Desperate to find something to watch, I went all Southern Drive-in on my Netflix queue and ordered up 1975′s Framed, directed by and starring the Walking Tall team of director Phil Karlson and Joe Don Baker. How bad could it be? After all, Karlson made a couple of top-notch crime-noirs: Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story.
Alas, even a bare-bones revenge story needs some coherent plotting to get from minute one to minute 90. Framed‘s narrative looks so lost at times that I could imagine the cameras running, the actors musing and the screenwriter just out of lens range desperately trying to figure out what comes next (indeed, there is just such a lengthy, place-holder scene in a bar where nothing happens for about five minutes and the actors dutifully sit there waiting for some indication about what they should say or do next).
Baker, as enormous as late-period Michael Madsen, plays a gambler who stumbles across a murder scene; the police try to set up him up for the killing in order to deflect attention from the real culprit. Baker goes to jail, where he is befriended by an imprisoned mob boss (John Marley, who got the offer he couldn’t refuse in The Godfather). Free on parole, Baker burns his way through a lot of thuggish factotums until he exacts revenge on the people who done him wrong.
Trouble is, nothing connects. There is a satchel full of money taken from Baker’s car, but it is coincidental to the frame job. Half the state’s politicians and law enforcement types are in on the job, but no one spends the money. They just leave it in a safe so Baker can come get it later. The whole subplot with John Marley’s mob boss actually amounts to almost nothing. Another policeman (an ex-pro-wrestler, judging from his line delivery) hangs around for no other reason than to get bopped on the head, and then he just disappears.
Weirdest of all is Brock Peters as a repressed, angry Southern black sheriff’s deputy who provides inside info to Baker in his quest, just cause he’s mad at the power structure. He may be helping the honky because Baker’s nightclub (which he co-owns with the screechy country chanteuse Conny Van Dyke—you’ll want to fast-forward past her numbers) hires a soulful black pianist (“My man”) to back up her songs.
In the end, after far more murders than could possibly be justified by a four-year prison term and the loss of $100,000, Baker (SPOILER ALERT, as if it matters), a happy ending ensues. The bad guys who aren’t already dead are given their comeuppance; the black deputy will become sheriff; Baker won’t be prosecuted for his murderous rampage, and he and Conny will live the high life with the recovered $100,000.
All of this might be justified is the violence-to-anomie ratio were higher. As it is, the best scene comes early, when Baker indulges in an extended cage match (it’s in a garage) with an evil sheriff. The two men pummel each other to the accompaniment of some very funny grunts, oofs and arrghs sound effects. Later, Baker shoots some guy’s ear off at close range. Proof positive that Quentin Tarantino was here before me.