A clean, trim, hard-boiled little gem of a suspenser, from the golden days of network made-for-TV movies.
By Paul Mavis
Premiering during the sixth and final season of the famed ABC Movie of the Week series, 1974’s The California Kid, written by Richard Compton, directed by Richard T. Heffron, and starring Martin Sheen, Vic Morrow, Michelle Phillips, Stuart Margolin, Nick Nolte, Janit Baldwin, Gary Morgan, and Britt Leach, skips the messages and the lectures to give us a solid, compact thriller anchored by spot-on performances from that pro cast of familiar faces.
The American Southwest, 1958. If you’re traveling through the dusty little mountain town of Clarksberg, you best watch your ass, son. A notorious speed trap, sleepy Clarksberg keeps its taxes low by letting passing motorists foot the hick burg’s bills. After all, the crooked sheriff, Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) and Clarksberg’s corrupt Judge J.A. Hooker (Frederic Downs), know that once the taxes go up, the angry voters might boot just them right out of their appointed offices.
And Sheriff Roy is willing to kill to keep that job. A few months before, two sailors (Michael Richardson, Joe Estevez), late returning to base, sped through Clarksberg, with the sheriff giving high pursuit in his souped-up 1957 Plymouth Belvedere. Going into a hairpin turn on the treacherous mountain road outside of town, the sailors couldn’t hold the grade—nudged along by Childress’ front bumper—and splattered all over the valley floor. They were the sixth and seventh “speeding” victims of that hairpin turn that year.
Enter hot rodder Michael McCord (Martin Sheen), a stranger in town whose sick 1934 Ford three-window coupe immediately catches the attention of hot diner waitress Maggie (Michelle Phillips)…which is cool, and Sheriff Childress…which is not cool. Booked going 40mph in a 35 zone (chickensh*t cops, right?), McCord, when he’s in court, sees firsthand how Clarksberg operates. An exasperated, wealthy couple from out of state (Norman Bartold, Barbara Collentine) are made to cough up $100 (over $1K in today’s money), or face jail time, while poor farmer Harlie (Ken Johnson) and his family have to give their last $12 bucks to the court…or else. McCord pays his $50 dollar fine, only to discover the town’s taxi service has a scam going, too, charging law breakers high fees to be returned to their cars.
Advised by the taxi driver (Britt Leach) to leave town, McCord checks out the hairpin turn, trying several times—and failing—to “beat” it at high speed. Bike riding nice kid Lyle Stafford (Gary Morgan) watches and befriends the equally polite McCord…who heads back into Clarksberg. There, he meets Lyle’s friendly older brother, Buzz (Nick Nolte), who runs the gas station and county impound yard, where McCord spies the wreck of his brother’s car. Yes, one of the dead sailors was McCord’s younger brother, and yes, those are push marks on his kid brother’s bumper, and yes…he’s in Clarksberg for revenge.
We had such a nice response to my review of Satan’s Triangle (i.e.: when I asked my wife if she liked it, she grunted, “Um…huh?” without looking up from her phone), that I thought we should take a gander at some more classic “golden age” network made-for-TV movies (i.e: they’re short and easy to watch when drunk). While of course there were plenty of MTVs I fondly remember from CBS (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell and Spielberg’s underrated Something Evil) and NBC (how ‘bout a Linda Blair double feature of Born Innocent and Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, there was just something about the ABC Movie of the Week, a certain flashy, glitzy cache, that made those entries seem more special, more “must see” (don’t underestimate ABC’s killer intro for the series as a big audience hook, designed by Harry Marks, animated by Douglas Trumbull, composed by Burt Bacharach, and narrated by the master, Dick Tufeld. We came running when we heard that music).
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I don’t know how well The California Kid did in the ratings back on September 25th, 1974 (its main competition was a Bob Hope special on NBC and an episode of CBS’s Cannon—which probably beat it), but the ABC Movie of the Week series, while down in the Nielsen’s overall, was actually up ten spots for the year in its Wednesday night slot, where The California Kid aired. There seems to be a consensus out there among some “pop culture enthusiasts” (heehee) who don’t know their asses from holes in the ground, that the ABC Movie of the Week was failing (and would be cancelled this 1974-75 season) because of quality issues. It’s a ridiculous notion when you look at some of the titles that were released that last season: Savages, The Day the Earth Moved, The Stranger Within, Death Sentence, Hit Lady, Locusts, Bad Ronald, Death Cruise, All the Kind Strangers, The Gun, Satan’s Triangle, The Hatfields and The McCoys, and that masterpiece of horror, Trilogy of Terror. Not a bad group for a supposedly “failed” season.
Coming out just when the 70’s 1950s nostalgia craze was igniting (Grease was big on Broadway; blockbuster American Graffiti was released in theaters the summer before; and ABC had a hit with mid-season replacement Happy Days the previous January), The California Kid played right into those 20-year gap nostalgia crazes that always occur when creative people and their intended audiences start romanticizing—and monetizing—their generation’s childhood memories.
It didn’t hurt, either, that The California Kid drove around the same neighborhood as ABC’s earlier smash hit MTV, Duel, with conventional elements of “little town with a deadly secret,” “dead teen tragedy” song borrowings (dopey good kid Gary Morgan with his underaged car-horny girl, Janit Baldwin, getting pancaked), and some TV-safe echos of those Highway Safety Foundation scare-fests (the gloriously gory Signal 30), laid over a familiar Western motif: the gunslinger comes to town to take out the bad sheriff who killed the killer’s younger brother. It’s a spare, surprisingly grim little meller that, had the producers added some swear words and a flash (or longer, please) of Phillips nudity, would have made The California Kid right at home on the bottom of a drive-in double bill with scripter Compton’s massive big-screen hit that summer, Macon County Line (I’d pay good money to see that two-fer any day).
Clean and minimal, like a comic book noir penned in a Ernest Hemingway/Jim Thompson vein, The California Kid refuses to overexplain or obviously signal deeper meanings in its tight storyline and taciturn characters. Refreshingly, we learn nothing about our story’s hero, Sheen. Nothing. Not what he does, or did, or will do. He’s come to avenge his brother, and even after dallying with Phillips, it’s clear he’s going to leave when his job’s done—to where, or to what, we don’t know.
Even better, scripter Compton resists the urge to make Sheen some kind of threatening punk (a dynamic we’ve seen a million times before). He may wear a black leather jacket and boots, but it’s worn over clean white chinos and a pressed dress shirt. He’s low-key and unfailingly polite, even to his target, Morrow. He never raises his voice, at any time, even when Morrow openly calls him out on why he’s in Clarksberg (Sheen simply replies, “Anything else?” before moving on).
And while Phillips is forthcoming about her domestic situation (a husband in prison), and her fear of leaving Clarksberg, Sheen shares nothing in return (husky-voiced Phillips, as usual, suggests untapped acting talents here that were never properly brought out in her mostly undistinguished movie career). The California Kid’s time frame and imaging (Sheen’s clothes, his hot rod) would seem to indicate James Dean, but Compton, Heffron, and Sheen deliver Gary Cooper instead (I’m chemically-inclined not to like Sheen…but that doesn’t mean he’s not a hell of a good actor).
Vic Morrow’s psychotic sheriff is admirably restrained, as well, for what could have been a broad, eye-rolling exercise in cartoon villainy. When Morrow gets out of his car, to look over the cliff to see the sailors he just killed, he doesn’t sneer, or giggle, or do anything. He just barely sniffs his nose, in dismissal of his deed and the result, like a dog catching a passing scent, his eyes dark and impassive and unreadable. That quiet, evil watchfulness marks Morrow’s whole performance in The California Kid—I’m not sure he ever yells at Sheen, or anyone else, for that matter. He doesn’t need to: Morrow just seems to exude a corrosive corruption of negativity and simmering hatred that’s impressive for its sustained level of focus (Heffron stages a very nice, wordless scene between Sheen and Morrow, as they size each other up in the diner, with Morrow suggesting all sorts of emotions just with his glances).
Thanks to the limitation of a mere 74 minutes running time, Compton can’t afford to waste precious minutes on narrative fat (have you noticed how long everything is on TV and at the movies today…and how crappy everything is because of that bloat?). The totality of Morrow’s ethical and moral corruption is put over in just a few scenes: his emotionless reaction to killing the sailors; his intimidation of Sheen; his ordering Phillips not to see Sheen again, lest she become “unwelcome” in town; and his threatening Nolte’s livelihood—the sale of parts from the wrecks Morrow causes, made possible through a county contract—just because Nolte was civil to Sheen. In a few minutes of screen time, we see how completely Morrow controls the town, and its citizens.
Just as economical is the reveal of the source of Morrow’s aberration. At an early point in story, Morrow plainly states, “Man breaks the law…man should pay for breaking the law.” Had his motivation remained at that simple level (reflecting Sheen’s equally basic drive), Morrow’s character would have been quite close to the blankly evil truck in Duel. SPOILERS However, Phillips clues Sheen in on Morrow’s secret sorrow—his wife and baby daughter were mowed down on main street by a hit-and-run speedster—and suddenly Morrow’s character is clearly delineated: he’s killing that hit-and-run driver who ruined his life, over and over again. It’s a character dimension that at least engenders some pity for Morrow, if not forgiveness (after all, in the end, regardless of his pain…he’s still a murdering psycho).
Now we understand why there’s that previous scene with Morrow and Gavan “Chuck Cunningham #2” O’Herlihy and pneumatic Baldwin, where Morrow interrupts the young couple’s back seat heavy petting to give her a lecture on how he watched her grow up, and how he doesn’t “hold” with that kind of behavior from an underage girl. When Morrow’s lazy deputy Stuart Margolin tries to track down a M.I.A. Morrow, he finds him at home, drunk, stewing in a dusty backyard amid a rusting swing set and kids toys (he loses his self-control when he almost kills Baldwin—he realizes he’s no different than the driver that killed his daughter). The set decoration simply and eloquently illustrates Morrow’s physical, mental, and spiritual existence, without any unnecessary expository dialogue needed to hammer it home to us.
When the inevitable showdown between Sheen and Morrow closes out the show, it’s handled in the same economical, satisfyingly straightforward fashion: no taunting, no unnecessary dialogue, no posturing. They just get on with it. That’s typical of The California Kid’s deliberately stripped-down, intelligent approach to its pulpy B movie subject matter.