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THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE (1970).

A naive, pig-headed small-town "country preacher" embarks on a holy mission in this adaptation of David Wilkerson's best-selling 1962 memoir, which chronicled his years ministering troubled youth and drug addicts in late-1950s New York City. Though saddled with ludicrously wholesome, whitebread crooner Pat Boone -- unequivocally proving that he couldn't act for shit (though, admittedly, he's slightly more believable than Elvis Presley's hunky ghetto physician in the previous year's CHANGE OF HABIT) -- this directorial debut for actor Don Murray (BUS STOP) is slickly produced and undeniably earnest, with just enough streetwise surface trappings (e.g., impoverished street kids, predatory pushers, desperate junkies) to con gullible viewers into swallowing its ridiculously heavyhanded Christian malarkey... First seen hysterically bursting into a New York City courtroom and getting hauled off by the police, Wilkerson explains to curious reporters that he's taken a break from his rural Pennsylvanian congregation in order to bring god's word to the boroughs' multi-ethnic juvenile delinquents. His first time in The Big Apple, this self-righteous clod sleeps in his parked car, gives away his shoes to a needy teenager and even attempts to quash an upcoming rumble between two Brooklyn gangs, the Mau Maus and the Bishops, with his Jesus-loves-you schtick (e.g., "God'll get you high, but he won't let you down!"). Though initially dejected that his strident approach doesn't reap instantaneous results, this clean-cut bumpkin continues to preach on city sidewalks and hopes that his relentless haranguing will eventually wear down any godless naysayers. The story culminates with Wilkerson's "Big Youth Rally," which is attended by warring neighborhood gangs and nearly erupts into violence -- but instead ends with everyone abruptly inspired by Wilkerson's insipid preaching and a few free bibles... Although its over-baked drama is impossible to take seriously, the production deserves credit for actually filming on the streets of NYC, amidst lots of amazingly gritty footage. Unfortunately, all of its gang sequences feel utterly fake (with one showdown rendered unintentionally hilarious by an incongruous, Vegas-esque soundtrack tune)... The supporting cast includes 20-year-old Erik Estrada in his acting debut as Mau Mau war chief Nicky Cruz (who later founded his own evangelistic Christian ministry). Initially Wilkerson's loudest opponent, Cruz eventually becomes the biggest Jesus-convert of the bunch, and it's a wonder that Estrada ever got another acting job after this horribly scenery-chewing perf. Screen novice Jackie Giroux (who later appeared in drive-in fare like SWEET SUGAR and THIS IS A HIJACK, used the pseudonym Robyn Whitting for her more explicit acting gigs, and married Steve Railsback in 1980) plays paisley-clad, smack-hooked, hippie-beauty Rosa. But thanks to a little prayer courtesy of Wilkerson, it's remarkably easy for her to kick the habit (while swapping one self-destructive addiction for another, of course). Bringing zero depth to his starring role, Boone's tiresome blowhard quickly drains the film of any early entertainment value, as this 'great White savior' shames these poor, wretched minorities in order to open their eyes to Jesus. Of course, Boone (who first found fame in the mid-'50s by covering R&B songs originally recorded by black artists, thus making them more palatable to racists who didn't want their kids listening to Negro music) has spent his entire life championing the wrong side of history -- from vocally supporting the war in Vietnam and the need for school prayer, to Obama "birther" conspiracies and wholehearted support of Donald Trump's campaign -- so his wretchedly one-note acting is actually a comparatively minor offense.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.