280. The Marcus Nelson Murders (US 1973)

Director: Joseph Sargent

Starring: Telly Savalas, Jose Ferrer, Marjoe Gortner, Ned Beatty, Gene Woodbury, Lorraine Gary

Music: Billy Goldenberg

Cinematography: Mario Tosi

Story/Screenplay: Abby Mann

Book: Selwyn Rabb

Bit Parts: Val Bisoglio - the restaurant owner in Quincy!; George Savalas - Telly's fat meffy brother!

Fact: Savalas was godfather to Jennifer Aniston

Fact 2: The bizarre Gortner was the youngest ever ordained minister in US history. He was four years old.

Fact 3: The abuse of civil rights depicted in this fictionalised version of a true case led to the creation of the 'Miranda Act' - the verbal reminder of an a person's rights following arrest

Lie:  Actor William Conrad (TV's 'Cannon') was so envious of the UK number one pop hits of his fellow TV detectives (Savalas's 'Kojak'/David Soul's 'Hutch') that he wrote and produced his own song that he thought would appeal to the British proletariat. Conrad's 'I like Beer and Darts and Doing Big Farts Out of My Fat Arse' spent one week at Number 75 in the UK pop charts in the Winter of Discontent of 1978.

 In one line: a homeless black teenager is falsely accused of the murders of two white women

Summary

Two young women are murdered in Upper East Manhattan in the early 1970. A young black man is coerced into pleading guilty to their murder after being bullied and tortured by corrupt NYPD detectives. Theo Kojak, an honourable homicide cop, finds the courage to stand up to his fellow officers and instigates a new investigation into all aspects of the case.

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I stumbled across this TV movie the day after going to the cinemas to see The Road, one of the worst films I've had to suffer in a very long time.

My soul departed my body as I witnessed Cormac McCarthy's beautiful, stunning novel being ground down into a really fucking terrible TV movie - a film that revels in an up-its-own-arse, fake, false, dick-dribbling sense of its own self-importance; and a film that's guilty of  the sort of racist tokenism in its allocation of roles to the  black acting talent of America. (Michael Williams, a fine actor, is 'The Thief') in the movie.

I can't go on about how bad this film is because it's bad for my health.

Anyway, as the snow continued to fall on 'Frozen Britain', I flicked across the channels and saw that Kojak: The Marcus Nelson Murders was starting shortly. There was no 'Kojak' in the original title of this Emmy-winning, tremendous piece of popular film-making, but its lead character was so memorable and so deftly drawn, that the film led to the commissioning of an entire series for Savalas's low-key (in this film) detective, and the title of the film was subsequently amended.

I have to admit. I haven't seen an entire episode of Kojak. Such police dramas were so formulaic, that the writers of Police Squad! didn't have to work too hard for their material. I think I managed about twenty minutes of one episode once, but it was rubbish - a crap story shoe-horned into 50 minutes of pretend-seriousness.

There was something in the back of my mind that told me that The Marcus Nelson Murders was something else, though. In this film, Savalas's Kojak is a snappy dresser, but that's where his flamboyance ends. He's an ordinary low-ranking detective who realises that a good proportion of the New York Police Department is not just corrupt but institutionally racist.

Kojak plays an important but minor role in the story. The film is essentially a roman a clef, a fictionalised version of a true story with names and events changed or modified to prevent any possible legal action. The events of the film's narrative are based on the Wylie-Hoffer murders (or 'Career Girl' murders) - a celebrated case where two wealthy Upper Manhattan socialites were murdered and an innocent man (George Whitmore) was coerced into a false confession after being tortured by the NYPD.

Ned Beattie and Val Bisoglio play the two corrupt, racist cops in the film and it is up to Kojak to turn informer against his fellow officers. It's often an uncomfortable film, with no real heroics and some some quite shocking racist language and long-shot violence for what is after all a 'TV Movie' (although far-moved from the usual Lyndsay Wagner/Robert Urich shite 'one' would normally associate with the phrase) shown at one o'clock in the afternoon on ITV.

The acting is first-class from nearly all concerned. Savalas, Beattie and Gene Woodbury as the innocent, semi-homeless Lewis Humes are all excellent, and there's a grandstanding performance from  Jose Ferrer as civil rights lawyer Jake Weinhaus.

The ending of The Marcus-Nelson Murders resembles the legal shenanigans of The Onion Field (see SV 221) and without spoiling things, there's no easy narrative resolution as would be found in the series - which to give it its due was well loved and was commended for its realism (in relation to other cop shows of its time).

When writer/creator Abby Mann saw what had happened to his creation (he wasn't involved in the series) in its later incarnations, he despaired. 'Kojak' had become a cool, no-nonsense 'tough-but-likeable' bullshit stereotype, with gimmicks and catchphrases galore.

The Marcus Nelson Murders is a world away from such formulaic rubbish - and has a heart and soul missing from much more expensive theatrical fare (hello The Road, again).

Apparently it's no longer available on DVD, but the more astute amongst you will know where to find it. 

Highly recommended.

 9/10

Coming soon - Quincy: Who Killed Jack Kennedy?