MELINDA (1972)
Director: by Hugh A. Robertson
Warner Archive Collection

Violent, engrossing suspense meller, in the blaxploitation mold. Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection has released, on M.O.D. standard format, 1972’s MELINDA, from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, written by Lonne Elder III, directed by Hugh A. Robertson, and starring Calvin Lockhart, Rosalind Cash, Vonetta McGee, Paul Stevens, Rockne Tarkington, Ross Hagen, Renny Roker, Judyann Elder, and Jim Kelly. A moderate financial success when first released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MELINDA isn’t often mentioned when classics of the blaxploitation genre are discussed—perhaps because it’s just as much LAURA and THE BIG HEAT as it is SHAFT and TROUBLE MAN. Warners’ anamorphically-enhanced widescreen 1.85:1 transfer looks pretty sweet, with an original trailer as the sole bonus.

Los Angeles radio station KJLA’s star DJ, Frankie J. Parker (Calvin Lockhart, HALLS OF ANGER, LET’S DO IT AGAIN), is, as he reminds himself whenever looking in the mirror, one “pretty motherf*cker,” and he’s got a mouth to back up his devastating looks: an entertaining but self-centered string of bullsh*t ultimately designed to get what he wants out of people. Old school friend and martial arts instructor Charles Atkins (Jim Kelly, ENTER THE DRAGON, HOT POTATO) wants Frankie to mention on his show the money troubles Atkins’ Community League Association is having in terms of meeting the rent, but Frankie isn’t interested in pissing off his white boss...or at least that’s what he tells Charles until he suddenly changes his mind on the air. Frankie’s smart-assed secretary, Gloria (Judyann Elder, BLUME IN LOVE), covers for her boss, as usual, as he makes his way out for an evening of fun. At his close friend Tank Robertson’s (Rockne Tarkington, BLACK SAMSON, THE ICE PIRATES) nightclub, Frankie spots gorgeous out-of-towner Melinda Lewis (Vonetta McGee, HAMMER, SHAFT IN AFRICA), and makes a play for her, inviting her to go to a party on Tank’s yacht. Charmed by his line but wise to his manipulation, she reluctantly agrees; later, she can’t help herself when, back at Frankie’s pad, she makes love to him. Neither one realizes, though, that Melinda has been followed by thug Dennis (Renny Roker). Within two days, the couple admit to each other they’re in love—something that only happened once before to Frankie, with Terry Davis (Rosalind Cash, THE OMEGA MAN, HICKEY & BOGGS), who’s jealous of Frankie’s new love. Everything’s everything for the newly committed Frankie...until he finds Melinda slashed to death in his apartment. Now it’s up to a newly matured Frankie to find out who killed Melinda and why, and then destroy them.

Having seen most of the blaxploitation titles from the early 1970s (a lot of them at the drive-in, thanks to rule-breaking older brothers), I hadn’t heard about MELINDA prior to this Warner Archive disc; if it subsequently played often on TV or cable in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, I missed it. So I came to it clean, only knowing it was a “thriller,” according to the back of the Warner DVD case. It sure didn’t start out like a thriller, though, and for the first 30 minutes or so...I didn’t mind. Written by Lonne Elder III, who, along with Suzanne de Passe, wrote the same year’s lovely family drama, SOUNDER (becoming the first black screenwriters nominated for Academy Awards), MELINDA played more like a humorous romantic drama, rather than an ass-kicking exploiter. From the moment Lockhart unleashes his impossibly handsome, ridiculously showboating self-promoter Frankie J., we’re hooked on the cocky character (“the ‘J’ is for ‘Joy,’ because that’s what you get from Frankie J.! The mind tripper, the mighty dipper, the honey dripper! Your messenger of enlightenment—after me...who remembers Aristotle?”). What kind of arrogant egotist would taunt deadly weapon Jim Kelly as “some lightweight sh*t,” seriously believing he could kick his ass? Why does Frankie blow off his old friend in need, in such a selfish, flippant manner...only to turn around and help him on a whim, telling his listeners to send in money to Kelly? It’s a character quirk that gets our attention. There must be something more to Frankie J.; otherwise, his funny, smart secretary Gloria wouldn’t help him all the time (it’s a shame the talented, amusing Judyann Elder wasn’t around more here). MELINDA could easily have stayed in this groove and become a comedy about Frankie J. getting his comeuppance, learning humility right before he reforms and helps out his community. All the elements are there within the first five minutes for a funny, ultimately heartwarming drama.

Once the sexy, beautiful Vonetta McGee comes on the scene, MELINDA splits off into more interesting directions. Her chemistry with Lockhart is solid; she’s on to him immediately, but she can’t help but like him (as we do). She knows he’s after sex (who wouldn’t be with Vonetta McGee?), but she sees something in him that’s “deeper, heavier,” than he does in himself. Their love scene together is at first playful, then seriously erotic (too bad someone made the disastrous choice of intercutting Roker listening in on the lovemaking and getting off himself—a pretty gross moment that seriously cheapens and undermines the whole point of the scene). We want to find out what made her sadder but wiser concerning all those “pimps, hustlers, freaks and losers” out there, and why she sees Lockhart differently. Too bad she’s bumped off, then, before a possible romantic triangle with the arrival of Cash on the scene, as we try and figure out why Lockhart saw Cash’s love as a requirement to turn into a “weak-kneed faggot [she] could manipulate,” but sees McGee’s commitment in a positive light (there’s a very smart, perceptive scene on Tank’s yacht—where Tarkington crassly insults Cash’s intelligence, a rude, chauvinist act that has rival McGee quickly defend her—a moment we wish MELINDA had elaborated on).

However, since MELINDA was conceived and greenlighted within the early parameters of the blaxploitation subgenre—and since producer Pervis Atkins stated in an interview that he wanted to make the kind of commercial movie he himself enjoyed watching; i.e., a thriller—McGee’s gory death triggers a switch in the movie to a ballsy, noirish private eye/revenge thriller format...and it’s not half bad at all. Some of the mystery elements are a bit shakily worked out—for example: whether Tank knows Melinda and vice versa, prior to Frankie’s involvement, is never made clear; is Terry Tank’s girlfriend now, or just a friend; is the tape of the union leader assassination actually useable—while some of the clichés of the blaxploitation subgenre intrude on an otherwise familiar-but-solid suspensor framework (frankly, the most disconcerting element in MELINDA is the use of Metro’s standing THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER TV sets for Frankie’s pad and Cash’s magazine offices—I kept expecting Mrs. Livingstone or Norman Tinker to wander into the movie). The classic noir crime motifs—an old friend who isn’t what he used to be; an old love who still holds a sway on the anti-hero; a romantic obsession made unhealthy by sudden death; a near psychotic need for the complete destruction of those who destroyed the anti-hero’s life—are respectfully observed in MELINDA, while the new freedoms of 1970s cinema allow a bloody, vulgar, nasty violence to permeate the proceedings (director Robertson, a former editor who cut SHAFT and won an Oscar for editing MIDNIGHT COWBOY, knows a thing or two about staging a convincing ass-beating).

Even as the fists fly, though, Elder and Robertson keep things smart. Once we learn Melinda’s back-story—passed around by her white mobster boyfriend Mitch (Paul Stevens, PATTON, ADVISE AND CONSENT)—we buy it, even though later on we don’t buy that she’d risk taping a meeting where Mitch and his white cabal discuss assassinating a black union leader. That blaxploitation overreach could have been avoided if they had simply made Mitch’s pursuit of Melinda not business-related but personal; his sick love for her thwarted. And it might have rounded the only 2-dimensional character in the movie: the totally evil white villain (another blaxploitation cliché). Lockhart’s character has a nice development arc, going from a narcissistic user to an agent of destruction before finding love again. In one of Melinda’s best scenes, Lockhart is almost tricked by white junkie Jan Tice into getting killed by Roker. Lockhart runs the gambit between pained irritation when she asks for help with her stalled car, to exaggerated, satirical Uncle Tom-ism when helping her into his car, to violent fury beating her ass when he discovers what her game was (“If you have to die for me to live, then you’ll die!” he roars), to pained guilt when he discovers her murdered body (despite his earlier oath; he’s not a monster—he slams the wall with his fist when he realizes he could have saved her). All of this is nicely engaging amid the entertaining beatings, the snake cages and the karate (with Jim Kelly of course there’s karate), taking MELINDA several notches above the usual blaxploitation simplicities.

The standard format, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen 1.85:1 transfer for MELINDA looks quite bright and sharp, with correctly valued color, adequate image fine detail, decent grain structure, and acceptable contrast. Scratches and speckling were minor. The Dolby Digital split mono audio track, however, was a bit muddy when it came to the dialogue; a few times some subtitles would have been helpful...but none are available. An original trailer is included as a bonus. (Paul Mavis)