Warning Shot

As a fan of film noir, I’m always a little saddened to think  of how it gradually faded from cinema screens. Then again, that very briefness is part of its allure, those two decades or thereabouts of slipping in and out of virtual and literal shadows, of exploring the moral ambiguities of life. Of course, the point is that it did fade as opposed to completely disappearing – it never really went away (arguably the themes have a timeless universality which precludes that possibility) and by the 1970s we were simultaneously reassessing the phenomena and witnessing the resurgence of what would come to be termed neo-noir.  This leaves us with a type of cultural no-man’s land between these two eras, one which is often a fascinating place to take a spin around. A lot of people will tell you that the classic period of film noir drew to a close with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. As such, it seems somehow appropriate to look at Warning Shot (1967), based on another Whit Masterson pulp story, as an example of one of these linking works.

A stakeout in Los Angeles on a foggy night, two weary cops sat in their car hoping to get a line on a killer, and hoping just as hard to get relieved and head home to spend the evening like regular human beings.  One of them, Sergeant Valens (David Janssen), goes for another look around and calls out a warning to a figure he glimpses exiting the apartment complex under surveillance. The figure bolts, the cop gives chase, another warning, a gun is drawn, and one fatal shot is fired. As the body is hauled out of the swimming pool it plunged into, the alarming fact that the victim was a respected doctor is revealed, not to mention the more troubling fact that no gun is turned up. Here we have a standard noir setup, a guy we have seen acting according to the rules is about to come in for a roasting by the media and, with all the available evidence suggesting his guilt, he’s on the point of seeing the law he serves focus all its attention and resources on him. His unhappy personal life and, more significantly, his previous near fatal run in with a shooter conspire to further darken his character in the public perception. With his badge suspended and his departmental favors running out, Valens is left with only one realistic option – prove that the victim was something other than the blameless philanthropist he’s been portrayed as.

The first thing to grab one’s attention as the opening credits play is the depth of the cast. David Janssen, fresh off what I continue to believe was perhaps the finest TV show ever made – The Fugitive, takes the lead and he’s a good pick for the part of the fall-guy cop. Those years spent playing Richard Kimble stood him in good stead, honing his edgy self-awareness and that trademark cautious uncertainty had become second nature by this stage. Interestingly, Ed Begley, frequently cast as loud, hectoring and unpleasant types (12 Angry Men springs readily to mind here), is instead handed a more sympathetic part as Valens’ superior.

After that the list of names is impressive indeed: Eleanor Parker, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Sam Wanamaker, Stefanie Powers, Keenan Wynn, Joan Collins, George Grizzard, Walter Pidgeon, Carroll O’Connor. And there we have both a strength and a weakness of this movie. Frankly, it’s natural to want to see as much of these people as possible yet it doesn’t work out that way. The bulk of these performers appear in what are essentially cameos – popping in to add another piece to the puzzle Valens is racing to solve and then dropping out as abruptly, leaving the viewer wishing so many of these roles could have been expanded just a little more.

If there was a glut of talent in front of the cameras, there wasn’t exactly a shortage behind them either. Buzz Kulik may not have had a huge number of cinema credits to  boast of but his television work was extensive and his name turns up on a succession of well-known shows, not the least of which is The Twilight Zone. Some names just naturally stand out and that’s surely the case with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, whose long career stretched right back to It’s a Wonderful Life and included work in every conceivable genre. The movie can at times take on a slightly flat, TV feel but I reckon it’s down to Biroc’s skill that it rises above this as often as not. The mood of the whole piece is further enhanced by a typically classy Jerry Goldsmith score. And while we’re on the subject of notable names, it would be extraordinarily remiss not to mention veteran costume designer Edith Head’s stylish contribution.

 

Warning Shot was released on DVD in the US by Paramount years ago but seems to have gone out of print and, consequently, risen in price. I have an Italian DVD which is completely English-friendly and looks very nice; it is bright and colorful with a tight and smooth widescreen picture and no print damage I was aware of.  In terms of story and mood, I reckon this movie bridges the gap between classic film noir and its soon to be rebooted cinematic progeny. That said, it’s a flawed production overall and the attempt to pack it out with familiar faces ends up hurting it more than helping it – the succession of brief interludes stimulate the appetite like a teaser for a much-anticipated movie but you wind up feeling slightly dissatisfied when you realize that’s all you’re going to get. Generally, it’s an entertaining thriller, taking a sidelong look at mid-late 60s society, rising above its limitations in some respects but, paradoxically, finding itself bound by some others of its own making in the process.

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30 thoughts on “Warning Shot

  1. Thank you for this encouraging review. Have all along been discouraged from viewing this as I have read somewhere bad reviews thereof, even though the cast sort of attracted my curious attention. Best regards.

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    • Chris, I certainly don’t believe the film deserves to be labeled as bad and reviews that have taken that line are, in my opinion, doing it a disservice.

      I came away with a generally positive feeling, although I’m happy to acknowledge that there are flaws. That starry cast is a big draw but it’s best prepare oneself for the fact the majority of the appearances are pretty brief.

      Despite this, Janssen is a very watchable guy and it’s good to see him in role which was a very comfortable fit for him.

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  2. Right-on-the-money review, Colin. Glad you drew attention to this overlooked neo-noir, which has been a long-time favorite of mine. The plot does stack up on character interludes but they add up to a satisfying ending, I thought. I never made that connection from Whit Stillman to Touch of Evil. Who projects jaded world-weariness better than David Janssen? He was a huge star on American television in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the imdb, Warning Shot was developed for television, but it was decided the film was too mature and violent and therefore reconfigured in mid-stride for theatrical release. Whenever I watched this film on TV it was full-frame, so imagine my surprise when I played the Paramount DVD and saw it in widescreen. I have a copy of the one-sheet. Kulik also directed Villa Rides! (1968). Since Paramount released Warning Shot on DVD one can’t expect a blu-ray release.

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    • I wasn’t aware the film had been originally conceived as a TV movie, Richard, although it does have something of the feel one associates with that format in that era.
      In his prime, Janssen had that weary twitchiness and discomfort down to a tee, so much so that it never felt in the least bit affected.

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  3. I rather agree, Colin, that the large star cast is more a distraction than a benefit for this movie. I still like the movie as a whole though, mainly because David Janssen was so good in this type role, as he had proved so very ably throughout “THE FUGITIVE”. That TV series was exceptional at a time when quite a number of superior TV series (e.g. “NAKED CITY”, “ARREST AND TRIAL”) were being put out. I happen to know that our opinion of “THE FUGITIVE” is also shared by our friend, Blake Lucas.

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    • That’s right, Jerry. Blake does speak very highly of The Fugitive, which should come as any surprise really. To be honest, I don’t believe I’ve heard anyone say a bad word for that series, nor is there any reason for them to do so.

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  4. Yes, I really do love THE FUGITIVE. I’m now about two-thirds through seeing the entire series again (have seen some episodes more than twice) and it really holds up. And I recommend that anyone get that “Most Wanted” edition that I now have–all those issues of replaced music that had plagued it are gone now and these are all the original shows as they were then.

    I think it holds up as the best TV show–from a simple premise, the themes and ideas go to something existentially profound that plays through all of it, and even the less inspired episodes are absorbing because of that. It is patient with the main thread and asks us to wait for development of that and for me that’s an asset too. It abounded with deep-dyed characters and poignant stories around the main one that was so compelling. David Janssen developed his character with a quiet intensity and inwardness, never showy and did subtle things so that when moments of great emotion came for him they were quiet but very moving.

    Why he didn’t become a star in movies is hard to understand with an actor as good as he was. And I have to say I don’t think WARNING SHOT showed much imagination about him–Richard Kimble was not him even if it seemed to define his screen persona. Given the opportunity, He could have done other things that good maybe. On TV, they appreciated him and his last series HARRY O was pretty good and very good for him–it suggested that he would have been the ideal actor to portray Lew Archer of those Ross Macdonald, novels–a truly great cycle of literature–rather than the big star who did play it twice, more glibly and with less soul than Janssen would have brought to it..

    I don’t want to say THE FUGITIVE was without flaw. I probably observed before here that with a changed producer and a switch to color (probably mandated by the network but a bad decision in my view), the fourth season was not as good, especially at the beginning. I think it got more on track when they brought George Eckstein back as associate producer (and he also wrote the final two-part that ended it). Eckstein had written some superb episodes earlier–like “Ballad for a Ghost”–and really understood it. It did end well and in a satisfying way.

    Back to WARNING SHOT. In 1967, it was a time in my life when it seemed like I saw just about every movie that came out, going constantly (not sure how I did this given that my financial resources were not always the best then but somehow I did, making it a priority I guess). And unlike others here, I’m not inclined to cut it much slack among all those movies I saw then. It was a workable premise, a main actor I liked (the others, as you intimate, had all had so many better movies with more to do), but not much inspiration there as I recall; really, I only remember it faintly but was never drawn to see it again. Please don’t take that as a definitive comment on it because I simply don’t remember it well enough to have a strong opinion

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    • Yes, I think that last season of The Fugitive did feel weaker than what came before, but of course it’s been a good while since I last viewed it, and the shift to shooting in color is one aspect that jumps out at you and alters that feel and mood.

      I’m not sure either why Janssen didn’t make a bigger name for himself on the big screen but what he left us from television is still pretty significant.

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  5. Wanting to correct this (it was a little garbled):

    “Lew Archer of those Ross Macdonald novels–a truly great cycle of detective literature…” They key word being “detective” for those who may not know them. Not to go into too much now about those novels and why they came to mind, but if you read them you might understand why Janssen would seem so right for that character. In any event, it’s really enough to read them and if none of them had ever been made into a movie, it wouldn’t have mattered.

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    • I’ve read a handful of Macdonald’s novels and return to the books from time to time. The two movies which were made are fine, the first being stronger in my opinion, but the character as portrayed does feel rather different to what you read on the page if you’re familiar with the literary version.
      I’d not thought of Janssen in that roe before, but I could imagine it working. I think next time I read a Macdonald book I’ll try to picture Janssen as Archer.

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  6. Actually, Colin, the reason I wanted to comment was because of what you said about film noir. I’m not really that concerned about the parameters of where we define it as beginning and ending–it’s generally given so much flexibility as to movies described as “Film Noir” and sometimes too much it seems to me–but I’m aware TOUCH OF EVIL is very often seen as a marking point or some kind of epitaph, probably because it’s such an imposing and powerful individual work. More accurately, though if THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and THE KILLING are film noir, then surely ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) also is –it’s the same heist genre, and more cheerless and melancholy than either of the earlier films, and with the racism that plays an important role in the crooks’ undoing making the whole thing even harsher.

    But if that’s sometimes allowed, I have to say that UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (a 1961 Samuel Fuller movie) is as fully a film noir as any earlier movie I can think of, even allowing that Fuller has a very individual way with any genre. Obsessed with revenge from childhood, the protagonist moving in the criminal world here destroys everything in his life including his potential positive relationship with the heroine and in the end himself–a fully “noir” journey if there ever was one, and the visual scheme (cinematography by Hal Mohr) is full of stark images, sometime shadowy and nocturnal, sometimes extremely violent in daylight, that really honors that tradition with imagination and considerable inspiration. Among its many virtues, I consider this movie one of the half dozen greatest black and white American films of the 60s, the decade when black and white was by its end effectively displaced by color for most movies, in Hollywood especially. When we say “Film Noir” in the classic sense, it just seems wrong to leave this one out, at least to me.

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    • To tell you the truth, I’m not all that bothered by dates and cut-off points myself. I think it’s something which does get too much attention from critics and writers and ignores the rolling development which is to be found in almost all art forms. I really threw it in here as a neat way of pointing out the Whit Masterson link as much as anything else.

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  7. I wholeheartedly agree with Blake’s assertion that 1959’s “ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW” is a Film Noir if anything is. I’ve only seen it once, many years ago, but it made a big impression. A brutal, powerful movie with a good cast; Robert Ryan as excellent as ever.

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  8. You’ve gotten me intrigued yet again, Colin. Were you aware that the soundtrack has been re-released just last month by La La Land records with a new master and expanded tracks? No idea what the score is like as I haven’t seen the film, but its Jerry Goldsmith so filmscore fans are having a fine time.

    Regards Film Noir, it does seem strange that we have not seen a resurgence, considering how paranoid the world can be now, how trapped people can feel by corporations and technology- naturally it would be a slightly different Film Noir to the traditional sense, but I do think it’s unfortunate that film-makers haven’t revitalised it, reworked it, as a genre, to meet the tensions and fears of the modern-day. Perhaps it’s because studios are less inclined to reflect the world of today than throw big profitable blockbusters to escape by, perhaps films are serving a different function, more business than art.

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    • I think the world just now is in such a state of upheaval that it’s too early to see a resurgence of noir-style stories. The worse things are, the more movies tend too offer a somewhat lighter view, or that’s how it seems to me when I look back over turbulent times in the past. Give it a few years.

      I had no idea the score was being released. If you want a sample, someone has uploaded the opening credits on YT.

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      • Yeah, that’s kind of sweet old Goldsmith. Must say I was struck by that cast-list on those credits. Crikey that’s pretty impressive, right there. But I do see your point, all those fairly big names can weigh a project down, and bring all sorts of past cinematic baggage along with them.

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        • The thing is, for the most part, they flit in and out of picture and are never seen again. I mean, it’s a pleasure spending some time with a cast like this but you end up feeling a bit let down when you realize a glimpse is all you’re getting.

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  9. Great review Colin. I remember the first time I saw it on Italian TV and thoroughly enjoyed its retro feel. The TV-Movie feel with the many cameos is a bit halting but it’s a fun story all the way through, though the first half is for me the more memorable. I had no idea the old DVD, the one I got way back when, was hard to find now. Even more valuable!

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    • Yes, it is enjoyable even if the cameos do begin to blur somewhat. I suppose it’s not all that substantial when you stop to think about it but the music, the sense of time and place, and Janssen all carry it along.

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      • It does feel like a proper Nor in colour, with cameos to presumably help elevate it from seeming too much like TV. As I recall the novel was written solo by Robert Wade after the early death of Bill Miller. Not entirely fair to call them pulp in my view though – in fact Masterson titles were usually published in hardback.

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        • Ah, then I stand corrected on the pulp part – it’s just a label which I tend to use, somewhat lazily I suppose, to group that school of writing together.

          And yes, it does feel like a earlier noir, with almost everyone seemingly against Janssen, and some of those siding with him (Steve Allen’s cynical broadcaster, for example) definitely not the kind you’d want in your camp.

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          • Todd Mason used to regularly berate me for generic use of the phrase but the important thing is that we know what you meant! The books by Wade and Miller are a bit more respectable maybe but nothing better than solid mysteries. And in the old days that’s pretty much all I wanted from a book! 😎

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            • I tend to lump a lot of stuff together and it’s not always entirely correct but I sometimes forget others take a more careful view, which they’r quite right to do of course.

              Personally, I’m quite happy to read a solid mystery these days – I’m usually too tired for much else if the truth be told! 🙂

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  10. Kind of forgot about this one. I’ve never seen it and never snagged a copy and as u say out of print. Love that cast so will have to make an effort to locate it. Always liked Janssen during this era. Sadly he grew real old overnight and of course the result was an early demise.

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