The Black Marble (1980)

Joseph Wambaugh’s influence on the depiction of police in popular media has been considerable. After publishing his first novel, The New Centurions in 1971, the writer and ex-L.A. policeman helped to develop the series Police Story in 1973. The program sought to de-glamorize the lives of cops and underscore the difficulties they suffered. Wambaugh’s characters drank to excess off-duty and, in more than one case, abused their spouses, emotionally or physically or both. Network censors may have tempered the bleakest qualities of Wambaugh’s work, but his attention to detail and psychological complexity made other cop programs of the time, like Starsky & Hutch or Baretta, look like cartoons.

It wasn’t just network censors who, by his own estimation, ruined Wambaugh’s work. When his blackly comic novel The Choirboys was dismally adapted by director Robert Aldrich (in 1977), the writer decided to sidestep the Hollywood system and took on the task financing adaptations of his work himself. One famous result was The Onion Field (1979), based on his non-fiction account of the murder of a policeman and the impact upon both the criminals who committed the act and the dead man’s traumatized partner. The film helped to boost the career of James Woods, who embodied the tortured intelligence of the triggerman, dragging out his prosecution in order to put off execution for as long as possible.

Wambaugh worked repeatedly with Harold Becker, director of both The Onion Field and The Black Marble. While the first film was an out and out dramatic piece, Wambaugh toyed with the orthodoxy of genre in The Black Marble. Here, he combines several seemingly disparate narrative strands, including a mismatched romance and a dognapping. The figures paired up in this comic collision of opposites are an alcoholic, middle-aged, divorced Russian cop, Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), and his easily annoyed partner of similar age and marital status, Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss).

The shambling, badly dressed, dissolute detective is assigned to Natalie against her wishes; no one else in the department will work with him. At first, she barely tolerates Valnikov’s antics, but eventually finds his affection for his Russian ancestry endearing. At the same time, she sympathizes with his psychological plight, as he is plagued by nightmares and cries out when he goes to sleep.

Their partnership is tested when they investigate the abduction of a show dog owned by a single, upper class woman, Madeline Whitfield (Barbara Babcock). The perpetrator is a down-and-out groomer, Philo Sinner (Harry Dean Stanton), who hopes to pay off his gambling debts by extorting ransom. Valerie fails to conceive of any importance in such a petty crime, but Valnikov is compelled to retrieve the animal as if reuniting the dog with its owner will bring some small degree of stability to a chaotic universe. If he cannot easily give up his dependence on alcohol or free his mind from lingering anxieties, Valnikov believes he might, at least, be able to reunite one lonely woman and her pet.

The narrative shuffles between Valnikov’s wooing of Natalie and Philo’s harebrained efforts to get out of hock. Unlike in Wambaugh’s other writing, little overt violence occurs in The Black Marble. Philo’s threats come across more as acts of desperation than deliberation. When the dog-groomer and Valnikov eventually confront one another, a fight does ensue, but it leads to what must be the slowest chase in movie history, as the two men laboriously follow one another over and between a row of dog kennels. Becker wisely does not use any musical underscoring in this scene. The weary grunting and groaning of the two men, accompanied by the barking of agitated dogs, lends both a comic and bleak tone to the episode.

This is, Wambaugh implies, what police work comes down to: sweat, pain, and little glory. Becker does not engage in any self-important directorial flourishes that would detract from the gritty characterizations in The Black Marble. He shot the film almost entirely on location, showcasing the scuzzy underbelly of the city of angels.

Initially, the slumped-over Foxworth suggests how Valnikov has given up on life, then gracefully unveils the lapsed romantic within the world-weary cop, as he falls in love with Natalie. His delight in sharing Russian food with her, showing off his skills at folk dance, and conversing with his loquacious parrots are endearing without being cloying. While Foxworth was principally a stage actor with minimal experience on screen prior to The Black Marble, Paula Prentiss had years of starring roles beyond her, though she had not taken on so substantial a part in some time. In the early 1960s, she seemed a latter-day screwball heroine who, like Carole Lombard, could remain pretty while executing a pratfall. Natalie’s middle-aged matter-of-factness contrasts with the ditsy enthusiasm of this characterization, but Prentiss puts across with equal skill the policewoman’s vulnerability and conviction that life will not give her any unforeseen breaks.

It is this belief that Natalie shares with Philo. Attired in repulsively flamboyant sport shirts with a cigarette seemingly plastered to the corner of his mouth, Philo cannot get a break. It’s a part tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton. In many of his roles, Stanton comes across like a thinking man’s Elisha Cook Jr., so skilled is he at conveying ennui as if it might be come sort of a “comfort zone.” The dogs Philo grooms and prepares for exhibition account for the only constancy in his life, save his being perpetually in debt. When he’s forced to take drastic action, you get the feeling he is repelled by his own behavior. Stanton uncovers the pain beneath the punchlines.

The Black Marble failed to find an audience on its initial release, and afterwards, Wambaugh and Becker broke up their association and went on to other projects. Truth be told, the focus on characterization in the picture leads to a kind of lackadaisical pace; The Black Marble ambles to a conclusion and could have benefited from some thoughtful trimming. Still, it lingers in the memory for its convictions that love can conquer isolation and that personal idiosyncrasy excites rather than stifles relationships. As we watch Valnikov and Natalie dance, arm in arm, beneath the lights of the L.A. skyline in the final sequence, we can believe that something so mundane, even ludicrous, as a dog-napping might result in lasting romance.