MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN--a screenplay by Don Knefel and Thomas Wolf
MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN tells the story of a young female newspaper reporter who undergoes a feminist and artistic awakening while covering the arrest and trial of a Midwestern farm woman accused of murdering her abusive husband. The young reporter is Susan Glaspell. At first, she has to convince her editor that she is mature and capable enough to handle this difficult assignment, and then as she is thrown into a new situation with no previous experience as a crime reporter, she must also prove herself to the male authorities investigating the murder. She undergoes a gradual transformation as she pursues the truth, learns the deeper story behind the crime, and comes to empatheize with the accused woman. Years later, Glaspell will write two canonical works in American Literature based on this experience: the one-act play TRIFLES and the short story "A Jury of Her Peers."
Based on the true crime book MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN: A MURDER IN AMERICA'S HEARTLAND and Glaspell's own newspaper accounts of the trial of Margaret Hossack, the story is told from Glaspell's point of view as she is sent to a small Iowa town to investigate and report on the crime and the ensuing legal process.
The film opens in the summer of 1916 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Glaspell, a successful novelist and short story writer, is sitting in front of a portable typewriter, attempting to write her first play. She thinks about her days as a reporter in Iowa. She flashes back to the winter of 1900.
Her editor sends her to a rural community to investigate a brutal murder. Glaspell learns that a prominent 59-year-old farmer named John Hossack has been killed in his own bed--struck dead by two blows from an ax. The victim's wife, Margaret, proclaims her innocence, but she is arrested at her husband's burial and charged with the murder. Glaspell soon figures out that the community has known for a long time about the domestic troubles in the Hossack household, but she also discovers that neighbors and Hossack family members are reluctant to tell what they know to the authorities.
When Glaspell goes to the town jail to speak to Mrs. Hossack, she meets the sheriff's wife and is told that Mrs. Hossack is unwilling to talk to reporters. William Berry, a prominent and dynamic local attorney, is hired by Mrs. Hossack's children to defend her. Glaspell develops a relationship with George Clammer, the young and ambitious county attorney. Eventually, the case goes to trial, and Glaspell is the only female reporter to cover the proceedings. An all-male jury--a jury of the victim's peers--is selected to judge Mrs. Hossack.
The trial is dramatic as the two attorneys present their cases before packed galleries. Clammer acknowledges that the victim was a harsh and abusive man and uses this fact to establish the motive for the crime. Berry attempts to persuade the jury that Mrs. Hossack was an obedient wife without the capacity for murder. Mrs. Hossack sits at the defense table, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She takes the stand and testifies that an unknown intruder attacked her husband.
Glaspell observes that Mrs. Hossack has considerable sympathy from the women in the community, but the women are largely silent and only a few are called to testify. Glaspell also notes that Mrs. Hossack is often comforted by the sheriff's wife, who sits by Mrs. Hossack throughout the trial. The bonding of the women makes a deep impression on Glaspell.
After eloquent closing arguments by both attorneys, the jury begins its deliberations. A day later, Mrs. Hossack is found guilty. Clammer asks for the death penalty, but the trial judge sentences her to life in prison.
Glaspell feels an injustice has occurred in the courtroom, though she still doesn't know for sure if Mrs. Hossack killed her husband. Before Glaspell leaves the courtroom, she has a tense and dramatic confrontation with Clammer, telling the county attorney that Mrs. Hossack was a victim of her circumstances with little recourse to a legal or societal remedy that would have allowed her to get out of her marriage.
The assignment has taken a toll on Glaspell. She decides that she does not want to continue as a reporter. She quits her job with the intention of pursuing a career as a fiction writer. In the spring of 1901, before she leaves the Midwest, Glaspell goes to the state prison to visit with Mrs. Hossack. Mrs. Hossack agrees to see Glaspell, and the two women meet face to face for the first time, touching hands through the bars of Mrs. Hossack's cell. Glaspell leaves with a new understanding of what happened and resolves to write about it.
The story flashes forward to the summer of 1916. Glaspell has written the play TRIFLES, a fictionalized retelling of the Hossack case. The play is performed by the Provincetown Players. In the premiere performance, Glaspell herself plays the role of one of the neighbor women.
MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN would be a relatively low-budget film, featuring an actress who would play the starring role of Susan Glaspell. While not a so-called "bio pic," the film is based on historical events and consistent with the life story of Glaspell. The structure of the film would be fairly conventional, with several flashback scenes and occasional voiceovers by the Glaspell character to capture her interior thoughts as the ordeal of Mrs. Hossack is portrayed. The historical setting, the courtroom drama, and the social, feminist, and literary themes of the story should appeal to a broad audience.
ABOUT THE CO-AUTHOR: DON KNEFEL is a graduate of Knox College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of three nonfiction writing textbooks and has been a newspaper columnist and college writing teacher.