To say that Paul Schrader has always been a film-maker interested in the dark side of male existence is a bit like saying that Hitler was racially prejudiced. Dark hardly begins to define his best screenplay, Taxi Driver (1976). When Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, steered his malodorous yellow cab through New York's meanest neighbourhoods while berating all the animals that come out at night - the "whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal" - and praying for "a real rain" to come and wash the scum off the streets, you were always possessed of the certitude that both protagonist and screenwriter were intimately acquainted with this "open sewer".
Schrader's subsequent movies (Hardcore, for example) did nothing to discourage this impression; nor, indeed, did old friends such as fellow screenwriter John Milius. In Peter Biskind's seminal book on modern Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Milius tells the author: "Schrader was this character who had fallen from his Calvinist grace, and was really enjoying his time in hell, sampling every part of it. He loved perversion, but all sexuality in some way was a failure for him."
Given Schrader's well-documented former predilection for perverted sex and vast quantities of cocaine, it is easy to see why he should have been attracted to making a movie about the sordid life and mean death of Bob Crane, the apparently amiable star of the long-running Sixties TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes. Auto Focus looks like a very personal movie. For me, it was impossible to watch this film and not think of Schrader's struggles with the dark side of his own creative force.
Bob Crane was a church-going Roman Catholic who married his high-school sweetheart, became a father and, for more than a decade, was a successful disc jockey on American radio. Then, in 1965, CBS hired him to play the lead in Hogan's Heroes. The show, set in a German PoW camp, ran for more than 180 episodes and featured Crane as a quicksilver-witted American colonel who was working a number of angles and scams under the nose of the dim-witted German - Colonel Klink - who ran the camp.
The TV series bears all the traces of having been inspired by The Great Escape (1962), which was itself inspired by Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953). The ironic point was that, like Hendley "The Scrounger" (James Garner) and Sefton (William Holden) in these two movies, neither Hogan nor any of his men was a hero at all - they were just a bunch of grifters and con-artists.
Meanwhile, Bob Crane was working a con of his own. Far from being a happily married family man and regular American guy, Crane was an enthusiastic secret pornographer ably assisted in his cutting-edge videography by a Sony salesman, John "Carpy" Carpenter (no relation). It's from this part of the plot that the film gets its limp title. Gradually, the good Catholic succumbed to the temptations of easy one-night stands, orgies, perverted sex, drugs and alcohol. (Given the chance, don't we all?) Crane was hardly the first celebrity to wallow in the fleshpots, but American television used to be much more conservative than the movie industry and, perhaps because of Crane's sleazeball reputation Schrader's film doesn't make this clear - the show was not recommissioned in 1971. Crane was left high but not dry, and obliged to endure endless reruns of the series without any work to sustain that celebrity. Gradually, he became unemployable, as his addictions to drink, drugs and sex got completely out of hand. Bob Crane was found murdered in 1978, his head bashed in with a camera tripod and strangled with a length of video cable, as if the person who killed him - most likely Carpenter - wanted, in W S Gilbert's phrase, to make the punishment fit the crime.
You would be forgiven for thinking that all this adds up to a rather joyless cinematic experience, and you'd be right. As I say, it looks like a very personal film for Schrader, and his morally puritan, almost punitive treatment of Crane feels more than a little like some sort of shrink-wrapped catharsis for the now reformed writer/director. Nevertheless, with two excellent performances from Greg Kinnear as Crane, and Willem Dafoe as Carpy, it's an oddly memorable, even haunting film and reminded me most of a straight version of Prick Up Your Ears - Stephen Frears's excellent 1987 film about the life and death of Joe Orton.
In retrospect, the film seems to hint at one truth: hell is not about having something really horrible happen to you, hell is about waking up one morning and discovering that you have become something really horrible.
Auto Focus (18) is on general release