After a great run in the ’70s, during which his books and scripts were adapted into several movies and a pair of TV series, cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh took a stab at romantic comedy with The Black Marble. Directed by Harold Becker, who helmed the Wambaugh-derived The Onion Field (1979), this picture applies the writer’s familiar absurdist prism to a depiction of cops and criminals. Specifically, the movie tracks an alcoholic detective’s inept efforts to rescue a kidnapped dog. Shot at various offbeat locations in Los Angeles, the movie has a fantastic widescreen look and a host of unusual characters, to say nothing of skillful comedic performances by stars Robert Foxworth, Paula Prentiss, and Harry Dean Stanton. However, the individual whose contributions prevent the movie from realizing its ambitious goals is Wambaugh. For all his quirky details and surprising twists, he can’t quite get a handle on the picture’s tone, and he frequently depicts people behaving in ways that are opposite to their established characterizations. The Black Marble is humane and strange, but it’s frustrating because it’s so badly in need of a heavy rewrite.
Foxworth stars as Sgt. Alex Valnikov, a perpetually besotted veteran cop traumatized by a series of child murders he once investigated. Kicked off the LAPD’s homicide division and reassigned to the robbery squad in the Hollywood precinct, Valnikov gets partnered with high-strung Sgt. Natalie Zimmerman (Prentiss), who resents being made caretaker for a has-been. They’re assigned to help Madeline Whitfield (Barbara Babcock) recover her dog after a mystery man demands a huge ransom for the dog’s return. In separate scenes, the filmmakers explore the kidnapper’s pathetic life. He’s Philo Skinner (Stanton), a sleazy dog groomer overwhelmed by gambling debts. As the story progresses, Natalie discovers Valnikov’s endearing traits, even as Philo’s actions become more and more desperate. Giving away more would do a disservice to the picture.
Foxworth, usually cast as a hunk, relishes his opportunity to play a fully textured character, and he has some moderately effective moments as well as a few comic highlights. Yet the script does not serve him well, especially when Valnikov suddenly transforms from a suicidal alcoholic to a wounded romantic. Similarly, Prentisss’ sharp comic timing helps mask bumpy shifts in her characterization. Stanton fares best, and the scene of him threatening to slice off the kidnapped dog’s ear is simultaneously grotesque and poignant.
The Black Marble: FUNKY