Friday 21 April 2023

Hit Man (1972)

Director: George Armitage
Writer: George Armitage, based on the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis
Stars: Bernie Casey, Pamela Grier, Lisa Moore and Bhetty Waldron

Index: The First Thirty.

In the early seventies, Pam Grier made a lot of films for producer Roger Corman, generally women in prison flicks shot in the Philippines. However, in between them were a pair of films for Roger’s elder brother, Gene Corman, which were shot back home in the States.

Notably, both were also blaxploitation takes on hit novels that had already been made into more famous films. Cool Breeze was a version of The Asphalt Jungle, while Hit Man was literally an adaptation of Get Carter, even if the writer, George Armitage, didn’t know it, because Gene Corman gave him a copy of the script without a title on it, asking for a black equivalent.

Grier gets second billing for a much bigger role than the skimpy one she got in Cool Breeze and other actors return too, notably Sam Laws but also Rudy Challenger and Ed Cambridge. In that film she was a hooker, but she’s promoted to porn star here. We even get to see a little of one of her character’s movies during a pivotal scene. No hardcore, of course, because this is a long way from Caligula.

She’s one of three co-stars here, all of them playing second fiddle to Bernie Casey, the star of the show as Tyrone Tackett, the hit man of the title. At least I assume he’s a hit man. That never seems to be important and it really has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Gozelda does and, while she may or may not have the most screen time, she certainly gives Grier the most to do of any of the three co-stars.

We meet the other two first, as they have a closer personal connection to Cornell Tackett, the MacGuffin of the movie who’s dead before it begins and never appears in it. The official verdict is suicide—he supposedly got drunk and drove his car off a cliff—but that doesn’t make sense to Tyrone so, after the funeral, he keeps on stirring the pot in good old fashioned style until he finds out whodunit and why.

The first is Irvelle Way, Cornell’s main girl, who’s a prostitute at Candy Lily’s House. She’s the one who wired Tyrone about his brother and she’s a surprisingly decent character for Bhetty Waldron to play. The other ought to be Rochelle Tackett, in the form of Candy All, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s Laural Garfoot, who runs a motel that Tyrone checks into and is promptly entangled both with him and his quest. She’s a lovely lady played by Lisa Moore, with stellar dialogue—“it sleeps two but parties four,” she tells him about his room.

Of course, Casey is styling as Tyrone. He’s in a burgundy outfit when he arrives, down to a red hat that’s tilted at just the right angle. He’s sharply dressed but also sharply alert, enough to know that he’s being followed by a pair of cheap hoods who want him to fly right back out of there after the funeral. Why? Well, that can only come down to Cornell’s death. And so the plot thickens, as they say.

The biggest problem Hit Man has is that the plot really thickens. Apart from a couple of sex scenes, Tyrone really can’t stay still for more than a few moments. Every time we blink, he’s gone somewhere else. And, as soon as he gets there, he’s left again. His mileage is crazy, and the location shifts only increase as the picture runs on.

Some of it’s pretty straightforward. Once he visits all the people he knows about and adds Epps’ Car City, as that’s where Cornell worked with Sherwood Epps, he starts following leads in the bad parts of town to see where they go.

Shag Merriweather has a dog in a dogfight, so we’re shown brutal scenes with lots of pink dye. Shag works for Nano Zito, who challenges Tyrone to a handball game. What isn’t Zito’s is Theotis Oliver’s, a porno film dealer. Somehow we learn about Julius Swift, a safari park vet at Africa America, with plenty of big cats in cages and plenty more out of them. Why, we’re not sure but he seems to be important.

These are good locations for the most part and it feels like George Armitage knows what he’s doing, even though the only film that he’d directed before this was Private Duty Nurses for Corman a year earlier and the only one he’d written before that was Gas-s-s-s, such a weird mess of a film that he arguably shouldn’t have been allowed to write another one.

The problem is that he keeps piling on more details of story that the grand sweep gets hard to follow and he keeps moving us from place to place so quickly that we start to wonder if he’s trying to hide something. Would this fall apart if it stood still? Would we see the holes? Is Tyrone sponsored by the mile?

Frankly, we don’t care that much. We fairly assume that Cornell didn’t commit suicide but we never met the dude and have no dog in the race, unlike Shag Merriweather, who is not an enticing Austin Powers superspy.

What we enjoy is how capably acted this is, as indeed were most blaxploitation flicks and Pam Grier, still credited here as Pamela Grier, is the most obvious name to shine down to us today, but she’s far from alone when it comes to talent here. Casey is a strong lead who’s not afraid to show his butt, and every other black actor in the film, along with a couple of white ones, delivers the goods.

Grier shows up at Zito’s place, lounging on the balcony while he hammers all his guests at handball. She has a severe bob hairstyle which makes her look much older, but she reverts to a large afro later on that suits much better.

She gets more to do in that first scene than she did in the whole of Cool Breeze, but it’s still not a lot. Fortunately, she shows up later on to drive Tyrone around, for quite a while. Hey, if he won’t stay still long enough for a scene, get into a car with him and play the scene while he travels around doing whatever he does.

She has quite the story arc as well, which I won’t spoil, but it allows her to be free spirited and powerful but also cowed and broken. It’s a decent part and she clearly relishes it, all the way to her final, highly unexpected scene, in which it certainly looks like she’s doing her own stuntwork. I’d definitely like to find out a lot more about how that was done!

It’s certainly a better film for her than Cool Breeze, but it was for all the ladies. That was an entirely testosterone-fuelled picture, but this gives plenty of opportunity to Grier, Waldron, Moore and, to a lesser degree, All. While Laws is strong, as are Roger E. Mosley, of Magnum, P.I. fame, and Christipher Joy, as a couple of thugs, they’re outshone by the women, with a single exception: Bernie Casey, because this is still his film through and through.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Really enjoyed this, Hal. I'm fascinated with Blaxploitation movies, and I'm a fan of both Pam Grier and Bernie Casey, so this was made for me! And several of your lines had me laughing out loud in appreciation. Good stuff!

-- Karen