First released in 1975, Deadly Hero tells the story of Edward Lacy (Don Murray).
Lacy is an 18-year veteran of the New York Police Department and a proud family man. Lacy is clean-cut, handsome in a blandly pleasant way, and he has a wife and several children. He’s a member of the Knights of Columbus and there are times when he imagines himself pursuing a career in politics. One of the first things that we see Lacy do is introduce an anti-crime mayoral candidate named Reilly (George S. Irving) at a Knights of Columbus rally. Lacy goes out of his way to make sure that he and his family make a good impression but Reilly barely seems to notice him.
Lacy is also a racist who enjoys pulling and using his gun. He was once a detective but a long string of brutality complaints has led to him being demoted back down to being a patrolman. He and his partner (Treat Williams, making his film debut) spend their time patrolling the streets of New York City, getting dirty looks and verbal abuse from the people who they are supposed to be protecting. Much like Travis Bickle in the following year’s Taxi Driver, Lacy obsesses on the crime and the decay that he sees all around him.
Sally (Diahn Williams) lives a life that is a hundred times different from Lacy’s. She’s a cellist and a conductor. She spends her days teaching and her nights conducting at an avant-garde theater. Sally and Lacy have little in common but their lives become intertwined when Sally is attacked and briefly held hostage by a mentally disturbed mugger named Rabbit (James Earl Jones). Responding to a call put in by Sally’s neighbor (Lila Skala), Lacy discovers Rabbit holding a knife to Sally’s throat in the hallway of Sally’s apartment building. At first, Lacy handles the situation calmly and he manages to talk Rabbit into not only releasing Sally but also dropping his knife. However, instead of arresting the now unarmed and docile Rabbit, Lacy shoots and kills him.
Knowing that he’s about to be investigated and that he’s made enemies in the department due to his political activities, Lacy convinces the still-shocked Sally to lie and say that she witnessed Rabbit lunging for Lacy’s gun before Lacy fired. Lacy is proclaimed a hero and soon, Reilly is inviting him to appear at rallies with him. Lacy’s political dreams seem to be coming true but Sally starts to feel guilty about lying. Realizing that Sally is planning on revealing the truth about what happened, Lacy goes to extreme measures to try to keep her quiet.
Deadly Hero is an interesting film, one that is certainly flawed but which ultimately works as a portrait of the authoritarian mindset. Ivan Nagy directs without much visual flair and, especially at the start of the film, he struggles to maintain a consistent pace. For instance, the scene where Rabbit initially menaces Sally seems to go on forever, long beyond whatever was necessary to convince the audience that Rabbit was a dangerous guy. (With the amount of time that Nagy lingers over shots of Sally being menaced by Rabbit, I was not surprised to read that Nagy and Dianh Williams apparently did not get along during filming.) That said, the film’s low budget actually works to its advantage, with the grainy cinematography giving the film a gritty, documentary feel. The film was shot on location in New York City and it’s interesting to watch the actors interact with real New Yorkers. While Lacy is never a sympathetic character, seeing the actual streets of New York does go a long way to explaining why he’s so paranoid. This is one of the many 70s films in which the overriding message seemed to be that New York City was the worst place on the planet.
The film is dominated by Don Murray, who plays Lacy as being a blue-collar fascist who has learned how to hide his anger and his hatred behind a quick smile and an outwardly friendly manner. Feeling confident that everyone will back him up, he has no hesitation about executing an unarmed black man. Even when it becomes obvious that Sally is not going to continue to lie about what happened, Lacy is still arrogant enough to assume that he can charm her into changing her mind. When that doesn’t work, Lacy becomes increasingly unhinged and vindictive. The film’s final ambiguous image suggests that there really is no way to escape the Edward Lacys of the world.
With its portrayal of a violent cop who is convinced that he will be protected by the system, Deadly Hero feels extremely relevant today. Of course, Deadly Hero also suggests that the same system that Lacy is exploiting can be used to take him down, with Lacy eventually being investigated by both Internal Affairs and the District Attorney’s office. The film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the rest of the police are as dangerous as Lacy. Is Lacy a product of the system or is he just someone who has figured out how to exploit the system? To its detriment, that’s a question that the film doesn’t answer. Still, much like Harvey Hart’s similarly underappreciated Shoot, Deadly Hero is an always-interesting and occasionally insightful look at the authoritarian mindset.