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Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Doberman Gang (1973)

Director: Byron Chudnow
Stars: Byron Mabe, Hal Reed, Julie Parrish, Simmy Bow and JoJo D'Amore

My wife has long talked about a pair of films she remembers with pleasure from her childhood that starred doberman pinschers. One was They Only Kill Their Masters, with James Garner and Katharine Ross, which TCM screened in 2009; and the other was this one, which I finally tracked down through the Warner Archive Collection, a sort of print on demand service for movies, that enables Warner Bros to make more obscure films available to the public without the usual cost of a full release. I bought this as a double pack with its first sequel, The Daring Dobermans, and I'll certainly be back for more. Beyond meeting my wife's long standing wish to watch these films again, The Doberman Gang is especially notable for two reasons. It carries the first of many end credits from the American Humane Society to pronounce that 'no animals were harmed' during the making of the picture, and it marks Alan Silvestri's first motion picture score.

It's a heist picture, though one with a difference. Eddie is the leader of a trio of crooks, the brains of the operation, but he's hindered by what he calls 'the human factor'. People make mistakes, like Jojo, who throws their take from a bank heist into the open trunk of the white car outside, not realising that their car is the white car parked in front. Eddie tells them that he wants to run a job with robots that can be programmed, but this is 1973. He finds an equivalent by accident, while walking one night: he sees three lowlifes climb a fence into a junkyard, to be promptly cornered by the trained dobermans that the owner has guarding the place. So he puts his plan together, slowly and surely in the relaxed style of a seventies TV movie. This is very much a product of its time, so there's much that's lighthearted, there are a few songs to accompany the scenes that don't need a lot of dialogue and the action scenes don't come every six minutes.

This was a theatrically released picture, the only film made by Rosamund Productions, but the folks who made it weren't your usual filmmakers. They all had experience, but mostly from TV or exploitation film. Byron Chudnow is the key name, as he didn't just direct this one, he directed all its sequels too: two other films, The Daring Dobermans in 1973 and The Amazing Dobermans in 1976, and a 1980 TV movie called Alex and the Doberman Gang. He's part of a film family: his father David was a prolific Holywood composer and music supervisor, who served as a producer on the first three doberman films. His son is continuing the tradition, working as an editor today, mostly for television. That was where Byron was known too, editing TV shows as far back as an episode of The Lone Ranger in 1953. His only directorial experience prior to this was on a mondo movie in 1964, Kwaheri: Vanishing Africa about a medicine man performing skull surgeries.
The star is officially Byron Mabe, who plays Eddie and who was a filmmaker himself, though not in family friendly fare like this. His sixties output was mostly in sexploitation films like She Freak, Space Thing and The Acid Eaters, on which he served as producer, director and sometime actor and editor. Simmy Bow and JoJo D'Amore, appropriate henchmen for Eddie here, were starting out in film but went on to decent careers. Bow's last movie was Beetlejuice. As June, the waitress Eddie picks up, Julie Parrish is a lovely leading lady, again best known for TV, but with early roles in a few Jerry Lewis films. She was a student in The Nutty Professor. Of the main cast, that leaves Hal Reed as Barney, the former USAF dog handler who Eddie hires to train the dogs he steals to rob a bank. He's the least of the actors but he has a natural charm that lends itself well to his role. He wouldn't act again but he racked up a few other varied credits as the years passed.

Really though, we're not here to watch the human actors. My wife remembers that dobermans were a popular breed in the States around this time and the films that featured them capitalised on the love/hate relationship that people had with them. In turn the different takes on the breed shown in They Only Kill Their Masters, The Doberman Gang and Trapped enhanced that. While Barney is a good guy sucked into a bad situation and June elicits a little sympathy, we soon focus on the dogs. There are seven, trained by Karl Miller and supervised by Lou Schumacher, both of whom supplied and handled the animals for all three films mentioned above, suggesting that they may even be the same dogs. There's a bulldog named J Edgar Hoover, and six dobermans with colourful names. How did Barney not realise what was going on earlier when he's training dogs called Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger?

As a heist movie, it's not particularly suspenseful, though there is a little tension in the bank. It's a family friendly heist movie, a consistent tone that makes the few gratuitous shots of the dogs biting people rather out of place. There's a little ambiguity built into the characters, but not a lot. We hardly spend any time at all with anyone outside of the main core of the cast, so the morals are pretty clear cut too. The story is rarely surprising and it didn't end up far away from where I expected it to, even from the early scenes, but it flows along without any effort. It was written by Louis Garfinkle and Frank Ray Perilli, from their own story. It was Perilli's first credit but Garfinkle had written a number of films, including the massively underrated Albert Band picture I Bury the Living. This isn't his best work, but it has a great deal of charm and I can see why people like my wife remember it so well from childhood. Inevitably for such a film, it's currently being remade.

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