Robert Durst and 'The Jinx': a true crime classic, both for the tale and the telling of it

As in Truman Capote’s 'In Cold Blood' and Joe McGinniss’s 'Fatal Vision,' 'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,' has audiences and critics obsessing not only over the real-life crime the story tells, but also over how the story came to be told. 

Andy Kropa/Invision/AP/File
Director Andrew Jarecki attends the HBO documentary series première of 'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst' in New York City on Jan. 28, 2015. Mr. Durst was arrested in New Orleans on March 14, 2015, on a Los Angeles warrant for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman just before the series finale on Sunday.

Stories about the twists and turns of real-life crime, including HBO’s documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which concluded its six-part series Sunday, have a storied tradition of their own in American culture.

From Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” in the 1960s to Joe McGinniss’s “Fatal Vision” in the 1980s to contemporary sensations like Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” podcast first aired last fall, US audiences and critics have not only obsessed over the real-life crimes these carefully crafted stories tell, but also the real-life stories behind the creators’ crafting.

And Sunday’s finale of “The Jinx,” itself now in the midst of a perfect storm of multilevel twists and culturally "meta" turns, has all the makings of an American classic in this regard, many observers say.

For one thing, just a day before the HBO finale, New Orleans police unexpectedly arrested the documentary’s enigmatic subject, Mr. Durst, the black sheep in one of New York’s most powerful real estate families. He had long been a suspect in the 2000 murder of one of his closest friends, Susan Berman, herself a crime writer, and on Monday Durst was extradited to Los Angeles to finally face charges for the killing.

But despite the you-can’t-invent-this good publicity for “The Jinx,” directed by Andrew Jarecki and cowritten by cinematographer Marc Smerling, the documentary had already taken a notorious, already-sensational character in Durst, unearthed explosive new evidence in a case that police investigated for more than a decade, and created a creepy and compelling portrait of an elusive and complex character. That character is also suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his wife Kathleen and, in 2003, was convicted of dismembering, though acquitted of murdering, an elderly Texas man he had befriended while hiding out disguised as woman unable to speak.

Durst’s arrest came just as “The Jinx” concluded Sunday night with damning new information in these cases – including, incredibly, an overlooked piece of audio, captured unbeknown to both the documentarians and infamous subject during an interview break three years ago. With a live mike still clipped to his lapel, Durst mumbles to himself as he audibly uses the toilet:

There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong.... What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.

For media critics and cultural observers, “The Jinx” has now unleashed a virtual case study in modern Americana, from the deep-seated public fascination with true crime stories to the literary accomplishments of talented storytellers – not to mention the Shakespearean-like study of the inner workings of a dark and tragic character, as well as the responsibilities and ethics of journalists investigating such stories.

Durst sought out the filmmakers after they released their 2010 fictionalized version of his life, “All Good Things,” wanting to tell his version of the events that made him infamous. “I will be able to tell it my way,” Durst says during the second episode of “The Jinx,” explaining his motivation to agree to be interviewed.  

“Sometimes sociopaths crave the spotlight they get for their crimes and are more than happy to cooperate with journalists, authors, and documentary filmmakers,” says Paul Levinson, media critic and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “But there is a price that they may sometimes have to pay for the publicity: The investigative reporter or filmmaker may uncover new damaging facts, or the spotlight on the crimes may well embolden and invigorate police and prosecutors.”

Some have begun to compare the story to that of Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Green Beret who hired celebrated journalist Joe McGinniss to write a book about his innocence before a trial that convicted him in 1979 of murdering his family. He gave Mr. McGinniss unfettered access, assured by McGinniss that the book would exonerate him. Instead, "Fatal Vision" backed the guilty verdict.

In the celebrated book "The Journalist and the Murderer," critic Janet Malcolm famously described the journalist as "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

The same criticism was leveled against Mr. Capote, too, who visited the killers of a Kansas family for years, getting intimate details of their lives and the murders they committed – as well as one of the most compelling true crime stories of the 20th century. 

And now Mr. Jarecki’s and Mr. Smerling’s journalism, like Capote’s and McGinniss’s decades ago, has nearly become as sensational as the story they told. After spending the morning working the talk-show circuits after the conclusion of their documentary’s final episode Sunday, they released a statement Monday afternoon: “Given that we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst, it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters.”  

 Critics have questioned the motives and timing of the filmmakers' use of the evidence they uncovered. Did they save the sensational off-camera clip, unheard by the filmmakers until last June, two years after Durst said the comments, for their gripping narrative rather than turning it over to police? The clip served as the powerful closing moment to the series.

But while the ostensible toilet confession may remain legally opaque, Jarecki and and Smerling also presented a less sensational but more concrete piece of evidence: an envelope from a letter Durst sent to Ms. Berman in 1999. This envelope was written in the same block handwriting found in an anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police at the time of the December 2000 killing. And in both, the writer made the same mistake, misspelling the word “Beverley.”

Jarecki told The New York Times that the filmmakers “provided the relevant evidence to law enforcement some months ago, and it’s been in their court.”

Combined with the gripping narrative presented in the film, the story behind the story promises to make “The Jinx” only that more powerful, some cultural observers say.

“In the case of the Durst documentary, we have a very well-made film that will probably win all kinds of major awards,” predicts Professor Levinson. After Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” he says, “whenever you have a work that makes such an impact, whatever it is, including these kinds of true crime stories, in many cases the writer and the filmmaker and people involved in the work are then part of the story, too.”

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