What happens when a hard-nosed news organization gets a hold of an amateur film that maybe, just maybe, shows a gunman take aim on the grassy knoll. In 1975 Resse Schonfeld, who stewarded the film as an executive at United Press International’s moving pictures wing, told a true-life tale full of high-tech analysis, ex-CIA operatives, paranoia, and the sort of weirdness intrinsic to investigations of President Kennedy’s assassination. In advance of this republication, Schonfeld, who went on to be the founding president of CNN, contacted CJR wishing to add a second epilogue updating the film’s life since 1975. It can be found at the bottom of the piece.
Once, motivated by a combination of curiosity, circumstance, and ordinary commercial greed, I joined the team of nonconformists who have made the investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy a way of life. It is only now, nearly twelve years later, that my minor role in that investigation has come—I hope—to an end.
I was managing editor of UPI Newsfilm, the film service of United Press International, at the time President Kennedy was killed. As such, I was the custodian of two films taken of the assassination—which is how I became involved in the investigation. My part in that investigation ended this February when Dr. Kenneth Castleman, of the California Institute of Technology, and Alan Gillespie, of the image-processing center of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, concluded their part of the investigation.
But to take it from the beginning: three eight-millimeter cameras were pointed at or across the presidential car as Lee Harvey Oswald did or did not, alone or with others, fire the shots that killed John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. One camera belonged to a Dallas woman named Marie Muchmore, the others to Orville Nix and Abraham Zapruder, also of Dallas.
Standing in Dealey Plaza, shooting a camera which she seldom used, Miss Muchmore exposed several seconds of film as the last shot hit President Kennedy.* Miss Muchmore brought her film to UPI’s Dallas bureau on November 25. The deskman promptly telephoned Burt Reinhardt, general manager of UPI’s newsfilm division, who had flown to Dallas to acquire amateur footage of the assassination. “I’ve got a lady here who says she has a movie of the assassination. What do I do with her?” asked the deskman. “Lock the door,” said Reinhardt.
Reinhardt hurried to the office and set about shaking Miss Muchmore’s confidence in the value of her film by asking if she was positive that she was filming at the very moment of the assassination, if the film was in focus, if the exposure was right. UPI would be pleased to develop the film and see if it was any good and then make an offer, Reinhardt said, or, if Miss Muchmore preferred to play it safe, UPI would make a blind cash offer. Miss Muchmore chose to play it safe and accepted a check for $1,000.
Reinhardt took the film to the Eastman Kodak lab in Dallas. At first it seemed that Miss Muchmore had gotten the better of the deal. All we had was a grainy, jerky glimpse of the last seconds of the assassination and the confused aftermath; but back in New York we slowed the picture down, blew it up, zoomed in and stopframed and turned it into two minutes of respectable TV news. By the time we released the edited sequence, however, Jack Ruby had killed Oswald, the president‘s funeral had just occurred, and showing the film seemed in such poor taste that most UPI client stations chose not to show it.
Orville Nix, too, had been filming at the moment of impact, but his camera was aimed across the president’s limousine, right at the “grassy knoll” further down the street from the Texas School Book Depository. That evening Nix returned to Dealey Plaza to complete what he considered souvenir film by filming the Hertz time sign on the roof of the Book Depository. He then gave his camera to his son, who went to a high school football game and filmed Nix’s daughter, a majorette, as she paraded at halftime. Nix had sent this bizarre mix—an assassination, the Book Depository at dusk, two minutes of baton-twirling majorettes—to a laboratory to be developed.