I saw this as B picture with The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in 1974, and have only just taken another look at it.
The quite clever title signals that it’s a blaxploitation film in the Shaft manner, with Fred Williamson as LA shamus Shep Stone – who quit the force after his sister ODd and has been carrying on a vigilante war on drugs ever since – but it’s based on a New York-set paperback (Murder on the Wild Side) by Jeff Jacks, in which the hero was white. That probably explains, apart from one scene in an A.A. Milne-themed soul food restaurant called The Pooh House, it’s light on the usual black milieu, and almost all the supporting characters – victims, suspects, hoods, cops, hippies, porno filmmakers, hookers, Old Hollywood types – are white. Teresa Graves plays Shep’s girlfriend – he’s ticked off because she’s also seeing a lesbian socialite (Rosemary Forsyth) – and they get a weird montage of tandeming frolics on the beach that sidetracks the basic story … in which a wolf-headed cane (a prop like the one in The Wolf Man) is stolen from the coffin of a silent movie star and passed around a cast of shady characters (there’s something valuable hidden in it) and Shep trudges around after them, and (in Chandler-approved style) a second case, in which a solid citizen (Richard Anderson) asks Shep to find his drop-out daughter, turns out to be mixed up in the first.
Jack Arnold, a couple of decades beyond his SF films, does a good job of work on the action-oriented stuff, with several excellent chases – including a Bullitt-inspired car chase with vehicles bouncing up and down over a road full of dips and hills, an escape from an elevator and climactic dash along Venice Beach – and has some fun with the seamy world Shep slides through. In one scene, the eye muscles in on a porno shoot – all the crew are playing cards or reading the papers and only the detective goggles at the sexual activity being filmed (which we don’t see – Williamson’s face-pulling tells the story).
Arnold’s daughter Susan, later producer of Grosse Pointe Blank and the remake of The Haunting, follows her debut as one of Al Adamson’s Female Bunch by playing the runaway daughter – and is impressive as the kind of ditz who thinks making a big heroin score will finance good work for Jesus and spreads the good word by hassling people on the beach.
Also with Frank Ashmore as a blond killer, Larry D. Mann as the reverend running the Jesus freak mission, Bret Morrison (Orson Welles’ replacement as the Shadow) as the porn producer, Cyril Delevanti as a fortune teller who collects showbiz memorabilia (in a riff on that scene from Kiss Me Deadly where Mike Hammer snaps a witness’ Caruso records, Shep rips up a signed Sarah Bernhardt picture to get the collector to talk – then, in a nicely played bit, regrets it and doesn’t have the heart to be a bigger bastard), and Joe Dante regular Belinda Balaski as another freak (NB: when Susan Arnold quit acting, her first job was casting director – so she probably cast Balaski in Piranha and The Howling). Written by Mark Haggard (director of The First Nudie Musical) and Jim Martin.
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