You may be surprised to learn of the details of this crime, which has maintained its dual status of “unsolved” and “perhaps never occurred” for almost thirty years. Rhode Island, 1980: we find ourselves among the well−to−do and deep of pocket and their world of disposability. A relatively impecunious European nobleman called Claus von Bülow (whose cousin was a contemporary of this composer) has been married for fourteen years to Martha “Sunny” Crawford, an American heiress who also happens to be hyperglycemic. By all indications, Claus seems to be no better or worse than his ilk, being interested in a comfortable career whose salary makes no difference to his well−being, the society of a select few, a large estate with all the amenities, and a modicum of respect from those who watch him with envy as he waltzes into a small store to purchase tobacco. A graduate of the same college attended by Dryden, Marvell, and Nabokov, he tried his hand at law before his marriage but now feels restrained by his dear wife, their daughter (named after the woman who would marry both Claus’s cousin and Wagner himself), and Sunny’s two children from her previous marriage to another Germanic gentleman of title. So, we are told yet again, Claus allegedly does what any good reader of murder mysteries would do: kill by using the person’s weakness against her. Had Sunny been an avid skier, she would have met her frozen fate on a slope. Owing to her blood sugar level, however, the weapon can only be one: insulin.
But Sunny does not die. She still lies unconscious in the vegetative state induced by the insulin injected into her on December 21, 1980.* As the person with the greatest motive and access, Claus is immediately fingered as the guilty party and brought to trial, resulting in a thirty−year sentence for attempted murder. That von Bülow would seek to appeal the decision is hardly surprising; that he would turn to Alan Dershowitz, a Jewish lawyer from Harvard Law School, to do so, still seems a bit odd. A self−made man, phenomenally successful law professor and civil rights attorney, and one of the state of Israel’s greatest supporters, Dershowitz initially wants nothing to do with this silver−spooned Dano−German snob whose family might have harbored more than a little tenderness for certain unwholesome forces in the 1930s and 1940s. Nevertheless, maybe because von Bülow is so utterly convinced of his innocence, or maybe because no one else will take him on, Dershowitz consents to defend someone for whom he admittedly hasn’t a shred of sympathy. The result is a book, as well as an absolutely marvelous film.
We meet a number of colorful characters, from prosecuting attorneys to spoiled European teenagers to a whole houseful of Harvard law students, but only three will ultimately give the film its shape: Dershowitz (the late Ron Silver), Sunny (Glenn Close), and Claus (an Oscar−winning Jeremy Irons). Pictures of the original Sunny, an attractive, sprightly young thing, make you wonder whether the somewhat plain Close reflects director Barbet Schroeder's views on Claus’s guilt. So too does Sunny herself, however accurately portrayed as a hypochondriac drunk whose moods alternate between belligerence, apathy, and self−loathing. This is, in any case, the side of her that Claus wishes us and his lawyer to see. Claus is not concerned with anything except maintaining his life as it is, free and unperturbed, and without any blot on his reputation among the few people who actually still talk to him. His exchanges with Dershowitz, a man he looks down upon simply because he lives for his work (and even finds it more enthralling than Claus’s conversation), are superb in keeping with the personalities of the characters presented. There can be no accord or understanding between these two worlds, only a joining of forces in the name of justice.
In this regard, Irons, who possesses an innate ability to play aristocratic pariahs, could not be better cast. And while I cannot take credit for one reviewer’s spot−on description of his smoking posture as that of hailing a taxi, I will say that what von Bülow has on his side is poise. There is nothing, not one hair or button that evinces the slightest sign of fear. Indignation in the hands of the wealthy and influential is one of the oldest and filthiest tactics, but Claus does not play that card, either. He limits himself to the facts, as well as to the very logical supposition that he could have been framed by a large number of people, and does not seem to be in a hurry to get acquitted. As the film progresses, Claus becomes its metronome, speeding it up when he gets excited (especially when he says his wife’s name in utter contempt), and slowing it down when opinions converge against him. Since the whole story is based on true events, calling some of the details unlikely would be rather impish on my part, so I will refrain. But what cannot be denied is Claus’s charm. He is smooth, welcoming, and genuine about his innocence and the state of his horrendous marriage. Even if he is the only one who really believes all that.
*Note: Sunny von Bülow, still in a vegetative state, succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest on December 6, 2008.