Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Knife for the Ladies (1974)

The decaying town of Mescal in the Old West has a problem. This time, it’s not a conflict between ranchers and farmers. Instead, a series of murders has the place in its grip. First, someone knifed the son of the town-founding, ambiguously-named Mescal family, and now, probably the same killer spends his valuable free time murdering the local prostitutes. The town’s bourgeoisie calls in independent (none of that Pinkerton business for this town, and good on them) investigator Edward Burns (Jeff Cooper) from the Big City.

Once he’s on the case, Burns will not just have to solve a difficult and somewhat bizarre series of murders, he’ll also have to come to some kind of understanding with the local sheriff Jarod (Jack Elam, described in an early dialogue line as “a two-fisted bear of a man”, on which I couldn’t possible comment). Jarod’s not well-loved by his community: he’s old, his style of policing is a relic of supposedly simpler times, he’s frankly on the ugly side, probably doesn’t wash too regularly, and certainly doesn’t know how to conduct a police investigation. He’s also understandably angry about the changing times and the big-haired know-it-all detective romping through his town.

Even if one does not have anything good to say about Larry G. Spangler’s A Knife for the Ladies, beyond congratulating it for the bad pun in its title, one can’t help but admire the uncommon genre mix it is aiming for. Mystery western aren’t exactly common, especially not on screen, and one taking the cues for its mystery (and style of title, if we ignore the pun) from the giallo is even more unique. Of course, having a clever saleable idea for mixing genres and actually being able to actually mix them are somewhat different things.

At the very least, Spangler does give it an honest try, in an ambitious move turning the genre mix via the conflict between Burns and Jarrod into an actual part of the narrative (that’ll of course be resolved by the guys having a fistfight, the only kind of bodily contact these manly men are allowed to have), and he’s also clearly making an effort constructing an actual mystery that somewhat fits into the last breath of the Old West. The film’s not as clever about it all as I’d have wished – the dialogue is clunky and often more so thanks to clearly overextended actors in the smaller roles, and while the plot’s mix of Western, mystery and giallo generally stays interesting, it is not terribly exciting, and doesn’t lead too far into unexplored territory.

Spangler’s direction is perfectly okay for this sort of local production. Again, you can see the guy makes a very earnest effort that’s definitely good enough to be called solid, with editing, transitions, and camera work that are perfectly functional but which never really become quite as convincing a whole as I’d have wished for.

Jack Elam, character actor in more Western as one should care to count, seems to have a lot of fun with for once not playing the drunk deputy or something on that level but actually being the lead, playing the very typical Western role of the sheriff whose own aging and the changes of the world around him lead him into existential troubles he can only cope with by drinking too much and punching people. It’s certainly not the most subtle portrayal of this sort of thing I’ve seen (but then, neither is the way it is written), but I found it quite a joy to see Elam getting his well-deserved due in this way. He’s certainly acting circles around Cooper, who has very interesting hair and is quite the glowerer but is rather on the stiff side. Which is too bad, for some kind of intense, Old West Sherlock Holmes battling it out with Elam would certainly have been something to see.

If all this doesn’t sound like a very good movie, that impression is certainly not wrong. However, A Knife for the Ladies is a film with quite a few interesting ideas, made with earnestness and a degree of competence that certainly never left me bored. Add to that the joy of seeing Jack Elam stretching his legs a little, and I wouldn’t have missed seeing Spangler’s film for the world.

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