A static, unconvincing true-life crime drama from Canada, presented, unfortunately, in a cropped transfer here. E1 Entertainment has released Torso (no, not the much better known Italian giallo effort I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, or Torso, from 1973), a Canadian TV movie that originally aired in 2002 which purports to tell the true story of good-time girl Evelyn Dick, whose husband's torso murder in 1946 remains supposedly one of the most heinous crimes in the annals of Canadian crime. Lead actress Kathleen Robertson is dishy, to be sure, as the sensuous, seriously screwed-up Evelyn, but the film is repetitive without being convincing, while its direction by Alex Chapple is flat and unimaginative. And that cropped transfer gives this release an automatic "Skip it."
The following brief plot synopsis is from the film, not from the actual facts of the case. In 1946 steel town Hamilton, Ontario, Evelyn Dick (Kathleen Robertson) enjoys the financial rewards of being a high-end prostitute to the city's moneyed elite. So when her streetcar conductor husband's badly-butchered torso winds up being found in the woods surrounding the city, it's only a matter of time before Dick's career comes under the scrutiny of the police. Inspector Wood (Callum Keith Rennie) is immediately suspicious of Evelyn's behavior (laughing and acting smugly nonchalant is probably not the best demeanor to put on when being interviewed by the police concerning your dismembered husband), and as the investigation continues, the holes in Evelyn's story becomes more obvious. Eventually, there's no doubt that Evelyn's parents are also somehow mixed up in the murder. Controlling mother Alexandra MacLean (Brenda Fricker) apparently pushed Evelyn into a life of prostitution to better her family's circumstances, while her drunken father Donald (Ken James), a janitor with the Hamilton Street Car Company, sexually abused Evelyn in exchange for the nickels he stole from work. But perhaps all isn't as it seems for the outwardly cavalier Dick. Perhaps she was only an accessory after the fact in the murder of her husband - a theory her lawyer, J.J. Robinette (Victor Garber), strongly believes to be true.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time and space discussing Torso for the simple reason that a cropped transfer of a widescreen film is simply unacceptable at this point in the evolution of DVDs. When the format first came out, hard-core movie lovers bitched about cropped titles, rightly identifying the practice as anathema to the format's purpose: to offer an enhanced viewing experience to the dominant VHS tapes. And for the most part, the releasing companies listened...at least for awhile, that is. But I don't care if the title is something you've been dying to see on any format - cropping it is going to get a "pass" from the very viewers who would be most interested in buying the title (cropped transfers for Charley Varrick and Colossus: The Forbin Project come to mind as "must see" releases from a few years ago that brought tears to my eyes). Couple that issue with a mediocre-at-best film like Torso, and there's nothing really to discuss here. Move along.
Okay, I can't resist. Just a few words about the film. By this point, most viewers (particularly TV watchers like myself who adore cable channels like Lifetime Movie Channel) have seen their quota of true-life crime mellers, so it's going to take something really unique or original - either in the scripting or the direction or the performances - to make the average viewer sit up and take notice of yet another docudrama look at a horrific crime. And Torso possesses none of those distinctions. I wasn't aware of this true-life event (and neither was a Canadian friend of mine when I asked her if she knew who Evelyn Dick was), but upon doing a little bit of research on the case, I have serious doubts about the validity of Torso's theory that Evelyn was in no way culpable in the murders of her husband as well as her infant son (during the appeal process for her murder conviction, the body of her infant son was found encased in cement in a small suitcase in the basement - a crime for which Evelyn Dick did serve 11 years in prison for manslaughter before being paroled and eventually pardoned in 1985).
But, a docudrama doesn't have to be factual to be interesting. Unfortunately, Torso plays all too predictably, with scenes showing the police interrogations as well as the courtroom trials, that seem to come from countless other, better films (the film's isolated moments of tentatively putting out there that Evelyn's sexual exploits shouldn't be judged reminded me a similar - but infinitely better - true-life crime meller: Mike Newell's 1985 Dance With a Stranger). With Robertson hampered by a script that wants it every which way (she's a whore with a heart of gold who cries over kids and then maybe kills one of them; she loved her husband but didn't report his murder which she may or may not have participated in...but that's no reason to judge her), we never get a feel for who Evelyn is, and why she wound up protecting her parents, almost to the point of hanging for a crime she supposedly didn't commit. The gore is graphic (those torso shots are disgusting), accounting for the film's R rating, but curiously, the sex is virtually non-existent (we only get a window silhouette of Evelyn kneeling down in front of a client before she disappears out of view), which would seem to be an important element of the story to exclude. Perhaps as compensation for this self-censorship, the director, Alex Chapple, seems to think that Evelyn smoking - an obvious visual metaphor for oral copulation - is the sexiest thing ever, because he shoots these lovingly close shots of her doing just that, ad infinitum. I'm all for seeing Robertson's lush mouth in close-up, but after the umpteenth shot of her dragging on a cigarette, with the smoke billowing out in an erotic haze, I got the point. And got it. And got it. Yes, Evelyn is smoking, and it's sexy, but Jesus after awhile, enough! Move on (director Chapple has other obvious, clichéd visual metaphors in store for the viewer, like the huge close-up of a red phallic lipstick being unscrewed from its case - what does that mean, Dr. Freud?). Even funnier are the constant, almost campily overripe saxophone cues on the soundtrack for miscellaneous scenes and shots that don't really warrant them, creating the audio equivalent of padding to foist a period mood and atmosphere that simply isn't in the film's power to deliver. Torso so wants to be nostalgic and sexy and dangerous - while putting a new spin on an old tale of greed and homicide - but its end result is tiresomely predictable and bland.
The cropped, full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Torso has muddy color, macro blocking, and interlacing jaggies. But ignoring all that, the simple fact that the film has been cropped from its original widescreen aspect ratio - and you can tell that from the anamorphically enhanced widescreen trailer that's helpfully tacked on as a bonus - earns zero marks here.
There are English and Spanish 2.0 stereo audio tracks available for Torso. The English track is serviceable, with all dialogue recorded front and center, with little separation details. No subtitles or close-captions are available.
Just that widescreen trailer.
Even if Torso was the single greatest true-crime docudrama ever made, I'd rate this release a "Skip it" because the original widescreen aspect ratio has been cropped for this DVD transfer. As it is, no worries you're missing some classic, because Torso doesn't even match up favorably with most offerings on Lifetime. Slow pacing, a shaky script, and flat direction. Skip Torso.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.