What You Missed
In the 1930s, a Chicago heiress named Frances Glessner Lee began creating a series of intricate miniatures. This was no idle rich lady's hobby — it was a key step in the development of forensic science.
Lee, a Sherlock Holmes fan with a passion for criminal justice, crafted the 18 Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death as a teaching tool for homicide investigators. Each diorama presents an ambiguous death (or deaths) and is designed to test the observer's ability to follow clues methodically to a deduction. The Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, where the Nutshell Studies now reside, still uses them to educate officers.
Susan Marks' documentary takes us inside these lurid miniature scenes and uses them to pose bigger questions about the state of crime-scene investigation today.
Why You Missed It
The 2012 doc doesn't appear to have had a theatrical release. It's on DVD and Netflix Instant.
Should You Keep Missing It?
Miniatures are kind of creepy, aren't they? Whatever the reason, there's a certain overlap between fans of such things and enthusiasts of the convoluted and macabre. (Just look at the popularity of Beth Robinson's Strange Dolls.) These are the target audiences of Of Dolls & Murder, and it serves them well.
Granted, there's an odd hybrid quality to the enterprise, as if Marks isn't sure whether she's exploiting the creepiness of the Nutshell Studies or using them as a teaching tool herself.
There are sections where camp meister John Waters plays Vincent Price, telling us what we're seeing in a sepulchral voice as the camera explores the dioramas, lingering on Lee's extraordinarily detailed creations. And there are much more prosaic unnarrated sections in which Marks interviews Baltimore homicide detectives, morgue personnel and even an executive producer of "CSI."
Parts of "Of Dolls & Murder" resemble a David Lynch film; others could pass for an episode of "Nova." A section on the Body Farm, where scientists study the decomposition of donated bodies in dumpsters, car trunks and woodland areas, probably qualifies as both.
It's all fascinating material, including the debate over whether crime-investigation TV dramas have educated the public or just illustrated the maxim that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But viewers could be frustrated if they already know all about forensic science and crave more details of Lee's story and the Nutshells' creation, or vice versa.
Oh, and if you want to know just how the dolls in the Nutshell scenes met their unnatural ends? Not happening. These mysteries' solutions are closely guarded secrets, so no "CSI"-style closure is on offer.
But they're dolls, so they were never alive in the first place. Right? Right?
Verdict: for all fans of miniatures and mysteries. Be prepared for graphic scenes of both doll and human decomposition.
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