THE STOOLIE (1972; Video Screams).
Director John G. Avildsen loves cinematic underdogs -- ROCKY, THE KARATE KID, he was even the original director of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER -- and this early feature was his most unflattering portrait of a loser. The tale of a down-and-out stool pigeon who gets one brief chance to experience the high life could've been a breakout role for any halfway-decent character actor. But instead, the gig was misguidedly handed to 38-year-old comedian Jackie Mason, making his film debut. At the time, his stand-up career was in the toilet following a controversial '60s appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, and this was one of Mason's many comeback attempts. Unfortunately, the guy has absolutely no screen presence and his title character is little more than an obnoxious troll... Roger Pitman (Mason) is a lowlife slob who ekes out a living in Weehawken, New Jersey by working as a snitch for unscrupulous Police Sergeant Brogan (KOJAK'S Dan Frazer). But after the unexpected death of a friend, this longtime stoolie decides to ditch town with $7500 worth of stolen police cash. Next stop is Miami, where our frighteningly-pale schmuck rents the most ostentatious hotel room in the city, treats himself to a pricey new wardrobe, champagne and massages (Warning: Nearly-nude Jackie isn't a pretty sight), and annoys women who're laughably out of his league. Pitman's shitty luck seems to change when he meets mousey, equally-depressed Long Islander Sheila Morrison (future Obie-winner Marcia Jean Kurtz), but what had the potential to be a touching love story is utterly demolished by Mason's one-note acting, which consists of spouting every line of dialogue with the same clipped, affected style he's used on-stage for 50 years. Avildsen (who was fired by producer-star Mason before the film was completed) pads the story with Florida atmosphere -- tourist traps, dog races, ugly nightclubs -- shot by Ralf Bode (DRESSED TO KILL, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER), and also manages some nicely naturalistic casting. Kurtz is particularly genuine, with Thayer David as a Jersey criminal and Bill McCutcheon (Dropo from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS!) as a gas pump jockey... The script is a patchwork mess, with the early N.J. sequences reeking of seedy authenticity and Pitman's Sunshine State sojourn mostly a snooze. Plus in an idiotic subplot, Brogan drives to Miami to retrieve his ripped-off money, only to get hustled by crooked cops and mechanics along the way. There's even an unearned feel-good ending. Ugh! That's what you get when two of your three credited writers, Larry Alexander and Marc B. Ray, cut their teeth penning TV-specials for the likes of Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Burt Bacharach, and The 5th Dimension. No surprise, the film was a commercial dud, because who wouldn't want to pay to see a miscast, charisma-barren comedian playing a sad sack screw-up without any redeeming qualities?
© 2012 by Steven Puchalski.