Judge P.S. Colbert can't go back to prison. He won't!
"Made with Muscle, Nerve…Shock!"
"A round-up of Southern caricatures, ranging from dim-witted to abominable and, for good measure, psychopathic."—Howard Thompson, NY Times, Oct. 10, 1968.
"An evil film, a dishonest film, an ugly film."—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, November 19, 1968.
Forty-five years later, If He Hollers, Let Him Go! has lost none of its power to offend and dumbfound—I can't recall another film so stupidly plotted that virtually every scene triggers at least one proverbial forehead slap.
First, a late-night jailbreak at "South State Prison" (THWAP!). Convict James Lake (Raymond St. Jacques, The Green Berets) moves furtively through the well-manicured bushes lining the yard. Suddenly, a siren sounds, the tower guard hits Lake with a spotlight beam, and another officer takes off in pursuit. While the chase commences, the tower guard picks up a shotgun and starts firing rounds into the yard.
Wait a minute…he's firing a shotgun into the darkness??? Is this really standard procedure under these circumstances? Doesn't he realize that—oops! Whaddya know, but he's just blown a hole through the back of that officer in pursuit! Of course, the murder can (and will) be pinned on Lake, but what comfort does that provide the slain officer's family and friends? Furthermore, who's going to volunteer to track the next potential escapee while ol' Officer Itchytrigger mans the tower? Not surprisingly, Lake makes a relatively clean getaway.
Meanwhile, Leslie Whitlock (Kevin McCarthy, Innerspace) pulls into the local filling station. "Fill 'er up, Lem," he tells the attendant. "I was afraid I wouldn't find you open. It's almost midnight."
A squad car arrives a moment later, and a policeman informs the men of the fugitive ("A black one"), warning them to be on the lookout, and not to pick up any hitchhikers. Whitlock agrees to be vigilant, but there's a gleam in his eye that suggests he won't be satisfied until he's found that hitchhiker and offered him a lift.
The seemingly innocuous ride provides Lake with the chance to prove to Whitlock (and presumably, us in the audience) that—despite his dungarees and the darkness of his skin—he's a man of culture and refinement, who knows his Beethoven from his Mendelssohn concertos and Bach sonatas. Suitably impressed ("I dig intellectuals!"), Whitlock invites his passenger to join him for a drink at his palatial home, and how can Lake resist? It is rather late, a bit chilly outside, and he does need to keep out of sight…
Point of order: On the way in, Whitlock retrieves the folded newspaper from the front step, which he lays down on an end table in the living room, where he invites Lake to make himself comfortable. While the host heads to the liquor cabinet, Lake cautiously unfolds the paper to steal a glance at the front page, featuring his picture under the large banner headline: KILLER ESCAPES!
What is this, the local paper's midnight edition?! (Oh, my aching skull…)
But I digress. Whitlock has an ulterior motive: He's looking for someone to kill his lovely wife, Ellen (Dana Wynter, Airport). It turns out that Ellen's the moneyed one, and she's apparently on the verge of suing her husband for divorce, which will leave him lonely and destitute. On the other hand, as widower, Whitlock stands to inherit her fortune, and how does ten grand in cash and the keys to his car sound in exchange for finishing her off?
You probably don't need a James M. Cain fan to tell you that such plans are bound to go awry, right?
"We interrupt this program to bring you a news bulletin: James Lake, the escaped convict, entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Whitlock, where he bound and gagged Mr. Whitlock, and robbed him of ten thousand dollars. Lake attempted to molest Mrs. Whitlock. Lake, however, escaped in Mr. Whitlock's car, a black Lincoln. He is now headed north on Highway 201, where police have set up roadblocks in the surrounding area. All citizens are cautioned to lock their doors and stay off the highways. Lake is desperate, and probably armed. And now let's hear from Zeke Smith and his Rock and Rollers…"
Which brings us to act two, wherein Lake ditches the car and continues to make his way through the verdant underbrush of "the South," pausing every now and again to catch his breath, stare slightly up to his right, and let blinking, kaleidoscopic colors lead him into a series of flashbacks, which reveal:
How he spurned the advances of Miss Sally Blair (Susan Seaforth, Days Of Our Lives), before being wrongfully convicted of her murder.
How he endured the kangaroo court antics of a loquacious (and unnamed) prosecutor ("Special Guest Star" Arthur O'Connell, Picnic) who got not so much as an objection raised when he demanded of the jury: "What kind of power does it take to murder and rape a young, helpless girl? Black power?!"
How routinely he was subjected to savage beatings by white men in the local community.
How he met the astoundingly beautiful nightclub singer Lily (Barbara McNair, Venus In Furs). Incidentally, Ms. McNair is further revealed in a fully-nude scene that, while tastefully done, still reeks of exploitation.
Released between such notorious "racially themed" screen fiascos as Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown and Brian DePalma's Bonfire Of The Vanities, this pathetic little potboiler has managed to hide in their shadows—until now.
To their credit, Code Red has delivered a vibrant anamorphic widescreen transfer of this Blaxploitation misadventure, with only the slightest traces of age erosion. Likewise, the mono mix is surprisingly up to snuff, even providing an adequate showcase for Ms. McNair's dynamic song stylings. I was given a screener for previewing, and the only extras were a pair of theatrical trailers bookending the feature—Family Honor immediately before, and If He Hollers, Let Him Go! immediately after.
As for the name of the film, some sources claim that it's an adaptation of African American author Chester Himes' seminal novel, also titled "If He Hollers, Let Him Go," but in addition to being uncredited, the novel features different characters and a different storyline, with only tangential connections to this one. My theory? Every movie needs to be called something, and Don't Worry, We'll Think Of A Title was taken.
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