Saturday, May 29, 2010

Framed (1975)

Editor's note: this week's article is from novelist Wallace Stroby. His latest thriller (and it's a good one) is Gone 'til November

Framed is an easy film to respect, but a hard one to like. It’s an iconic ‘70s revenge drama, with a hard-boiled script that would have been the envy of any ‘50s noir. And it’s the final film from director Phil Karlson, who, in a four-decade career, brought Kansas City Confidential, The Phenix City Story, The Brothers Rico, 5 Against the House and other noteworthy crime dramas to the screen. It’s also one of the ugliest and most sadistic films to ever come from a major - if essentially journeyman - director.

Released in 1975, Framed was a follow-up to Karlson’s previous film, the surprise hit Walking Tall, and reunited him with its star, Joe Don Baker. Made for $500,000 and filmed on location in rural Tennessee, Walking Tall was the true-life story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, who was the victim - and perpetrator - of much mayhem while trying to clean up his crime-ridden county. In some ways, it recalled Karlson’s earlier Alabama-set Phenix City (in fact, many of the career criminals in Pusser’s real-life McNairy County had relocated there after being driven out of Phenix City by reform efforts a decade earlier). Walking Tall, of which Karlson reportedly owned a substantial percentage, went on to earn $23 million in the U.S. alone.

No surprise then that Karlson again teamed with Baker - and WT producer/screenwriter Mort Briskin - for a second backwoods revenge drama shot in Tennessee. Sporting one of the worst haircuts in movie history, Baker plays Ron Lewis, a nightclub owner and professional card player. He’s a careful gambler, but quick-tempered away from the tables. He’s doted on by his faithful girlfriend Susan, played by country singer - and one-time Motown artist - Conny Van Dyke (Van Dyke was just coming off Burt Reynolds’ W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. In 1974, Karlson told a syndicated Hollywood columnist that she “handles the heavy drama like a young Bette Davis.” You can be the judge of that.)

After returning from a lucrative Dallas poker trip, Ron stumbles onto a shooting on a lonely country road, and narrowly avoids taking a bullet himself. He escapes, but is then targeted, without explanation, by a sinister sheriff’s deputy (veteran Hollywood heavy Roy Jenson), sparking an intensely brutal and prolonged fight in the close confines of Ron’s garage. Eyes are gouged, groins slammed, heads butted and knees broken, until Lewis finally hammers the deputy’s skull to paste on the concrete floor.

Despite his claims of self defense, the battered Lewis is arrested, charged, and convicted in short order. The entire justice system - including his own defense lawyer - collude to put him away (after arriving at the scene of the fatal fight, the first thing the Sheriff does is steal Lewis’ poker winnings). In the meantime, Susan is attacked and raped by two hired thugs (“They used me”), in a scene that’s sparse on detail, but heavy on suggestion. They warn her off helping Lewis with his defense, a warning she takes to heart.

Lewis gets two-to-10 in the state pen, and almost as soon as he’s processed, he’s in trouble, roughing up an abusive guard and using a broken mop handle as a weapon. In the exercise yard, his card skills catch the notice of Sal Viccarrone, the mob boss who runs the prison, played by a post-Godfather, post-Love Story John Marley. “You got fast fingers, no mouth,” Sal says. “My kind of people.” Lewis is also befriended by imprisoned hitman Vince Greeson, played by former Bowery Boy Gabe Dell. Lewis wins new respect inside the walls, but still burns for revenge against those who put him there. Sal warns him to take it easy and stop bucking the system. “Don’t be a schmuck,” he says. “Play the odds.” In Framed, all the honorable men are behind bars. Everyone outside is corrupt.

Paroled after four years, Lewis goes home to try unravel the conspiracy that got him sent away, an echo of the quest John Payne’s character undertakes in 1952’s Kansas City Confidential. Lewis is joined in his efforts by the newly released Vince, who’s been given a contract to kill him, but sides with his old prison buddy instead. Armed with information from the town’s sole black deputy (Brock Peters), Ron and Vince gleefully dispense rough justice to a long list of malefactors, including the Sheriff - now the town’s mayor - and a state senator. However, that conspiracy is so labyrinthine, it almost defies explanation. Even by the film’s end, it’s hard to parse the exact details, especially since much of the explanatory dialogue is tearfully - and sometimes inaudibly - delivered by people being beaten, tortured or drowned (the recent bare-bones Legend Films DVD release has no subtitles).

During this third act, Framed gets truly ugly. Ron shoots off a man’s ear, then shoves an auto spark plug wire into his good one and revs the engine (and that’s after he's dragged him through an open car window by his nostrils). When the mayor refuses to give up the combination to his office safe, a grinning Ron uses a combat knife to pin his hand to a desk, then threatens him with castration. Vince stabs a guard dog to death, and another character is ripped to pieces - albeit mostly offscreen - by Dobermans. There’s also an impressive train/car collision that features some amazing stunt work. Baker’s double barely leaps clear of the car before impact. As he rolls away, he’s visibly engulfed - in slow motion - by the resulting fireball.



Despite these boundary-pushing set pieces, Framed is often hobbled by sub-TV-movie production values. One scene in a hospital room is so badly miked the dialogue is almost unintelligible. Wherever the money from Walking Tall went, it didn’t end up here.

Baker, an Actors Studio graduate who often found himself in sub-par drive-in fare (Mitchell, Speedtrap, Golden Needles and many others), is convincing as always, even if his character is underwritten (it’s implied Lewis is a Vietnam vet, but we know little about him besides that). Though he began his career with some notable Broadway appearances, Baker never really got the film roles he deserved. Despite the success of Walking Tall, he seemed to struggle as he moved from character actor to leading man. Prior to Framed, two of his best performances had come in supporting roles in which he had much less screen time, John Flynn’s The Outfit and Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, both in 1973 (he’s also excellent in the 1971 TV movie Mongo’s Back in Town, based on the novel by prison writer E. Richard Johnson). Burly, bulky and often disheveled on screen, Baker would hardly fit anyone’s image of an action hero today.



With a few exceptions, the rest of the Framed cast acquit themselves well, and Dell is surprisingly good as the sardonic hitman. Still, the film feels like an unapologetic programmer, made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a previous success, and feed the continuing appetite for rural action films that Walking Tall had helped create.

But roughhewn as it is, Framed is a fitting signature conclusion to Phil Karlson’s directing career, a hard-edged revenge drama from a director who made them his own.




3 comments:

  1. That fight between Baker and Jenson has popped up on YouTube as well. It's at http://bit.ly/b16W5U

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  2. Thanks for highlighting the film - and for doing it so well. A lot of these '70's titles are starting to look more and more interesting as the years roll up.

    One of my favorite Joe Don performances was his outing as an 'ugly American' Darius Jedbergh in the original UK television production of 'Edge of Darkness (1985) - recently re-made with Mel Gibson and with Ray Winstone as (I'm assuming) an equally ugly Brit.

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  3. Thanks for your thoughtful review. As you said, there's a lot to not like about Framed, but it managed to hold together just enough to be "interesting." Joe Don was typecast way early and, like all people in the business, figured out that money often takes precedence over "art." He had a pretty good turn (albeit in a too familiar casting) in Fletch, with Chevy Chase.

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