Thursday, April 22, 2021

In short: Trapped (1973)

aka Doberman Patrol

Chuck Brenner (James Brolin) is in a bit of a complicated divorce situation right now. His ex-wife Elaine (Susan Clark) is just about to move to Mexico with her new husband David (Earl Holliman) and her and Chuck’s daughter (Tammy Harrington), and relations are understandably strained. On the day of their departure Chuck, trying to shorten the wait for some change for a doll he was buying for his kid just before the store closed (it’s – needlessly -complicated) by having a smoke in one of the few places in the department store where smoking is actually okay, the rest rooms(!), is mugged and struck unconscious by two criminals of dubious talent.

When he wakes up, he is trapped in the department store and soon finds himself confronted with a very special security measure. Apparently, the powers that be are in favour of just letting half a dozen kill crazy attack dogs roam the store over night without any human supervision, so Chuck has to use all his wits and physical strength to survive.

Outside, Elaine and especially David start worrying about him, doing some slow detective work to find him.

Frank De Felitta’s (of The Entity fame) ABC movie of the week is a fine example of the form, conquering the relatively minimalist production values of this sort of thing via clever suspense filmmaking, as is typical of the better of these films.

De Felitta (who also wrote) makes great use of Brolin’s often underused abilities as a physical actor (see also Night of the Juggler) in the locked-in suspense sequences, while increasingly constraining the character physically and emotionally. For this is a film very interested in portraying the mental toll the physical strain, the horror of the situation and his wounds will take on its main character. It uses simple yet highly effective methods (there is Vaseline on the camera involved, it seems) to convey Chuck’s increasing desperation and physical and mental exhaustion. The dog actors are also good enough to present a credible threat, particularly when the direction uses every possibility to make put them above our protagonists or in other positions where they seem to physically dwarf Brolin.

The film’s other plot thread with the search for Chuck is less obviously engaging. It is slower, with quite a few TV clichés and very 70s character psychology (my working theory at this point is that all 70s scriptwriters read the same two self help books and confused that with a knowledge of psychology). Yet it is also a necessary part of the film, keeping the inevitable slow moments away from Chuck’s dog adventures, and clearly added with the understanding that you can’t escalate the man versus dog centre of the film endlessly without it becoming slightly silly.

This approach does work out well for Trapped in the end, leaving it as yet another fine example of what talented filmmakers were able to create inside of the constraints of the TV movie form.

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