Thursday, June 7, 2012

DUDLEY THE DEPUTY: "Law of the Land" (1976)

"A frontier sheriff and his young deputies search for a serial killer who is murdering prostitutes." That's the plot description given on IMDb for this entry's film: "Law of the Land" AKA "The Deputies" (first broadcast April 29, 1976 on NBC). Sounds kinda exciting, doesn't it? That's what I thought too when I first read up on this TV-made western. So I was actually looking forward to watching this one. It's got a decent cast: Don Johnson, Barbara Parkins, Jim Davis, Cal Bellini, Moses Gunn, Nicholas Hammond, Glenn Corbett to name just a few. Charlie is the 4th name listed in the credits (after the sheriff and 2 main characters). He has a fairly decent-sized supporting role as Dudley Buford, a young man desperate to become one of the deputies of Denver CO circa late 19th century, several years after the Civil War.

Here's a short clip of the murder that sets the story in motion. There's no CMS in it, unfortunately. We don't see him until about 20 minutes into the film. Quirt (Johnson) is drifting through town, and was the last client of the murdered prostitute, Lila. Fellow whore Jane Adams (Parkins) names Quirt as a chief suspect, and he is arrested the next morning by Deputy Tom Condor (Bellini).

Our first scene with Charlie! Deputy-to-be Dudley is just starting his return trip to the sheriff's office, bringing lunch to the sheriff wrapped in a cloth. He's happily strolling along the wooden promenade, when he comes to the edge by the muddy street. The movie had gone out of it's way to depict the horrors of the unpaved streets of yesteryear, and here we come upon another illustration of this point. Dudley looks down at a huge puddle in front of him. Can he jump over it?

Awww... not quite! He almost makes it across, landing on the far edge of the puddle and splashing his pants. Not too bad, only a little dirty... It could have been worse. Suddenly, a man on a horse comes plowing down the street, running right through the puddle, splashing even more muddy water all over poor Dudley, completely covering him in filth.

When he spots Deputies Brad (Hammond) and Andy (Corbett) at the end of the street bringing in another suspect on horseback, Dudley excitedly rushes to the sheriff's office to tell the others. He bursts in and hurries over to the desk of Sherrif Pat Lambrose (Davis). "They got him," he hyperventilates. "I saw them coming down the street!" His eagerness is ignored by the Sheriff Pat, who just wants his lunch, but Tom is a bit more interested as he asks if the suspect was wearing a sabre (the murder weapon used). Dudley begins to rattle off some theories when the sherriff interrupts: "'Bacca?"

"Huh?" Dudley responds. Exactly: huh? I didn't understand the sheriff either. But Pat repeats himself: "You were gonna bring me some 'tobacca'!" Ohhh... tobacco. Duh! Darn. Dudley forgot the sherrif's tobacco. Frustration sets in when he realizes he is being sent back out to get it, which would cause him to miss the interrogation of the suspect. Aww, he just wants to help and prove himself, and one day... maybe finally be a deputy and wear a badge. Until then, he's stuck running lame errands for the sheriff, getting strung along for who-knows-how-long. Dudley turns and leaves, his head hanging down in disappointment, while Pat chuckles and shakes his head.

He takes a detour from his trip to the tobacco shop to intercept the deputies and the possible suspect: an army Lieutenant who happened to be in love with the murdered girl. Dudley's getting inquisitive and is starting to ask questions, when Andy distracts him with an offer to "make the rounds" of the town on horseback together. "You bet!" Dudley enthuses as he eagerly grabs the opportunity to do something more deputy-like . Meanwhile, Quirt is freed due to lack of evidence, and a group of rabble rousers jump him. Andy breaks up the fight and Dudley gets to walk the troublemakers down the street to their jail cells.

Dudley is thinking about that army lieutenant. He really thinks the guy committed the murder. Looking up at him on his horse earlier, he thought he could see something in his eyes, something sneaky... Yeah,  Dudley is convinced, and shares his unsolicited theories with Sheriff Pat while pacing around the office.

But the sheriff still needs his tobacco, and Dudley still has to go get it. "I'm sure sorry about that," Dudley apologizes. "But with Andy needing help and all..." Pat takes this opportunity to commend Dudley on the fine job he did bringing the rowdies in. Maybe someday he'll be the deputy he has dreamed of becoming for so long. "Do you really think so, Pat?" Dudley asks, his eyes filled with hope. And he heads out the door beaming with pride as the sheriff just chuckles and shakes his head again.

The gas streetlights are being lit outside the jail, as Dudley releases a sick man from his cell (who I think was arrested for a "drunk & disorderly" incident). As the freed man leaves, coughing into a hanky, Andy arrives with a telegram in hand. As he sits and reads it, Dudley watches the released man through the window, and shares what Brad had told him: the man is dying, and doesn't seem to be doing anything about it beyond getting drunk.

But Andy doesn't have time for a chat. The telegram had important information concerning the murder case, and he is off to tell the sheriff, leaving Dudley alone in the office, reading the important telegram and pondering the significance of it's revelation.

The killer strikes again, making an attempt to murder Jane. Even worse, one of the deputies is killed! This leaves a vacant position among the lawmen under the sheriff, who decides to make Quirt the new deputy in town. This doesn't sit too well with Dudley, who everyone knows wanted the job more than anything. Tough luck, fella. The deputies all take off to do their duties guarding Jane from another attempt on her life, leaving Dudley alone in the police office with the least exciting duty of all: brewing coffee.

Quirt later finds Dudley sitting alone among some stationary trains, quiet and dispirited, lost in thought. "Pat said you might be here," Quirt says. "We need you." Dudley looks over. "To bring him breakfast?" he asks with more than a hint of bitterness. To mind the store, Quirt replies. While everyone else goes out to patrol the streets without him, Dudley points out.

Quirt apologizes for hurting Dudley's feelings by taking the deputy position he wanted, and this breaks through Dudley's iciness, who shares his ideas of leaving town to pursue a different life path. Quirt  shares a bit of his mysterious backstory, talking about the father he has been wandering the country looking for over the past five years.

"When I find him," Quirt muses, "I'll show him what I learned since he left." And he whips out his pistol, wowing Dudley with his fast draw moves. He then fires off several shots at a tin can across the railroad yard, causing it to bounce around between the tracks.

Dudley rushes over to examine the can, shocked to discover that there's not one bullet hole in it. Quirt made the can dance around without actually hitting the can itself with any of the bullets! "Not even a crease!" Dudley marvels. "How did you learn to do that?"

"Could you teach me?" Dudley asks. "If I could do what you did, I wouldn't have to go. Pat would pin a star on me like he did on you." Quirt shakes his head. "I don't know," he sighs. "I don't want to be keeping you from bigger things."

"Forget the bigger things! Just let me try to learn," Dudley pleads, and he gives an "aw-come-on-pretty-please" smile that  Quirt just cannot say no to. I understand that, as I would have a hard time saying no to Charlie's adorable smile either. Yay! It looks like Dudley is gonna stick around after all! He offers to accompany Quirt to the telegraph office to retrieve another important telegram.

When they arrive to claim it, Dudley makes a discovery about Quirt: he can't read! Not really surprising in those days. Dudley, however, is an educated young man who can read. He can't resist taunting Quirt a bit, who refuses to admit his illiteracy out loud. But enough joking. The telegram contains crucial evidence that incriminates a particular individual, and there are arrests to be made.

But the murderer won't be caught that easily. While the deputies are out hunting for him, he preys upon Dudley alone at the station, tying him up and gagging him. There's a not-so-action-packed finale with screaming and gunfire, the killer running through the streets in a flowing cape and brandishing a sword... hilariously resembling, of all people, Z Man on his murderous rampage at the end of "Beyond The Valley of the Dolls" (1970).

I'll be nice and not spoil the identity of the killer, although to be honest it's not a terribly surprising revelation when it comes. One thing I will spoil: Dudley survives, joining the other characters in the courtroom as the final pieces of the mystery behind the killing spree are explained and meditated upon.

What 1970s TV movie or series would be complete without that last scene of all the main characters together, sharing a laugh over some silly comment that's not actually funny, as the credits begin to roll? Never mind that there have been people murdered, or even that Dudley is still not a deputy. Laugh, people, laugh! Let the viewers leave with a warm feeling in their heart.... We conclude on a freeze frame of the main characters crossing the muddy street outside the courthouse, looking almost like a wild west version of the "Abbey Road" album cover.

I've already voiced my lack of enthusiasm for the western genre. So maybe I can't offer the best opinion of this sort of movie. It wasn't a horrible viewing experience, but it wasn't a great one either. It was just kind of... meh. Mediocre script, blandly realized setting, little suspense... But at least there's some good performances from the cast. I have read this was originally intended as a pilot for a TV series. I wonder what that would have been like? We probably would have seen Quirt reunited with his long-lost father, and almost certainly would have been able to witness Dudley finally become a deputy.

This film is another one that has slipped into obscurity and been mostly forgotten. I have had to get a VHS of the movie to finally see it. Even if I was kind of bored with the flick, I found Charlie cute and likable in it (as usual). It seems silly that I cared more about Dudley getting to become a deputy than I did about catching the serial killer, though that says more about my personal bias regarding Mr. Smith than anything else.

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