A cool '60s vibe and host of cameos elevate Warning Shot, an entertaining but forgettable thriller about a cop unjustly accused of manslaughter who must solve a convoluted mystery to clear his name. Though the square-jawed, gravelly-voiced David Janssen carries the film, it's the constant parade of guest stars that makes director Buzz Kulik's film interesting and absorbing. Imprint's limited edition Blu-ray skimps on extras, but features strong video and audio transfers that bring this fun 1960s curio to life. Worth a Look.
It's a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines. A hard-nosed cop shoots and kills a fleeing suspect who pulled a gun on him, then faces accusations of police brutality and a manslaughter charge when the suspect's gun can't be found. Was there a gun at all? Did the cop think he saw something he didn't? Or is his claim of self-defense just a cover to absolve him of responsibility and hide his violent, sadistic impulses?
Warning Shot chronicles the efforts of Sgt. Tom Valens (David Janssen) to find the smoking gun and unravel the mystery swirling around its dead owner - an upstanding doctor "who checks out like Mr. Clean and Santa Claus rolled into one" - before he goes on trial for killing him. His hunt for clues puts him in contact with an array of oddball characters, one of whom just might lead Valens to his doom.
Packed with '60s style, Warning Shot also touches upon the decade's hot-button social issues, some of which we're still grappling with today. There's a protest against police violence during which people express their distrust of law enforcement and carry signs that read "Stop killer cops!" A black TV reporter covering the event ponders whether he would be dealt with more harshly than Valens if he had pulled the trigger, simply because of his race. Valens also struggles with PTSD stemming from a prior shooting incident, which leads the vengeful city prosecutor (Sam Wanamaker) to question his mental fitness.
When a smug lawyer (Walter Pidgeon) advises Valens to just plead guilty, accept probation, and move on, the outraged cop sees only one path to vindication: "I have to prove that Dr. James V. Ruston is not the innocent man that everyone thinks he is." Putting the victim on trial would eventually become a reprehensible tactic by slimy defense attorneys seeking to get their guilty clients off the hook, but it might have been a novel concept here. The difference in Warning Shot is our knowledge that Valens is on the right side of the law.
Originally conceived as a TV movie, Warning Shot was elevated to a big-screen feature reportedly because of its violent content. Director Buzz Kulik employs some psychedelic subjective camera shots when Valens gets beaten up by a gang of preppy thugs and nicely evokes the laid-back, lounge-by-the-pool SoCal atmosphere. For the most part, Kulik keeps the action chugging along at a good clip, but the script's episodic nature taxes his ability to maintain momentum.
Luckily, about a dozen guest stars, many of whom hail from Hollywood's Golden Age, perk up the proceedings and make mundane scenes more interesting. In addition to the dignified Pidgeon, Keenan Wynn solidly portrays Valens' loyal partner who begins to doubt his story; Joan Collins provides some sex appeal as Valens' soon-to-be-ex-wife who still hungers for his touch; Ed Begley shines as a cantankerous police captain; silent legend Lillian Gish supplies some comic relief as an eccentric old lady; George Sanders dryly plays a cagey insurance investigator; television personality Steve Allen crops up as a pompous TV commentator who proudly proclaims, "People tune me in for the pleasure of cursing me out."; George Grizzard enjoys a slick turn as an often shirtless playboy; Stefanie Powers makes the most of her sympathetic nurse role; Carroll O'Connor is badly miscast as a Mexican judge (his accent is horrendous); and three-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the spotlight with her deliciously over-the-top portrayal of Ruston's boozy, wanton widow.
Of course, the weight of Warning Shot rests squarely on the brooding Janssen's shoulders, and the strapping actor carries it with ease. Janssen was currently in the midst of his very successful run as Dr. Richard Kimble in the classic TV series The Fugitive, so knew all too well how to play a beleaguered man desperate to clear his name, and his subtle, macho performance simmers with intensity.
Warning Shot is very much a film of its time, but it holds up well more than 50 years later. It keeps us guessing right up until the end, and though it drags a bit about halfway through, this mod mystery exudes enough pizzazz to make it diverting and fun. Warning Shot may not be a classic, but it's a perfect flick for a Throwback Thursday night.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Warning Shot arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard clear case inside a slick cardboard slipcase. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM 2.0 mono. Once the region-free disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Paramount Pictures features excellent clarity, contrast, and color timing and faithfully honors the vibrant cinematography of Joseph Biroc, who would win an Oscar several years later for The Towering Inferno. A natural grain structure preserves the feel of celluloid, and though a snowy process shot momentarily grabs attention, softness is kept at bay most of the time. Rich blacks add a sense of foreboding to nocturnal scenes, the bright whites never bloom, and there's plenty of vibrant color on display, especially during a brief scene that showcases mod '60s fashion. Bold reds, sunny yellows, and lush greens keep the eye engaged, flesh tones remain true and consistent, and sharp close-ups showcase Janssen's rugged complexion and the creamy skin of Collins, Powers, and Parker. Though some mild speckling persists throughout, it never distracts from the on-screen action or diminishes the quality of this fine rendering.
Robust sound distinguishes the LPCM 2.0 mono track. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of Jerry Goldsmith's rousing, very '60s music score without a hint of distortion, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like the titular gunshot, fisticuffs, and a ringing telephone are crisp, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. Though Warning Shot is a surprisingly talky thriller, this track flexes its muscles when needed and handles any challenges with ease.
The only supplement is a new audio commentary with film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell. Though the duo's unbridled enthusiasm for Warning Shot is infectious, it's tough not to feel as if they're unduly propping up the film and its makers. The pair examines how the film embraces old Hollywood classicism while butting up against the more freewheeling new Hollywood style. They also discuss how Warning Shot depicts the "loosening up of America," how Steve Allen's provocateur TV commentator character resembles Tucker Carlson, and how director Buzz Kulik deftly mixes pulp with nuance. Berger and Mitchell enjoy a comfortable rapport and their lively exchanges make this track worth checking out.
Warning Shot never will be considered a classic thriller, but it's a fun retro ride made all the more enjoyable by an endless parade of legendary guest stars. Imprint revitalizes this mod '60s mystery with excellent video and audio transfers and an enthusiastic commentary track. If you're in the mood for a cool dip into L.A. intrigue, Warning Shot is your ticket. Worth a Look.