Joe Don Baker gets up a Sweat in 1970s Actioner
DIRECTED BY PHIL KARLSON/1975
STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 28, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
I’m sorry, but ever since I first witnessed the pristine Mystery Science Theater 3000 spoof of the Joe Don Baker “classic” Mitchell—which, in its original form, was released in 1975, only months before Phil Karlson’s Framed—it’s been difficult to see the ’70s-era Baker as anything but a revolting, cigarello-sucking slob. The sly, unforgiving way Joel Hodgson and company, in that landmark 1993 MST3K episode, laid so beautifully into the actor’s portly, greasy, clumsy countenance was too deliciously hilarious to be forgotten (“Mitchell! Heart poundin’, veins cloggin’! Mitchell!”). The jabs were justified, too, prompting Baker himself to put in retaliatory blows (he reportedly threatened to pummel the show’s hosts if he ever ran into them). But, honestly, Hodgson and those zany robots did the guy a favor, because their hysterical take-down kept Baker’s boozy image in front of a newer generation of eyes far longer than most of his movies, on their own, ever could. He’d have done better to embrace the mockery. Hell, given the gravely low quality of Mitchell, he should have joined in with a self-deprecating fat joke or two.
In many ways, Framed can be seen as a sideways retread of Walking Tall—both are simple revenge stories, each mounted against crooked law enforcement snakes—but, nowadays, it also lands as an unintended sequel to Mitchell.
Baker has usually excelled as a supporting actor playing wholly despicable villains in films like Junior Bonner, Charley Varrick, Wild Rovers, The Outfit and, much later, as Babe Ruth in The Natural (his appearance in Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear–my favorite of his performances—placed him in a rare sympathetic, though still skeevy role). But after his massive success as club-wielding Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser in Karlson’s 1974 bio-pic Walking Tall, the idea of such a drawling, slovenly action hero as Baker began to take hold; unadvised as it was, dollar signs were in the air, and we all know what that means: more of the same. But it was a short reign at the top for the actor. Once Mitchell, Framed or the little-seen Checkered Flag or Crash hit the screens, it wasn’t long before Baker was consigned to TV for the short-lived cop series Eischied, and then it was largely back to supporting roles for him in both movies and on television (this included a terrible turn as a gross Bond villain in 1987’s The Living Daylights, and a better one in the Chevy Chase cult hit Fletch).
Director Phil Karlson capped his 40-year career with Framed. Walking Tall had easily become the biggest hit on his roster, after decades of B-movie work. His long string of forgotten ’40s westerns and war films bloomed briefly into a string of terrific ’50s film noirs, including Scandal Sheet, 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and 1955’s incredible Phenix City Story. Even though he’d found a unique voice in that genre, he slid back into the doldrums again in the ’60s, with his most notable movies being the Elvis Presley dud Kid Galahad and The Silencers, a blah entry into Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series meant to capitalize on the James Bond craze. It’s a rare feat for a director to crown a long career with their biggest smash, and Karlson almost did it with Walking Tall. But well enough couldn’t be left alone.
And so now we have Framed, newly released by Kino Lorber on a Blu-Ray of questionable quality. I can recall first seeing Framed in 1975 at an Atlanta drive-in (on a double bill with the shotgun-sprayed Buford Pusser epic), and I remember, even as a kid, watching with a measure of astonished incredulity, that key scene where Baker battles bloodily with an equally chubby cop. This has to rank as one of the huffingest, puffingest, most ill-equipped movie fight scenes ever, but it surely made its mark in my memory. In many ways, Framed can be seen as a sideways retread of Walking Tall—both are simple revenge stories, each mounted against crooked law enforcement snakes—but, nowadays, it also lands as an unintended sequel to Mitchell. Put simply, if you loved that estimable MST3K episode, you’re going to love this, too. Just get yourself likkered up and let the insults fly screenward.
It’s a dirty, gravel-road bit of ’70s Southern-tinged nostalgia, and a suitable companion for a Saturday night with some rowdy movie buddies and a coupla cases of suds.
To be fair, Framed is not nearly as laughable a movie as Mitchell. But Baker is totally fair game for jeers. He plays a small time Nashville gambler in love with blowsy bar chanteuse Connie Van Dyke (who contributes a couple of mildly insufferable country jazz songs here; she was more appealing in John G. Avildsen’s Burt Reynolds vehicle WW and the Dixie Dancekings, also released in ’75). After a big poker win, Baker ambles accidentally into a crime scene, is ambushed by the thugs in charge, and has his bag o’ cash pilfered. The authorities investigate, and after the aforementioned fisticuffs with that corpulent deputy (and after Van Dyke is brutalized in a truly terrifying rape scene—easily the film’s low point), Baker is sentenced to a few years in prison, where he buddies up with Cassavetes vet and Godfather horse-head recipient John Marley, who has enough juice behind bars to make Baker’s stay there more comfortable.
Once he’s released, Baker relies on Marley’s big-time connections to get back at the nasty slimeballs behind his ruination, leading to a remarkable stunt involving a car packed with villains being forced in front of an oncoming train (Baker’s car is demolished in the scene, with the stuntman doubling for him escaping the vehicle in a fiery crash that, on screen, spectacularly looks nearly fatal; of course, though the double’s polyester suit catches copious flames, in the next shot, Baker looks perfectly coiffed—or as perfectly as, frankly, he can look). Brock Peters, the black character actor most notable as the hapless defendant in To Kill a Mockingbird, shows up as a law officer who allies with Baker to bring down his nefarious bosses (in one conference with Baker, Peters emits a Sambo reference that’s funny, but definitely not PC).
The new Blu-Ray has a curious look about it. I know there’s some controversy over the addition of filmic grain to some movies in this transfer process, and this one sometimes looks as if it’s been printed on the textured vinyl used for the black roofs of the ’70s-era cars being destroyed in the film. If it’s lifelife clarity you’re looking for in your Blu-Rays, you won’t find it here. However, the resulting visual chaos does add dutiful scuzziness to the proceedings, augmenting the low-rent, pegboard quality to the art direction and cinematography. If this is your wont, you’ll see every goopy sheen of sweat on Baker’s cheeks, and his resplendent wardrobe, featuring the rainbow’s every shade of brown, will pop for you with requisite zeal. As usual with these Kino releases, film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson provide a respectful–maybe too respectful, but definitely informative–commentary.
I know it maybe sounds like I hated Framed, but I kinda had fun with it (save for that too-real rape scene). It’s a dirty, gravel-road bit of ’70s Southern-tinged nostalgia, and a suitable companion for a Saturday night with some rowdy movie buddies and a coupla cases of suds. Let’s face it, that’s all it was intended to be.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.