George Hodel Jr. was a shining star when he graduated from South Pasadena High in 1923. Already known as a musical prodigy, he had grown up on a Monterey Road estate in South Pasadena and was only 15 when he entered Caltech. Hodel became a gynecologist — respected, affluent, but also followed by whispers of scandal.
Hodel was a suspect in the 1945 murder of his secretary Ruth Spaulding, and that of Elizabeth Short, the famous Black Dahlia, in 1947. In 1949, his own daughter, Tamar, accused him of sexual abuse.
TNT’s limited series, “I Am the Night” offers a sideways glance at Hodel, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Tamar, imagining a noirish atmosphere of decadence in some of LA’s most famous places: LA’s Sowden House, Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills and San Marino’s Huntington Library.
Based on the memoirs of Fauna Hodel, George’s granddaughter (played here by India Eisley), “I Am the Night” follows Fauna as she leaves her home in Reno, Nevada and searches for her biological family in the 1960s, crossing paths with reporter Jay Singletary, played by Chris Pine.
Eisley was drawn to the series because she wanted to work with director Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”). A fan of unsolved mysteries, forensics and cold cases, Eisley soon realized who Hodel was. When she got the part she said she immediately ordered Fauna’s book, “One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.”
To play George Hodel, Jefferson Mays also turned to a book, written by Steve Hodel, one of the three sons George Hodel had with his third wife. Pasadenans might be familiar with the retired LAPD homicide detective who claims his father killed Short and numerous other women before and after her. In 2015, Steve Hodel spoke at the South Pasadena Library about his book, “Most Evil II: Presenting the Follow-up Investigation and Decryption of the 1970 Zodiac Cipher in which the San Francisco Serial Killer Reveals His True Identity.”
Mays said he was familiar with the Black Dahlia murder in “a cursory fashion,” recalling that at what was likely a too tender age he saw “those black and white lurid photographs of the transected body of Elizabeth Short alongside that road in a vacant lot in Los Angeles.”
The Tony Award-winning Mays says “I Am the Night” is not a retelling of the Black Dahlia murder, “but it looms menacingly in the shadows” throughout the mini-series, he says. “You’re always aware of it and it is pivotal in some ways, but it’s never thoroughly explored.”
Through the magic of cinematography, the interiors of Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills become the “interior” of Huntington Library. Greystone was the site of a real murder in 1929, but George never lived in those mansions. He did, however, live briefly in Sowden House in LA.
Mays is curious to hear what Steve Hodel thinks of the series. He was consulted for the series and did not want to comment until he had seen the whole series.
“I don’t think it treads on his territory,” Mays noted. “The great strengths of this piece is that it honors the mystery of it. It doesn’t try to wrap things up in a neat parcel at the end.” Instead, the series allows one to “dwell on this sick and twisted world and the mythic journey” Fauna takes to find out who she is. Mays found this to be “a fresh and reinvented world” with recognized tropes from the noir traditions of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler to which writer Sam Sheridan and director Patty Jenkins, along with two other directors (Victoria Mahoney and Carl Franklin) have given a distinctive twist.
This deliciously evocative dive into the racial divide and decadent glamor of LA’s past reminds us that #MeToo and Black Lives Matter aren’t addressing new problems. For many, America wasn’t so great in those times either.
“I Am the Night” premiered its first episode at AFI Fest last year. TNT begins airing “I Am the Night” on Monday, Jan 28.