Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This Week’s Feature Presentation:
BLACK EYE (1974)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk-till-dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable—then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!
Fred Williamson was a famous football star, playing for both the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs. He was also one of the first black action heroes, a muscular, lithe, handsome presence onscreen and off. He was a hit with the ladies, but he didn’t degrade them in his pictures. Nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ in his gridiron days, he could fist fight with the best of them, and even better, the cat could act. The Hammer was nobody’s whipping boy. Instead, he built a long career by playing smart guys, detectives and cowboys and gangsters with real soul. Williamson was first noticed in the TV show JULIA, co-starring with the lovely Diahann Carroll. This was followed by a string of classic blaxploitation films, including HAMMER (1972), BLACK CAESAR (1974), HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), THAT MAN BOLT (1973), and THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), where he shared billing with two other hot African Americans, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. A textbook classic of its kind, THREE THE HARD WAY is a wild ride, but it’s been seen by everyone and is readily available. You all know I would find something else to discuss here, right? You bet your sweet…Shut your mouth!
BLACK EYE (1974) is like a Sam Spade plot gone horribly left of center. In it, Williamson plays Shepherd Stone (natch), a down-on-his-luck private detective with little money in his pocket and an office in the back of a local pub. He’s been thrown off the force, see, because he kept beating up pushers. His beautiful girlfriend who lives downstairs (played by the luscious Teresa Graves—a regular on LAUGH IN, she later starred in the TV drama GET CHRISTIE LOVE and the movie OLD DRACULA-1975), is a bisexual who’s started dating an older white woman who owns a modeling agency, played by the great Rosemary Forsyth (SHENANDOAH-1965, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?-1969 and 2001’s GHOSTS OF MARS). After interrupting the girls in flagrante, he shamefully returns to his run-down apartment. But first, he hears a noise in the flat of his neighbor, a hooker who has several side businesses going. When he investigates, he finds her dead, and an Aryan/Nordic type of man attacks him with a gold-tipped walking stick, the top of which is sculpted into a dog’s head. The blond man gets away, and our hero calls the cops, who promptly ask him to help them on this case. You know, since he’s already involved and all.
Shepherd Stone is also asked to look into the disappearance of a young girl by her father, played by Richard Anderson (FORBIDDEN PLANET-1956 and he was Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN). These two cases lead Stone to a sordid porno studio, sordid parties of the very rich, sordid broken-down carnivals, and the local church where the girl was last seen. The church is run by a slimy preacher who may or may not be running a cult, but is certainly running some kind of scam. Meanwhile, everyone wants the gold dog cane that the blond killer had in the hooker’s apartment. Once owned by a famous silent film star (BLACK EYE opens with cool silent black and white footage of this actor, making me wonder if I was watching THE ARTIST (2011) again), this cane has been used to smuggle pure heroin into the country. But by whom? And who’s willing to kill for it? The crooked preacher? The porno producer? The old gay man who collects movie memorabilia? Soon, bodies are piling up everywhere Stone turns, the cane gets stolen twice, and everyone beats up everyone in several nifty bare knuckle brawls. Complete the picture with a decent, bouncy car chase through a bodega slum, lots of sexual innuendo (“You’re a woman.” “I’m a whole lotta woman!”), a mass baptism scene complete with a hundred hippie Jesus freaks, and a few good twists to the plot by the end.
BLACK EYE (he’s black and a private eye, get it?) was directed by Jack Arnold. Yes, that Jack Arnold – the director of such classics as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), and TARANTULA (1955). Arnold’s career went south after the 1950s, and he was relegated to directing television shows like PETER GUNN, RAWHIDE, and (say it ain’t so) GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. In the 1970s, he directed several blaxploitation features, including BLACK EYE. It’s a long strange journey, but he still keeps the pacing fast, the dialogue snappy, and the people beautiful, baby.
Our feature was written by Mark Haggard (director of THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL-1976) and Jim Martin. It’s not Shakespeare, or even Hammett, but it’s a fun little flick that plays a little dirty while still maintaining a PG rating. If the plot seems overcomplicated, that’s because it is. I’m still not sure how one woman fits into the whole bizarre plot, but it doesn’t take away any enjoyment from the movie. In fact, the whole convoluted thing goes down easy with the popcorn and beer. Dashiell Hammett himself once claimed he never knew who killed one character in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941).
And this isn’t a writer’s picture, or even a director’s. This one belongs to the walking charisma that is Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. With those hangdog eyes, those long sideburns, and that just-eaten-the-canary grin, he is a hero for the time. He doesn’t use a lot of slang, and he only fights when he must (or when he catches a dope pusher in an arcade), and he’s entirely on the side of the cops, so he doesn’t really fit into the blaxploitation hero paradigm of the early 70s. He isn’t a pimp or a crook or a gangster. He’s just a regular Joe, fighting the man to get an honest day’s pay and fighting a predatory lesbian for his woman. In fact, the whole matter-of-fact handling of the bisexual and lesbian characters in the movie is very evenly handled, surprisingly advanced for its time. BLACK EYE doesn’t judge. It’s just the facts, ma’am. But The Hammer rises above it all and makes it much more enjoyable than it ever should be. Williamson’s still acting. In fact, he has four movies scheduled to open next year, including a remake of the brutal 1982 movie, FIGHTING BACK. Long may the King reign!
BLACK EYE is available in a nice print from Warner Archive on DVD.
I give BLACK EYE three sordid porn studios out of four.
© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl