"The Marcus-Nelson Murders" (1973) is a first-rate neo-noir, although I have never seen it listed or mentioned as such. This is a shame because this movie is terrific. It runs 137 minutes and was the initial Kojak entry. It stars, of course, Telly Savalas. Last night, watching an excellent copy taped from a satellite station, it was every bit as good and better than I remembered it. Savalas played it beautifully, but so did everyone else.
The movie is based on an actual case, and the writers, Abby Mann and Selwyn Raab, got involved in that case in real time. See here: http://www.criterionforum.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=9567 Abby Mann has always been a great writer, creating such material as "The Detective" (1968), "Report to the Commissioner" (1975), "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961) and "Ship of Fools" (1965). The director, the late Joseph Sargent, was a tv-movie expert, but along the way he showed great skill in handling suspense in big screen movies like "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974).
The story focuses squarely on the failings of the justice system, both police and prosecution, in New York City. It zooms in on the horrendous police tactics used to extort (compel) a long and detailed confession from a black lad who was actually trying to help the police identify someone running from the scene of an attempted rape, really not even that. Before he can speak up freely, he's being indicted for the rape, and being held for the murders of two young women, daughters of well-to-do New Yorkers, who shared an apartment. He's completely innocent but that doesn't stop the police, anxious to make a name in a headline case, from shafting him.
The location shooting in the city is outstanding in capturing both ordinary neighborhoods and bombed out areas. The shooting inside the police stations captures their darkness and griminess (while in dark colors). The courtroom scenes look genuine. In fact, everything looks completely genuine.
The supporting cast features a wonderful array of talent: Ned Beatty, Roger Robinson, Marjoe Gortner, Jose Ferrer, Val Bisoglio, Allen Garfield, Lorraine Gary, and William Watson. The actor playing the besieged youth is Gene Woodbury, who drops out of view after 1981.
The movie is marked by well-rounded and non-cliched characterizations. At one point, in seeking to break down the silence of the real murderer, Kojak almost becomes as bad as the police who intimidated the innocent boy. Kojak despises the drug-dealing Roger Robinson, but the home life of him and his wife and their treatment of their children is mainstream, except that his recreational drug of choice is not alcohol. The murderer does have a mother and does have a conscience, not really grasping why his attempt at burglary ended up in murder. The prosecutor, Allen Garfield, cannot let go of his political rhetoric and repeated attempts to pillory an innocent man, even to suppressing vital evidence, because he wants to be elected to political office. The dirty cops have well-rehearsed ways to elude being pinned down when testifying.
This is a very hard-hitting story that does not shrink from indicting the system.