Dead Bang (1989)

I saw this movie at a sparsely attended screening in Berkeley, California in the Spring of 1989 but it has stuck with me as a superior manhunt thriller that deserved a better commercial fate. It has a compelling subject – the rise of white supremacist movements – and it is shot very stylishly. The latter should come as no surprise as it was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, though he probably made more bad movies that almost any other comparable filmmaker of his generation. The film is based on a real case investigated by Jerome ‘Bulldog’ Beck, a Detective in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which was profiled by James Ellroy in his book Crime Wave with Beck and the movie getting a brief mention.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“If I get pulled off of this case because you look like Woody Allen, I will not be responsible for what I will do. If you’ve got some dues to pay there, then by God you pay them, because I will not. I will ‘fixate’ on you as the instrument of my destruction and you will never feel safe in your world again.”

Maybe its just me, but in my mind movies often tend to be defined by a single moment or sequence that encapsulates the totality or anyway the best of its ethos and spirit (or lack thereof) or at least my experience of it as a viewer. Many of my most cherished movie visits from 1989, when I was visiting my girl friend in San Francisco and having a very giddy time of it, were often like that, especially if they involved a bit of silliness. For instance, there’s the “I’ll have what she’s having’ scene in When Harry Met Sally; the ‘electric ear cleaner’ moment in Parenthood; or the day-glo ‘cock fight’ in Blake Edwards’ criminally undervalued male menopause comedy Skin Deep. In Dead Bang it’s an extraordinary and profane moment in which our cop hero tracks down his quarry after a long and dynamic foot chase – and then, having already knocked him down and handcuffed him, proceeds to throw up on the poor man! Well, as a method of eliciting a confession from a suspect, I definitely hadn’t seen that in a movie before!

Our antisocial hero with the bilious tummy is Jerry Beck, who right away is presented in what is now a stereotypical fashion as a cop with an attitude problem – indeed, in some senses he’s little better than a collection of clichés in a wrinkled jacket! In an economical title sequence we learn that even though it is Christmas, this is not the season to be jolly as Beck has a truly terrible home life. He has just split up from his wife, is having to live in a rat-infested motel (just under Burbank airport) while divorce lawyers take his very last dime, all capped by the arrival of a restraining order keeping him away from visiting his kids. Is it any wonder that he is supremely stressed out, constantly frustrated and drinking far too much? In fact, it is quite common for people to keep telling him that he doesn’t look well. Hell, even the perps he is catching are worried about the state of his health!

Beck is a pretty unsympathetic characters – constantly angry and with a terrible temper, he is forever butting heads with those he sees as petty bureaucrats, puffed up small-town law enforcement officials and tin pot tyrants from federal agencies, though thankfully these are played by some of Hollywood’s best character actors. First off is Bob Balaban as the probation officer who is annoyed by Beck’s insistence that they work even though it’s Christmas day and who eventually gets more or less ‘kidnapped’ by the detective who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. The there is the late, great Michael Jeter as the shrink Beck is sent to for an evaluation, but which goes wrong when the detective laughs at him as he looks a bit like Woody Allen. This is a frankly bizarre scene, one that is resolved by our protagonist threatening to do some terrible things to the shrink. Then there is Brad Sullivan as the sheriff who is convinced that there is nothing to worry about in his jurisdiction but who, just as he is being really condescending to Beck, then gets shot at by the villains of the piece – and best of all, William Forsythe as the slightly prissy FBI agent who hates Beck for his use of profanity but is not above taking all the credit and the glory once the case is wrapped up.

After the title sequence, Frankenheimer creates a masterful tracking shot as we follow a man sporting jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap who we only see from behind – as the camera swoops over a house and follows him to a small town convenience store, we see in a mirror that the man has now pulled out a gun. Despite getting all the money there is, he kills the cashier in a fit of racist rage. When stopped by a policeman, the man (who we never quite get a good look at) kills the officer. Beck narrows his suspect list to a recent parolee, ‘Bobby’ Burns, who is known for his affiliation with the Aryan brotherhood and other unsavoury groups. Beck tracks him down to the ramshackle house where he lives but initially only finds his brother (fresh-faced Tate Donovan), visiting from college for the holidays. He arrests (and vomits on) a man who thinks is Burns, but gets the wrong man, a telling moment as Beck keeps making mistakes. Indeed, one of the amusing things about this film is how often Beck is just plain wrong. It even turns out that the gorgeous Penelope Ann Miller, with whom he has a Christmas night fling, had an ulterior and thoroughly ignoble motive for wanting to sleep with him. At least when Mickey Jones appears as a violent hillbilly (of course), he is true to his character and just hates everyone on sight.

Beck discovers that there is a plan to bring various white supremacist groups together into one coordinated organisation, a notion rejected by the FBI and initially even his bosses. Beck realises that local law enforcement is protecting Reverend Gebhardt, a who flies swastikas in his home, and who is clearly harbouring Burns and in charge of the master plan for the new ‘master race’. In a nice touch, Beck gets nowhere until he meets a local sheriff, played by Tim Reid, who recruits seven African-American officers who are finally prepared to take Beck’s claims seriously.  This is very typical of the kind of liberal sentiment that Frankenheimer injected into his films, and really helps makes this film standout. He probably produced his best work in the 60s and 70s and remains best known for such classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz (both 1962) , Seven Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966).

Like his French Connection 2 (1975), Frankenheimer often made thrillers with a serious underlying theme, though it has to be said that Dead Bang plays mostly as an above-average chase thriller, with not enough emphasis paid to the serious subject matter. Instead we get some superb suspense sequences and a thriller constructed with enough care by screenwriter Robert Foster to include a nice sting in the tail when once again it looks as though Beck really was wrong all along. great production design by Ken Adam (who did most fo the Bond movies in the 60s and 70s as well as a couple of films with Kubrick), and have to put up with Don Johnson as the lead. Riding the crest from his Miami Vice TV stardom, he gets to pout and swear a lot but not much else, but then he really is meant to be quite annoying, and he really is. And we do feel a bit sorry for him, a man who really can do nothing in the end but solve the case, even though this is achieved more by blundering and grim determination than anything else. This is a great B-movie, well-worth looking out for (if you can find it).

DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in the US in a fairly lousy pan and scan edition, the best home video release is probably the one that came out in Australia (PAL DVD Region 4) – no extras but a great anamorphic widescreen image, preserving the strong colour schemes and compositions of cinematographer Gerry Fisher.

Dead Bang (1989)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Robert L. Rosen, Steve Roth
Screenplay: Robert Foster (from a story, uncredited, by Jerome Beck)
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Art Direction: Ken Adam
Music: Gary Chang and Michael Kamen
Cast: Don Johnson, Penelope Ann Miller, Tim Reid, William Forsythe, Bob Balaban, Michael Jeter, Tate Donovan, Mickey Jones

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Film Noir, John Frankenheimer, Los Angeles, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Dead Bang (1989)

  1. Colin says:

    I’ve definitely never seen this film, never even heard of it to tell the truth. Frankenheimer’s work is variable, but always interesting to look at so I’ll have to keep an eye out for this.

    BTW, I quite agree with your point about certain scenes/moments seeming to sum up or capture the tone of a movie – extracting a confession by means of barf is, hopefully, a unique method and one that I can quite understand your remembering!

    • It is very funny, with the poor guy on the ground pleding ‘Don’t puke, don’t puke” – not an onbious third degree technique. Once again, it is onlt now starting to creep in that Dead Bang may, despite the pedigree and the star name, but a pretty obscure movie. I thought it was merely forgotten, but I am starting to think that it is nigh on invisible!

      • Colin says:

        Yeah, I’ve had that feeling before too. I find myself thinking: “Let’s jog everybody’s memory here.”
        Then I realize what an obscurity I’ve chosen! This movie does sound like it’s worth a look though.

        • I am a big, big Frankenheimer fan, so probably a lot more forgiving than most (I even went to see The Holcroft Covenant at the cinema on its initial release …)

          • Colin says:

            Hmm, I didn’t go quite that far, but I did buy the rather nice European MGM DVD of The Holcroft Covenant. Not really a fan of Ludlum-sourced material though.

          • I know what you mean about Ludlum – I remember liking The Gemini Contender (never filmed AFAIK) and Bourne Identity (I even liked the TV-Movie with Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith despite it having one of the worst love scenes ever committed to celluloid). I remember liking Holcroft and Rhineman Exchange (also a TV-Movie, but never saw it – or at least don’t remember it), but this is 30 years ago and I suspect nothing could make me pick up one of his books today. Frankenheimer is responsible for some fo the best audio commentaries on DVD in my opinion – the only flaw is that he seems oblivious sometimes to the shortcomings of the material, but his commenst on Holcroft are just as interesting as those on the DVD for Seconds or Manchurian Candidate; or even the more recent Ronin or Reindeer Games (aka Deception), both of which i thought were also pretty good actually. A lot of his best work was on TV though.

          • Colin says:

            I was really taken with Ronin when I saw it in the cinema, less so when I saw it again on DVD. I must give it another look to see what I think now.

            As for Ludlum, I read a lot of his stuff years ago, but haven’t touched anything by him for God knows how long. I do remember enjoying The Osterman Weekend. I read the Bourne trilogy, which started out quite well but went downhill – I recall the last installment as 800+ interminable pages!

          • Osterman Weekend I remember quite liking at the time (was it his first novel even?), though the fairly perverse Peckinpah version has somewhat tainted my memory of it – allegedly it is getting the remake treatment …

            Ronin I liked as a superior star thriller and an old-fashioned one at that, but wouldn’t want to over-sell it. Reindeer Games was a surprising dip into traditional neo-Noir for Frankenheimer and I liked the way that it took a very standard plot and then gussied it up with a whol bynch of younger actors without really sacrificing too much in the process (not everyone agrees on this). I was toying with doing a post on that film at some point in the near future but now that I’ve done Dead Bang I may wait a bit longer …

  2. Yvette says:

    Haven’t seen this, but in truth, it doesn’t sound like my kind of movie, Sergio. :) But I still enjoyed reading your review. I liked Don Johnson in Miami Vice – at least in the first year or so. Later it became tedious. I also liked him in the uneven TV production of THE LONG HOT SUMMER. HE was no Paul Newman, but still worth a good, long look. I’m speaking from a woman’s point of view, you understand. :)

    THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was such a fabulous movie that even if Frankenheimer did nothing else, I think he would be remembered for that. I haven’t seen SEVEN DAYS IN MAY in ages, time to line it up on my queue – if it’s available. Thanks for the reminder.

    SECONDS I remember as the film in which Rock Hudson tried to de-glamorize himself and really, really act. I found a lot of it unwatchable. But probably that’s just me. I do know it’s not a film I’d care to see again.

    Didn’t Frankenheimer do some work with John Cassavetes at some point? The 50′s never looked so grim as in their movies.

    • Hello Yvette, well, you might enjoy this for all the great actors as part of the supporting cast – but this movie is not likely to change your life much either! I remember liking that mini-series version of Long Hot Summer and in fact I didn’t mean to be too harsh on Johnson – I liked him a lot as the anti-hero opposite Rebecca DeMornay in Lumet’s Guilty as Sin (probably another Overlooked title for another week) for instance. You’ve completely got me on the Cassavetes connection though – I suspect they may have worked together on TV in the 50s (there are 2 listd on IMDb but I have seen neither of them) but as far as I know they never did a feature together.

      Seconds is a brutal movie and quite a cold one but I love its take on the Fasut legend. Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up is still one of the best of the Elmore Leonard adaptations out there though.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I doubt I could take Don Johnson seriously in any movie but you never know. One of those actors who seems content to play himself.

    • That does seem to be the definition of ‘stardom’ for a certain type of performer, doesn’t it? Apparently Johnson plays a very bad man in the new Tarantino film …

  4. TracyK says:

    Based on this review, my husband and I have decided to give this a try. We are Frankenheimer fans, but did not know about this one. Not so keen on pan and scan; maybe try it first in that format, then go for the Region 4 if we like it enough.

    I think my favorite is The Train, after that Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. No maybe Seven Days in May is my favorite.

    • Tracy, thou art clearly a woman of taste! Thanks for taking my word for it and I really hope you enjoy the movie – please let me know what you and your husband think of it!

  5. Thank you for this review, Sergio. The only Don Johnson film I saw and liked, if I recall correctly, was the fairly entertaining BORN YESTERDAY where he stars alongside his former “teen” wife Melanie Griffith and the overwhelming John Goodman. I have had occasion to watch MIAMI VICE and NASH BRIDGES but never did. I always felt Johnson, despite his acting capability, was one of those actors whose films you could give the go-by, in spite of who might have directed him or produced his films. Which brings me to Frankenheimer: I have seen at least two of the films you mentioned, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE most certainly, but didn’t know until now that they were produced by Frankenheimer. I need to start watching films from an all-encompassing perspective. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking out for DEAD BANG which I think I will like.

    • Thanks very much Prashant – Johnson has done fairly well on TV and some movies I suppose and I like some of his films quite a bit, including the Harlan Ellison adaptation A Boy and his Dog and the sexy neo-Noir The Hot Spot, from the novel by Charles Williams. Frankenheimer was one of the great TV directors of the 50s and one of the best filmmakers of the 60s. His careers got derailed in the late 70s through some poor choices and a long problem with alcoholism, which he was brave enough to admit to in later years when he had conquered the problem. Some of his later TV movies, such as Against the Wall, about the Attica prison riots and his historical epics Andersonville and George Wallace are also highly impressive, if fairly controversial, depictions of war and the South.

  6. Mike says:

    Well done Sergio. Clearly a genuine overlooked film given the number of people who haven’t seen it, of which I am one. Personally, I never thought Don Johnson was that bad. Miami Vice was a show I loved, though it’s dated a bit now and screams of 1980s excess. Still, the film looks as though it’s been treated with a complete lack of love, released for completists only, and I must admit not the sort of thing I’d rush to see. I can’t help but feel that I had my fill of this sort of thing at the time. For all that, a great write-up (always look forward to your Tuesday obscurata).

    • Thanks very much for the kind word Mike, greatly appreciated. I haven’t seen Miami Vice series since it was on, but I remember liking the first couple of series like everybody else. On the other hand, I truly loathed the movie remake! I suspect I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see this movie in 1989 had it not been for the Frankenheimer connection. Worth seeing, but he did make many, many more deserving films too!

      • Mike says:

        I think I may be the only person in the world who liked the remake – it isn’t easy work, but it has style. Perhaps it should never have been attempted though – a bit stuck in the era in which it was first made, and possibly the only answer – if ever there was one – was to parody it, a bit like Starsky and Hutch (even though I didn’t like that particular remake).

        • I should probably confess to not being that big a fan of Michael Mann (heresy, I know …) – for all his undoubted technical dexterity and clear intelligence (most evident it seems to me in The Insider), in terms of character development his films have all struck me as a remarkably trite and cliche-ridden. I’ve never been able to understand the love that people have for Heat, which seems to me to be the stuff of every other French policier of the 70s. I realise this is a minority view …

  7. John says:

    What have I never seen this, I thought? I liked Johnson in THE HOT SPOT. Good story and some movie style in that. Well, after scrolling through the pictures first I knew why.Three words: Penelope Ann Miller. But, Sergio, I will forgo my distaste for this actress (R rated story not fit for blog comments) and have just added this to my Netflix queue. (Yes, it’s there — probably the dreaded pan/scan version) B movies are my favorite guilty pleasure. Report to follow.

    • Well, thanks for that compliment and am really looking forward to hear what you make of it John. Sorry to hear about nefarious PAM-ness though, but if it makes you feel any better, she appears only in 4 scenes!

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  9. Jeff Cordell says:

    John Frankenheimer was always so uneven. I know that in the seventies he fell into a long bout of alcoholism and it effected his work, but nevertheless I own several of his movies on DVD. “Black Sunday”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Dead Bang”, “The Train”, “Ronin” , “Seven Days in May” and “French Connection II”. “Dead Bang” comes across as a made for television movie that was given to a talented director who rose above the material. I like it. I like it because even though it’s nothing original it’s very watchable. Good writeup.

    • Thanls Jeff – you are right about Ronin, absolutely, a film I enjoy greatly. Frankenheimer gives it a sheen and energy that it probably doesn’t really warrant as it’s just a souped up B-movie with nice dialogue courtesy of David Mamet and a great cast. Frankenheimer did make some terrible choices throughout his career, no quesion, but when he finally gacve up drinking there was something remarkable and heartening about the success that greeted his return to TV when he won three back-to-back Emmys – it’s a shame he died so unexpectedly from what should have been a minor surgical procedure as i think we could have had many more great movies out of him – but he had a darn good innings, especially if you remember the huge amount of quality TV he made int he 50s.

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