Saturday, February 04, 2023

Murf the Surf, on MGM+

The great controversy of Jack Roland Murphy’s life remains whether his prison conversion to Christianity was legitimate or opportunistic. Documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler fully explores that question, but ignores the second lingering debate surrounding Murphy: should his nickname be spelled “Murf the Surf” or “Murph the Surf.” Either way, he led a colorful life and largely succeeded reinventing himself on multiple occasions. Cutler documents his life and crimes in the four-part Murf the Surf: Jewels, Jesus and Mayhem in the USA (with an “f,” but troublingly, no Oxford comma), which premieres tomorrow on MGM+.

Murphy was the ultimate Florida criminal of his time, who probably helped pave the way for
Miami Vice and Carl Hiaasen novels. He was a champion surfer (eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame), who developed a lucrative side-gig as a jewel thief (which quickly became his main line of work). He and his buddy pulled off the infamous theft of the Star of India from the American Museum of Natural History, more or less as an improvised lark. When they were arrested for the crime, their good looks and cool demeanor made them media sensations.

The Star of India heist was later dramatized in the 1975 movie
Murph the Surf (with a “p” and “h”), which Cutler and company scrupulously ignore. (It obviously could not encompass Murphy’s second act conversion, but Phillip Lambro’s jazzy soundtrack, featuring Bud Shank and Buddy Collette, grooves nicely.) It is rather convenient to end Murphy’s story when it did, but the truth is, he found himself serving a life-sentence for murder. According to the jury, Murphy and his accomplice Jack Griffith viciously killed Annelie Mohn and Terry Rae Frank in what became known as the infamous “Whiskey Creek Murders,” because they threatened to expose a stolen securities racket they were all involved in.

That temporarily put a damper on Murf/ph’s legend, but he managed to reinvent himself as a prison convert and outreach minister. It will surely be “triggering” for a lot of insecure people to see Rev. Pat Robertson show up in the docu-series, but like him or hate him, he really did do a lot of prison ministering. Maybe he was taken in by Murphy, or maybe not, but Robertson was one of many faith leaders whose testimonials helped Murf secure an early parole.

To Cutler’s credit, the mini-series never loses sight of the brutality of the Whiskey Creek case and the cold, hard fact that two young women lost their lives prematurely. As much time is devoted to Murphy’s later dissembling with regards to his involvement as to his swinging early years. It is a pretty crazy true true-crime story and the division of episodes is quite logical and balanced.

There is also a wide diversity of opinions presented on Murphy. Some people believe his conversion was sincere, while others consider him a sociopath. It is impossible to say for sure just from the series (and Murphy himself is no longer here to speak for himself), but viewers will likely form opinions for themselves, coming down on either side, after watching. That is very definitely something, but the four-parter could still use the snazziness of Lambro’s music. Recommended for true-crime bingers and fans of 1960s surf culture,
Murf the Surf starts streaming tomorrow (2/5) on MGM+ (formerly EPIX).