This weekend I watched Angelina Jolie portray Christine Collins, the mother of a kidnapped, 9 year old boy, Walter Collins. The film was The Changeling. The tale is a true story and the film sticks pretty close to the actual events. In Los Angeles in 1928, a psychotic pedophile named Gordon Northcott kidnapped and murdered around 20 young boys at a remote ranch in Wineville, California (now Mira Loma). The case came to be called "the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders."
Northcott employed the unwilling assistance of his nephew, Sanford Clark, whom he abducted from his home in Canada. When Sanford Clark's older sister complained to the Los Angeles Police, officers were sent to the ranch to take Clark into protective custody so he could be sent back to Canada. While in custody, Clark told the police about the murders.
The film centers on Christine Collins, and tells, truthfully, how the Los Angeles Police were under public scrutiny for corruption and felt a strong publicity need to find Walter Collins. They found another young boy in Dekalb, Illinois who claimed to be Walter. He wasn't, but the Los Angeles Police pressured Christine to take the boy home, insisting that he was indeed Walter, and had changed in appearance somewhat due to his kidnapping ordeal. Christine complied at first, but kept returning to the Police Department to insist that the boy was not Walter. Captain J.J. Jones of the Los Angeles Police, embarrassed and annoyed by Collins, had her seized and committed to a psychopathic ward on a "Code 12" commitment, which was merely a police device to warehouse problematic individuals. It gave the police dictatorial powers, as they could commit anyone to the ward merely on their say-so, without a warrant or other proof of mental disorder. Collins was kept for five days in the pyschopathic ward and forced to take psychotropic drugs.
Meanwhile, police discovered the remains of several boys at the ranch, most of them buried under the chicken coop, their bodies largely obliterated with lime. Gordon Northcott was convicted and sentenced to die by hanging at San Quentin on October 2, 1930. The film's depiction of the hanging was satisfyingly realistic and included Northcott's actual comments and statements just before the trap door was sprung, leaving his twitching body dangling at the end of the rope. The reality was even more just desserts than the film, however. In real life, Northcott's knees buckled with fear before the trap was sprung, taking the slack out of the rope. The result was that his neck didn't break and it took eleven minutes for him to strangle.
Christine Collins later sued Captain J.J. Jones for false imprisonment in the psychopathic ward. She won the civil suit and a $10,800 judgment against Jones, who never paid it.
Northcott at first admitted to murdering Walter Collins, but later retracted his confession. Walter's body was never identified, leaving Christine to vainly hope for his return for the rest of her life.
The Changeling is set in 1928 Los Angeles and looks and sounds very authentic: the clothes, the cars, the skyline, the trolleys, even the conversation. I love a film that accurately recreates the look and feel of another time.
The Changeling is a fascinating story based on actual events. It is a rare object out of Hollywood these days: a film worth watching.
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