Monday, February 8, 2021

"I’m Tired of You Stumblebumming Around Here Day After Day" - The Night of the Strangler (1972) - Film #197

The legendary Mickey Dolenz was not, surprisingly, a prolific movie star. Four years after the end of his TV series The Monkees, however, he starred in Joy N. Houck Jr.'s The Night of the Strangler (1972), a hard-hitting, gritty drama that confronted 1970s racism head-on.

Not all your universe's critics appreciate such sharp drama. For example, reviewer Wizard-8 writes, “The movie is kind of slow and sluggish, padded out with a lot of filler, so much so that some characters are off the screen for significant portions of time."Reviewer AlsExGal writes, “The acting is bad, the script is worse, and the filmmaking comes in dead last.” And reviewer a-chinn writes, “It's a super cheap production without any real scares or suspense."

Read on...

The film begins with a plane from New York landing in New Orleans. Mickey Dolenz greets his little sister Denise at the terminal. They return home to dinner with their older brother Dan (the three siblings, though natives of New Orleans, all have distinctly Northern accents), where Denise announces she’s getting married. He berates her: “That’s hardly any reason to fly down here and get me out of court.”

“Oh, don’t use your courtroom technique on me, Dan,” she says angrily. “You know what I mean. I’m getting married now and I’m not going to finish school.” She also tells them she is pregnant, which prompts Dan to offer to pay for her abortion. Then, when she admits her lover is a black man, Dan slaps her, uses the n-word five times, and declares, “She’s better off dead!”

Also, in a head-spinning turn of events, Dan admits that Mr. Dolenz’s girlfriend Carol is now going to marry Dan. 

Mr. Dolenz and Denise run out of the house and walk along the sidewalk. He tells her interracial marriages don’t work. “If it was just you and me and this crumby world didn’t exist, it could work, you know I believe that.”

The film cuts to a snowy New York state, where Denise and her boyfriend walk around a lake and sit down to have a picnic. Meanwhile, in another head-spinning turn of events, we see a bearded hippie ride a bicycle nearby. He dismounts, opens his guitar case to reveal a rifle, then proceeds to shoot her boyfriend.

A depressed Denise returns to her farmhouse (there is no indication why she lives in a farmhouse) and looks at a photo of Mickey Dolenz grinning his Mickey Dolenz grin while holding a rifle in his Army days.

At the same time, we watch somebody wearing jeans and work boots (not to mention a peace sign belt buckle) enter the house. He grabs Denise and tosses her in the bathtub (which is, for some reason, full of water, despite there being no indication Denise was planning to bathe). The man strangles her and holds her underwater until she drowns. (Incidentally, the daytime drowning is the only incident of strangling in The Night of the Strangler.)

In a long take in which the camera doesn’t move at all, the killer undresses Denise and makes moves suggesting he is cutting her wrists to simulate suicide (though this is offscreen and quite ambiguous). Then he takes the photo of Mickey Dolenz (who wouldn’t?) and Denise’s diary (again, who wouldn’t?) and leaves the farmhouse.

The film then cuts to a church courtyard where a young black priest named Jesse speaks with an older white priest. Jesse has returned to his old parish in New Orleans. The older priest makes an awkward analogy. “Returning to the scene of the crime is standard procedure in criminology. Maybe in theology it has its place also.”

Father Jesse soon learns that Mr. Dolenz’s family is going through tough times, what with Denise’s suicide and the two brothers fighting. 

Mr. Dolenz arrives late (and drunk) to his brother’s wedding. The two get into a physical fight before the ceremony, which prompts Father Jesse to break up the fight and Dan to use the n-word yet again. As Father Jesse takes Mr. Dolenz out of the room, Mr. Dolenz gives his brother a Nazi salute intended to be humorous.

Father Jesse takes Mr. Dolenz to lunch where they have a deep heart-to-heart talk. Jesse asks about Denise, “Is there any truth to the rumor that she was pregnant and that the father was black?”

“That was not a rumor, Jesse,” Mr. Dolenz replies. “He was black all right.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Dolenz blames Dan for his sister’s death, though nobody has brought up the mysterious murder of her boyfriend by a sniper and the possibility that Dan was behind his death.

For unknown reasons, the film follows Dan and his bride Carol (incidentally, the only character in the film with an accent approaching that of a New Orleans native) back to Dan’s house, where an older black gardener is working. After the older man commits a faux pas by mentioning Carol’s old relationship with Mr. Dolenz, Dan says, in an example of the film’s whip-smart dialogue, “I’m tired of you stumblebumming around here day after day, year after year. I want you out of here. You’re dismissed.”

“Dismissed? You mean fired? But Mr. Dan, I can’t find another job just like that. I’ve been working for you and your daddy so long I haven’t even had time to think about working anywhere else.”

The film shifts from soap opera conflicts to more serious concerns as we watch a mysterious white-gloved man, presumably the murderer, purchase a poisonous snake from a sailor down at the docks, then milk the snake of its venom. 

Later, at night, in an extended sequence, Father Jesse visits Dan at his house to apologize for striking him at the wedding. Dan acts civilly, though when he speaks with his wife away from Jesse he admits he considers black men to be less than men. (The film works exceptionally hard to portray Dan as an unrepentant villain, perhaps one of the most despicable villains in cinema history.)

After the priest leaves, Dan ignores his wife in bed, prompting her to smell a dozen roses sent by Father Jesse—only to be shockingly attacked by a rattlesnake!

Carol dies immediately, but Dan fights off the very real snake by smashing it to death with an umbrella in a disturbing scene that does not appear to be fake at all. Dan picks up the phone. “Operator, give me the police,” he says, but then he hangs up and calls his law partner Jack (also a racist), telling him that Carol was murdered.

Though he didn’t call the police, about a dozen policemen arrive at Dan’s house to investigate. As is their wont, the filmmakers then follow a whole new group of characters for a few moments, namely the detectives, a mixed-race pair, one of which takes the snake murder in stride while the other one is (believably) surprised by such an m.o.

After the detectives watch the medical examiner begin Carol’s autopsy and learn the murderous snake is native to Asia, the film returns to Mr. Dolenz at Carol’s funeral, where Dan threatens him as they stand over the open coffin. “Feeling  good, little brother? Playing with snakes make you feel better? More like a man? I don’t know who you were after, but you’re going to die for this, I promise you that!”

Later, Dan, who is apparently now living on a boat, gets a phone call from an unidentified man about a “business transaction in New York,” clearly the assassination of Denise’s boyfriend. The man repeatedly says “if you know what I mean” when making mild innuendos about the murder-for-hire business, then threatens Dan because Dan has not yet paid the killers, possibly because the murder also resulted in Denise’s death. Dan continues to refuse to pay. After some melodramatic argument with Mr. Dolenz’s current girlfriend, Dan is threatened with a machete by his fired gardener. Dan is stabbed but he shoots the desperate man.

On Saturday afternoon, the hippie assassin shows up at Dan’s marina brandishing his sniper rifle in broad daylight. 

Fortunately for Dan, the sniper is discovered by the surprisingly effective marina security guard, who tells the police, “He was just kneeling there, in broad daylight, with that gun.” In a humorous shot, one of the detectives looks through binoculars only to see Dan staring back at him through binoculars. The police also find a note in the assassin’s pocket identifying Dan as the intended victim.

Meanwhile, the white-gloved killer opens a box and pulls out a bottle marked curare, along with an exotic spring-loaded device capable of slamming a steel arrow through a wooden plank.

Soon after, Father Jesse marries Mr. Dolenz and his current girlfriend in a ceremony with no other people present. The bridge and groom leave the church and get into Mr. Dolenz’s car, having just seen Dan’s car drive away, only to have the spring-loaded arrow pierce the bride. “Jesus, he killed her, Jesse!” Mr. Dolenz cries. “He killed her!”

In the climactic sequence, Mr. Dolenz sneaks into Dan’s house. He pulls a dagger off a display on the wall (foregoing the battle axe for some reason) and climbs the stairs to Dan’s office.

Dan hears Mr. Dolenz and investigates with his handgun. Surprisingly failing to draw out the suspense, Mr. Dolenz stabs his brother and gets shot twice for his trouble. 

Father Jesse enters the house wearing gloves and carrying a satchel. The wounded Dan pleads, “For God’s sake, Father, help me. Please.”

Father Jesse simply sits down next to Dan and begins to explain why and how he has been pulling the strings behind the scenes. “There we were,” he says of New York, “me, my twin brother the priest, the little white chick, on a picnic. That’s a heavy scene in itself, can you dig that? This black Catholic priest and his pregnant honky whore. I burned my brother’s body.” Blaming the whole family for shooting his brother (the real priest), the killer killed Denise and took his brother’s priestly accoutrements, then spent a year in the monastery. “I got you all,” he says proudly. “And you know what? It was easy. Easy!” He finishes Dan off by twisting the knife. (Perhaps the film's cleverest twist is to use the trope of the gloved killer to hide the race of the film's killer.)

Laughing, the killer leaves the house and drives away while we watch the police arrive.

In the film’s coda, the killer packs up his car to leave New Orleans while the two detectives stand around doing nothing. Oddly, when the killer sits down in the driver’s seat of his car, he recoils. There is a dozen roses in the passenger seat, echoing the roses that hid the deadly snake—indicating that either a snake has attacked the man or that there is something else about the car, perhaps a spring-loaded arrow. In any case, the film freezes before giving the audience any hint of an answer.

The End

When The Night of the Strangler is mentioned, it is often pointed out that the story does not primarily occur at night and only includes one strangling (though drowning would probably be a more accurate description of the murder). Thus, the film joins a host of other classics--The Demon (1981), Demonwarp (1988), Demon Seed (1982), The Night of the Demon (1980)--whose titles might be considered a touch inaccurate, though The Night of the Strangler might be the only one without "demon" in the title.

When The Night of the Strangler is mentioned a second time, it is often pointed out that Mickey Dolenz, presented as the star of the film, takes up relatively little screen time in a performance that might charitably be called lackluster. I will not deign to comment on Mr. Dolenz's skills as a dramatic performer, but I will call attention to the performance of James Ralston as Dan, one of the screen's most despicably racist characters. Mr. Ralston, a guitarist best known for working with Tina Turner, gives a performance of such teeth-gritting intensity that it's not difficult to forget Mr. Dolenz is the star of the film, whatever his dramatic abilities. It is unfortunate Mr. Ralston acted only sporadically after this film.

Finally, it is important to note the serious treatment of racism this film provides as an educational service and an illustration that some rich white people in New Orleans believed some poor black people in New Orleans were inferior to them. What a time the 1970s was! Of course, the worst of the racists, Dan, gets his comeuppance when Jesse, who had killed numerous white people previously, kills Dan. The film's message is thus that white racists are terrible people, though in the end the black priest is actually the murderer [spoiler], so in reality all people, white and black, are evil and deserve to die. Again, what a time the 1970s was!

I must also note that, in case the heavy sociological themes of the film are too intense, one can gain enjoyment from The Night of the Strangler by looking at the 1970s logos of famous corporations such as Eastern Airlines and, of course, Chips Ahoy.