Saturday, May 5, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: HIT! (1973) and BADGE 373 (1973)

In recent years, with occasional exceptions, Paramount has shown little interest in getting their extensive catalog of library titles out on DVD and now Blu-ray.  A few years ago, they licensed several cult horror titles to Legend Films (among them THE SKULL, PHASE IV, THE SENDER, and THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY), and over the last couple of years, a number of titles have been farmed out to the relatively new Olive Films label.  Two Paramount crime thrillers from 1973 that earned cult followings through late-night TV airings in the '80s are just out on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive.


HIT! is an offbeat and frequently very strange thriller/character piece that often feels like what might've happened if French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville hadn't died in 1973, but instead came to Hollywood to make a blaxploitation flick.  It's directed by veteran journeyman Sidney J. Furie, who had just made the Diana Ross blockbuster LADY SINGS THE BLUES and was in one of his occasional ambitious phases.  It also reunites him with no less than four (!) of that film's co-stars (Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, Paul Hampton, and Sid Melton).  Williams is Nick Allen, a CIA operative whose 15-year-old daughter dies after being shot up with heroin by her shitbag boyfriend.  Nick doesn't just want revenge on the boyfriend or the pusher who sold him the drugs--he wants to go after the whole operation, attacking it at its base in Marseilles.  With the help of his hamburger-obsessed cop pal Dutch (Warren Kemmerling), Nick puts together a ragtag team of unlikely vigilantes, most with some drug-related tragedy in their past and all with government-related tax issues that he's willing to wipe clean if they help him out:  there's electrician Mike (Pryor), whose wife was raped and killed by a junkie; college prof Barry (Hampton), high-class call girl and heroin addict Sherry (Gwen Welles), and aging Jewish couple Ida and Herman (Janet Brandt, Melton), who recently lost their son to a drug overdose.  Nick takes them to an abandoned fishing town just past the Canadian border and intensely trains them and coordinates a complex takedown of the nine Marseilles drug lords who supplied the drugs that have, in various ways, profoundly changed all of their lives.

One of the chief complaints that's always been leveled at HIT! is its length.  Running an admittedly bloated 135 minutes, it's uncommonly long for a genre picture of its type (and was usually shown on TV in a two-hour timeslot, with commercials, which means at least 35 minutes had to be chopped out).  But is it just a genre picture?  Furie was never a "making a statement" type of director, though he did later make the budget-starved anti-nuke fiasco SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.  Furie's quality films are mostly confined to the earlier part of his career (he's still active at 79), with titles like THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) and THE APPALOOSA (1966), and even as late as 1982 with the supernatural horror film THE ENTITY.  By that point, he seemed to settle for being a hired gun and became a go-to guy to get genre films done on time, on budget, and without hassle, helming three of the four IRON EAGLE films and the 1992 Rodney Dangerfield comedy LADYBUGS before moving on to TV and straight-to-video.  But Furie's earlier days had a lot of promise and HIT! aims high.  A lot of screen time is given to the French drug lords, as we see them trying on expensive clothes, stuffing their faces with ludicrously lavish meals, living lives of privileged and often degenerate luxury and it's juxtaposed with the effects of their operation in the ghettos of America.  This could've easily been an 85-minute drive-in programmer focusing just on the revenge, but Furie and the screenwriters are going for more.  They give it room to breathe, room for the actors to work and room for the characters to be established (though prof Barry's backstory is still a little hazy).  A real camaraderie and sense of closeness develops with this odd group of people, which makes it all the more shocking once the bright red 1970s blood starts splashing across the screen in the final act.  Anchored by an intense, driven performance by Williams, HIT! is a frequently unbelievable and sometimes disorientingly odd film that rewards the patient viewer looking for something more than just another vigilante shoot 'em up. Olive's Blu-ray presents the film in a nice 2.35:1 transfer.  This would make a great double bill with Enzo G. Castellari's similarly-plotted but more straightforward THE BIG RACKET (1976), another film where a vengeance-obsessed law figure (Fabio Testi) assembles a ragtag group of enraged citizens whose lives have been ruined by the city's crime syndicate and corrupt law enforcement. (R, 135 mins).


A box office flop in 1973, BADGE 373 was another film "inspired by the exploits of Eddie Egan," the NYC supercop who also provided the basis for THE FRENCH CONNECTION's Popeye Doyle, which earned Gene Hackman an Oscar a couple of years earlier.  FRENCH CONNECTION producer Phil D'Antoni made an unofficial follow-up with 1973's THE SEVEN-UPS and there was the official FRENCH CONNECTION II in 1975, but Egan worked with producer/director Howard W. Koch for BADGE 373, and even appears in a supporting role as the lieutenant of Egan surrogate Eddie Ryan (Robert Duvall).  Ryan is a rule-breaking, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist Irish cop who gets suspended after a Puerto Rican suspect he was pursuing falls from a rooftop and everyone just assumes Ryan pushed him.  But when his partner Gigi (Louis Cosentino) has his throat slashed, Ryan is convinced Puerto Rican drug pusher/arms dealer Sweet William (Henry Darrow) is responsible and goes after him on his own time.  Like Popeye Doyle, Duvall's Eddie Ryan is a heroic figure, but thoroughly loathsome:  he's constantly complaining about "spics," "spades," and "Jew pricks," calls a junkie prostitute a "poked-up whore bitch," and barks at a perp, "You look like you take it up the chocolate-covered speedway."  Of course, we're supposed to root for Eddie because all he wants is justice, but he's pretty much a total asshole (I'd hate to see the character elements Egan didn't approve), even if it's probably an accurate portrayal for its era. 

BADGE 373's content is certain to offend some viewers in today's more PC times, but what a visual portrait of 1973 New York City!  Shot entirely on location in some of the city's seediest areas, BADGE 373 is fascinating on that level alone.  There's also the required post-FRENCH CONNECTION destructive chase sequence, and it's pretty good.  Not SEVEN-UPS good, but pretty good (it involves a foot chase through some tenements, leading to Eddie commandeering a city bus).  Written by iconic NYC columnist Pete Hamill, BADGE 373 loses some steam after its riveting first hour, and could've used some tightening in the second half, which focuses too much on Eddie's relationship with girlfriend of five weeks Maureen (Verna Bloom), who's perhaps the clingiest and most grating girlfriend in all of cop cinema.  Darrow, hiding behind sunglasses and a hilariously fake moustache, seems to be channeling Jack Palance and really hams it up in the climax.  An uncredited, pre-GOOD TIMES Jimmie Walker can be spotted hanging out on the steps in a tenement during the chase scene.  Not a front-to-back winner, but BADGE 373 the kind of tough, mean, outrageously politically incorrect relic of a bygone era that fans of '70's NYC grime will appreciate in this terrific-looking transfer, framed at 1.78:1.  (R, 116 mins)

1 comment:

  1. Great write-ups!

    Always wanted to see both movies. Will have to check them out on blu-ray. Love a good 70s crime flick.