Dark Comedy, as the Marble Rolls…



By 1980, America was down on its luck.  It was an era defined by gas shortages, the Iran hostage crisis, and, as President Jimmy Carter put it, a broader “crisis of confidence”.  Collectively, it seemed, we’d drawn the black marble.

Should it be any wonder, then, that big-screen comedy would follow suit?  The 1980 dark satire, The Black Marble, depicts a world in which mundane and even desperate people have a hard time catching a break.  The things that happen are rather horrific- choose to laugh if you must.  It is the world of contemporary Los Angeles, its rundown police force, and the obsessive subculture of competitive dog shows.  

Based upon the 1978 novel of the same title by Joseph Wambaugh (who built a very lucrative career writing about the psychological perils of police work) The Black Marble is a full-on deadpan dry rub upon an exhausted scene.  The film marks director Harold Becker’s second Wambaugh adaptation following the success of 1979’s crime drama, The Onion Field.  (Look for one of that film’s stars, James Woods, in a prominent cameo as a street violinist).  Becker himself offers an audio commentary on this disc, discussing the what-fors of the movie, something he’s apparently still proud of.

But, between the said presence of Woods, its propensity for animal death and mutilation (particularly dogs) and its implicit ask to identify with the LAPD, there’s a lot about The Black Marble that has not aged well.  That is, if those aspects were ever well received…  Box office-wise, the film made $2.5 million on its $3 million budget. Though not a complete loser in terms of artistic merit (even then, it had its admirers), this starless feature would ingloriously and promptly roll right out of the circle of cultural memory.  Audiences of the time, it seems, felt that choosing The Black Marble might be a bad idea.

Today’s audiences might be most compelled by the presence of the always bold Harry Dean Stanton as the film’s antagonist, Philo Skinner, “The Terrier King”.  Skinner, a dog groomer by trade, turns to dognapping when his illicit debts come due.  (A shadowy Christopher Lloyd turns up at his door, full of threats).  He swipes a championship yorkie belonging to a wealthy single lady (Barbara Babcock).  He demands $85,000 for the pooch’s safe return, which the distraught woman would pay… if she had it.  Life, it seems, has sapped her wealth away, leaving the police her only hope.

When we meet our central protagonist, Sgt. A.M. Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), he’s pants down and wasted with his handcuffs pinching him within his tighty-whities.  All this while attending a Russian orthodox religious service.  Hence, in one tidy introductory scene, we are immediately made to understand Valnikov’s drinking problem and his reverence for his Russian heritage- but also very little desire to spend any more time with him.  So much so that when he’s partnered with wry and angry Sgt. Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss, the funniest one to be seen in this movie), it’s understandable that she objects so strongly.  

But, we’re stuck with him just as she is.  And like her, we eventually come around to loving him.  Foxworth’s performance is one of fully committed vulnerability.  At times we can practically smell the vodka wafting off his character.  Eventually, after a dippy dalliance with the distraught dog owner, he gets his crap together and finds himself in an accidental showdown with The Terrier King.  It’s a violent rough-and-tumble as the two middle-aged men chase each other across a series of adjoined chain-link dog kennels, causing them to climb and plop from open-topped eight-foot partition to the next.  It occurs to neither of them to climb the gate side to escape and have access to the keys, which have been left in a locked door.  This bruising and pathetic finale may be the tonally challenged film’s most effective dark comedy.

But now that KL Studio Classics has resurrected this movie with a nice Blu-ray edition, will anyone want to play it?  There’s some bitter irony in that the central setting of The Black Marble might actually resonate better in today’s post-Best in Show world.  A comedy that’s laughs hinge upon the absurdity on dog show culture might’ve needed a bit more conceptual oomph than Becker and company were looking to give.  What we get instead is something like a Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen novel of bumbling sweaty misfits, bad fortune, and dark coincidence.  The whole thing clearly belongs in Miami, not L.A.  But then again, celebrated Berry and Hiaasen novels have yet to adapt well to film.  No one should be shocked, then, that The Black Marble, even with its fine cinematography by Owen Roizman and a good score by Maurice Jarre, is kind of a loser.