By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Black cop accepts bribe .
Terence Sneed (Billy Dee Williams) is a San Francisco cop brought to Paloma, New Mexico to help take down local crime boss Victor Manso (Vic Morrow). The only problem is that Manso invites Sneed over to his place and offers him a significant amount of cash to get on his ‘payroll’ and thus allow him to get away with his crimes. Sneed is also informed that another top official in the police department, Captain Frank Dolek (Albert Salmi) is on the take as well. Sneed accepts the cash, but then double-crosses Manso by having Dolek secretly tailed where he finds out who all of Manso’s connections are and uses this info to try and bust Manso’s drug operation, which ends up being a tall order that gets Sneed in hot water not only with Manso, but with his police supervisor Chief Berrigan (Eddie Albert) as well.
The film is based on the 1970 British novel ‘Sir, You Bastard’ by Gordon Frank Newman, which became a bestseller and set-off a series of three books that he wrote around the Sneed character. There were though differences between the book and movie as in the novel Sneed was white and worked in Scotland Yard. The one thing though that remained the same was Sneed being unscrupulous and working outside the system.
The fact that the protagonist accepts bribes and most of the way it’s unclear whether he’s even a good guy at all is what makes the movie interesting and helps differentiate it from the other early 70’s cop action flicks. This is the complete opposite of Serpico where the cop refused all bribes and vigorously fought against it. Here we see the other angle. Instead of the main character being on the outside looking in he’s a part of the corrupt system and in order to survive in it must be willing to play along, which I found more realistic and insightful as someone who’s able to totally rise above the evil environments they’re in is rare and therefore we get more of an everyman’s perspective here. It also works against the ‘Save the Cat’ book, which has become the bible of today’s screenwriters, which insists that the main character must be likable for the movie to work. Here Sneed is anything but and at certain points when he forces an overweight suspect (Robert Miller Driscoll) to take-off his clothes and do jumping jacks in humiliating fashion to the amusement of the other cops he becomes downright nasty, but in-turn it makes the movie less formulaic, which too many movies today have become.
Williams’ skill as an actor helps to keep the character engaging and he gets great support not only by Eddie Albert as his exasperated superior, but also surprisingly by Frankie Avalon who has a small, but memorable bit as a drug dealer who initially comes-off as quite cocky, but melts dramatically once inside the interrogation room. Unfortunately for Vic Morrow, who’s played some classic villains in his career, his presence here doesn’t work. This is mainly from his get-up including dyed blonde hair and at one point a pseudo cowboy outfit, which looked campy. I also didn’t like that it’s shown right away that his character has heart problems, which telegraphs a major vulnerability that instantaneously sets the viewer into expecting that this will predictably lead to his eventual demise.
As for the action I felt it started well particularly the opening courthouse ambush, which is well choreographed with a funky score, but it becomes rather pedestrian after this. Having the main character misjudge things like when he tries the intercept Manso’s transporting of illegal goods, but ends up chasing down the wrong van each time, which were intentionally being used as decoys, was refreshing because in too many other police movies the hero cops always gets things right the first time and his hunches are never proven wrong, which again is just not how things work in reality. Either way it’s not as exciting as it could’ve been with a lot of car chases and action scenarios that ultimately prove to be generic in nature.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: May 5, 1974
Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes
Director: Robert Hartford-Davis
Studio: Columbia Pictures