“A psycho-karate killer brutalizes his victims and your emotions” in BLADE and Franco Nero is a menace society “but it’s okay because he’s a cop” in RING OF DEATH on Code Red Releasing’s DETECTIVE DOUBLE BILL.
Senator’s daughter Melinda Powers (Jeanne Lange, SEX AND THE MARRIED WOMAN) is brutally beaten and murdered in the hallway of her New York brownstone apartment building and hothead Timmy Blade (John Marley, THE DEAD ARE ALIVE) is on the case. Naturally, the Senator (William Prince, SACCO & VANZETTI) – up for re-election on a campaign ticket decrying drugs and pornography – would like to pin the crime on his daughter’s unsavory (and black) lover Henry Watson (Ted Lange, FRIDAY FOSTER), but he’s already in jail when Karen Novak (Raina Barrett, STIGMA) – the girl prostitute who ran into the real killer in the hallway that night – is also murdered. The Senator’s aide Steiner (Keene Curtis, AMERICAN HOT WAX) pushes Blade’s chief Reardon (John Schuck, McCABE AND MRS. MILLER) and Quincy (Michael McGuire, BEYOND DEATH’S DOOR) to find no connection between the Novak murder and that of Melinda Powers. Blade goes behind their backs and learns from Novak’s friends of her red appointment book. When Blade asks about the book, Quincy – under orders from Steiner – makes it disappear from the evidence file, but Blade finds it. He deduces that the initials M.P. scribbled on the date page for the night of the murder are not those of Melinda, but actor Morgan (Vince Cannon, THE MANHANDLERS) who lives in Melinda’s building. Blade rules him out as a suspect (for whatever reason) and is at a loss until he gets Watson to divulge the identity of Melinda’s supplier: the Fat Man (Marshall Efron, THX-1138), who was in cahoots with Sanchez (Arthur French, CAR WASH) who suspected that Melinda was turning the drugs over to her father and was trailing her. He reveals to Blade that there was another man watching Melinda that night and that his car had a Powers campaign sticker. Meanwhile, secretary Joanne (Karen Machon) – who has been having an affair with her boss Burt (Peter White, THE BOYS IN THE BAND) – has become suspicious of account executive Frederick Peterson (Jon Cypher, THE FOOD OF THE GODS). She looks into his personal file and discovers that he was court-marshalled and asks her state worker friend Gail (Rue McClanahan, THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR) to look into his records. Peterson – who lives with his aunt Cynthia (Katherine Squire, TWO LANE BLACKTOP) – learns from the papers of Blade’s investigation and starts stalking him and his younger wife Maggie (Kathryn Walker, SLAP SHOT).
BLADE is a bad DIRTY HARRY rip-off. No, it’s a terrible DIRTY HARRY rip-off. In spite of its classy John Cacavas (HORROR EXPRESS, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) score, it looks cheap. Every actor seems to be at the mercy of a one-take-only shooting approach. Some dialogue scenes just seem to fizzle out so the director just cuts away. Blade’s meeting with Morgan the actor goes nowhere and abruptly cuts away – all it establishes is why the prostitute was in the building that night. The character gets one or two lines of dialogue before Pintoff cuts to the next scene and Blade tells Maggie that he thinks the actor is weird but harmless (all of the Blade/Maggie scenes are boring and seem semi-improvised). The scene of Blade tossing the football around with his son also fails to make Marley’s cop more dimensional (the scene was shot in Central Park and looped in post, but the bare sound design almost makes their conversation sound more like voiceover). Later on, Blade tells Maggie that his son – from a previous marriage – seems to be falling in with the wrong crowd, but it really adds nothing more to the plot (if only to suggest that Powers may be right about growing degeneracy) but provide Blade with a weapon for his final confrontation with the killer (of course, the viewer will have forgotten about it until the end). The “psycho-karate” beatings of the victims are also a loose end; but the element does, however, allow for one ridiculous scene where Blade decides to forgo questioning one of Novak’s clients who practices Judo because Judo is a defensive art rather than an offensive one. Comic bits about porno versions of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and SNOW WHITE and a discussion between Blade and Maggie about going to see an erotic film – suggesting that Melinda might pop up in an underground porno as a link to the prostitute – goes nowhere and is just more padding. There is also a supposed threat by black groups who want Watson to be released – including implied physical threat to Blade and his family – but there is only one early scene between Blade and Black Panther-esque Chris (a pre-fame Morgan Freeman making absolutely no impression) that provides no tension whatsoever as Marley and Freeman talk over each other until both trail off. Joe Santos (THE SOPRANOS) has the pretty thankless role as Blade’s partner, driving his car while Blade interrogates “terrified” suspects and getting him a report on a murder after Blade has quit.
Marley’s Blade – in contrast to Eastwood’s Harry – is described as “coddling degenerates,” but he approaches everyone in the same abrasive manner (seemingly, he’s just being John Marley). Cypher is no Andrew Robinson (and his killer is no Scorpio), and fails to make much of an impression (even in the killing scenes) until the end. Walker, as Blade’s author wife, does little but read humorous newspaper advice column letters to Blade while he is shaving and comment on his investigation (almost similar to the way Peterson’s aunt reads the newspaper stories about the murders aloud to him). Prince makes little impression as the senator – is he corrupt, a hypocrite, or just racist and elitist – and poor Keene Curtis (who I’ll always remember as Sam Malone’s stuffy upstairs restaurant owner neighbor on CHEERS) stumbles over a couple lines. Machon’s secretary is pretty much the only interesting character. Director Ernest Pintoff – who co-wrote the film with Jeff Lieberman (SQUIRM) – had only seven feature credits to his name – as well as a handful of shorts, including the Oscar-winning THE CRITIC – including the memorable JAGUAR LIVES! and WHO KILLED MARY WHATS’ERNAME? The supporting cast composed largely of TV actors is not surprising given Pintoff’s long resume of directing credits in series ranging from KOJAK, HAWAII FIVE-O, and ELLERY QUEEN to DALLAS, DYNASTY, and KNOTS LANDING. Cypher was doing guest shots on MARCUS WELBY, THE ROCKFORD FILES, and TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. before becoming a regular on HILL STREET BLUES and later KNOTS LANDING (including an episode directed by Pintoff). Walker was mainly a well-regarded stage actress and had only appeared in a few TV movies before BLADE, after which she did some soap opera appearances and a few more TV movies and mini-series. Schuck was a regular on McMILLAN AND WIFE and later played Herman Munster in the series THE MUNSTERS TODAY. McGuire was on DARK SHADOWS and had a small appearance in THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. He later appeared in two Pintoff-directed episodes of KNOTS LANDING. Machon had guest shots in BARNABY JONES, GET CHRISSIE LOVE!, and COLUMBO among others. McClanahan was already on MAUDE and would be a regular on MAMA’S FAMILY and THE GOLDEN GIRLS as well as guesting in several well-known TV shows. Lange, forever typecast because of his long-running role on THE LOVE BOAT (several of his subsequent TV guest shots referenced the role). Squire made the TV guest rounds a decade earlier than most of the others with appearances in MIKE HAMMER, THE VEIL, and PETER GUN in the fifties to THRILLER, TWILIGHT ZONE, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR and PERRY MASON in the 1960s (her last appearance was in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY). Santos, on the other hand, started in movies with roles in Joe Sarno’s WARM NIGHTS AND HOT PLEASURES, FLESH AND LACE, MOONLIGHTING WIVES, and MY BODY HUNGERS as well as PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and SHAF’S BIG SCORE. He later became a regular on THE ROCKFORD FILES and POLICE STORY.
Distributed theatrically in the U.S. by Joe Green Enterprises, BLADE was not released to television until 1979. Not only were nudity and violence cut (Melinda’s murder occurred off-screen so Jeanne Lange lost all of her screentime), but new footage was inserted to pad the 90-minute running time, including a theater marquee of APOCALYPSE NOW (possibly for some obscure thematic purposes, or just to get the audience to think the film was not already six years old) and this version reportedly appears on the long out of print Video Gems VHS/Beta release (in clamshell and slipcase versions with different artwork) and reissued by Congress Video Group with a more generic PD-looking slipcase cover. Code Red Releasing’s progressive, 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer features the original 1973 theatrical version in Night scenes are incredibly murky, in one or two shots the only thing visible is the green vertical scratch running along the right side of the frame and reel changes are noisy. This may be the best the film is going to look in its original form (the distributors may have chopped up the original negative for the TV print re-edit/reshoot). The image occasionally looks cropped, but that may be shoddy cinematography that did not account for theatrical matting (all of cinematographer David Hoffman’s other credits are for documentaries). The dialogue is always clear – apart from one drop-out after a reel change – and Cacavas’ score comes through nicely (next to the print condition, the poor cinematography, and the spare sound design, the contrasting condition of the score almost makes some scenes look like a scored silent film). No trailer is included for the film, so I don’t know if we actually get to hear a narrator recite the claim from the poster of “A psycho-karate killer brutalizes his victims and your emotions!”
In RING OF DEATH, a gutter press contact informs corrupt Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero, DJANGO) that respected lawyer Fontana (Adolfo Celi, LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN) wants him to make trouble for English model Sandy Bronson (Delia Boccardo, TENTACLES) who is engaged to his son Mino (Maurizio Bonuglia, PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK). Fontana is also perturbed about a business deal his son wants to enter into with recording studio owner Romani (Marino Mase, LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN). After roughing up Sandy, Belli pays a call on Romani only to discover that the man has been murdered. When Belli’s colleague Baldo (Renzo Palmer, DANGER: DIABOLIK) questions the doorman of Romani’s apartment building, Belli recognizes his description of a female visitor as that of Sandy. They also discover the seemingly important clue of a photograph of a naked woman whose face is obscured because the corner of the photo is torn off. When Belli confronts Sandy, she reveals that she had been to bed with Romani and that Mino had found out. When Baldo arrives to question Sandy, Belli agrees to not reveal that she had keys to Romani’s apartment if she does not mention that he has ever come to visit her. Naturally, Fontana is not too happy that his son might become a potential suspect in Romani’s murder. Mino’s doting stepmother Vera (Florinda Bolkan, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) was all for Mino investing with Romani, so Belli questions her (she even strips off to reveal that she is not the woman in the photograph found in Romani’s apartment). Sandy swears that she is not the woman in the photo (although she does not prove it in the same manner) but claims that Mino’s photographer friend Claude (Roberto Bisacco, TORSO) was looking for a negative and questioned her since she had been to bed with Romani. Belli roughs up Claude, but does not find the negative so he pays a visit to French singer Emmanuelle (Susanna Martinkova, FRIVOLOUS LOLA) who Mino introduced to Romani. Belli picks up quickly on her drug problem, but that’s a dead end since her doctor supplier (also introduced by Mino) met with a sudden fatal accident the week before. Belli plays Russian Roulette with Sandy in his car (denting and dinging several other cars on the road along the way) and she admits that she was the girl in the photo and that she and Mino went looking for it and both discovered Romani dead. She also admits that she does not want to marry Mino; rather, she wanted Fontana to buy her off so she could provide for her layabout boyfriend back in England. If blackmail was not the motive for Romani’s death, then why was he killed?
Based on the novel “Macchie di Belletto” (translated in the English credits as “Make-up Stains”) by Ludovico Dentice and scripted by Massimo D’Avak (WHO SAW HER DIE?) and Alberto Silvestri and Franco Verucci (who later scripted Guerrieri’s THE DIVORCE, also for producer Mario Cecchi Gori), RING OF DEATH aka UN DETECTIVE aka MACCHIE DI BELLETTO aka DETECTIVE BELLI has a convoluted but (in retrospect) logical plot. Nero fans will enjoy the film, but fans of any other members of the Eurocult supporting cast may be disappointed since most of them get pushed into the background. Celi pops up at various points like a “special guest star” and Bolkan is also used more for decorative purposes than as a developed character (despite a monologue explaining her affection for Mino), which is unfortunate because Nero and Bolkan have much stronger chemistry than Nero and Boccardo. Poor Marino Mase is around long enough to be shot and is uncredited (even though he already had more than a handful of supporting roles in his CV as well as a lead in Marco Bellochio’s underrated FIST IN THE POCKET). Also uncredited are Laura Antonelli (who would hit it big the same year with Massimo Dallamano’s VENUS IN FURS) as a nurse, Silvia Dionisio (Mrs. Ruggero Deodato) as one of Emmanuelle’s groupies, John Stacy (ZEDER) as the porter of Romani’s building, and English dubbing artist/actor Geoffrey Copleston (THE BLACK CAT) as the chief of police. There is little to nothing redeeming about Belli’s character (other than being played by dashing Franco Nero). He’s not the on-the-take detective who develops scruples as the case’s turns become more intriguing than his bribe. He’s always thinking of saving his own skin. He roughs up men and women alike.
The English dubbing does not attempt to disguise the setting, which would be hard since there is a lot of Italian newspaper text, letters, and street signs, the understanding of which is required for the plot. Where it stumbles is in having the dubbing actors affect Italian and French accents. The actor dubbing Nero fares well enough, and Celi and Bolkan appear to dub themselves, but the French accent for Martinkova is pretty bad (almost Inspector Clouseau bad), and Bonuglia is given a whiny voice (British dubber Pat Starke dubs Boccardo’s British model). On the other hand, the 1969 production sports colorful photography by Roberto Gerardi (TO BE TWENTY) – camera operator Gastone Di Giovanni went on to photograph THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE and BLACK EMANUELLE, WHITE EMANUELLE and assistant cameraman Franco Bruno operated the camera on cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s Lucio Fulci outings – pop art sets (by Giantito Burchiellaro, JULIET OF THE SPIRITS) and costumes (by Luca Sabatelli, CAT O’NINE TAILS), and a brassy blues score by Fred Bongusto (THE EROTICIST) featuring at theme song by Canadian actress/singer Shirley Harmer (COMMUTER HUSBANDS). Unit manager Camilo Teti went on to work on Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE as production manager, and later directed the gory giallo THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG U.S. Producer Mario Cecchi Gori later founded the Cecchi-Gori Group with his son Vittorio. The two have been part of everything from bankrolling Dario Argento’s late 1980s and early nineties pictures from OPERA to TRAUMA (as well as Argento’s productions for Michele Soavi) to more mainstream work like Abel Ferrera’s DANGEROUS GAME, Luc Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA, Michael Radford’s IL POSTINO, and Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.
The film was released on VHS as RING OF DEATH first through Video Gems and then later by Congress Video Group and United American Video (Something Weird Video also released a VHS version under this title). Having first seen RING OF DEATH as UN DETECTIVE, I was surprised to see that the U.S. prints were presented by Sig Shore (producer of SUPERFLY) and the U.S. version was the source for Code Red’s progressive, 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The onscreen title DETECTIVE BELLI, which I believe is the U.S. theatrical rather than the export title since the print’s English credits feature the “Sig Shore presents” card, and that is the title on the U.S. theatrical trailer (RING OF DEATH may be the TV title). The print source has been quite well-preserved and probably should have been the A-feature in this double-bill. The sound has some crackly passages, and the brass of Bongusto’s score distorts during the main titles, but the dialogue is always clear. The 90 minute running time runs short of the Italian version’s length of just over 100 minutes (the film was also reissued in Italy in a version that ran six minutes shorter under the title MACCHIE DI BELLETTO). The PAL DVDR I have of UN DETECTIVE shifts back to Italian for parts of scenes as well as single lines of dialogue which may have been snipped when creating the English export version. The ending has also been curtailed to different effect (which may also have been an intentional change). The film’s trailer (1:49) is included along with trailers for the gory Spanish western CUT-THROATS NINE, Fred Williamson’s DEATH JOURNEY, the slasher NIGHTMARE, and RUNNING HOT. (Eric Cotenas)
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