You Don't Know Shat!- Incident on a Dark Street (1973)

When you’re talking about William Shatner, a few descriptives come instantly to mind. Hammy, over the top, and super mega emotive are among the first that leap into my head, and I love the guy. Words that don’t ever run though my brain are smarmy, sleazy, and weak. When you look at the most well known characters that Shatner has played, the noble captain, the rough and tumble (over car hoods) cop, and the loveable, incorrigible lawyer, there was always a likability on display. With today’s film, the 1973 made for TV film/pilot Incident on a Dark Street, Shatner does his best to try and make us forget the likeable fellow he normally plays, and he all but vanishes behind an ill-advised mustache, a pair of massive sideburns, and one of the worst, and oiliest, hair pieces I’ve ever seen.

The story kicks off when a low level thug is found floating face down under the docks. All signs point to the involvement of organized crime, but the D.A.’s office has no way of proving it. Meanwhile, Deaver Wallace (William Shatner), the city’s utilities commissioner, is trying to squeeze every last penny he can from mob boss Dominic Leopold (Gilbert Roland) in exchange for lucrative city contracts. The D.A. finally gets a break in the case when Frank Romeno (Richard S. Castellano) agrees to turn on his former bosses. With the mob closing in, Wallace and Leopold’s partnership starts to fall apart and the consequences may be deadly.

Director Buzz Kulick had a long history with Mr. Shatner starting back in 1958 with an episode of Climax! called Time of the Hanging. Speaking of climax, he went on to director Shatner in the sex scare film The Explosive Generation (1961) and then a series of four TV films ending with 1971’s Incident on a Dark Street. In his 43 year career, the workman director was involved in several memorable projects including several episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel and the interesting Sam Pekinpah penned Zapata western Villa Rides (1968) starring Yul Brenner as the titular Villa alongside Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, and Herbert Lom. The direction of Incident on a Dark Street makes it look like what it is, typical ‘70’s crime drama. TV shows of this era have a great feel to them and this is no exception, however nothing about the direction of the film makes it stand out from the rest of the pack.

What does set it apart is the script by long time TV writer E. Jack Newman who also served as creator and producer for this pilot film. Newman made a handful of these pilots around the same time, and he finally hit the mark with the series Police Story which ran from 1973 to 1978. His script for Incident on a Dark Street could easily be translated into an episode of any of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order series. Like many other crime shows from the ’70’s, there was no glamour involved here. Instead you see out of shape men in shabby raincoats chasing minor criminals and balding prosecutors wearing garish ties as they build their case. It’s not a thrill a minute, but it does seem like real police work.

The main stars, intended to be series regulars, did not leave much of an impression. James Olsen (Amityville Horror II), David Canary ( Candy Canaday from Bonanza), and Robert Pine (Sgt. Getraer from CHiPs) make up the legal team, and though none of their acting could be described as bad, all of them are very bland. All of the interesting performances were on the other side of the law. Richard S. Castellano, Clemenza from The Godfather, put in solid work as the low level goon who gets caught between the law and the mob. In his best scene, Castellano has to run from a street cleaning machine that’s trying to off him, and until you’ve seen Clemenza try to scale a 10 foot chain link fence to escape a killer public service vehicle, you haven’t lived. For me, it was the highlight of the film. In another baddie role, Gilbert Roland (Castellari’s Any Gun Can Play) is terrifically as Sicilian Mob Boss Dominic Leopold. I don’t know what kind of Italian name Leopold is, but Roland uses his screen time to full effect making a suave yet slimy character that should have gotten more screen time.

That brings us back around to Shatner. This is one of several wimpy, weak roles that Shatner took on in the ‘70’s when his star had nearly faded and work was hard to come by. Like his milquetoast character in Pray for the Wildcats, Shatner’s Deaver Wallace has a yellow streak as wide as they come, but his constant desire for money fuels him to put pressure on the mob boss. Eventually, he gets what is coming to him, and that should be no surprise or spoiler for anyone who has ever seen a crime drama. Shatner really reins it in this film, and actually delivers a performance that is worth watching, but again, like Roland, he is a supporting character who gets far too little screen time. His best scene no doubt involves Wallace making a phone call while rebuffing the advances of his young, baby doll wearing girlfriend. Shatner is in top form, and if you’re like me, you’ll be sitting there telling him to get off the phone and pay attention to that cutie.

On the whole, Incident on a Dark Street is fairly entertaining, but it’s easy to see why it wasn’t picked up as a series. All the interesting folks were the supporting cast while the leads fail to get the production on the ground. There are a few choice moments, but the entire story arc could have easily been boiled down to an hour or less. If you’re a fan of ‘70’s crime drama or a hardcore Shat-head like me, then this will be an entertaining little window into a nearly forgotten piece of TV and Shatner history. Luckily you won’t even have to strain a muscle to see it. This little picture is in the public domain, but I couldn't find a version I could embed. It can be watched in its entirety for free from Amazon video here.So below you can find the clip of Shatner choosing to freak out rather than get his freak on. That’s all for this week, but join us back here next Sunday for one last Shatner gem as I close out the month, and don’t forget that tomorrow (March 22) is Mr. Shatner’s birthday so Happy Birthday Bill, wherever you are!

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