Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Black Marble


1980's THE BLACK MARBLE is a real darling, a most unsung comedy drama.  A gem awaiting rediscovery, if only viewers could have an opportunity to see it. It never plays on television and is out of print on DVD. Its fate was decided early, disappearing from theaters only a few days after its original release. The filmmakers were hoping lightning would strike twice - Director Harold Becker had the year before adapted former L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field into a critically acclaimed motion picture, one of which the author (who scripted and had creative input) could actually be proud after the 1977 fiasco THE CHOIRBOYS.

It's another police story, albeit very different than any other Wambaugh to hit the screen. A hard drinking cop named Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), recently reassigned from another district, can't seem to get past the suicide of his former partner. He's tormented by horrific dreams. His waking hour behavior can be politely be described as eccentric.  His pals on the force grant him a pass, but soon he's partnered with no-nonsense, unsentimental, but sexy as hell Sergeant Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss), who finds him unrelievedly odd and near intolerable.

Zimmerman is also none too pleased with their new assignment: retrieving the beloved pooch of a socialite named Madeline (Barbara Babcock).  The dog has been kidnapped by Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton, slimily excellent), an awesomely troubled, hot headed dog groomer in hock to loan sharks. While Valnikov harbors great sympathy for the circumstance (and Madeline), Zimmerman skulks about in disbelief.

THE BLACK MARBLE is about a dance, the inevitable pairing of the leads. A classic mismatch of personalities. But the cops don't bicker sharply written lines like yesteryear studio players, with cute misunderstandings and lovers' games. Valnikov is drawn as a burnt out casualty of the force, caught in a vortex of alcoholism and the cold realities of his job. He barely articulates his words, and cries a lot. Attempts to ambulate with a head filled with guilt and booze.  He is not a bitter man, just a sad one. Zimmerman is an updated Girl Friday, complete with impatience, fast dialogue, and great legs, but there is also a natural, unexpected tenderness that develops as she really gets to know her partner and his unique culture. I especially enjoyed the scene where she meets Valnikov's brother at his restaurant.

The film's key moment comes after a vodka fueled evening back at Valnikov's apartment. The stage is set for a predictable seduction scene (complete with sloppy guy hastily "cleaning"  his abode beforehand), but instead the personalities of Wambaugh's characters allow a refreshingly original, surprisingly and downright romantic sequence that involves as much Russian music and dancing as furtive glances and soul baring.

THE BLACK MARBLE is also distinguished by an odd rhythm, a flow that continually confounded me. The narrative takes all sorts of interesting turns (such as a painful chase in a dog kennel), and Maury Winetrobe's editing and Becker's unexpected directorial touches keep everything off kilter from start to finish. Likely why audiences could not connect with it? Quentin Tarantino certainly did; Becker recalls in an interview that the young man invited him over to view a pristine 35mm print at his house!  It's a fairly dark movie, particularly when Stanton's character is onscreen (animal lovers will have to navigate some difficult moments), but what might be called a tough sweetness is at the core. By the time James Woods serenades the couple with his violin, you'll be convinced there really is no other movie like it.

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