Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by Pat Rooney
Written by Mark Haggard
Based on the novel “Murder on the Wild Side” by Jeff Jacks
One can be forgiven for passing up on watching BLACK EYE, thinking it just another typical Blaxploitation action thriller due to the title and because it stars Blaxploitation Icon Fred Williamson. In that case one would be making a mistake. I myself ended up watching it because Turner Classic Movies “Underground” was airing a Fred Williamson double feature and I’m glad I did.
About a half-hour into the movie I was firmly hooked and landed because I quickly realized it’s not a Blaxploitation movie at all. And by that I mean that it doesn’t have the usual elements one expects to find in a Blaxploitation movie. It doesn’t have the Three P’s: Pushers, Pimps and Prostitutes. It doesn’t have anybody Stickin’ It To, Bringin’ It To or Takin’ It To The Man. It’s not set in the ghetto or the projects. BLACK EYE is a straight-up Raymond Chandler inspired private eye movie. It just so happens that in this one, our private eye is black.
Fred Williamson is Shep Stone, ex-L.A.P.D. detective. He was kicked off the force two years ago after almost killing a drug dealer who sold his sister a bad bundle of dope that she O.D’ed on. Since then Stone has been working as an unlicensed P.I. His office is his neighborhood bar where he drinks his breakfast, lunch and dinner of straight double shots of bourbon. Most of his cases are thrown his way by his ex-partner Bowen (Richard X. Slattery) who pays Stone out of the petty cash Bowen would normally use to pay off informants.
Stone’s prostitute neighbor attends the funeral of a 1930s Hollywood movie star and steals his antique silver-headed walking cane. That same night she turns up dead and Stone appoints himself to find out who killed her because as he says to Bowen; “Maybe she didn’t amount to much but she didn’t deserve that.” Stone takes another case as well. He accepts the job to find a missing girl who has run away to join a religious cult. At first Stone is reluctant but at the urging of her distraught father (Richard Anderson) he agrees to find her. The longer Stone works the two cases the more he gradually comes to realize that they’re actually two burning ends of the same candle. By the time it’s over, Stone has come into contact with Mob assassins, phony psychic mediums, porno film directors and a heroin smuggling operation. There’s a half million dollars worth of smack up for grabs and everybody wants it. Stone understands that. What he doesn’t understand is why everybody who comes into contact with that cane dies in very brutal, bloody ways.
He’s also struggling to work out his complicated relationship with his girlfriend Cynthia (Teresa Graves) who is not only sleeping with Stone but with a woman, Francis (Rosemary Forsyth). The movie is aware enough to explore the possibility that Stone is not so much threatened by the sexual aspect of the relationship between the two women but that Francis is wealthy and can provide so much more for Cynthia than Stone can. This is brought out in a couple of scenes where Stone goes to see Cynthia and they actually sit down and talk about this situation and the two of them develop a respect for each other. This is not the Fred Williamson we usually see in movies. The Fred Williamson I’m used to would simply have talked the two women into a threesome and lived happily ever after.
And besides the Chandler-flavored plot, the Fred Williamson performance is the main selling point of BLACK EYE because this is a Fred Williamson who is most definitely playing against his usual movie image. We’re used to a smooth-talking, cool as ice Fred Williamson, living high and fine and dressing his ass off in the best threads money can buy. Not in this movie, baby. Fred goes through the entire movie wearing the same rumpled suit. He lives in a shitty apartment that you need a shot of penicillin just to go into. Shep Stone isn’t a fast-talking womanizer. He’s a plain spoken man who sincerely cares about Cynthia and wants to make their relationship work. In other movies Fred Williamson beats up two or three guys at a time without breaking a sweat and never losing the cigar stuck in his mouth. Not in this movie, baby. Fred takes on one guy at a time and barely wins those fights. And if more than one guy comes at him, he tucks his tail between his legs and runs as if his ass were on fire. It’s too bad this movie wasn’t a success because as played by Fred Williamson Shep Stone is an interesting enough character that he could easily have appeared in more than one movie.
The movie’s also worth watching for the spectacularly gorgeous Teresa Graves as this was one of the only three movies she ever made. She and Fred have great chemistry together and their scenes together are really nicely acted and given the topic of discussion (her bi-sexuality) refreshingly mature.
It’s a professionally made movie, well-acted by all parties concerned with a plot just complicated enough that you can’t figure it out ahead of Stone but not so complicated that you’ll get frustrated trying to follow it. BLACK EYE is nowhere near the level of say, “The Big Sleep” “Farewell, My Lovely” or “The Long Goodbye” but it is an entertainingly honest attempt to follow in the tradition and flavor of those classic private eye movies. Don’t take it too seriously and enjoy that atypical, off-beat, against type Fred Williamson performance and I think you’ll have just as good a time watching it as I did.