New Judge Chris Claro starts off his reviewing career with a bang.
A missing gun holds the key to murder.
1967 was the year David Janssen finally stopped running. As the title character of The Fugitive, Richard Kimble, Janssen finally tracked down the one-armed man who killed his wife. With the end of the series, Janssen returned to the big screen as an L.A. cop accused of shooting first and asking questions later.
Though his early resumé is filled with such titles as Francis [the talking mule] Goes to West Point and Bonzo Goes to College, David Janssen appeared in over 30 films and starred in his first series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, before The Fugitive made him a household name. On the heels of that series came this taut thriller about a similarly tortured man attempting to clear his name.
Janssen's stardom peaked with The Fugitive, but he worked steadily in the movies and on TV—he starred in two subsequent series, O'Hara, U.S. Treasury and the warmly remembered Harry O—before he died just shy of his 50th birthday. Warning Shot is quintessential Janssen: a man in pursuit of the truth and of himself.
Facts of the Case
After recovering from a bullet wound to the stomach, L.A. police sergeant Tom Valens (Janssen) has been back on duty for about seven months. When he shoots a man who pulls a gun, Valens is suspended by the force, vilified by the public, and determined to establish what really went on that foggy night.
The coroner's inquest fails to clear Valens, and between divorcing and soothing his aching gut with buttermilk, has only days to prove that he is not the trigger-happy cop that the public perceives him to be. In the process, the fog-shrouded mystery that envelops Valens begins to clear.
His journey takes him through a mid-'60s Los Angeles where the issue of police brutality arises in the wake of the shooting. The film's brief but effective examination of excessive force on the LAPD infuses the film with an ironic currency that adds to its drama.
With his taciturn steeliness, David Janssen created characters who were easy to root for but hard to love. Like his contemporary James Garner, Janssen conveyed a weary resignation with his lot. But Janssen rarely leavened his outlook with the irony that made Garner so winning.
Warning Shot puts Janssen's taut, dyspeptic persona at the center of a mystery peppered with hey-look-who-it-is appearances by everybody from Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart) to Lillian Gish The Night of the Hunter). With Sam Wanamaker (Private Benjamin) as a D.A. with an axe to grind and Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove) as Valens's pragmatic partner, Musso, the acting in Warning Shot raises the film to an unexpected level.
The film establishes a situation with obvious parallels to The Fugitive. Valens and Musso are on a nighttime stakeout, in pursuit of a serial killer. When a shadowy figure emerges from the fog and pulls a gun, Valens shoots and kills the man, who turns out to be a respected local doctor. Since no one can find the gun that Valens swore was there, he is charged with manslaughter. Released on his own recognizance and given a week to prepare his case, Valens sets out to make things right. The audience knows that he is innocent of the crime of which he has been accused, just as they knew Richard Kimble was innocent. The pleasure of Warning Shot is watching Valens untangle the web in which he finds himself.
The remainder of the drum-tight Warning Shot focuses on Valens's dogged efforts to clear his name and stay alive. Along the way, he encounters a veritable Love Boat of stars, including Steve Allen's two-faced TV host, George Grizzard's affably swinging airline pilot and Joan Collins as Valens's soon-to-be ex-wife, who has the most memorable line in the occasionally turgid dialogue: "Don't just stand there, need me." The film's script, by Mann Rubin (Brainstorm, An American Dream) and based on a novel by Whit Masterson, moves along even while it lingers to afford old pros like Eleanor Parker (The Naked Jungle), as the doctor's not-so-bereaved widow, the chance to leave their mark in just one scene. With contributions from Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, and Ed Begley, as Valens's boss, Warning Shot is a hoot for fans of dependable character actors. Where else would you get to see Carroll O'Connor as a Mexican-American police department official? Warning Shot also scores points for its brass-heavy score from the absurdly prolific Jerry Goldsmith. (On the Goldsmith scorecard, Warning Shot slides nicely between The Sand Pebbles and In Like Flint.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As enjoyable as a B-movie is, it's still a B-movie, and Warning Shot trumpets its B-ness with generally flat lighting and bland composition. If you weren't aware it was a feature film, you'd think you were watching an old Quinn Martin (The Streets of San Francisco) cop show.
The film, directed by Buzz Kulik (Brian's Song), veers dangerously close to parody in a scene where Valens is jumped in an office building. Between the slow motion and the image distortion, it's a brief but disconcerting detour into '60s cliché.
There's a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from the sleek, mid-'60s compact that is Warning Shot. It handles its twists well, thanks to adept acting and a tight story. Janssen's terseness gives the movie a bracing edge, and George Grizzard's (Advise and Consent) performance is a jaunty gem.
Despite the bare-bones packaging and total lack of extras—there isn't even an insert sleeve in the package, and would scene selection have been that difficult to include?—Warning Shot is found not guilty by reason of unabashed, unadorned entertainment. David Janssen is at the top of his game and '60s L.A. never looked better.
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