Before I went on vacation, I searched through my film collection and I found a banged-up VHS tape that I had ordered off of Amazon a while back. I had been inspired to order the tape because it contained a movie based on a true crime case that I was oddly obsessed with at that time. However, as is typical with my obsessions, I had pretty much lost interest by the time the movie actually showed up on my doorstep. Hence, that tape sat unwatched until last week when I finally curled up on my couch and watched it.
Released in 1975, Abduction is an example of the “Ripped-From-The-Headlines” genre of grindhouse filmmaking. These films specialized in taking sordid true stories and giving them an even more sordid cinematic interpretation. They were often advertised as the film that would tell you “the shocking true story!” or “the story that they don’t want you to know.” Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that informs us that any resemblance to anyone living or dead is “purely coincidental,” Abducted tells us “the shocking true story!” behind the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.
In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of left-wing revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via a messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice. The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and wanted to be known as Tania. Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal. When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or just a weak-willed victim.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Hearst case is that, a year before Hearst was kidnapped, a book called The Black Abductor was released. The Black Abductor tells the story of an heiress named Patricia who is kidnapped by a group of left-wing revolutionaries led by a charismatic escaped prisoner and who eventually decides to join with her violent captors. No one was sure who actually wrote the book (though it was credited to a “Harrison Chase”) and the FBI apparently investigated whether or not the book had been used as a blue print for the actual kidnapping.
(I actually have a copy of the Black Abductor. I found it in the nostalgia section of Half-Price Books, mixed in with the usual collection of detective novels, westerns, and tv novelizations. I squealed a little when I recognized the title and wow, did I ever get the strangest look at the front register when I paid for it. The book itself is actually pretty boring.)
Abduction, probably in order to avoid a lawsuit from the Hearst family, is officially based on the novel Black Abduction and not the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. That said, the movie (which was released after Hearst had robbed her first bank but before she was arrested) is totally about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
In Abduction, Hearst is called Patricia Prescott and her father is no longer in the newspaper business. Instead, he’s a real estate developer who is planning to destroy the ghetto and replace it with high-income housing. Patricia (played by Judith-Marie Beragan) is kidnapped and her older boyfriend is beaten up by a group of revolutionaries. Patricia is held prisoner in a barren apartment and, in a disturbingly clinical scene, is raped (and filmed) by both the group’s leader (an escaped prisoner, of course) and a female member of the group. Scenes of Patricia being slowly brainwashed are intercut with scenes of a brutal FBI agent beating up liberal grad students and Patricia’s parents (played by Hollywood veterans Leif Erickson and Dorothy Malone) obsessively watching video tapes of their daughter being sexually assaulted.
Abduction is one of those low-budget, relentlessly sordid films that really can’t stand on its own as a work of art but, never the less, remains a fascinating portrait of the time that it was made. In true exploitation fashion, the film is deliberately made to appeal to both sides of the cultural divide. When the FBI agent played by Lawrence Tierney is seen smirking as his partner smacks around a smug leftist, the filmmakers are both appealing to the paranoia of the liberals and providing wish fulfilment for the right. By the same token, when Patricia stands in a doorway with a smoking shotgun in her hands, it’s an image that’s calculated to be empowering, erotic, and frightening all at the same time. Like many grindhouse film, Abduction might not be a great (or even good) film but as a reflection of the psyche of the times that produced it, it’s an invaluable document.