With an Oscar nomination for “The Violinist” (1959) and an Oscar win for “The Critic” (1963), short film animator Ernest Pintoff parlayed his career as a writer-producer-director-composer into feature films, initially staying within his preferred realm of comedy and satire with Harvey Middleman, Foreman (1965) and the spoof-film Dynamite Chicken (1971) before directing a pair of crime films – Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? (1971), and Blade (1973).
Most of Pintoff’s film work has vanished from wide circulation (although his short films are available on YouTube), leaving Blade as a rare example of his work – ambitious for the time, but deeply flawed. Pintoff apparently wanted to create a hybrid of the detective and documentary genres, and the script – co-credited to Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine) – is a fairly by-the-numbers thriller involving an aged, near-to-retirement cop named Tommy Blade (rumpled character actor John Marley) who’s called in to solve a problem case involving the brutal murder of a congressman’s daughter.
The writers drew from contemporary issues of political corruption, media handlers, ageism, and mentally corrupted servicemen (chiefly, killer Petersen, played by an imposing, lithe Jon Cypher), but there isn’t anything new in the material, except for Blade’s intriguing relationship with a popular crime novelist (Kathryn Walker), and being (presumably) a divorced father to a troubled teen. Marley underplays his role, which mostly works, but his best scenes are the quiet domestic moments with girlfriend Maggie in their well-worn apartment.
To boost the realism of the story, Pintoff apparently shot the film on location – ugly apartments, dirty police stations, inside cars, roofs, parks, and dimly lit shacks – and hired David Hoffman, a documentary cameraman, as his cinematographer, and the intended style seems to have been a fly-on-the-shoulder, with pre-NYPD Blue shakycam zooms, push-ins, and whip-pans, all edited together in a collage that often compresses time to create the illusion of an ongoing police investigation (not dissimilar to Richard Brooks’ docu-drama In Cold Blood).
The lighting is bare bones, the film stock fast and grimy, and while it all works with the film’s content, the camerawork is absolutely horrendous, and it’s a tough call as to whether the blame lies in Pintoff’s hands (assuming he directed Hoffman to mimic a shaky news camera style), or Hoffman simply had no clue where to place the camera, and filmed a series of takes using differing angles with zooms and push-ins galore. Editor David Ray (Scarface, The Bonfire of the Vanities) managed a small miracle in assembling the footage into a coherent and occasionally impressionistic narrative, but Hoffman’s chosen angles and unsupported camera are disastrous, be it simple in-car montages, interior conversations, or the climactic park fight between Blade and Petersen which is terribly choreographed, and gave Ray little material with which to construct a dynamic battle.
Code Red’s print is uncut – the killer’s assaults on his female victims are particularly nasty, specifically due to the doc-style camerawork – but the 1.78:1 transfer looks unnatural; either Hoffman deliberately let the actors’ heads and signage pass close to / disappear past the frame line, or the film was matted for exhibition from a 1.33:1 negative. (A murky, Italian-dubbed full screen print features less information on the right side, so the only way to verify its shooting ratio is to examine the camera negative. Given the film’s wonky artistic merits, it’s fair to assume this may be the film’s best presentation.)
If one can get past the visual headaches, Blade does offer an amazing list of character actors and up & coming stars who occasionally succeed in playing ordinary citizens in a big, grimy, corrupt city. Easily recognizable are Morgan Freeman in one of his earliest credited appearances, Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls) in a bit part, Steven Landesberg (Barney Miller) as a porn director, Ted Lange (The Love Boat) as a wrongly accused, Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) as Blade’s colleague, and prolific character actor William Price (Network, Rollercoaster) as the politician who seems more concerned with his career than the death of his pretty daughter.
The locations capture the misery of working class stiffs in a city whose scale seems to smother everything in sight, and John Cacavas’ score ranks as one of his best – initially providing twisted irony in the film’s opening (and very ugly) killing, and later supporting Blade’s own emotional turmoil as his career within the force is becoming wobbly.
Whether or not the film was a success is unknown, but Pintoff returned to TV, where had had been involved in tandem with his prior film work, and directed a slew of conventional crime, drama, mystery, and action shows, with just a handful of theatrical efforts – Jaguar Lives! (1979), Lunch Wagon (1981), and St. Helens (1981).
Co-writer Jeff Lieberman later wrote and directed the cult classics Squirm (1976), Blue Sunshine (1978), and Just Before Dawn (1981). John Marley’s career spanned more than a hundred TV appearances, plus small roles in films such as America America [M] (1963), Cat Ballou (1965), The Etruscans Kills Again (1972), Deathdream (1974), and Mother Lode [M] (1982).
Note: this titleis part of Code Red’s Detective Double Bill series, and includes vintage trailers and the Franco Nero thriller Ring of Death / Detective Belli / Un detective [M] (1969).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan