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MURDERER TAKES A LONG LOOK INTO HIS RAGING BLACK HEART.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Critic

While ``Killer: A Journal of Murder'' may at first seem like a lower-budgeted ``Dead Man Walking,'' this modest and absorbing film soon establishes its own hard, fascinating particulars.

Like ``Dead Man,'' ``Killer'' is a true story that explores the close relationship between an execution-bound inmate and a sympathetic civilian. Perhaps due to limited resources, this movie focuses more on the two characters than the wider issues of capital punishment, and screenwriter-director Tim Metcalfe has turned that restriction into a virtue. We end up with an intimate knowledge of the minds of sympathetic guard Henry Lesser and the appalling - but never less than achingly human - Carl Panzram.

Declared America's first serial killer by the movie's publicity, Panzram seems more like a career crook for whom murder was an exciting fringe benefit of the job. Still, he killed some 22 people, even though his final incarceration was for a much lesser crime.

Portrayed with feral intelligence by James Woods, Panzram entered the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1929, about the same time that nice young Jewish tailor Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard) became an unlikely guard there. Disgusted by the brutality of the other guards, Lesser reached out to Panzram. Slipping contraband pencils and paper to the prisoner, Lesser soon became the keeper of Panzram's memoirs - which he was shocked to discover revealed cold insights into a killer's heart.

But Lesser's determination to befriend Panzram survived even these awful revelations, and the monster ultimately experienced something new: trust in another person. While this didn't make him any less dangerous - Panzram was the first man executed at Leavenworth - it certainly altered his views of himself and the cruel world he wallowed in.

Alternately ruthless and fearful, defiant and calculating, Woods creates a mesmerizing portrait of a vivid personality. He's ``Killer's'' greatest asset because he never allows Panzram's substantial evil to blot out his finer qualities, but is careful not to let the character's frailties make excuses for his behavior.

Leonard is also as good as he has ever been. The foolish innocence that has dogged his performances since ``Dead Poets Society'' is still here, but it's an excellent fit with Lesser's well-meaning naivete. So much of the movie is Leonard and Woods just talking, and the younger actor holds his own with the virtuoso veteran.

Some will find ``Killer'' too static and claustrophobic, but Metcalfe - who makes his directing debut after writing stuff like ``Revenge of the Nerds'' - sustains interest by relentlessly digging into a difficult, ugly psyche. What he finds deep inside is hardly beautiful, but it is unexpectedly worth looking at.

THE FACTS

The film: ``Killer: A Journal of Murder'' (R; violence, language, sex).

The stars: James Woods, Robert Sean Leonard, Ellen Greene, Cara Buono.

Behind the scenes: Written and directed by Tim Metcalfe, based on the book by Carl Panzram, Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long. Produced by Janet Yang and Mark Levinson. Released by Legacy Releasing.

Running time: One hour, 31 minutes.

Playing: AMC Promenade 16, Woodland Hills; Century 14, Century City.

Our rating: Three Stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: In ``Killer: A Journal of Murder,'' Robert Sean Leon ard, left, portrays a determinedly humane prison guard who befriends 1920s convicted multiple murderer Carl Panzram, portrayed by James Woods.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Sep 6, 1996
Words:548
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