The revival of film star Dorothy Dandridge in 1997 included the US premiere of her last completed film, MURDER MEN, from 1962. Originally filmed for a television series, the crime story about cops and drug pushers seems tame by today's standards, but there are several notable sequences
that make it worthwhile.
Nick Cain (Mark Richman), a detective, ferrets through the world of cafe society as he attempts to stop the underworld traffic in heroin. He regularly visits Club Troy on a hunch that its owner, Arthur Troy (James Coburn), is in on the racket. Indeed, Arthur is being pressured by a mobster, Dave
Keller (Edward Asner), to "move junk" by hiding it in shipments of musical instruments in his warehouse. Arthur agrees to the deal despite the fact he must involve his brother, Morey (Joe Mantell), a recovered addict, in carrying out the plan.
Meanwhile at the club, Arthur awaits the arrival of Norma Sherman (Dorothy Dandridge), his one-time lead vocalist and also a former addict, who has just been released from jail. Norma's ex-husband, Joe (Ivan Dixon), the lead trumpet player in the club, also awaits her return, but, fearing she will
relapse, plans to tell her their relationship is over. When Norma finally appears, escorted by Nick, she responds sadly to Joe's news, but places some hope in a comeback tour that will start at Club Troy. Just as rehearsals begin, however, Dave fears that Norma is secretly helping Nick and
pressures Arthur to cancel her appearances. Arthur lies to Norma that he cannot get the licensing to re-sign her, so, with her world falling around her again, she begs Morey to get her some of the drugs being shipped. While Morey takes her to the warehouse where Arthur has stored the drugs, Nick
catches up with them and shoots Arthur as he enters the scene. Later, while preparing anew for her club comeback, Norma gets a sign from Joe that a reunion may be possible after all.
Only shown in Europe, MURDER MEN was an expanded version of "Blues for a Junkman," an episode of the short-lived 1961-62 TV series, "Cain's Hundred." By adding nearly a half-hour of footage (with some scenes featuring nudity and explicit language), MGM was able to repackage the show as a feature,
but, oddly, the movie-house rendition never made it back to the US until 1997--despite the presence of several major stars--including James Coburn and Ed Asner on their way up and Dorothy Dandridge tragically on her way down (she died in 1965 from a drug overdose at the age of 42).
The nominal lead, Mark Richman, does his best Robert Stack imitation ("Cain's Hundred" was patterned after "The Untouchables"), but the real interest, of course, lies with Dandridge playing the ex-junkie Norma. While Dandridge's role was meant to evoke Billie Holiday, it is just as interesting how
it also parallels the one-time top star's own life--the addictions, the failed marriage, the attempts at a comeback as a singer (there's even a 1954 glamour photo of Dandridge used as a record album cover). Though the part is limited in dimension, Dandridge makes the most of her scenes, including
her short-lived reunion with her ex-husband (well played by NOTHING BUT A MAN's Ivan Dixon) and her solemn epiphany at the point she realizes the mob will not allow her to make a comeback. Dandridge also sings several standards in her unique style, including "The Man I Love" and "Taking a Chance
on Love" (one of her signature numbers).
The rest of MURDER MEN is more standard TV cop stuff. Despite the potential for noirish touches, John Peyser's direction does little with the club atmosphere. Mel Goldberg's script adequately balances the different story lines, but the "crime" scenes sound like imitation "Untouchables," and the
best part--the Norma-Joe relationship--isn't explored nearly enough. Still, MURDER MEN contains one of the few dramatic performances of a prominent but too-often neglected African-American icon who gets able support from a fine cast. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations,substance abuse, profanity.)
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The revival of film star Dorothy Dandridge in 1997 included the US premiere of her last completed film, MURDER MEN, from 1962. Originally filmed for a television series, the crime story about cops and drug pushers seems tame by today's standards, but there… (more)