Movies Till Dawn: Character Actor Spotting in ’70s Crime Movies

738329206598The Laughing Policeman” (1973, Kino Lorber) A gunman opens fire on a San Francisco transit bus, killing everyone aboard, including an undercover cop (Dave Costello) working an unsolved murder case involving a businessman (Albert Paulsen) accused of dispatching his wife. The cop’s partner (Walter Matthau) – who has become obsessed with solving the businessman case – is given the grim task of sorting through the background of each victim to find any connection that could lead to the killer, which leads to some unsavory people and places on the fringes of the Bay Area; helping him sort through the mess is detective Bruce Dern, whose charm-based approach to police work clashes with Matthau’s by-the-books determination. Stuart Rosenberg (“Cool Hand Luke”) directed this adaptation of the crime novel by Swedish authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with an eye towards grimy realism and a solid balance of strong violence (a nod to the then-recent “Dirty Harry”) and methodical police investigation. And if the motive for the murders leans on outdated stereotypes, the team-up of Matthau and Dern – both playing against their ’70s-era screen personas (funny/cranky and crazy) – is polished enough to get past those rough patches; they’re well abetted by such all-pro players as the great Anthony Zerbe (angry lieutenant), Louis Gossett, Jr. (cool detective) and Joanna Cassidy (cagey nurse). Character actor devotees will revel in the familiar faces dotting the supporting cast, including Val Avery, Paul Koslo (as a very creepy dealer), Gregory Sierra, Cathy Lee Crosby, Frances Lee McCain, Mario Gallo (who gets his head shoved in a urinal), Clifton James, Matt Clark and fist-faced Louis Guss. Kino’s Blu-ray includes appreciative and informative commentary by “Cinema Retro” editor Lee Pfeiffer and historians Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo, as well as a lively chat with Koslo, who discusses his career playing bad guys and working with Matthau and Dern; the original trailer, as well as previews for several of Kino ’70s cop titles, including the great Matthau starrer “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Busting” and “Report to the Commissioner,” round out the fine disc.

product_3036Shadows in an Empty Room” (1976, Kino Lorber) The poisoning death of his kid sister (Carole Laure) sends Ottawa police captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) on a singled-minded campaign to ferret out the killer using his standard methods of investigation – beating the tar out of suspects and/or ventilating them with his much-loved .357 Magnum. American International Pictures’ one-sheet – reproduced on Kino’s Blu-ray cover – suggested to Stateside audiences that “Empty Room” was a horror film (and hinges on a minor character played by Tisa Farrow), but the Italian-produced, Canada-lensed feature (issued at various times and in various territories as “Blazing Magnum,” among other titles) plays more like a particularly frantic slice of the violent cops-and-robbers antics of his native country with an underdeveloped dash of giallo murder mystery (there’s a masked killer bumping off witnesses) thrown in for taste. As the Dirty Harry carbon, Whitman cruises through scenes in his usual laconic-narcotic manner until irked, whereupon he transforms into a grimacing, hands-all-over menace; the supporting cast of ex-pats, including Martin Landau, John Saxon and Gayle Hunnicutt, do their best to stay out of his way. The picture’s main appeal is a handful of elaborate action setpieces, the best of which is a jaw-dropping car chase that appears to wreck most of downtown Montreal, though special mention should be reserved for the scene in which Saitta tries his ape-cop tactics on a trio of burly transvestites and gets his corduroy-clad ass handed to him. Kino’s Blu-ray release this Scorpion Releasing title includes an English-language trailer and previews for other ’70s action-suspense titles from their library, including the creepy “Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane” and “Killer Force.”

738329206611Trouble Man” (1972, Kino Lorber) Stage and TV vet Robert Hooks plays Mr. T, a Los Angeles-based “fixer” who smoothes over static in the black community, largely with his steely (but stylish) presence. Among those currying his favor at his pool hall headquarters are Chalky (Paul Winfield) and Pete (Ralph Waite from “The Waltons”), a salt-and-pepper partnership who need T to put a lid on thugs breaking up their integrated gambling dens. The ploy is, of course, a ruse – Chalky’s smooth patter and Pete’s low-boil racism all but ensure it – meant to rip off a local kingpin, Big (the imposing Julius Harris) and pin it on T. But as Marvin Gaye’s title track tells us, Mr. T doesn’t care about no trouble, and sets about putting things right to the tune of some .45 caliber accompaniment. “Trouble Man” gets a bad rap from a lot of reviewers, which is (I think) based on the fact that it’s a straight-ahead, no-nonsense crime picture in the vein of “Shaft” (which shares producer Joel Freeman and writer John D.F. Black) or “Across 110th Street,” and not an over-the-top “blaxploitation” title. The action is intense at times, especially when T gets around to fixing Chalky and Pete in the film’s final third, but director Ivan Dixon (Kinchloe from “Hogan’s Heroes”) is equally interested in pacing, plot and character, all of which are delivered with grit and low-key style. And though beloved by crate diggers, Gaye’s sinuous and brooding soundtrack also deserves wider renown, as it’s on par with Isaac Hayes’ score for “Shaft” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” LP. The character actor spread in “Trouble Man” lacks a lot of household names, but there are plenty of deep-cut players (William Smithers, jazz singer/actor Bill Henderson, Gordon Jump from “WKRP,” tough guys Felton Perry and John Crawford) to keep the spotters happy. Kino’s Blu-ray includes informal but enjoyable commentary by Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson and Howard Berger and the original trailer.


About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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