The Jinx

The Unluckiest Man in the World

Season 2

Episode 4

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: HBO

For as much attention as Robert Durst’s hot-mic confession brought The Jinx in the explosive finale to its first season — the hottest mic, I would argue, since Detective Frank Drebin’s press conference over securing the queen’s visit in The Naked Gun — it was not directly pertinent to Durst’s eventual prosecution for the murder of Susan Berman. Director Andrew Jarecki admitted to doing what filmmakers often have to do, which is to make some necessary edits, which the defense would argue was misleading and shaved away some important context. But the “cadaver note” was another story. By finding another piece of Durst correspondence that matched the block lettering on the cadaver note and the conspicuous misspelling of “Beverley Hills,” the filmmakers had made a true evidentiary breakthrough in the investigation.

“The Unluckiest Man in the World” focuses almost entirely on the note, and it’s completely riveting — not for taking a victory lap like the first episode this season but for reminding us why the victory lap was earned in the first place. Here, the prosecution’s case aligns perfectly with the logic established by Durst himself on the show, which is that “whoever wrote the note had to be involved in Susan’s death.” It’s odd, in retrospect, to think about Durst putting on his detective hat and saying a line that he’d come to regret later, but it’s certainly a less tortured explanation than “whoever wrote the note did so because he found the body and wanted to alert the police so he wouldn’t be unfairly suspected of committing the murder.” Whatever the case, it had to be surprising even to Jarecki & Co. that the note — and related testimony regarding Durst’s whereabouts at the time of the murder — would affect the trial so dramatically.

The first major revelation in this episode is that another man, Nyle Brenner, was the chief suspect at the time, not Durst. (A surprise given the “disappearance” of Durst’s first wife.) Described as an entertainment manager who represented actors and a handful of writers, Brenner had Berman as a client and supposedly had a contentious relationship with her. As Charles Bagli puts it here, “I think he lent her money as much as he earned her money.” There seems to be little doubt that Berman was a difficult person to deal with — a common thread among all of Durst’s friends, it seems — so the motive attached to Brenner was that he got sick of dealing with her and shot her in the head. Three other factors were working against Brenner: He wrote his name in big block letters that also made it “highly probable” that he could have written the cadaver note, he failed a polygraph test, and he snuck into Berman’s house through a kitchen window after it had been taped off as a crime scene.

The Jinx transitions out of the Brenner subplot a bit too hastily without giving enough weight to either the polygraph test or the break-in. Instead, it accepts that the police eventually lost interest in Brenner as a suspect and focuses on how his handwriting could introduce reasonable doubt in the case against Durst. If there’s any chance that Brenner had written the note, then John Lewin and the prosecution team would have trouble pinning it definitively on Durst. The episode then moves on to the important priority of establishing Durst as being in Los Angeles at the time of the murder — which is fine, but, again, a little too speedy a pivot away from Brenner, whose motives and actions deserve more scrutiny given the questions raised about it.

Nevertheless, the episode moves forward to its most exciting turn of events, built around Durst’s oldest friend and lawyer, Stewart Altman, and Altman’s wife, Emily, who had known him for over 40 years. Investigators had known for a long time that Durst was in California at the time of Berman’s murder, but he had flown into San Francisco, not Los Angeles; the two cities are a significant stretch of coastline away from each other. Lewin and his team attempt to pry information out of Durst’s second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, but that effort goes nowhere owing to spousal privilege. (A privilege, the film emphasizes, that was established by the two getting married in an office with no witnesses on December 11, 2000, about two weeks before Berman’s murder.) So attention shifts to the Altmans, who prove only slightly less vexing to interrogate. Even establishing that Stewart isn’t bound by attorney-client privilege takes a special motion.

The courtroom footage involving the Altmans is astounding — Stewart’s is an absurdist comedy, and Emily’s is a high drama. As a lawyer himself, Stewart knows well how to bob and weave on the stand without perjuring himself and without giving prosecutors anything they can use. That means wasting time over the definition of the word confidant — shades of Bill Clinton saying, “It depends on what the definition of is is” — and getting ridiculously vague over the Lexus that Durst gifted the Altmans, which Stewart says had “four doors.” He even complains to the judge about needing the questioning to move along because he has to return to New York for his law practice. He succeeds in filibustering his way out of incriminating his buddy.

Emily proves to be less practiced. She’s nervous in her pretrial interactions with investigators, and Lewin feels nerves from the defense team, too, that she might be hiding some damaging information. Sure enough, when Lewin asks Emily on the stand about whether Durst had told her he was in Los Angeles, she doesn’t say “no” but “God, I wish I could remember,” which is enough of a crack for Lewin to wedge through aggressively. With the defense objecting strenuously and futilely about Emily being under attorney-client privilege, she ends up placing Durst at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles at the time of the murder — a fact that he’d spent 19 years denying.

From there, the unthinkable happens. Durst concedes the point that he in fact wrote the cadaver note. So the defense goes from Durst, not Los Angeles, not writing that incriminating note, to Durst actually discovering his friend’s body and alerting the police in a bid to avert suspicion. That’s a much fishier defense, one that his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, seems to admit without words is not the wisest tactic for them to take. Worse still, the likelihood of Durst himself taking the stand now increases, raising the possibility that he’ll trip up under questioning against lawyers who are far more professionally skilled at getting incriminating responses than Andrew Jarecki.

“It is the defendant’s choice,” DeGuerin explains to Jarecki when asked about Durst testifying. This is another way of saying that the choice was definitely not DeGuerin’s.

• When asked if Durst told her why he wanted her to marry him, Charatan gives seemingly the longest pause in human history before saying “no.” Truly a love story for the ages.

• Love Durst’s ungainly yearbook quote: “We DURST not criticize this Bob/Whose activities make him stand out from the mob.”

• Emily Altman: “Jewish, wealthy men don’t kill people — not when they’re friendly with my husband since high school.” Very specific definition of who is and is not capable of murder.

• The prison calls between Durst and Stewart Altman, used as part of a motion to separate him from Durst’s defense team, are comically banal, from long conversations about what’s on TV to Durst talking about the “giant dump” he took that morning. The judge deadpans, “It was not a professional context.”

• Durst bitterly recounting and mocking Emily’s testimony in a prison call does not exactly make him seem like an innocent man. “Well, they were never known for their brilliance,” he says of the Altmans.

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