Crime Double Feature – The Mugger (1958)

To reiterate (and copy/paste), I’ve been reading Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels lately (more reviews on the way). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Yay for me! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. I already dealt with Cop Hater, so next up:

The Mugger (1958)

There’s a new mugger in town preying on women within the 87th Squad’s jurisdiction, and he doesn’t seem to be letting up. Having stumped the detectives, psychiatrist and former detective Dr. Pete Graham (Kent Smith) comes out of pseudo-retirement to try and crack this nut. Graham is also contacted by an old friend, who wants him to look into his troubled young sister-in-law; she’s acting like something’s wrong, but tells Graham she doesn’t have any problems. Then she’s found stabbed to death in a city park, with the mugger’s trademark sunglasses crushed in her hands, and Graham has a personal motivation to catch this killer.

Whereas the book and Cop Hater were more character-driven police procedurals, The Mugger is more of a low-key psycho-detective analy-gation. It doesn’t break down into psycho-analyzing witnesses or anything—that’s just a fringe thing—but it doesn’t go as heavy into the detecting, either. In fact, the film just sort of muddles around without any sense of character or depth. Graham looks into several potential suspects and works around the mystery of the girl’s death while he keeps up his relationship with his wife Claire; meanwhile the 87th is continually stymied, and eventually tries luring the mugger out using a female detective as bait.

Now, I have read this novel, and it’s one of the best books in the 87th series, which is nothing like the film. And the changes are for the worse. The protagonist was originally a young cop—Bert Kling, see the first movie—and he met his on-off college-student girlfriend Claire Townsend during the course of the investigation, where in the film they’re married and working out of the same building. Note cop, not criminal psychiatrist; that sounds like a horrible change made to play up the contemporary growth of psychiatrists. And I should emphasize young, because I think the changes didn’t work, because the film then proceeds to point out how every loose woman in the world thinks this middle-aged, psychologist Kling is the sexiest man on Earth.

The film lacks any kind of detective/investigation work until near the end, which then results in a very unconvincing car chase (perhaps at speeds up to forty miles an hour!), and while the villain’s ending is suitably gory, there’s no real reason or lead-up to it. (In the book, it ends with the perp nailed and arrested and jailed, not brutally slain.) And the mugger himself was amped up from socking women to cutting them, probably to inflate the drama/tension needlessly. All in all, a tight, taut fraternal order of detectives with a strong sense of character was lost into a banal, featureless film. The things that were kept from the novel include the mugger, the general plot about the younger sister, a beatnik informant, a few of the set-pieces (like the female detective bait sequence), and some of the character names.

Again, McBain’s 87th was strong because it had a large, rotating cast of characters, and each subsequent novel made them feel more fleshed-out and developed. Losing that humanist approach makes the film feel shallow and lifeless, and gives it a strong emotional distance: we don’t even see the murder victim long enough to make her death anything more than a plot device, which I’m pretty sure would have irked McBain. It’s hard to incorporate that developing texture in film; Cop Hater gave it a good try, while The Mugger avoids it completely. You can tell it had a shoestring budget from its lack of characters and cheap-o sets.

When the lobby cards have such fascinating scenes as this...

Unlike Cop Hater, which wasn’t bad, The Mugger was nowhere close to good. The film is sluggish, listing, and banal, lacking any sense of character or plot depth to result in monotonous and shallow tripe. That also means it’s short—74 minutes—so there’s a reason for its lack of anything; that brevity is something of a plus. The change in character could have worked great, but instead we’re left with a rather bland psychiatrist-detective with a rather bland wife and some uninspired coworkers; the most interesting characters are the bit-players and suspects. Kent Smith was no newcomer to crime/detective cinema, and while he doesn’t phone his role in, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic either. The film as a whole just didn’t do anything for me.

I’m unsure this film will please hardcore McBain readers given all the alterations that were made, nor did it blow me away as a standalone police mystery, so I’m unconvinced this film has enough of an audience to give it some rediscovery comeback: it’s just not that good.

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