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Friday, November 6, 2015

Death Of A Hooker aka Who Killed Mary Whats'ername? (1971)


Hello one and all, I am once again back once again to give you more glimpses into the underside of the film world. I've been trying to track this one down for a while (partially due to its frankly exploitative title seen on the Video Gems VHS release below), and because I have a soft spot for movies with very odd casting choices that you absolutely KNOW FOR A FACT will not add up to anything a lesser viewer could ever hope or dream (for another example of this, see my review of The Ultimate Warrior that I wrote ever so long ago). In this case it is the absolute dream team of Red Buttons and Sam Waterston. What could possibly go wrong?

Frankly?

Not much, but that's only because nobody was trying especially hard in the first place.

As is often the case with films of this grade, I cannot seem to find a trailer for it under either of its titles for you to peruse, My sincerest apologies, I always hate it when this happens for something so far below radar it might as well be pushing up daises, but so it goes.

PLOT SYNOPSIS: Somewhere in a grungy piece of old New York a prostitute is murdered in her apartment (hence the title). Enter Mickey Isador (played to flaccid im/perfection by Red Buttons), a once notable but now long retired boxer (who we are repeatedly reminded is diabetic, by the way) being released from the hospital from a bout with the flu. He is told to convalesce but as we pick up way later in the movie he was apparently reading the paper and was insanely bothered by the dead prostitute and that nobody cared, and seeings how he "knows what it's like to grow up in a place like that" decides he will solve it. Along the way he enlists the aid of his daughter, a wet drunk from a dive bar, and a secretive independent film maker (Waterston). You know how private citizen crime capers go, there isn't much more I can really say here.

We all know Red Buttons as a comedian, and sure he dabbled in drama here and there, but he must have really needed a buck to star in a two-bit gumshoe yarn like this one. He delivers some dry and ultimately tired sounding one liners a few times during the course of the film, but you can tell he isn't trying especially hard here so long as he got some greenbacks out of the deal (I warned you about that a couple of paragraphs ago, didn't I?). As far as Sam Waterston goes, he's not really in it very much and isn't exactly the most important secondary character, in terms of heavy plot value he might as well be made of mildly soggy napkins. The only reason I can see as to why he receives secondary billing on the front of the box is that in 1986 Video Gems was banking on people recognizing him from his part in 1984's The Killing Fields.

You have to hand it to the person who put together the cover art for this one. It really gives you the idea of some sort of madcap chase in the streets private eye crime thriller, doesn't it? Or maybe some sort of buddy cop movie? While as I have stated before, it is only a three weeks old but still in use scoop of coffee grounds version of either of these things while also being remarkably neither. But in the end, that's what is really great about 80's VHS packaging, am I right? A cursory glance at the back of the box (containing a nonexistent plot point I will tough on shortly) reveals the source of the portraits of Buttons and Waterston: two grainy ass and partially obscured stills of both actors.

Take a look below:

Two things one can glean from this:

1.) It is obvious that the artist took an image of Red Buttons' face in which one third of it is obscured by a phone.

2.) Somebody didn't bother to actually watch the film to see that Waterston actually has longer shaggy hair in the film, not a short on the sides hairdo.

As the still is pretty shitty I guess you can't blame the artist for taking some artistic license, but considering it is a 100% reverse of the shot from the film and he has a really bored and disaffected expression on his mug, you'd think they'd pick a better image for an action oriented cover, especially since the majority of the crime solving is either spent by Red all on his own, with the dead hooker's neighbor (who is also a hooker), or with his daughter.

One thing I am curious about is the title. Originally I assumed that Video Gems had changed the title for VHS release (as was common practice to make something pop off a shelf in the grindhouse tradition), but when I finally saw it the "Death Of A Hooker title" (in the glossy, puffy font on the box) is right there in the beginning credits inserted into the title sequence. When video companies changed titles there was always an obvious ported in on grainy video title  inserted into the titles of a film, so maybe this one had a good title and an exploitative one? Searching the VHS title on the internet returns the aka title I listed in the title for this review, so the jury is out to lunch on this one, with no clear answer in sight. Although: thanks to a Video Gems Showcase Collection catalog I have from 1982 however, I discovered it also has a clamshell case release a few years before this one but using the original (ie, the aka) title. Why they would release the film at separate times with separate titles? Who knows?

The ending really leaves something to be desired. Red Buttons sits in a near diabetic coma (as foreshadowed several times throughout the film) when he finds out who the killer is, and you aren't exactly sure if the killer gets caught or not as it is only hinted at by sound effects which could be either the cops or an ambulance coming to save Mickey. The box, in true rental fashion, promises a "Hitchcock style program" and I can say this falls pretty far from the mark.

Conclusion? I'd say it is OK at best. Not exactly a repeat watcher (for me anyway) when all is said and done.

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