Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Framed (1975)

For once, gambler and bar owner Ron Lewis (Joe Don Baker) wins big. So big, he’ll be able to pay off the bank and actually own his bar. Alas, on his way home with the bag of money in his car, he stumbles upon a crime, is being shot at, and has barely reached his home when he is accosted by a deputy sheriff who most certainly wants to kill him for some reason Ron will need years to understand.

Ron’s tough, though, so instead of a dead gambler, there’s a dead cop in his garage now, which is an improvement on the alternative only in so far as our hero is now alive to be arrested for cop killing. To add insult to injury, the Sheriff and his cronies steal Ron’s money, and put quite a bit of work in to land him in prison. Hiring thugs to rape and threaten his girlfriend Susan (Conny Van Dyke) so that she’s too broken to help him or herself, changing police documentation – it’s all in a day’s work. Because this charming little Southern small town is going for the prize as most corrupt town in the USA, even Ron’s lawyer is part of the bad guys. Consequently, he lands in prison for the crime of self-defence, is apparently left by the woman he loves for no good reason, he life turning into a particularly harsh honkytonk tune.

In prison, Ron at first seemingly aims for getting himself killed right quick by doing everything to piss off the guards (and when in doubt other prisoners too). Fortunately, our hapless protagonist does leave a positive impression with gambler and mafia big shot Sal (John Marley) by taking a knife for him, so Sal takes Ron under his wing, teaching him the art of laying low until one is released, and promises help when needed. Because Ron’s a personable guy, he also becomes friends with professional killer Vince (Gabriel Dell), a friendship that just might save his life later on.

For once he’s released, Ron does of course return to his stinking hole of a home town to take vengeance on the men responsible for his incarceration and get back his money; and that’s before he learns why he never heard anything from Susan. Oh, and he might just have to find out what’s actually going on. Apart from his prison buddies, Ron will find an unexpected ally in deputy sheriff Brock Peters (Sam Perry) who has his own perspective on what his “colleagues” and other parts of the deeply corrupt town have been up to, thanks to him being what appears to be the only black cop in town.

Framed’s director Phil Karlson had been active in filmmaking since the 40s, with a handful of 50s hard-boiled noirs being particular jewels in his crown. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Karlson didn’t phase out from the big screen to work for TV in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he found a home in the exploitation market where veterans able to shoot quickly, on budget but with a certain panache were probably more than just a useful commodity. Consequently, he didn’t end his career on some anonymous TV stint but on his second feature with the great Joe Don Baker after Walking Tall.

Framed is a fine note to end on, too, for while there are certainly technical flaws typical for the seat of your pants filmmaking of exploitation movies visible on screen from time to time – particularly the editing seems pretty rough in a few scenes – the film has energy in spades. Much of this energy is a practical demonstration of how effective Karlson’s on paper somewhat blunt and direct style could be in practice. Karlson wasn’t the kind of guy to go for fancy camera work, overtly stylish framing or anything visibly arty in most of his films, but there’s a directness to the action scenes here that makes these scenes irresistible and riveting, belying the film’s small scale again and again by feeling big. The violence on screen has an hard edge, with fights that feel ugly and authentic for most of the time. Baker’s self-defence killing of the deputy is particularly brutal, emphasising the stakes at hand. And even though Karlson isn’t a fancy director, that doesn’t mean he’s stupid: he tends to shoot fights so close to the combatants you can see sweat (there’s a lot of sweat in the movie) dripping and spittle flying; from time to time, he also adds flourishes of grim humour, like late in the film when one character is thrown out of a window and we only hear but don’t see a dog ripping him to shreds.

Karlson’s other main virtue is his willingness and ability to leave space for his actors to inhabit, so Joe Don has ample opportunity to let his particular kind of screen presence bounce off a bunch of great character actors. This sort of thing is always a joy to watch and in Framed often adds moments of dark-humoured whimsy to the generally brutal proceedings. Ron’s relationship with Vince is a particular joy in this regard.

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