Label: Twilight Time
Released: September 13, 2017
Genre: Action / Crime
Synopsis: A cop goes rogue after he’s arrested for a series of brutal murders committed by an ex-felon.
Special Features: Audio Commentary with actress Kathleen Wilhoite and producer / film historian Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track with some Mono cues / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
It’s hard to decide if J. Lee Thompson’s final years making movies for Cannon could be branded a reprieve from retirement for the veteran writer / editor / director, or the nadir of a skilled filmmaker who peaked with two magnificent back-to-back classics: the WWII epic The Guns of Navarone (1961) and the brutal revenge thriller Cape Fear (1962).
During his lengthy career, Thompson made 6 films with Charles Bronson, undoubtedly a sign of trust and professional respect, but perhaps the director just loved to make movies and took each job with stoic professionalism. Murphy’s Law certainly isn’t among his better Bronson films, but it is assembled with the slickness of a seasoned pro familiar with the DNA of a Cannon action flick.
There’s action, revenge, breasts, gunfire, sleaze, and motorcyles and cars that explode after being pierced with a handful of bullets. Even cops fire first before alerting suspects, and shoot in open public places because really, what could possibly go wrong?
Boasting workmanlike scenes and banal-to-awful dialogue, screenwriter Gail Morgan’s big break came when he wrote the story for Clint Eastwood’s The Enforcer (1976), and proved his mettle in exploitation with the Fred Williamson flick The Big Score (1983), but within the embrace of Cannon, Morgan also wrote Bronson’s Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) with Thompson directing, and soon moved to more prestigious TV series, such as Michael Mann’s Crime Story (1987-1988) and Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel (1992), both of which deserve proper DVD releases.
Perhaps the script was dumbed down to lessen Bronson’s wordcount and keep the film’s language more tame, but the most novel concept remains its most attractive: rogue and self-loathing cop Murphy is framed for murder by a female serial killer, played by Carrie Snodgress (The Fury).
Now, the revenge aspect makes no sense: Joan Freeman was crazy when she killed her boyfriend, and Murphy was just a beat detective among several who participated in her arrest and eventual incarceration, making it hard to see why Murphy is specifically singled out and saved for last; if he was the meanest, most abusive, crooked figure to partake in her conviction, we certainly don’t see it in Bronson’s version of the character.
No matter, as similar to Thompson’s far meaner revenge-serial killer hybrid 10 to Midnight (1983), it’s about the hunt for a killer before the hunter becomes its prey. Murphy’s Law is more linear in turning a cop into a fugitive, with each friend, ex-wife / stripper Jan (topless Angel Tompkins) and some of their relations blown away, strangled, electrocuted, suffocated, and cross-bowed to death – elaborate kills that make it appear Thompson maybe suggested variations in murder like his CanCon serial killer classique Happy Birthday to Me (1981). Joan’s first kill, private dick Cameron (Lawrence Tierney), is also a gender-reversal of the pre-rape barrel-in-the-mouth opening scene of Gordon Willis’ lone directorial debut, the dour Windows (1980), in which a rapist tells his victim (Talia Shire) to “Say Ahhh.”
Thompson delivers plenty of action and more than a few dynamic action set-pieces that will please Bronson and Cannon connoisseurs, and the use of real Los Angeles locations is exemplary for embracing and enhancing the film’s skid row veneer. The set décor in Murphy’s pitiable basement pad is an appropriate jumble, and Joan’s room in the still-standing Barclay Hotel is coated in grime, worn mis-matched greasy carpet, and edible but never delectable boxes and cans of vittles. The real treat comes at the end when Joan lures Murphy to the gorgeous Bradbury Building (seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) and glimpses of the Million Dollar Theatre, which rests across the street.
Bronson plays Murphy straight, while Snodgrass kind of overplays Joan with plenty of huffing and grimacing, adding some fromage to the generic plotting. Tomkin’s two topless striptease sessions are surprising in casting an older actress in a role contemporary producers would’ve reserved for younger actresses, and the fine cast is filled with familiar genre and TV actors.
Folded into the production is Thompson’s son Peter, who cut several of the elder’s Cannon films and William Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980) and Exorcist III (1990); Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland as co-producer; and Ireland’s son Valentine McCallum co-composing the heavy synth score with Marc Donahue.
Perhaps the glue that binds the story together is the character of mouthy Arabella McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite), a street youth who steals Murphy’s car in the film’s opening, and is later handcuffed to the disgraced detective as the pair run around L.A. and its hilly environs to make sense of the killings and track down the culprit.
Wilhoite transcends what could’ve been an annoying character with energy and humour, and almost manages to sell the terrible non-profane insults that, according to the actress, replaced racier language in the original script. The mouthfuls of pubescent insults are ridiculous if not bizarre, but they’re part of the film’s camp value and its legacy as a classic Cannon Bronson action film which defied the derision of critics, still pleased fans, and has outlived the company which began its gradual implosion around this time.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray includes a very casual, often frank discussion between TT’s producer Nick Redman and Wilhoite, and although it tends to be more conversational, there are plenty of anecdotes and hysterical Bronson imitations by the often underused, underappreciated character actress who almost lays bare her own trials which perhaps prevented Wilhoite from breaking into better projects and stronger roles. A singer and songwriter since her teens, she also croons the film’s goofy eponymous song over the End Credits.
Donahue and McCallum’s score is very uneven; the latter’s guitar work is first-rate, but the synth cues vary from effective, generic, and misplaced, showing the pair were still fairly green as film composers. The BR features the full score isolated largely in stereo – a few early tracks are in mono – and this is probably the music’s most complete presentation. (A prior Silva Screen compilation from 2000 featured 3 sets of edited cues.)
The HD transfer is very nice, and although the film’s final mix is straight mono, it’s clean and evenly balanced, if not lacking some needed oomph for the explosions. Julie Kirgo’s essay affectionately praises the production’s use of grubby ‘pre-gentrified’ locations, Snodgress’ performance, and Bronson’s ‘Tartarian’ eyes which, in his most formulaic films, offer more character insight than his full visage. He may be one of the few actors (including CLint Eastwood) capable of transcending meager roles with squinting eyes.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review