Thursday, December 07, 2017
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Mad Bomber
Bert I. Gordon has an eclectic filmography: his first film as director, in 1955, was ‘King Dinosaur’; his most recent, ‘Secrets of a Psychopath’, made two years ago, was billed as “ ‘Psycho’ meets the Craigslist killer”. Inbetween, he’s chalked up such trash classics as ‘How to Succeed with Sex’, ‘The Empire of the Ants’ and ‘Satan’s Princess’. Not to mention the scuzzy 1973 opus under consideration today: ‘The Mad Bomber’, a.k.a. ‘The Police Connection’.
The film opens in ‘Dirty Harry’ fashion with a driven cop who disregards the rule book tracking down a psychopath who’s terrorising the city. Let’s meet our antagonists. The obsessive cop is the marvellously named Lieutenant Geronimo Minelli (Vince Edwards); we learn nothing about him other than that he has a failed marriage in his past and that he hates sex offenders with an almost messianic intensity. The psychopath is William Dorn (Chuck Connors), an ostensibly buttoned down wage slave who flips after his daughter dies of a heroin overdose and sets out to settle the score with everyone – be they individual or institution – with whom he has a perceived grudge. Unlike Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer in ‘Dirty Harry’, taking out his targets with a sniper rifle, Dorn plants bombs.
“I’m the nothing face that plants the bomb and strolls away” goes a Meticalla lyric, and ’Tallica could have had Dorn in mind when they wrote that. Connors – remembered primarily for his small screen work, particularly in the western genre (‘Tales of Wells Fargo’, ‘The Rifleman’) – turns in a performance that’s taut, understated and genuinely unsettling. The character, as written, could easily be a twenty-years-early sketch for Michael Douglas’s D-Fens in ‘Falling Down’: they share the same bland office attire; D-Fens has a briefcase, Dorn a brown paper bag; both rail at the devolution of standards and civility in modern life; and neither hold back in challenging the people they see as being responsible for it. Dorn’s stern lecturing of a rude waitress in a coffee shop exists in the same thematic space as D-Fens’s disapprobation with the poor service and product at the fast food outlet.
Connors’s tight-as-a-watch-spring performance is matched by Edwards’s: everything we learn about Minelli as a man and a cop comes from watching him do his job, whether it’s his world-weary interaction with a suspect’s wife, his altercations with superiors, his curtly delivered instructions to colleagues and subordinates or his heavy-handed treatment of lowlifes.
And speaking of lowlifes …
Dorn’s second bombing, of a hospital – the first was a school – gives Minelli his first clue. Transpires Dorn wasn’t the only individual at the hospital who shouldn’t have been there. While Dorn was exiting after planting explosives, the utterly charmless George Fromley (Neville Brand) was hiding in a storeroom prior to raping a mental patient. The only witness to Dorn’s presence at the hospital, Fromley isn’t about to come forward and give the cops his unfettered assistance.
At this point, ‘The Mad Bomber’ goes haring off into its middle third with a new antagonist, a new focus for the investigation (nail the rapist; get him to spill on the bomber), and a tonal shift from the procedural narrative of the first act to the kind of scuzzy thrilleramics that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The New York Ripper’ or any of the ‘Death Wish’ sequels. Fromley, almost entirely offscreen during the hospital attack – the scene focuses entirely on his victim – is introduced properly as he kidnaps and assaults a young woman. Quite apart from prefiguring the ‘Eden Lake’ poster by three decades …
… this sequence proves to be one of the sleaziest victim-attempts-to-run-from-aggressor scenarios committed to celluloid. It has nothing to do with the main plot and as a means of establishing Fromley as a rapist sack of shit, it would have done so just as effectively if Gordon had shouted “cut” five minutes earlier. It’s needlessly protracted and swerves what had, up to this point, functioned as a mainstream thriller so far into exploitation territory that it never fully rights itself.
Almost immediately afterwards, we get Minelli – a fervent hater of sex crime offenders, don’t forget – outlining his plan to catch Fromley in the bluntest of terms: “I want the streets flooded with every policewoman looking like they’re begging to get raped”.
Ladies and gentleman, ‘The Mad Bomber’.
There follows a montage, scored to what I can only describe as wakka-wakka porn music, of various female members of the police department giving it their best street bait sashay in the city’s least salubrious areas …
… until some lowlife douchebag makes a move on them, whereupon uniformed cops leap from doorways or behind bushes and make the arrest. Minelli eschews the wrestle-the-scumbag-to-the-ground-and-cuff-him approach beloved of his comrades for the more expedient method of punching the arrestee in the face a couple of dozen times. Dubbing in the Benny Hill music is perhaps the only aesthetic decision that would make this section of the film any more jaw-droppingly offensive than it already is.
Then, just as suddenly again, the film shifts into cat-and-mouse territory as Fromley, finally arrested, pits himself against Minelli, determined not to let the cop break him. What redeems ‘The Mad Bomber’ is its quality performances, and Brand – already an Agitation of the Mind veteran for his appearances in ‘The Ninth Configuration’ and ‘Killdozer’ – brings his A-game in his scenes with Edwards. I’ll go as far as to say that if Sidney Lumet had made ‘The Offence’ with Vince Edwards and Neville Brand instead of Sean Connery and Ian Bannen it would still have been every inch the powerhouse.
Of course, ‘The Offence’ was written by acclaimed playwright John Hopkins while ‘The Mad Bomber’ was written by Gordon himself from a story by Marc Behm (‘Trunk to Cairo’, ‘The Blonde from Peking’) and that more than anything is the difference here. ‘The Mad Bomber’ has strong performances, decent cinematography, good location work and some memorable scenes – the incongruity of the bright yellow motorcycle and sidecar that Dorn steals, Fromley’s man cave decorated with nude b&w photos of his otherwise dowdy wife, Dorn hallucinating a pedestrian as his deceased daughter – but its script is often terrible.
Still, it’s pacy and entertaining and even in its stupider moments – the flashing lights and ludicruous “bloop” noises on the computer that profiles Dorn; the multiple cuts to a flashing white screen when the script calls for something to be blown up that the budget can’t stretch to – it’s never less than watchable. The makers of ‘Falling Down’ sure as hell gave it a fair few viewings.