September, 2 2006
There's something dark about our obsession with crime documentaries but, says Graeme Blundell, the ABC may solve a 43-year-old mystery
THE author of a true unsolved murder story is like a homicide detective: he has to imagine what may have taken place, based on the physical evidence. For both, solving the case is about leaps into the unknown, asking those questions that have no hope of being answered with certainty but could lead to those that may.
Edgar Allan Poe, who in 1841 wrote the first book about detection, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, commented on both authorship and discovery in his epigraph. Taken from Thomas Browne, it read: "What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture."
For 20 years, award-winning film-maker Peter Butt has investigated hundreds of theories (there are more than 1000 in official police files) about the 1963 deaths of cryptically glamorous Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler.
Conjecture, assumptions, inferences, speculation and supposition: Butt has written the book of synonyms when it comes to this baffling murder mystery, the subject of his elegant feature documentary Who Killed Dr Bogle & Mrs Chandler?, in which he promises "explosive new evidence". The Bogle-Chandler case was a harbinger, notorious and explicit, signalling the approach of full-frontal assaults on propriety and a time when long-obeyed taboos were ignored in a sensual new world of stocking tops, sex toys and floating breasts.
Most of us know something about the case. At some time between 4.45am and 6am on January1 that year, charismatic physicist Bogle and Chandler, a housebound mother of two, died in dense bushland on the eastern bank of the Lane Cove River in the leafy Sydney suburb of Chatswood. They had been at a nearby New Year's Eve party attended by fashionable academics and scientists.
They were discovered 12m apart, both half naked, Bogle's body discreetly draped with folded clothing, a square of carpet between his shirt and suit coat. Chandler's was in greater disarray, covered by three pieces of mouldy cardboard beer carton. The police believed only a contortionist could have arranged them in such a manner.
Every theory advanced during the next 40 years — accidental poisoning by LSD or the aphrodisiac Yohimbine or arecoline hydrobromide, also known as dog-worming tablets — was officially rejected. Nerve gas, dry ice, weedkiller and shellfish toxin were ruled infeasible, if not downright lunatic.
As Butt's film deftly illustrates, the Bogle-Chandler mystery, with its lurid tabloid press reports of pale, nude bodies riddled with esoteric drugs, high-society wife-swapping parties, and even the shadowy world of spooks and assassins, was a defining cultural moment.
Beneath their shabby cardboard and carpet coverings, the inarticulately arranged corpses were a flashbulb snapshot (Butt's fond of these), curiously evocative for an Australia still as bucolic as an English park and as safe and sterile as an American bomb shelter.
The words intellectual, suburbanite, car keys on the coffee table, academic and Sydney bohemian merged and tangled in our imaginations every time we thought about them. Certainly, in mine. I was 16 and for a time thought about little else. Especially slender suburbanites with glossy auburn hair.
The central characteristic of the true murder story is that it is about what must be imagined, what can't be seen, what can't in any verifiable way be known.
Butt makes extensive use of reconstructions, or re-enactments, a device once used by documentary-makers such as Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line with self-conscious irony, before television appropriated it as an undemanding means of reportage.
And, sorry to say, this film could do with some sarcasm, wit and even mockery, given the official investigative clumsiness Butt reveals. Instead, he proceeds in a relatively conventional way, relying on Hugo Weaving's authoritative voice-over to carry the narrative.
The extensive re-enactments are so aesthetically pleasing I had the feeling Butt fell a little in love with his actors and his milieus the way documentary directors who turn to features often do.
Octavia Barron-Martin, so innocently available as Chandler, Nicholas Hope as her oddly woebegone husband Geoffrey Chandler and Rhys Muldoon as the inscrutably handsome Bogle are splendid and captivating.
So good is the acting that it's irritating to cut back to often banal interviews with the surviving investigators, press pundits and Geoffrey Chandler, who has somehow survived more than 40 years of ignominy.
The archival footage, though, is irresistible — cops and lawyers straight from Carter Brown — and the grubby banks of the Lane Cove River are as sensuously filmed as the streams of any French art movie.
Most of us share the everyday frailty of being curious about the lurid details of murder. True-life murder stories such as this ask, rather more pointedly than fictional cases, the question of whether there is something inherently depraved in such curiosity.
But the truth is, I'll be watching again.
The review tape I saw was incomplete, cut off before Butt's new evidence. A spectacular detonation as promised, I'm sure. "Vital scenes and the identities of the participants have been deleted to preserve the mystery until the film is broadcast," it says.
The voice-over added the promise of evidence pointing to a new witness, a poison not considered in the original investigation, anomalies in both victims' tissue samples not passed to police and newly discovered crime-scene photographs. (I'm told by the ABC media office the coroner's office is now involved, a cause of death finally established, and the police are taking it seriously. Mmmm.)
Despite the incompleteness of the version of Butt's narrative available to view, I was hooked, furious at having to wait.
Maybe murderers call out to some fundamental curiosity in us about the limits of human nature, our sympathies and identifications, and focus the imagination on the question of evil. We want them caught to enact something for us; we want to live the terror of death through them and then leave it safely behind, perhaps.
Maybe murder literature, and the proliferating TV documentary, invites us to identify with the killer. (Was Dostoyevsky right: is there one inside us all?) How did they do it? We want to know. How did they get away with it? We would never have left that fingerprint, that hair in the bathtub, or used that fake driver's licence. Or have used a beer carton to cover a beautiful woman's body. Would we?
Who Killed Dr Bogle & Mrs Chandler? ABC, 8.30pm, Thursday.