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Alphonse Bertillon and the Identity of Criminals

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Alphonse Bertillon was a French forensic documentarian who developed or improved upon several methods of identifying criminals and solving crimes. Some of those methods, such as the mug shot, are still in use today, while others, particularly anthropometry, were abandoned over time in favor of more accurate methods. Bertillon is considered by many to be the first forensic expert.

Bertillon’s self-portrait as a mug shot.

Bertillon was a school dropout, and having been trained in no particular field other than that of a soldier, he went to work as a records clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris in 1879. The son and brother of statisticians, Bertillon was appalled at the chaos in the criminal offender files. In his spare time, he began to work out a better method. In France at the time, there was a concern over recidivists, or those who committed crimes over and over. Recidivists could draw harsher sentences, but they were difficult to identify, because arrestees were only identified by name and address, and sometimes a picture. But appearance and addresses change, and anyone could lie about their name. With the Paris criminal records system as it was in 1879, if you couldn’t ascertain a suspect’s name, you couldn’t find him in the files, and therefore the rate of recidivism was unknown. Suspected, but unknown.

Anthropometry

An illustration from a book on anthropometry by Alphonse Bertillon.

Bertillon tackled identifying criminals by anthropometry, or the measurements of man. Anthropometry has plenty of uses, in the fields of medicine, anthropology, and engineering, and Bertillon developed another: forensic anthropometry, for the purpose of identifying recidivists and keeping records of criminal offenders. His system, called bertillonage, involved measuring dimensions of the head, face, long bones of the limbs, and other body dimensions. Bertillion entered these measurements into file cards for each arrestee, and sorted them by the offender’s size. A suspected recidivist could be matched by these measurements, and then his name could be cross-referenced to his criminal record.

The major flaw in bertillonage was the assumption that measurements were different for each individual. Bertillon knew, from the Belgian statistician Lambert Quetelet, that the chances of two people being the same height were four to one. Bertillon surmised that the more measurements of different body parts he added, the longer the odds were that two people’s measurements would match. However, several of the measurements he included in his system were directly correlated with an individual’s height.

Still, Bertillion’s system identified recidivists better than any method used previously. In 1884 alone, 241 recidivists were identified when they were rearrested in Paris. The system spread throughout France, and then to other countries. An unsavory side effect was the idea that a “born criminal” could be identified by anthropometry before any crimes were committed, which fed into the eugenics debate.

Sir Francis Galton had his mug shot taken by Bertillon.

Bertillion’s anthropometry measurements were eventually replaced by the more accurate identifier of fingerprints, introduced into forensic science by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s. But anthropometry wasn’t the only innovation Bertillon made in police record-keeping.

Mug Shots

Bertillon also had a system for incorporating face descriptions into criminal files, which he called “portrait parle.” This involved classifying the shapes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and other features into a coded lexicon that could be used as shorthand. However, the code was extensive and hard to teach to all the police in France, so portrait parle was abandoned in favor of mug shots.

François Bertillon, the photographer’s two-year-old son, mug shot taken in 1893.

Police had been using photography to record criminal appearance since shortly after photography was invented, but it was Alphonse Bertillon who standardized the mug shot into the familiar full-face shot accompanied by a profile view of the same size. The profile view was added because Bertillon saw that the unique shape of the ear is an identifier. His method, adopted in Paris in 1888, was soon used throughout France and in other countries.

Handwriting Analysis

The mug shot of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Bertillon’s brief foray into the science of handwriting analysis was a complete failure. He was called to testify in the Dreyfus Affair, in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of spying on the French military for Germany. The chief evidence against Dreyfus was a document, which he denied writing. There were no competent handwriting experts available, so the famous forensic expert Alphonse Bertillon was summoned, although he had no expertise in handwriting analysis. Bertillon’s initial examination of the document was inconclusive, but he eventually testified that the handwriting was Dreyfus’s, although allegedly Dreyfus had tried to disguise his handwriting as someone else imitating his handwriting. In other words, Bertillon said that Dreyfus was trying to frame someone of framing him. This convoluted logic is attributed to either Bertillon’s confidence that Dreyfus was guilty, or to the French military leaning on the police investigator to find Dreyfus guilty. Later analyses confirmed that Bertillon’s testimony on the handwriting was full of errors

Crime Scene Photography

Bertillon was also a proponent of crime scene photography. Photographing murder victims was important for capturing the ability to identify them before their bodies decayed or were disposed of. He developed a standardized technique of photographing a murder victim from above, in order to record the body’s position in situ before investigators disturbed the scene. Forensic measurements could be taken from the images any time afterward.

Although not all of Bertillon’s techniques panned out, he brought a sense of discipline to record keeping and crime investigation that opened doors for further developments in criminal justice.

This post was inspired by a picture found in an old issue of The Annals of Improbable Research, in which a cat is observing Bertillon at work.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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