 90+ minutes you will ever watch and it is exhilarating.
You are instantly gripped by Tony Kiritsis' desperate situation and his demands. Tony has no filter, fueled by ragingly raw emotional instinct as he forces the media to tell his side of his story in as public a way as possible. Simply put, he would be today's news media's dream - he talks a lot, says exactly what is on his mind, swears constantly and colorfully and over-simplifies his grievances so everyone can understand. He may have Dick Hall at the end of a shotgun but he ends up holding all of America hostage too as the crisis goes national (even shoving a John Wayne award tribute right off the air).
DEAD MAN'S LINE could not be more timely in seeing how a genuinely hard-working man like Tony could totally snap and demand someone to take notice of his plight. Kiritsis is not a religious fantatic and did not come off to me like an unhinged terrorist psycho. He is a guy who worked hard all of his life and saw no results for it, shocked that the "American Dream" was nothing more than a marketing con. In a country where income inequality has reached record levels and more disenfranchised folks can now communicate and organize faster than ever through the internet, it is distressingly easy for entire communities to "snap" and cause terrible tragedy.
DEAD MAN'S LINE is a warning from the past and not only one of the best films of the year, it's one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.