Before he found his groove playing macho rascals, Burt Reynolds made a slew of random movies and TV shows, none quite as random as Skullduggery. Even setting aside the misleading title, which suggests a con-man thriller or a pirate flick, this is a deeply weird science-fiction melodrama about missing-link primates, inter-species romance, and a courtroom showdown with echoes of the legendary Scopes trial. Yet the strangest aspect of all may be Reynolds’ character, who improbably evolves from a low-rent schemer into a passionate defender of the missing-link primates. Reynolds plays both aspects of the character well, but the shift from one to the other is as whiplash-inducing as every other bizarre thing that happens in Skullduggery.
The picture opens with anthropologist Dr. Sybil Greame (Susan Clark) preparing to explore rough terrain in New Guinea. Local miscreants Douglas (Reynolds) and Otto (Roger C. Carmel) worm their way into the expedition for nefarious reasons. Upon reaching the jungle interior, the group encounters shaggy orange primates they refer to as the Tropi. Seeing how local cannibals mistreat the Tropi sparks sympathetic feelings from the previously callous Douglas and Otto. In fact, Otto impregnates one of the Tropi females. Highly contrived circumstances shift the action back to civilization, where Douglas uses the occasion of a Tropi tragedy to force a court trial that tests whether the Tropi shall be considered animals or people. It’s all quite outlandish and silly, even though everyone plays the material straight.
Reading about this project, one learns that director Otto Preminger was involved at one point, though it’s safe to assume his version would have been much longer, with endless debates about morality and the nature of man. The strangeness imbuing the extant version suggests Preminger dodged a bullet. Not only are the ape suits worn by performers portraying Tropi characters unconvincing, but the notion of a sexual dalliance between a civilized man and a wild creature is distasteful. And whenever Skullduggery isn’t violating propriety, it’s violating logic. In some ways, Skullduggery is a train wreck, but somewhere inside this slipshod movie is a moralistic oddity yearning to be free. Adventurous viewers might be able to perceive glimmers of that better film through the muck of Skullduggery.