WARNING SHOT (1967)
A victim of fugitive justice.
David Janssen was still searching for the one-armed man on his hit television series The Fugitive when he made this dark crime film during a 1966 production break. Written by Mann Rubin and directed by Buzz Kulik, Warning Shot consciously evokes that TV show with its scenario of a man trying to clear his name for a crime he didn’t commit. The film begins with LAPD sergeant Tom Valens (Janssen) on stakeout for a prowler at a large apartment complex on a fog-shrouded night. Spotting a suspicious figure, Valens challenges the man, who runs and, when cornered, pulls a gun, forcing Valens to shoot and kill. A clear case of self-defense, or so Valens thinks. But his world is turned upside down when the victim’s gun is nowhere to be found, and the dead man turns out to be a venerated and selfless physician. Valens is immediately suspended and, worse, charged with manslaughter. An ambitious D.A. and carnivorous media combine to smear Valens’ reputation and make him a pariah in the public eye. With his arraignment only 10 days away, the disgraced cop has to prove that the innocent man he shot wasn’t innocent. The deeper Valens digs into the doctor’s past, the more dirt he digs up, but finds nothing he can use to clear his name until a trip to a local pet cemetery unearths some surprising truths.
A life defined by the gun.
This tight little film hews admirably close to the wonderfully written source novel by Whit Masterson. Scriptwriter Mann in fact uses much of the book’s original dialog, which is consistently sharp and on-target. Kulik, whose direction is solid if unspectacular, cut his teeth as a director during television’s “Golden Age,” helming episodes of such programs as The Defenders and The Twilight Zone, as well as a slew of made-for-television movies. That might help explain why Warning Shot feels more like an extended TV show than a feature film. (Kulik generally had less success on the big screen, although Riot (1969) is compelling viewing and Shamus (1973) is one of the seventies’ most underrated crime films.) Kulik’s main strength was his ability to elicit powerful yet naturalistic performances from the most disparate actors. This serves him well in Warning Shot, which features a number of star cameos from the likes of Steve Allen, George Sanders and Joan Collins. Kulik doesn’t allow any of these high-powered personalities to disrupt the film’s overall tone. Kulik also makes effective use of the camera, often framing the action from character-revealing visual perspectives, and utilizing periodic zoom shots that emphasize Valens’ isolation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his direction is how he ironically counterpoints Los Angeles’ bright, sunny facade with the legal and moral darkness that threatens to engulf Valens.
Portrait of a grieving widow.
• An apparent pillar of the community who in reality is a gun-toting, drug-smuggling, wife-cheating, debt-ridden gambler. Though he’s seen only once on-camera, his presence shadows the entire film.
• A hip-talking, chick-chasing, bodybuilding, bachelor-padded airline pilot who’s up to his ears in the narcotics operation, and who isn’t averse to committing murder to protect his ass.
A killer smile?
David Janssen gives what is arguably his best film performance in Warning Shot. He movingly depicts Valens’ mounting frustration at the injustice visited upon him, as well as his slow-burn anger at the fellow cops who turn their backs on him. Janssen holds himself in physically and emotionally, which makes his rare outbursts that much more effective. Underneath it all, Janssen makes one feel Valen’s utter loneliness. At the end of each frustrating day, he comes home to an empty bungalow, where he watches TV and drinks buttermilk to sooth the stomach wound he received in a prior shootout. A visit from his estranged wife (Joan Collins) gives him a temporary lift, until she tries to make him give up what she considers a pointless quest to clear himself. The look Valens shoots her is a haunting combination of remorse, pain, anger and sadness.
Feeding time for the jackals.
After visiting the doctor’s office in search of clues, Valens is jumped by the dead man’s son and several of his pals, who put him down and put the boot in with brutal efficiency. Kulik films the assault in a highly stylized manner with slow-motion, distorted focus and odd color shifts. It may not be narratively justified, but give Kulik credit for attempting something different.
Valens loses control.
Ed Musso [Valen’s partner]: “Even the psycho killer isn’t psycho enough to come out on a night like this.”
Tom Valens: “What does that make us?”
Tom Valens [to an attorney advising him to plead guilty]: “But Mr. Ames, I’m not guilty. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
Orville Ames: “Damned little, my friend....You’re in the right only if a jury says you’re in the right.”
Tom Valens: “Two years ago your husband was broke. Now you’re mourning him in money and martinis. Where’d he get it?”
Mrs. Ruston: “You’re talking to the wrong person. Jim and I had an unspoken agreement. I never asked him how he made his money, he never asked me how I spent it.”
Capt. Klodin: “I think we got a dead one.”
Tom Valens: “Smells like it’s been here awhile.”
Valens confronts the truth — and puts a bullet into it.
The End Titles
Director: Buzz Kulik; screenplay: Mann Rubin; producers: Bob Banner, Buzz Kulik; cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc; music: Jerry Goldsmith; editing: Archie Marshek
David Janssen (Sgt. Tom Valens); Ed Begley (Capt. Roy Klodin); Keenan Wynn (Sgt. Ed Musso); Sam Wanamaker (Frank Sanderman); Lillian Gish (Alice Willows); George Grizzard (Walt Cody); Carroll O’Connor (inquest judge); Stefanie Powers (Liz Thayer); Joan Collins (Joanie Valens); Walter Pidgeon (Orville Ames); Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Doris Ruston); George Sanders (Calvin York); Steve Allen (Perry Knowland)
The quotidian routine.