The First Police Story: Slow Boy (1973, directed by William A. Graham)


Long before The Wire, Homicide, Chicago PD, NYPD Blue, or even Hill Street Blues, there was Police Story.

Co-created by cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh, Police Story aired on NBC from 1973 to 1978.  It was an anthology series, with each episode following a different member of the LAPD as they deal with crime and social issues in Los Angeles.  For its time, it was ground-breaking in its realistic approach to the life and work of the police.  Interestingly, the show wasn’t always blindly pro-cop.  Often the cops featured were deeply flawed and the war on crime was frequently portrayed to be unwinnable.  Over the course of its run, Police Story was a regular Emmy nominee and won the award for Best Drama Series in 1976.

Police Story started, in 1973, with a two-hour TV movie.  At the time it aired, the pilot was called Stakeout but it has since aired in syndication under the title Slow Boy.  Vic Morrow stars as Sgt. Joe LaFrieda, a plainclothes detective who can’t keep his marriage together but who can take criminals off the street.  LaFrieda is the second-in-command of a special squad of detectives who specialize in watching and taking down high-profile criminals.  Their methods frequently come close to entrapment but they usually work.  Their current target is Slow Boy (Chuck Conners), the son of a mafia chieftain, who enjoys robbing stores.  When LaFrieda’s first attempt to put Slow Boy in jail is thwarted by a liberal judge and departmental bureaucracy, he and the squad come up with a second, less-than-legal plan to take Slow Boy down.

Considering the involvement of Joseph Wambaugh, it’s no surprise that plot is secondary to exploring the day-to-day lives of the blue-collar cops trying to take Slow Boy down.  The heart of the movie is in the scenes of the cops shooting the breeze and trying to keep each other amused during length shakeouts.  Their humor is often grim and the fascinating dialogue is cynical, dark, and, even by today’s standards, surprisingly raw.  One of the detectives (played by Harry Guardino, who specialized in loud-mouth city cops) is an unapologetic racist.  Though he gets a comeuppance of sorts, the way the film and the rest of his squad handle his racism will undoubtedly make modern audiences uncomfortable, even if it is authentic to the era in which Slow Boy was made.

The underrated Vic Morrow gives one of his best performances as the tough but sympathetic LaFrieda, who is bad at everything but his job.  He is ably supported by a host of familiar character actors.  Ed Asner plays LaFrieda’s reactionary lieutenant while Sandy Baron is great in the role of an informant.  Diane Baker was also perfectly cast as LaFrieda’s potential girlfriend.  (She first meets the detective while Slow Boy is holding a gun to her head.)  Finally, Chuck Conner is as intimidating as always as the sadistic Slow Boy.

Slow Boy is a tough and uncompromising police procedural and it provided a great start for Police Story.  Reruns of Police Story currently air on H&I on Sunday morning.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Women of San Quentin (dir by William A. Graham)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  She’s got over 170 films to watch before the end of 2017!  Will she make it?  Who knows?  She recorded 1983’s Women of San Quentin off of Retroplex on January 25th.)

For some reason, back in January, I felt the need to record several prison movies off of cable.  I’m not sure where my mind was at that I would see a title like Women of San Quentin listed in the guide and think to myself, “That’s something I definitely need to record.”  Maybe I was thinking of pursuing a career as a prison guard.  That seems to be the easiest way to get a show on A&E nowadays.

Anyway, I imagine that anyone reading this review is looking that title and considering the VHS cover art and they’re probably assuming that Women of San Quentin is some sort of Cirio Santiago-directed women in prison film.  And then consider the film’s cast: Amy Steel is best known for Friday the 13th Part II and April Fool’s Day.  Stella Stevens is an exploitation film vet.  One of the prisoners is played by Rockne Tarkington, who starred in a handful of blaxploitation films.  William Sanderson, star of the infamous Fight For Your Life, has a small role.  Yaphet Kotto plays a prison guard here but he’s best known for playing the villain in Live and Let Die.  Gregg Henry plays a sociopath.  Hector Elizondo and Debbie Allen play sympathetic guards.  Even Ernie Hudson, a now-respectable actor with several less-than-savory films on his resume, shows up.  Finally, consider this: Women of San Quentin was written by Larry Cohen, the man who directed both Black Caesar and It’s Alive.

However, despite all of that, Women of San Quentin is not an exploitation film.  Instead, it’s a made-for-TV movie.  (Director William A. Graham has over a hundred TV shows and made-for-TV movies to his credit.)  It follows several storylines.  Lt. Janet Alexander (Stella Stevens) is the tough-but-fair captain who is in charge of one of San Quentin’s most intimidating cell blocks.  She’s great at her job and she has a vaguely romantic relationship with Hector Elizondo but she’s also tempted to find a new career.  Charles Wilson (Ernie Hudson) steps up to lead the prison’s black inmates after another activist is assassinated.  Meanwhile, the leader of the Mexican Mafia plots a prison riot and Yaphet Kotto and Debbie Allen use any means necessary to discover what’s going to happen.

And then there’s Liz Larson (Amy Steel), the newest prison guard who struggles to prove that she belongs in San Quentin.  Sexist colleagues play cruel pranks on her.  The prisoners shout at her whenever she walks past their cells.  When she has to use a gun to break up a fight, she hesitates just a second too long.  Will she be able to step up when real trouble breaks out?  Among horror fans, Amy Steel is remembered for “surviving” several slasher films.  (Her performance as Ginny in Friday the 13th Part 2 largely set the standard for which all final girls are judged.)  Steel does a pretty good job as Liz but, actually, the entire movie is well-acted.  The script is frequently rudimentary but the cast is full of unique talent and it’s always fun to watch so many good actors playing opposite each other.

I assume that the Women of San Quentin was meant to be a pilot for a TV show or something.  It just has that feel to it.  If just for the cast alone, I would recommend watching Women of San Quentin if you get a chance.  I’m as surprised as anyone but, after all, where else are going to get a chance to watch Hector Elizondo, Yaphet Kotto, Stella Stevens, and Amy Steel all hanging out in a bar together?  There are certain opportunities that you just don’t miss.

A Movie A Day #76: Harry Tracy, Desperado (1982, directed by William A. Graham)


The year is 1902.  The old west is coming to an end.  Almost all of the famous outlaws are either dead or imprisoned.  Only a few, like Harry Tracy (Bruce Dern), continue to make a living by robbing banks and trains.  Though he is often captured and even sentenced to death a few times, Harry is always able to escape.  His latest escape, from a prison in Washington, has led to the largest manhunt in American history.  Harry is being pursued by a trigger-happy army, led by U.S. Marshal Morrie Nathan (played by singer Gordon Lightfoot).  Harry has been in this situation before but this time, things are different.  Harry is traveling with Catherine Tuttle (Helen Shaver), the daughter of a local judge.  Harry and Catherine are in love but that does not matter to the men with the guns.

Harry Tracy is a sadly overlooked and elegiac western from Canada.  It is based on a true story.  Outlaw Harry Tracy really did escape from several prisons and he eventually was the target of the largest manhunt in U.S. history.  (His relationship with Catherine was apparently created for the film.)  In real life, Harry was reportedly considered to be more ruthless than Jesse James and he killed not only members of law enforcement but also members of his own gang.  The movie’s Harry is a much more gentle character.  In the film, Harry only kills in self-defense and he robs banks not because he’s greedy but because it’s the only life that he has ever known.  Harry is a relic of a time that it coming to a close.  In one scene, he is shocked to come across a man driving a car.  For an outlaw who usually makes his escape on horseback, the new century does not hold much promise.

In the tradition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Harry Tracy mixes comedy with tragedy.  The film’s defining image is Harry fleeing from his latest robbery and dropping most of the money in the process.  Harry often seems to be bewildered by all the fuss that people are making over him.  Bruce Dern and Helen Shaver are great as Harry and Catherine.  Even the casting of Gordon Lightfoot works.  (Lightfoot also wrote the movie’s theme song.)

Harry Tracy is an overlooked classic about the end of the old west and the beginning of the modern era.

Back to School Part II #29: A Friend To Die For a.k.a. Death of a Cheerleader (dir by William A. Graham)


death_of_a_cheerleader

Over the past couple of year, I’ve had so much fun making fun of Tori Spelling’s performance in the original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? that I almost feel like I have an obligation to review a movie in which she gave a halfway decent performance.

That film would be another 1994 made-for-TV-movie.  It was apparently originally broadcast as A Friend To Die For but most of us know it better as Death of a Cheerleader.  That’s the title that’s used whenever it shows up on Lifetime.  There actually was a time when Death of a Cheerleader used to show up on almost a monthly basis but that was a while ago.  Lifetime has since moved on to other movies about dead cheerleaders.

Technically, as my sister immediately pointed out when I made her watch the movie, the title isn’t quite correct.  Though Stacy Lockwood (Tori Spelling) does try out for and is named to her school’s cheerleading squad, she never actually gets to cheer.  Instead, shortly after the school assembly in which her selection is announced, Stacy is found stabbed to death.  But really, Death of A Future Cheerleader doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

As for who killed Stacy … well, it’s no secret.  This is one of those true crime films where the murderer is not only portrayed sympathetically but is the main character as well.  Angela Delvecchio (Kellie Martin) was a high school sophomore who was obsessed with trying to become popular.  She looked up to Stacey and desperately wanted to be her best friend.  (Why she didn’t just offer to bribe Stacey, I don’t know.  Maybe she hadn’t seen Can’t Buy Me Love….)  When Stacey got a job working in the school office, so did Angela.  Of course, the school’s somewhat sleazy principal (Terry O’Quinn, coming across like John Locke’s worst nightmare) only made it a point to talk to Stacey and pretty much ignored Angela.  When Stacey applied to work on the yearbook, so did Angela.  When Stacey tried out for cheerleading, so did Angela.

In fact, the only time that Angela stood up to Stacey was when Angela was taunting the school’s token goth (played by Kathryn Morris).  That turned out to be a mistake because Stacey never forgave her.  When Angela invited Stacey to a party, Stacey was reluctant to go.  When Stacey did finally accept the invitation, Angela stabbed her to death.

A Friend to Die For/Death of a Cheerleader is based on a true story and the film tries to lay the blame for Angela’s crime on the affluent neighborhood she was raised in.  Just in case we missed the message, the film actually features a Priest (played by Eugene Roche) who says that the community put too much pressure on Angela to succeed.

Uhmmm….okay, if you say so.

Seriously, this is a pretty good little true crime film and both Tori Spelling and Kellie Martin give really good performances but this whole “It’s society’s fault” argument is typical, mushy, made-for-TV, bourgeois liberal BS.  Angela picked up the knife, Angela committed the crime, end of story.  That said, A Friend To Die For is pretty good as far as these movies go.  I already mentioned the performances of Spelling and Martin but also keep an eye out for Marley Shelton, who gets a really good scene in which she explains that she never liked Stacey that much while she was alive.

You can watch A Friend To Die For/Death of a Cheerleader below!