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Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995)

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Carl Panzram is sent to Leavenworth Prison for burglary. While there, he is brutally beaten by a guard. Neophyte guard Henry Lesser feels sympathy for Panzram, befriends him, and gets him ... See full summary »


Tim Metcalfe


Thomas E. Gaddis (book) (as Thomas Gaddis), James Long (book) | 1 more credit »
2 wins & 2 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
James Woods ... Carl Panzram
Robert Sean Leonard ... Henry Lesser
Ellen Greene ... Elizabeth Wyatt
Cara Buono ... Esther Lesser
Robert John Burke ... R.G. Greiser
Richard Riehle ... Warden Quince
Harold Gould ... Old Henry Lesser
John Bedford Lloyd ... Dr. Karl Menninger
Jeffrey DeMunn ... Sam Lesser
Conrad McLaren Conrad McLaren ... Judge John W. Kingman
Steve Forrest ... Warden Charles Casey
Richard Council ... Cop
Christopher Petrosino Christopher Petrosino ... Richard Lesser
Michael Jeffrey Woods Michael Jeffrey Woods ... Harry Sinclair (as Michael Jeffery Woods)
Rob Locke Jones Rob Locke Jones ... Junkie


Carl Panzram is sent to Leavenworth Prison for burglary. While there, he is brutally beaten by a guard. Neophyte guard Henry Lesser feels sympathy for Panzram, befriends him, and gets him to write his life story. Lesser learns that Panzram's past is much more violent than he thought, but also that he's capable of being a much better person than the rest of the prison staff believes - or so Lesser thinks. Written by Jon Reeves <jreeves@imdb.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Liar. Thief. Murderer. He hated all of humanity, himself most of all.

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for strong language and strong, brutal violence, including a rape | See all certifications »






Release Date:

6 September 1996 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Killer See more »

Filming Locations:

Connecticut, USA See more »


Box Office

Opening Weekend USA:

$31,993, 8 September 1996, Limited Release

Gross USA:

$65,682, 15 September 1996
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby SR


Black and White | Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Matthew Broderick and Robert Downey Jr. were considered for the role of Henry Lesser. See more »


When Carl Panzram begins narrating the beginning of his journal the text shown doesn't match the narrative. The text states that Panzram is a liar, a degenerate, and a murderer, while the voice over immediately jumps into his early childhood and upbringing. See more »


Carl Panzram: Hey chicken ass, good day for a hanging, huh?
See more »


Referenced in Tomorrow by Midnight (2001) See more »


Music by Bill Elliott
Performed by Bill Elliott & His Orchestra
Sung by Jeff Gilbert
Courtesy of Windswept Pacific Entertainment Co.
See more »

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User Reviews

Escape from Shawshank Cliches...
3 February 2004 | by MovieAddict2016See all my reviews

All films that take place in prison are essentially focused on one central theme, and that is survival. Clint Eastwood was a survivor in "Escape from Alcatraz" and so was Tim Robbins in "The Shawshank Redemption."

One of these stories was anchored in reality and the other was purely fantasy. But both had the same theme and so does "Killer: A Journal of Murder."

The primary difference between "Killer" and "Shawshank" is that the latter is greater than the former in many various ways. But the former is also based on fact, which makes it more important--in some ways--than "Shawshank." But "Shawshank" had more spirit than the former and the former's morals don't come across as strong as the latter's.

The latter, regardless of it being a completely false tale and a semi-copy of "Alcatraz," is a much better story. Even if Stephen King wrote the short story.

It's the true story of a petty thief (James Woods) who claimed to have murdered twenty-one men during the 1930s, and was sent to prison under the care of a devilish warden and a new worker who had a mysterious connection with him (Robert Sean Leonard). Their relationship is never very convincing and the film doesn't do a very good job of making us care for either of its characters.

Acting as a tertiary consumer, the thief kills the secondary consumer, The Bad Guard (Robert John Burke). The thief is moved to a new jail cell afterwards. He has all the cigarettes, books and magazines he could wish for, not to mention a larger cell. "I shoulda killed a man ages ago," says the thief.

Is he crazy or not? Did he brutally beat the bad guy via a split personality, or was he in a right state of mind? This is the question that the film wants to press--whether the man was injustly hanged--but it never takes the idea any farther than a fleeting moment in the mind of the good jail guard who understands that prison is wrong. Hey, no society is perfect. You want them all to be let loose on the streets? You don't have any better ideas about capital punishment? Then quit whining.

There are too many ideas in a film such as this. First we have the touching story of a jail guard who becomes best buddies with the notorious criminal who inhabits the place. Then we move into the Danger Zone of cliches--the mean warden, the bad jail guards who are bad for no reason, etc. Then we move on to the journal written by the thief and we get a half-hour flashback of the man's life. Then we're back in the present and everything turns into a murder trial. Then we get an unsatisfying ending where the good guy blows all his money buying beer. Say what?

Essentially these types of films in this type of genre rely on likable characters to carry them towards the touchdown. "Killer: A Journal of Murder" has none and isn't very inspiring in any sort of subtle way, which makes me wonder why--and how--it ever got green lit in the first place.

James Woods is a good actor because he can lend himself to various characters in various situations. He played a criminal in Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America," too, but he also played a radio talk show manager in "Straight Talk" and a nasty bird in "Stuart Little 2." He's played a cop before and he's played an everyman before and he's played a doctor before. He plays everything.

Surprising, then, that this movie relies entirely on Woods' performance for support--and entirely fails.

There's nothing wrong with it except that there's nothing behind it. There's no life in this petty criminal he portrays--a man who may or may not have been insane but was hanged in the 30s anyway. Woods lends no likeability or believability or characteristic traits to this man he is portraying, and in the end he comes across as a pointless incarnation of a man whose life, perhaps, never even merited the Hollywood treatment in the first place.

This is the type of stuff Oscars are crafted and polished for, but the director had it mixed up from the get-go.

The common conception is that it is hard to survive in prison. This is a well-known fact. But it's also very hard to survive yourself. That is why prison is representative of more than just bars and criminals--prison relates to all of us, and we all relate to the confinement of prison. But the common misconception is that prison automatically makes a good film. It's the exact opposite. You've got to have the material first, then put the prison in as a sort of metaphorical bridge for the characters to pass over.

No one does any passing in "Killer: A Journal of Murder." It's sort of depressing in a non-depressing sort of way.

2.5/5 stars.

  • John Ulmer

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