Retro Television Reviews: The City (dir by Harvey Hart)


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1977’s The City.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

“Civilization began when man realized that he could not survive alone. He left the wilderness and built his citadels, security against intruders and erosion from within. The cities of the world have since become the crossroads of trade and ideas. Ideas that have made the human race more powerful than primitive man could ever have dreamed. Among these was an invention, a machine that conquered to contemporary enemies of man: time and distance….”

So goes the opening narration of 1977’s The City.  The narrator is the veteran character actor (and television producer) William Conrad and, as he speaks, we sees images of the California desert eventually being conquered by the growing city of Los Angeles.  It’s a bit of a portentous opening for a film that turns out to be fairly standard police procedural but it makes sense when you consider that The City was apparently meant to be a pilot for an anthology series about the people of Los Angeles.

The City features Mark Hamill, shortly before Star Wars would turn him into a cultural icon.  Hamill plays Eugene Banks, a sweaty, wild-eyed petty criminal who has made his way to Los Angeles from Texas.  Banks manages to get a nice apartment and a job working at a gas station.  One day, after a lawyer demands that Banks fill the tank of his Porsche, Banks snaps.  He grabs a wrench and attacks the car.  Then, he attacks the lawyer, beating the man until he dies.  Banks proceed to go on a crime and killing spree across Los Angeles, flashing a particularly scary-looking knife whenever he gets the chance.

Searching for Banks are two mismatched cops.  Matt Lewis (Robert Forster) is the tough-as-nails, emotionally reserved veteran with a bad knee and a determination to catch the bad guys.  The case becomes personal for Lewis after Banks kills his partner.  Brain Scott (Don Johnson) is a shaggy-haired country boy, much like Banks.  Brian comes from a wealthy family and is a bit more idealistic in his approach than Lewis.

Banks, it turns out, is obsessed with a country singer named Wes Collins (Jimmy Dean).  Banks not only resents the fact that Collins has everything that Banks has ever wanted but he’s also convinced that Collins is actually the father who abandoned him when he was a baby.  Banks wants to get revenge and he’s not going to let anyone, whether they be a bystander, a cop, or a dog, stand in his way.

Yes, Eugene Banks kills a dog in this film.  Fortunately, it happens off-screen but it’s still an indication of just how different this role is from Hamill’s best-known live action role.  As the two cops, Forster and Johnson work well together and bring their somewhat stereotypical characters to life but the main reason most people will watch this film will be for the chance to see Mark Hamill play an absolute lunatic.  With the exception of his somewhat dodgy Texas accent, Hamill does a good job with the role.  He’s got the crazy eyes down and he’s actually frightening when he attacks the lawyer at the start of the film.  The film itself is a bit predictable (i.e., the mismatched partners learn to work together, the bad guy gives a speech at an inopportune time) but The City is worth watching for the cast.

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