THE BLACK MARBLE, a funny and touching Joseph Wambaugh police yarn marked by winning performances, was regrettably overlooked by audiences in 1980, trailing into 129th place, a gross of just $2,500,000 failing against the modest $3,000,000 cost. The cop-turned-author wrote the screenplay off his 5th best-seller, efficiently trimming the 1978 novel’s 354 pages into 113 minutes of screen time. Harold Becker (Sea Of Love, Taps, Malice, City Hall) directed. Becker’s previous project was another Wambaugh story, The Onion Field, a non-fiction tragedy of injustice. Becker’s duo are the two best feature adaptations of the writer’s books, better handled than Richard Fleischer’s truncated The New Centurions or Robert Aldrich’s sloppy The Choirboys.
Newly partnered veteran detectives try to adjust to their differing styles and attitudes. Mild-mannered, nightmare-plagued, heavy-drinking ‘Sgt. A.M. Valnikov’ (Robert Foxworth) and tense, caustic ‘Sgt. Natalie Zimmerman’ (Paula Prentiss) seem mismatched from the get-go, with brusque Natalie perplexed and flustered by Valnikov’s obtuse rambling, and the fact that he seems so ‘pet’-intrigued by a case of canine-napping & extortion. Their ‘dogged’ digging inexorably leads them to one ‘Philo Skinner’ (Harry Dean Stanton), a sleazy dog handler desperately in hock over bad bets.
Offbeat premise with adroit, low-key humor, a charming slow-cook romantic angle and exceptionally well-drawn characters. The unsung Robert Foxworth, mostly known as a dependable TV actor, has his career-best role in the gentle, hopeful, failed-romantic Valnikov, a truly good guy with Old-World gallantry and innate, essentially heroic decency. He’s beautifully matched by the perennially pleasing Paula Prentiss, who clearly enjoys her best latter-career role as the no-nonsense, initially acerbic, gradually thawing ‘Natasha’. Whip-smart, languorously sexy and endearingly goofy, Prentiss fans know she was one of the foremost yet least heralded comediennes of her day. Topping it off, the reality-scaled lineup is blessed by having one of the great Harry Dean Stanton’s most authentic, vivid, and hilarious creations as the pitiful putz Philo. Few could match him conveying victimized volatility in a way that was fully believable; the eternal loser as pathetic and poignant, grungy but enjoyable.
Nicely scored by Maurice Jarre. With chipper turns from Barbara Babcock, John Hancock, Judy Landers, Pat Corley, Richard Dix, Michael Dudikoff, Anne Ramsey and Christopher Lloyd. James Woods, who’d aced the repulsive murderer for Becker-Wambaugh in The Onion Field, is given a brief cameo. He’s considerably more likable here.