In the 1970s crime films morphed into sadistic vigilante fantasies about tough-guy heroes avenging terrible crimes against their families. Veteran noir director Phil Karlson directed the bruiser’s bruiser Joe Don Baker in a standard tale of violent vengeance, with the violence factor given an extra bloody boost.
KL Studio Classics
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date February 28, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Conny Van Dyke, John Marley, Gabriel Dell,, Brock Peters, John Larch, Warren J. Kemmerling, Walter Brooke, Paul Mantee, H.B. Haggerty, Roy Jenson.
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Film Editor: Harry W. Gerstad
Stunts: Carey Loftin, Gil Perkins, Buddy Joe Hooker
Original Music: Pat Williams
Written by Mort Briskin from a book by Art Powers & Mike Misenheimer
Produced by Joel Briskin, Mort Briskin
Directed by Phil Karlson
Time for another curiosity review, of a grindhouse gut-basher from the 1970s — a subgenre I avoided when new.
I think my favorite no-nonsense noir ‘n’ crime director of the 1950s is Phil Karlson, who when teamed up with cameraman Burnett Guffey could do no wrong. After his sensational — yet ‘minor’ — The Brothers Rico and Gunman’s Walk, Karlson had to change with the times. He moved on to success on TV (The Untouchables) and commercial projects of decreasing quality (The Silencers, Hornet’s Nest). At the very end of his career everything changed. Karlson was suddenly being written up in newspaper supplements for his work on a huge breakout hit of 1973, Walking Tall. In the 1950s, the Production Code put a damper on the edgy film content pioneered by Karlson. His films could only suggest that cops might take a bribe (Tight Spot) or that organized crime is so entrenched that it’s unstoppable (The Brothers Rico). Karlson’s masterpiece The Phenix City Story says that some city and state governments are be murderously corrupt, and depicts the murder of a black child to inflame audience emotions toward vigilante lawlessness. Twenty years later, Karlson and his producer made in Walking Tall a veritable ode to vigilante lawlessness, a showcase picture that cheered Sheriff Pusser, a righteous lawman as he fought back against gangsters. It made a star of Joe Don Baker and launched an entire genre of movies about ‘decent folks’ fighting back against a corrupt, elite establishment. Here are the roots of populist discontent.
Although it had been adapted from a true story, Walking Tall just seemed hypocritical as it set up all that brutality to justify Pusser’s outrageous revenge reaction. Karlson immediately teamed with his producer and star for another go at the Tough Guy righteous violence subgenre. Joe Don Baker does without a true story or even one with a moral foundation. A good guy gets Framed, and spends a full hour dispensing violent justice to the villainous scum that ‘done did him wrong.’
Business is good for bar owner Ron Lewis (Joe Don Baker), and his eife Susan Barrett (singer Conny Van Dyke) is a popular attraction at the piano bar. But Ron can’t resist doing what he loves, high-stakes gambling. Against Susan’s wishes he flies to a high-roller game in Texas, and comes home with a real boodle — hundreds of thousands of dollars. But just after Susan convinces him to bank and invest his take, Ron tangles with a mysterious shooting out on the road, followed by an assault by a murderous lawman (Roy Jenson) that leaves him in the hospital facing a murder charge — and his money mysteriously missing. The mob thug Frank (Paul Mantee) rapes Susan and threatens her with worse if she doesn’t keep quiet. Ron is railroaded into a prison stretch, where his gambling skill makes him an ally of hit man Vince (Gabriel Dell) and top mobster Sal Viccarone (John Marley), a fixer who manages to get himself and Vince paroled. Ron’s release follows in four years. As soon as he’s out, he dedicates himself to tracking down the men who robbed and framed him. Aid comes from inside the Sheriff’s office — policeman Sam Perry (Brock Peters) feeds Ron relevant information. Meanwhile, the new Sheriff Morello (Warren J.Kemmerling) and his captain Bundy (John Larch) try to provoke Ron Lewis into an unlawful act… so they can toss him back in prison, or kill him.
Framed wastes little or no time developing a moral code for Ron Lewis to uphold; he’s just a guy trying to make good, and the old rules of family, the Church or The Law are not invoked to justify his righteous mayhem. ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ is reduced to a simple ‘go for the money.’ Ron Lewis is already adept at earning a living through gambling, a profession where one should expect to get on the wrong side of dangerous people. The script is initially unclear on how Ron finds himself in a position to be framed, but we’re pretty sure that it’s just a coincidence that he happens to witness a roadside crime while carrying his bag o’ cash in the front seat of his convertible. From then on it’s one scene of overdone violence after another. Ron’s set-to with the deputy involves head- smashing and eye gouging until both of them look like hamburger meat. After the crooked sheriff has taken Ron’s cash and rigged his prosecution, Susan is mauled and (off-screen) raped. She later says she was ‘used,’ which I figure doesn’t mean she was forced to do light housework. The hypocritically moral Walking Tall featured a rather spectacular scene with a girl in a bar wearing a see-through blouse, but Framed limits its violence against women and has no nudity. The concentration here is on all-male blood, bash-ups and mutilation. Only the villains’ belief that Ron doesn’t know who framed him keeps them from killing him on sight. But we’re treated to plenty of displays of sadism. Ron purposely shoots a man’s ear off (good makeup) and then tortures him by sticking a car battery lead wire into his other ear. The good acting of Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes the scene highly efficacious. Ron repeatedly escapes from dedicated hit men, even when they perform in teams. Cars ram cars and Ron arranges for one set of killers to be hit by a freight train.
Perhaps this is a good time to praise Joe Don Baker, who puts an intelligent face on Good ol’ Boy brutality. Baker has always been extremely likeable, and of course excelled in non-exploitative roles, for Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel and John Flynn. His bruiser persona made him a jolly replacement for Felix Leiter in the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies. I hate to say it, but Joe Don makes Framed more than palatable. His reactions hold our interest, and we want to find out how he arranges to come out on top.
As with Walking Tall, the script sidesteps any hint of racism, and even tosses in the good actor Brock Peters as a parallel righteous soul who feeds Ron information in the hopes that the corruption in the city government will be overthrown. In the old Phenix City Story, blacks were murdered to terrorize whites (?), by default establishing the crusading good guys as champions of Civil Rights. The villains here include John Larch, who twenty years before played a mouth-breathing murderous moron in Phenix. Karlson also taps Walter Brooke to play a scheming, cowardly politico. Brooke will be forever remembered as the drunken family friend in The Graduate, the one who excitedly tells Dustin Hoffman the magic word for success, “Plastics!”
Yes, forget about any moral messages in this ’70s bloodbath. What great lessons it teaches — once in prison, Ron Lewis becomes fast friends with a Mafia bigwig and a sleazy hit man, who of course serve as useful allies later on. John Marley is excellent as a paternal Godfather, that Ron defers to and calls ‘sir.’ Gabriel Dell is a big surprise — a check on the IMDB reveals that he was one of the original Dead End kids, and for a while was a featured player in Bowery Boy movies. Dell’s mob killer is a good egg, and actually funny. Framed really needs those laughs as it shows that prison is a swell place to make rewarding personal connections. Who needs Junior College?
Not so appealing is singer and songwriter Conny Van Dyke as Ron’s long-suffering girlfriend. She sings three songs, but inexplicably doesn’t even come off as a good singer. Susan’s stunned reaction to being raped and terrorized is readily understandable, and the insensitive Ron makes little effort to help her sort out her feelings. That she continues to hang around as Ron and Vince bring holy hell down on their heads is less believable. Susan’s only reaction to one round of mayhem is to look at Ron with a clueless sigh, “I just don’t understand you.”
Elsewhere, Framed is as crude as a vigilante picture can be. H.B. ‘Hard Boiled’ Haggerty is outrageously threatening when he promises to ‘murdalize’ Ron, a convicted cop-killer. Ron rather ill- advisedly calls H.B. out with the charming invite, “First time I ever saw a tub of shit in a suit.” Rather than face him in a fair fight, Ron arranges for the bruiser to be clobbered by heavy roll of tarpaper dropped from a great height.
Framed is a prime contender in the post- Dirty Harry vigilante sweepstakes that soaked ’70s screens in socially bankrupt entertainments like Death Wish and The Farmer. By the end of the decade, humorless vigilante heroes would be using torture devices and flamethrowers to eliminate drug dealers and scummy extortionists. The onerous subgenre ended at The Cannon Group with more Charles Bronson ‘Death Wish’ entries. I think it was Death Wish 2 in which Bronson’s architect- turned mass murderer Paul Kersey, after ninety minutes of violent sleaze, offers a four-word deadpan explanation for all the degradation and evil he must fight: “It’s those damn drugs.” Back in the Cannon Trailer department, we laughed ourselves silly at that one.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Framed is a good encoding of this wholly commercial cash-in on the wave of vigilante movies. A big hit in the South, it is decently directed but not at all as visually impressive as Phil Karlson’s earlier pictures. Karlson, who was in for a big percentage, likely retired on the proceeds from Walking Tall and this film, for it was his last.
Kino is regularly offering audio commentaries now, although they vary wildly in quality. Framed is done justice via a joint talk-track with expert Nathaniel Thompson and the well informed Howard S. Berger. Thompson’s web specialization may be horror and fantasy but he shows himself equally adept with other genres and mainline Hollywood fare. We get nice bios on everybody, and even some needed explanations for the film’s occasional opaque plot turns.
Kino also gives us a stack of trailers for some other crime-oriented releases — in a menu where they belong, not stuck before the main feature. And like most new Kino releases, English subs are provided as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Good +
Sound: Good +
Supplements: Audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 26, 2016
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson