Tarantino Reviews’s review published on Letterboxd:
No, not the 1986 Michael Mann serial killer thriller based on Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon”. But the 1974 Quinn Martin produced TV movie about a bounty hunter who hunts thirties era gangsters.
Ken (White Shadow) Howard plays David Barrett, a Marine veteran returning home from World War I to his family’s small farm in the midst of the Great Depression, in what looks like it’s supposed to be Kansas. The family and the farm have fallen on hard times in David’s absence. Their farming equipment has broken down, with no money to pay for new parts, they can’t sell their crops, and have been reduced to burning corn cobs in the potbelly stove instead of coal.
His former sweetheart Susan (Mary Cross) is now happily married to the town’s sheriff and is a mother of two. She also works at the small bank located in David’s hometown. Accompanied by his faithful dog Buck, David visits Susan at the bank to try and secure a loan for the farm, suddenly in walks the Fedora-wearing, Tommy-Gun brandishing, Frank Clinger Gang.
The notorious bank robbers are led by snarling Frank Clinger (Gary Lockwood) and his sister Ann Louise (Stefanie Powers), obvious surrogates for Bonnie & Clyde. To make the couple a tad different the movie makes them bother and sister, as opposed to lovers, however they act like lovers. With Ann Louise’s whiny-loser husband Walt (James Olson) a member of the gang, forced to accept sloppy seconds.
When it comes to their bank robbery activities, screenwriter Sam Rolfe gives The Frank Clinger Gang both a clever and convincing modus operandi. They hold up in their home state of Oregon for a few months after a job. Then when it’s time to go back in business, they travel to another state about a hundred miles away and hit three banks in a row. Always in towns with less than ten thousand citizens, so The Clinger Gang, armed with their Tommy-Guns, always have more firepower than local authorities. And they only hit banks associated with a local factory, mill, or mine, so they hit the banks when they’re flush with payroll cash.
The robbery in Barrett’s hometown turns into a well done violent shoot-out sequence, with Clinger spraying the bank with Tommy-Gun fire and David killing one of the gang in the getaway. When the gun smoke clears both Susan and David’s dog Buck are shot dead. Out of vengeance for Susan and Buck and civic duty, David decides to hunt down the remaining gang members. He’s paid a thousand dollar reward for the gang member he managed to kill. He uses it to purchase a spiffy new car (“It’ll beat anything on the road. It gets ten miles an hour.”), that he customizes like a thirties era Batmobile with hidden compartments for his weapons inside. While the gangsters use Tommy-Guns, David’s weapon of choice is a wide variety of pump-action shotguns, but he also utilizes dynamite, and in an especially clever sequence, a bear trap. You see David Barrett is not only a decorated soldier, he’s an experienced hunter. And it’s both skills he utilizes to hunt down his fedora-wearing prey. When he explains to his father what his plan is, he describes it as such, “Hunting is something you taught me pa’. Learn the habits of the animal. Read the signs, track, set traps, deal with it any way you have to, to bring it down.” Hence the title of the series. And after he eventually does hunt them down (refreshingly, he ends up killing most of them), in true pilot fashion, he realizes he’s pretty good at this sorta’ thing, so he decides to do it full time.
The TV movie was what they called at the time a backdoor pilot. Which meant it was aired as a movie and if it did well in the ratings, it would be on the fall schedule the next season. A lot of popular shows started that way, “Kung Fu”, “The Rookies”, “Alias Smith and Jones”, “Starkey and Hutch”. But this pilot was one of the better action TV movies of the first half of the seventies. It was definitely one of the most violent. The movie was produced in the wake of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde”, Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama” and John Milius’ “Dillinger” and was meant to be comparable. And, except for spurting red blood squibs, it was. It even features major characters suffering slow-motion death scenes. Like those other films, “Manhunter” was a nasty piece of work, and refreshing for TV, a movie that had the integrity of its own brutality. Would it be better if the Tommy-Guns Swiss-cheesed motherfuckers in big sprays of red blood? Or if David Barrett’s pump-action shotgun shells landed with the impact of Charlie Rane’s shotgun blasts in “Rolling Thunder”? Or if the gangsters could spew profanity? Of course, it would. But “Manhunter” was violent enough to cause controversy when it aired. And when you watch it you can understand why. The show has a vicious streak. While the dialogue in the screenplay by Sam Rolfe doesn’t quite contain the pulp poetry of either Milius or Benton and Newman (also Robert Towne), it’s still pretty damn good. And Rolfe is a damn good storyteller. Way back when Sam Rolfe created “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” TV series (then titled “Solo”) he sent the script to Ian Fleming to possibly collaborate. He also sent outlines for other possible “Solo” episodes. Fleming was so impressed he tried to purchase some of the stories for future Bond books.
The film is filled with a collection of elements that made it seem closer to a theatrical feature than a TV movie of the week. Immediately what you notice is the natural lighting of Jacques R. Marquette’s cinematography. And that alone makes it look different from any other Quinn Martin production. He even has a few shots that were shot at the first rays of dawn and even one scene that takes place at magic hour. I’m a big fan of Marquette’s work on Roger Corman’s “The Last Woman on Earth” and Richard Compton’s “Return to Macon County”, and his photography on this absolutely outclasses Jules Brenner’s work on “Dillinger” and John Alonzo’s efforts on “Bloody Mama”. Also, George B. Chan, a Quinn Martin regular, period art direction is simple but both impressive and convincing. Especially the collection of small towns (that are obviously real) The Clinger Gang targets. Chan’s art direction looks especially impressive when compared to the truly chintzy period production design in last year’s Netflix’s film with a similar story, “The Highwaymen”.
Walter Grauman’s work here isn’t flashy, especially when compared to Milius and Penn, but his shooting is clever, resourceful, and dynamic. All qualities essential to pulling off a quality piece of work on a TV movie schedule. And you can tell that Martin and CBS gave him a longer shooting schedule than those two-week bum rush jobs that ABC forced on their TV movie helmers. But along with Marquette’s photography the most distinguished contribution is an extremely dynamic action film score by TV veteran Duane Tatro.
As the picture’s lead Ken Howard, who’s as big as a linebacker in this, is good. He’s not as good as Joe Don Baker or William Devane, or Michael Parks would have been. But he’s effective and sincere. When I knew Burt Reynolds before he passed away, I asked him about his Quinn Martin TV show “Dan August”. Since Burt’s personality was one of his most identifying characteristics, I always wondered why he decided to play Dan August so stoic. He told me, “Quentin, that was a Quinn Martin show. That’s how Quinn wanted it. He didn’t want any horsing around from his series leads. If you’re a lead on a Quinn Martin show, you do it like Efrem Zimbalist fuckin’ Jr. No more, no less.”
And that’s pretty much Ken Howard’s situation here. Practically everybody else in the cast gets to do more acting than Howard. But while you root for Howard’s David Barrett, when it comes to audience interest, it’s hard for him to compete with The Frank Clinger Gang. They’re fucking great! Or they would be great if we spent more time with them. Which if this was a real feature film, as opposed to a pilot for a TV series, we would.
Gary Lockwood, who was so sexy in his black t-shirt in “Model Shop” and walking around in Lee J. Cobb’s bathrobe in “They Came To Rob Las Vegas”, had gained twenty pounds by the early seventies. Since the sixties, Lockwood almost always played pricks. Now he played puffy over the hill pricks. As Frank Clinger Lockwood is a beefy loathsome bully. On one hand, he’s a trigger-happy sociopath who bullies his own gang unmercifully. On the other, he’s a half-witted man-child who relies on his sister like a mother and a lover. Along with his episode of the seventies Kurt Russell western TV show “The Quest” (titled “The Longest Drive”), it’s Lockwood’s best work in the seventies. As his incestuous sister, the former Girl from U.N.C.L.E. April Dancer, Stefanie Powers is terrific as Ann Louise. In fact, considering how little they give her to do, she’s almost too good. She never has one scene of her own (they never even give her a scene with her loser husband Walt, which is a damn shame). She’s the most intriguing character in the whole story and we never learn anything about her. Also, she doesn’t engage in the normal scenery-chewing that Dorothy Provine and Faye Dunaway have associated with the Bonnie Parker archetype. She has more poise than anybody else in the film. And she cuts an iconic figure in her thirties fashions, sitting behind the wheel of the gangster’s car, idling in front of the bank (she’s the getaway driver). But it’s James Olson, star of Robert Wise’s “The Andromeda Strain” (an actor I’ve never liked), that steals the picture. His loser character Walt has all the best lines, and he’s laugh-out-loud funny in the ferocious way her tears into them. And the entire section in the middle, with Olson, Howard, and a bear trap, I’ve never forgotten since I was twelve and saw the movie when it first aired on CBS. The supporting cast is not just the usual collection of TV familiar faces, but a (no doubt) expensive collection of feature film supporting actors. Along with Lockwood, Powers, and Olson, the Frank Clinger Gang is comprised of Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones, straight from “Silent Running”, Ron Rifkin, and “Rolling Thunder’s” Automatic Slim himself, Luke Askew. But in other parts are Peckinpah regular R.G Armstrong, Bobby (“good guy”) Hogan, a brothel madam played by (Marie The Killers Windsor) who greets customers when they walk through the door with the line, “Welcome to fun town, John!” as David’s little sister Hilarie Thompson, who bullied Amy Irving in “The Fury” till she started bleeding from every hole, and as a nervous bank manager Lou Frizzell, the friendly druggist who sold Hermie the rubbers in “Summer of ‘42”.
When the TV movie aired, on February 26 1974, it did pretty well (I watched it). The highest-rated show of the night was Gloria Swanson making her television film debut, over on “The ABC Movie Of The Week”, in the horror film “Killer Bees”, co-starring newlyweds Kate Jackson and Edward Albert. That film finished eleventh in the ratings for the whole week. But “Manhunter” didn’t go head to head with it, starting at 9:30, during that film’s last half hour. Instead “Manhunter” went up against “Marcus Welby M.D.” over on ABC, and “Police Story” on NBC. Regardless CBS and Quinn Martin were happy enough with the results to make a full twenty-two episode commitment to next season’s fall schedule.
The series followed the same template as the TV movie. Ken Howard as thirties bounty hunter David Barrett, chasing after thirties gangster characters that were surrogates for real-life thirties gangsters. The first episode of the series saw him going after a Ma Barker-like gang called The Ma Gantry Gang, with “High Sierra” and “Food of the Gods” star Ida Lupino playing Ma’ Gantry, and Don Stoud and Sam Elliott as her two killer sons (Stroud basically recreating his role from Corman’s Ma Barker flick, “Bloody Mama”). In another episode, babyface Michael Burns plays a Baby Face Nelson type. In another, Bo Hopkins and seventies sleaze bag William Watson would recreate the Kansas City Massacre (a whole year before Bo Hopkins would play Pretty Boy Floyd in Dan Curtis’ TV movie about the same subject). And in a show similar to the “Cade’s County” episode “A Song for Billy” starring Bobby Darin, Leggs Diamond-himself, Ray Danton would star in a chapter titled, “The Man Who Thought He Was Dillinger”.
The show went on the air at the start of the 74/75 fall season on September 11, 1974, on Wednesday nights at ten o’clock. It aired right after “Cannon” starring William Conrad. It aired opposite two other new series on the other two networks, “Get Christie Love” starring Teresa Graves on ABC, and “Petrocelli” starring Barry Newman over on NBC. “Manhunter” was a damn good series, one of Quinn Martin’s best, but it only lasted one season. CBS gave it the ax for three reasons. One, opposite two other new series, it never beat “Petrocelli” over on NBC. Two, it never sufficiently held on to its lead-in show “Cannon’s” sizable audience. But three, and the main reason it didn’t at least go into re-runs over the summer, was the show was highly criticized for its level of violence. When I was a kid I watched the TV movie, but I didn’t really watch the series. Because instead, I was a big “Get Christie Love” fan (I also had a crush on Teresa Graves). And if I wasn’t watching Ms. Love, I was watching Barry Newman’s Petrocelli build that house of his one brick at a time.
But I did manage to catch one episode of the Ken Howard show. The one I saw featured Glenn Corbet who had starred in a really cool regional redneck movie I saw when I was in Tennessee the year-earlier called ”Ride In A Pink Car”. In the show, Corbett played a pilot who (somehow) got himself a World War I combat airplane (the kind with the machine gun mounted on the front). And was killing people by flying over and shooting them dead. I thought it was a pretty cool idea (I still do), and a pretty good show. So I went back to school the next day and ask my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Cody, did he watch anything last night? He said,
“Yes, I watched Manhunter.”
“So did I. Wasn’t it cool?”
That’s when he told me,
“I found the violence repulsive.”
Well, no accounting for taste. But Mr. Cody wasn’t the only one. It was easily the most violent show on CBS, even beating out two-fisted Mike Connors on “Mannix”. To get anywhere near as violent as bad guys with Tommy-Guns and good guys with pump-action sawed-off shotguns, you had to turn over to ABC and watch “S.W.A.T.”