by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I spent a good chunk of the morning watching TV shows I’d recorded recently, including screening a Lifetime TV-movie that was shown over a Saturday that was billed as “Whole Lotta Love!” even though virtually all the relationships represented were sordid in some way. This film was no exception: it was a 1997 production (though watching it I had no idea it was that old!) with the awkward title Love’s Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder. It’s based on a true story — the murder of 16-year-old Texas high-school student Adrianne “A.J.” Jones (Cassidy Rae) by David Graham (David Lipper) and Diane Zamora (Holly Marie Combs, top-billed) over a jealous fit Diane had when she found out that, after David had taken her virginity, he had had sex with A.J. as well. The film was apparently made before either David or Diane had been put on trial (they were tried separately and got life sentences) and based primarily on David’s typewritten confession once he was apprehended and given a polygraph test that purportedly showed he was lying when he denied all knowledge of the crime.
What’s fascinating about this movie is how the writers, Skip Hollandsworth (whose article on the case was the basis for the film) and Steve Johnson, and director Richard A. Colla, muff as many opportunities as they live up to in a story that’s full of fascinating issues and twists — but it ends up being a powerful movie anyway. What made the case especially shocking is that both David and Diane seemed to have so much to live for — though they attended different high schools they’d become a (mostly) inseparable couple; they were both high achievers, honor students, and headed for careers as military officers, he in the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs and she in the Navy at Annapolis (the film shows both of them receiving their acceptance letters to those institutions). Early on in the film David is shown necking with Diane and clearly getting a bad case of blue balls; he’s keyed up and wants to take their physical relationship to the highest level and she’s equally insistent that she doesn’t want to give up her virginity, even to the man she insists she’s in love with and wants to stay with forever, but eventually after turning away from him she yields — and so it’s an intense shock to her when she learns that David had a sexual quickie with A.J., who’s on the women’s cross-country team at their school (he’s on the men’s track team, of course!); while on the bus on the way back from a meet, he massaged her injured knee and it led from there to a mutual seduction under the camper shell of a pickup truck in the rain.
Diane worms the secret out of David and then insists that A.J. “must suffer the consequences” of messing around with another woman’s man — and she makes it clear to David that the “consequences” she has in mind involve them luring A.J. out of her home, taking her to a secluded spot and killing her. They don’t seem all that interested in covering their tracks because they seem to think they’re such superior people (sort of like Leopold and Loeb) that by sheer force of will they’ll be able to keep their crime a secret — and indeed it seems to work for a while, as the police investigating the case reject both David and Diane as suspects (despite the testimony of A.J.’s parents and brother that she was lured out of the house by “some guy named David on the track team,” and there’s only one guy named David on the track team) because of their impeccable school records and interest in the military. Instead they focus on Bryan McMillin (Chad Carlberg, a tall, rather gangly blond actor less conventionally handsome than David Lipper but one who did considerably more for me, if only because he was playing the part on the thin edge of effeminacy that suggested his dorky, self-doubting approach to A.J. was in his mind his last hope of getting a girlfriend before he had to reconcile himself to being Gay), who’d cruised A.J. (to her disgust) and had mixed alcohol with his anti-depressants on the night of the murder so he really didn’t know where he was or whether or not he was at the murder scene, though he whiningly insists he didn’t kill anybody; and his father Jimmy (Randell Haynes, a considerably shorter and stockier man who doesn’t look like he could have fathered this person) rails at the cops and finally gets them to release Bryan for lack of evidence.
The case molders in the cold-case files for several months — we’ve seen a Christmas tree in the background during the murder sequence (powerfully staged in neo-noir style by director Colla, whose résumé is almost completely TV work; David lures A.J. into his white pickup truck, Diane is hiding in the back à la Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity — a film this reminded me of quite a bit if only because Diane seems a Stanwyck-esque femme fatale in training — and the original plan is for Diane to strangle A.J., only A.J. escapes and tries to get away and David is forced to follow her and shoot her twice with a handgun, held chillingly with both hands the way they would have taught him to do small-arms fire in R.O.T.C.), later we see David and Diane apparently in the clear attending the school prom, and it’s only after both of them have gone off to their respective military academies that Diane boasts about the murder to her roommates, one of whom takes her seriously enough to turn her in; and the cops back in Texas question David’s friend Ben, who admits that David and Diane came by his place afterwards, used his bathroom to wash off the blood, and asked him to lend them clean clothes, which he did.
The fact that the film was based on David’s police confession makes Diane seem more of a villain than he is — they both received life sentences and, not surprisingly, each blamed the other for the situation escalating to murder — and indeed, in his confession (the parts of it we see on screen as he’s typing it into a computer, and hear on the soundtrack as voice-over narration) he makes himself out as an innocent noir hero lured into a dirty deed by an evil woman.
The film is full of rich themes Colla and Johnson seem more to stumble over than actually depict, including the obvious clash between the two leads’ ostensible commitment to the military “code of honor” and they’re having killed someone in cold blood and industriously covered up for that (though the military authorities come off well in the story; they’re the ones who insist, again as a matter of “honor,” that David take the “lie detector” test that ultimately does him in), the whole extent to which Diane’s own exaggerated sense of her own “honor” as a woman leads her to get her boyfriend to “atone” for having had sex with someone else after he did so with her by killing the other woman, and the mephitic small-town atmosphere where the military and its values of order, authority and discipline (ironically reflected in the killers’ assumption that if they can just maintain their own self-discipline they can get away with the crime forever) rule so powerfully the police don’t want to believe, even as the evidence grows against David and Diane, that two such nice young people, the very model of what they want their youths to be, could be capable of murder. It’s a chilling movie despite the rather flat treatment it gets here — and the nice soft-core porn shots of David Lipper making hot, passionate love with both the women in his life (the one he will kill and the one who will help him do so and, indeed — at least according to this telling of the story — put him up to it) just adds to the film’s appeal.