Monday, May 14, 2018

"He's Trying to Stubborn His Way Out with His Fists" - Knife for the Ladies (1974)

In addition to monster Westerns (see for example 1973's Godmonster of Indian Flats and 1972's Curse of the Headless Horseman), the 1970s produced a small number of proto-slasher Westerns, such as 1974’s Knife for the Ladies (known on IMDB as "A Knife for the Ladies" despite the onscreen and poster title).

Predictably, your universe's critics are incapable of appreciating this pinnacle of Reviewer bensonmum2 writes incorrectly, "Overall, A Knife for the Ladies is one lousy movie. Neither the horror nor the Western elements work." Reviewer Michael_Elliott writes confusedly, "After watching the uncut version I must admit that I would have given anything to see it cut down....The film really kills itself because it just doesn't do anything right." Reviewer davannacarter writes uncharitably, "If it's trying to be a mystery, it fails because the movie gets so boring by the halfway mark that I fell asleep....Boring, boring, boring, even by 70s standards."

I do not mean to be contrary (read: I do mean to be contrary), but these reviews are objectively incorrect. In reality, Knife for the Ladies is a clever rumination on the differences between the modern world of the 1970s and the Western world of the 1870s. Read on for further insights...

The film begins at night, with an inebriated cowboy riding his horse along a boardwalk in a small Old West town called Mescal, Arizona, the site of the certainly convenient Hooker’s Saloon.

The cowboy is stalked by some well-polished dress shoes, presumably attached to a man.

The filmmakers quickly lose interest in the cowboy, and instead find the window of the Pioneer International Hotel, and inside the aftermath of a tryst between a young man named Amos and a professional woman named Miss Lettie. Unfortunately for the entire town, after Amos departs, Miss Lettie is immediately set upon by the wearer of the dress shoes—and his large knife.

The town fathers—in the person of Mescal bank owner Simeon Hollyfield—recruit the services of St. Louis private detective Edward Burns, a young man with an extremely forward-looking, even futuristic for the 19th century, hairstyle.

Banker Hollyfield is desperate for the three knife murders in his town to be solved. He explains helpfully, “Banks need people to stay in business.”

Detective Burns reveals his classical sleuth leanings when he admits, “Mr. Hollyfield, it’s poor pay...but a rich challenge.” He decides to take the case and journey to Arizona.

Surprisingly, the hiring of the detective is a sore spot for the town’s drunk curmudgeon of a sheriff, played by a middle-aged Jack Elam. “I had two months on this case and ain’t solved nothing,” he explains to his young nephew. “Well I’m only one man, and two months ain’t very long!”

The sheriff’s nephew Seth leaves the station and walks what appears to be 100 miles or so to his violin lesson, on the way passing a haunted house, a barbershop/mortuary and a Spanish-speaking couple at their house in the desert.

In a terrifically suspenseful sequence, Seth’s violin lesson with the attractive Miss Jenny is intercut with the stalking and stabbing of the Spanish-speaking woman at her nearby house. The cacophonous shrieks of the violin fade into the screams of the murder victim.

Of course, on his trek homeward from the lesson, he discovers the woman’s body in front of her house. He runs the 100 miles back into town to find his uncle the sheriff.

Within two minutes, a posse bearing torches instead of guns marches through Mescal.

At the murder scene, the doctor opines, “This has gotta be the work of a madman.” The posse is highly riled up. Believing her partner Ramon to be the murderer, they ride out to Verde Canyon to confront him.

Somewhat confusingly, two posses approach Ramon, who tries to get away on his horse but is dragged through the dirt by one of the horses. (The scenes at Ramon’s camp are quite dark and might have benefited from the presence of the villagers’ torches, which have, oddly, disappeared.)

The next day, Detective Edward Burns arrives on a stagecoach only to find Ramon’s body hanged in the desert, to the consternation of a Willy Wonka-hatted man and, presumably, the entire Wonka family.

Burns decides to investigate the body with the stagecoach driver. “My God,” Burns says, then addresses himself: “Welcome to Mescal, Mr. Burns.”

After carrying Ramon’s body into town on the stagecoach and arguing with Mr. Elam about the law, Burns sets up a modern-looking evidence wall in his hotel room. The evidence wall includes drawings of people who look like Vincent Price and Humphrey Bogart.

The filmmakers jump wholeheartedly into the task of supplying suspects for the detective. Burns visits the town undertaker/barber, played by the talented sitcom actor Dick Schaal, who would serve as one of three actors to portray Chuckles the Clown on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mr. Schaal gives an intense, conflicted performance as the misunderstood townsperson. “Do you think being a town undertaker is my life’s ambition? I cut hair, I shave beards, and I bury people for one reason only. Money.”

Burns next visits the wealthy haunted house owner played by Ruth Roman, whose son Travis was the first slasher victim. “He had a passion for living,” she says profoundly, “which makes his death even more tragic.” She stirs some powdered drugs, which she calls “medishinal preparations” into her tea.

While Burns continues his investigation, Sheriff Jack Elam drinks more and passes out in the town jail cell, disappointing his nephew. The enmity between Burns and Mr. Elam culminates in a traditional Western fist-fight in the sheriff’s station. Following Western tradition, the two lawmen beat each other up and hence earn greater respect for each other.

When the fight is interrupted by Jenny the violin teacher (who is Mr. Elam’s niece), Burns explains the situation to her: “Your uncle is caught in a web of new time and he’s trying to stubborn his way out with his fists.” “New time” refers, presumably, to changing attitudes and mores that are overtaking the West, and are in conflict with Mr. Elam’s traditional Old West attitude.

Based on a tip from a barmaid, Burns and Mr. Elam realize that saloon owner Virgil Hooker and his men killed Ramon, so one murder is solved. This leads to Hooker and his men shooting each other in the saloon, as well as a shootout with Mr. Elam and Burns in the center of town.

The Western shenanigans out of the way, the film returns to the plot about the knife-wielding killer. When Burns returns to his hotel room, he finds the barmaid’s body hanging from a coat rack, her throat slashed.

The investigation focuses back on Ruth Roman and her murdered son Travis. Suspiciously, it seems the doctor and the sheriff never saw Travis’s body; the undertaker Dick Schaal disposed of the body privately at the behest of Ms. Roman. It also seems Mr. Schaal has either a real or imagined romantic relationship with Ms. Roman.

After Burns leaves, Mr. Schaal trims his nose hairs and then walks across the street to Ms. Roman’s haunted house to discuss their secrets.

In perhaps the film’s most evocative scene, Burns and Mr. Elam break into Travis’s tomb during a lightning storm.

Shockingly, they find Travis’s coffin full of sandbags!

When Burns and Mr. Elam confront Ms. Roman, she explains: “My son had an inordinate fear of death and decay. He made me promise him that if he died I would have his body cremated.” She shows them the urn.

“Travis is in there?” asks Mr. Elam incredulously.

Their questions satisfied, the lawmen leave.

Later at night, Mr. Schaal slaps around the corpse of the murdered barmaid, until he is stabbed by the murderer.

In the climax the next day, it becomes clear that Travis was not killed, but that Ms. Roman has been hiding him away in her haunted house because he has become scarred from syphilis. For reasons unexplained to the audience, Ms. Roman lures young Jenny to her house and allows Travis to attack her from the steel cage in his bedroom.

Travis assaults Jenny while Ms. Roman sits in a rocking chair, looking on and grinning.

The resourceful Jenny escapes the bedroom, but she is set upon by Ms. Roman, who is the real knife murderer.

The lawmen finally intervene, which results in the deaths of Ms. Roman and Travis after a short fall off a staircase.

In the conclusion, Burns tells Hollyfield, “Hope burns brightest when it dawns from despair.” Burns gets on the stagecoach to leave town.

For some reason, Mr. Elam and his niece Jenny also decide to leave town permanently. Mr. Elam gives Seth a belt buckle. “You keep this, and you grow into it like a man,” says Mr. Elam.

The film then ends with a 1970s rock song that, like all 1970s rock songs, is about an evil lady who is going to get you with her spell.

It is clear from the beginning that Knife for the Ladies has more going on than just a plot about a knife-murderer in the Old West. One reason that this is clear is that the film ignores the knife murders during its middle section, only returning to that plot at the end of the film. The middle section of Knife for the Ladies is concerned with the conflict between the new and the old, with the new represented by Burns, the detective with the modern 1970s haircut and the Columbo raincoat, and the old represented by the redoubtable Jack Elam, the sheriff with the guns-and-fisticuffs approach to law enforcement. The fact that the detective does nothing whatsoever that could be considered modern (or at all different from guns-and-fisticuffs) is one of the cleverest aspects of the film. The protracted fistfight between Mr. Burns and Sheriff Elam at the center of the film shows that both approaches are equally effective, as the fight ends in a tie that leads to first grudging and then enthusiastic respect on both sides. The film's main point, therefore, is that old approaches and new approaches are barely distinguishable from each other (except, of course, in terms of haircuts, and possibly raincoats).

Knife for the Ladies was directed by Larry G. Spangler, who had previously produced five episodes of the 13-episode The Joe Namath Show, a talk show from 1969 hosted by a football player. He would also direct the X-rated The Life and Times of the Happy Hooker the same year as Knife for the Ladies (perhaps the name of the uncouth barman Hooker in Knife for the Ladies is a reference to the Happy Hooker character, or perhaps not).

Outside of the haircuts and the cameo by the Wonka family, perhaps the best part of Knife for the Ladies is the performance of Richard Schaal as the undertaker/barber. As a Second City performer, Mr. Schaal is primarily known for comedy, but this film shows his dramatic range, as well as his ability to fully "milk" a death scene. The late Mr. Schaal was once married to Valerie Harper, and he is the father of frequent Joe Dante actress Wendy Schaal.

Although Mr. Schaal has many fine scenes in Knife for the Ladies, let us appreciate his talents by watching his death scene, perhaps his finest achievement in the film: