It was only a year ago that I discovered that the late and greatly underappreciated Stuart Whitman had a go at Dirty Harry in the late 70’s. An obscure genre piece sees Whitman played Captain Jack Saitta in the oft retitled Shadows in an Empty Room featuring shadows of several other thrillers that had made an impact in the years prior.
It took some time to track this down, a recently released Blu Ray, under the title Blazing Magnums, was my source and I note that this disc is now quite difficult to get your hands on so it is that the film will likely slip back into obscurity.
Filmed in Ottawa and thankfully not hiding it, this Italian production lifts heavily from The French Connection, Bullitt and Dirty Harry in style and content without dropping much in the way of quality. Certainly some of the scenes between the action could have a higher level of polish, or even a extra microphone pointed at other actors who might be delivering dialogue. But most viewers are not here for the story. Stuart Whitman with a hand canon dishing out the law is enough for bums on seats.
Shadows in an Empty Room features a surprisingly engaging plot. There are a couple of twists and turns that elevate the film above the norm, in fact I would say that compared to the original Dirty Harry, Shadows has a bulkier story. Adding in the extra plot points was welcome.
Whitman is having great fun playing the aging, no holds barred cop and seems game to get in on the action. There is an obvious stunt double for some of the more dangerous stunt work but he is there kicking down doors and punching out baddies in the oodles of action sequences littered throughout the movie. Whitman’s costume for Jack, a snazzy double breasted suit, is the one thing I found distracting. Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle and Brannigan wore cheap suits as they got dirty on the job, Saitta looks like he is ready for a dinner party with James Bond.
It’s worth noting that the character of Saitta is refreshingly flawed. He acts out, and gets things wrong. He makes mistakes, ruins lives and endangers the public and yet he isn’t afraid to apologise for any errors he makes along the way. A rare trait that so many modern efforts omit.
Supporting Whitman is John Saxon, giving a fine performance for an unremarkable character. Saxon’s role is really just to show up and given Saitta someone to talk to, exchange exposition and come up with a plan. Martin Landau plays a doctor under suspicion, similarly giving an engaging performance but his character has a great deal more to do throughout.
Gayle Hunnicutt and Carole Laure provide intriguing turns, both gorgeous and mysterious, they sizzle as the plot unfolds. However, it’s Tisa Farrow who excels, playing a visually impaired student. Farrow brings an exceptional sense of vulnerability to the character especially during the terror experienced when chased unaided through the hallways by an assailant. It’s rare to find a character you care for as much in a slice of genre like this.
Then there is the action. In the opening 5 minutes Whitman has blown away several bank robbers following a quick car chase with his hand cannon. You know what you are in for. It becomes quite humorous as the film rolls on that a chase or fight occurs at every juncture of the story. Each sequence, whilst entirely unnecessary, is handled exceptionally well.
At the film’s three quarter mark is an wildly entertaining car chase. I’m going to throw it in with The French Connection, Bullitt and Seven Ups as a car chase you should make a point of seeing. The metal screeches as loud as the tires as Whitman gives chase to Aubert Pallascio around the streets of Montreal. It’s an exhilarating ride and far, far better than you would anticipate… much like several Italian cop flicks.
I can’t just gush over the film. There are a number of moments I found to be cringey and uncomfortable. Some of the language used to address gentlemen who have made life choices, is of it’s time and hard on the modern ear. There is also an implied sequence of curling tong horror that doesn’t sit right (much like the victim in the following weeks…) Not to mention the impending police brutality charge that should be brought against Saitta. This could be misconstrued into a statement against how someone wishes to show themselves, instead of just a violent moment in a thriller that wanted to be edgy.
The decision for Laure’s character Louise to be Saitta’s sister is peculiar. Daughter would have been a more convincing connection and help justify some of Saitta’s more questionable methods. However, dishing out some of the (poor) wisecracks would not have worked.
The action is shot with terrific pacing, during the car chases we are treated to wider shots encompassing as much action as possible. Fist fights are flashy and shots roam around the action from high angles to intense point of view easily. However, between the action there is little inventiveness with the camera. Shots are very standard and sometimes feel rushed with shakey closeups.
The biggest problem is Saitta himself. The central character is ignored when all is developing around him. We are not treated to a backstory, we take for granted that Saitta is similar to Harry Callahan or Popeye Doyle and don’t question how or why he is like that. We don’t know if he is married, has kids, likes football. He smokes a little, that’s all we learn. There is no romance in the film aside from some hidden desires and an affair. Were the film does great work at evolving the story it is at the expense of the character development.
I’m pleased to have finally seen Blazing Magnum / Special Magnum / Strange Shadows in an Empty Room / Tough Tony Saitta / Big Magnum 77 / The 44 Specialist / Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta or whatever it happens to be called on your street. Director Alberto De Martino has an interesting list of films under his belt from Ok Connery to Holocaust 2000 and a particular favourite of mine Miami Golem. However, it’s Rémy Julienne, who we sadly lost last year (alongside Stuart Whitman and John Saxon) who excelled, putting together a car chase that should be on the map!
Here is a collection of the exceptional poster art: