Review: The Black Marble

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

If this threatens to turn the cops into overdone caricatures from a mediocre sitcom, we are also prevented from really getting to know them in the crucial early passages of the film. Becker and Owen Roizman get some casual yet persuasive local-color footage of Los Angeles, much of it as traveling shots of and from the protagonists’ cop car (surely the fulfillment of some on-the-job Wambaugh resolution to get a cop’s-eye-view of the passing scene into a movie one day); but the early conversations of Valnikov (Robert Foxworth) and Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) are so clumsily intercut with this material that the nice location work tends to distract us from, and sometimes visually deprive us of, the characters. The fact is that while Wambaugh keeps sequential faith with his book, he has not translated it into a scenario of fluid or even workable proportions. A nonreader of the novel might wonder, overtly or at some semiconscious level of dissatisfaction, why Natalie becomes so persuaded that her new partner is crazy: there isn’t enough time spent on her frustrations or, for that matter, in detailing Valnikov’s peculiarities. (When, comparatively late in the film, Natalie proposes driving the car because at Valnikov’s rate they’ll never get where they’re going, Wambaugh is referring to something well established in the novel—that the haunted, often-hungover Valnikov mostly drives about 20mph—but utterly unestablished in the film.) The proportions are off, too, in realizing the transformation of a near-penniless “rich lady” from an oddball figure of fun who loves and lives for her championship-class terrier, to a hurting human being with a tenderly comic emotional susceptibility to the equally hapless Valnikov (Barbara Babcock almost succeeds in making the character work anyway).

Wambaugh wanted to mix his caricaturish line in comedy with an idiosyncratic sympathy for the many lost souls in the urban sprawl of L.A. There is the potential for something interesting in the weird complicity that grows between the rich lady and the dognapper who makes off with her beloved Victoria Regina and carries on a telephone communication—half-threat, half-entreaty—to arrange ransom payments. Harry Dean Stanton does very nearly his best work in the latter role, a pussy-whipped kennelkeeper deep in debt to the bookies. One sequence builds to a marvelous moment: Stanton tries to entice another prize terrier out of its owner’s car, all the while having to dodge the valet-driven automobiles rocketing around him in the Brown Derby parking lot. He finally gives up and turns away, whereupon the dog, who loves him dearly, wriggles out a window and runs after him, leaping up to be cradled in his arms. Stanton now has to cross a street: more zooming cars, more close calls. This ill-equipped villain can expect no consideration for himself, so he cries out to a motorist who has nearly run him down, “Jesus Christ, I got a little dog here!”

As Valnikov, the Russian-American cop late of Homicide who has “picked the black marble” too many times and become convinced that everything in life leads only to “the Big Sewer,” Robert Foxworth acts mainly with his unaccustomed moustache. (But it’s not his fault that the character’s nightmare flashes gather no force at all: another case of Wambaugh failing to adapt a book-y concept to the dynamics of film.) All praise and much thanks, though, to Becker and Wambaugh for giving the woefully-underused Paula Prentiss a chance at a real role for a change. The overall failed rhythm of the film prevents her from shaping the performance she might have given (we are barely informed, for instance, about the unsatisfying romance she has been carrying on with another cop, and can scarcely appreciate the logic that is supposed to bring her and Valnikov together as unlikely lovers). But she can get more screwball wit out of a lifted eyelash, a graceful/klutzy drop of octaves, or twitch of lanky leg than any other comedienne of the past two decades. I shall always treasure her encounter with a dead raccoon, so expertly laid out in his coffin at a pet cemetery that, as she observes, he seems to be playing possum.

© 1980 Richard T. Jameson

THE BLACK MARBLE
Direction: Harold Becker. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh, after his novel. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Production design: Alfred Sweeney. Editing: Maury Winetrobe. Music: Maurice Jarre. Production: Frank Capra Jr.
The players: Robert Foxworth, Paula Prentiss, Harry Dean Stanton, Barbara Babcock, John Hancock, James Woods, Christopher Lloyd.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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