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Lee Oswald - Assassin (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Lee Oswald - Assassin (1966)
BBC1, 10/3/1966
90 minutes, black & white
DirectorRudolph Cartier
ProducerPeter Luke
ScriptRudolph Cartier
 Reed De Rouen
From the Play byFelix L├╝tzkendorf

Cast: Tony Bill (Lee Harvey Oswald); Dora Reisser (Marina Oswald); Robert Ayres (Chairman); Paul Maxwell (Lieut. John E. Donovan); John Alderson (Richard F. Snyder); Pearl Catlin (Priscilla Johnson); Warren Mitchell (Spas T. Raikin); Donald Sutherland (Charles Givens); John De Marco (Ruby); Kenneth Allsop (Narrator)

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The life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy, as reported to the Warren Commission enquiry into the circumstances of the assassination.

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'Lee Oswald - Assassin' was one of several lavish drama-documentaries directed by Rudolph Cartier and produced by Peter Luke for the BBC's prestigious Play of the Month (1965-83) series. Adapted by Cartier and screenwriter/actor Reed de Rouen from a German play by Felix Lutzkendorf, the drama aims to give an insight into the life and motivation of the man who murdered President Kennedy.

The play is a drama-documentary in the strictest sense, being based wholly on one document: the Warren Commission Report on the infamous assassination. As such it does not seek to challenge the Commission's findings or air conspiracy theories. It is perhaps the only drama about the assassination that has so limited itself. It does not, however, adhere slavishly to the word of the Report; artistic license is employed in the occasional modification of minor details for dramatic effect and the necessary telescoping of events in the creation of a narrative.

Following Oswald's progress over four turbulent years, across two continents and into the history books, the play is epic in both scope and execution. Cartier realises the drama with grandeur, employing his signature crowd scenes and film sequences to excellent effect. Both the busy port which sees the arrival of Oswald and family in America and, later, the hysteria of journalists clamouring for a glimpse of the captive assassin, are realised on an impressive scale. With these flourishes Cartier achieves a sense of spectacle rarely associated with the television drama of the period.

This impact is aided by the uniformly excellent performances of a strong cast. Cartier was determined to cast a genuine American as Oswald and, as he told the Radio Times, it had to be "somebody who was capable of portraying his schizophrenic mixture of sullen resentment and boyish charm". In Tony Bill he found the perfect lead. Bill skilfully portrays Oswald as both the youthful and confused idealist who seeks a better world in Russia, and later the crazed fanatic who bullies his wife and plans murder. The Times noted that Bill "lent the character considerable depth."

Due to its basis in the Warren Report, now recognised as highly flawed, it could be argued that the play is of historical interest only. Yet, despite its limitations, it achieves its stated aim - to present a dramatic portrait of the "essential nature" of the assassin - and does so with considerable panache.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Off the record (4:11)
2. Renunciation (3:02)
3. Murder (3:39)
4. 'I never killed anybody' (1:23)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Drama Documentary
The Television Play