Death Scream: What Happens When No One Gets Involved

On this day in 1975, a topical television movie called Death Scream premiered on ABC. Death Scream was a huge television event, I watched it with my family when it premiered. Loosely based on the 1964 Kitty Genovese case, its hook (smack dab in the middle of the crime-riddled ’70s) was the investigation of a violent rape-murder to which there are a large number of witnesses, none of whom lift a finger to help or can initially be convinced to testify.

“Who, me? I should get involved? What, and lose a day’s pay?”

The movie has a special resonance at this historical moment. Rape was only just beginning to be a topic of public discussion 40+ years ago. In early depictions like this one, the perps are presented as outliers, a special breed of criminal, written off as  “creeps” and “perverts”, guys in trench coats waiting in alleys. Over the decades, the problem was revealed to be much more pervasive than was commonly admitted back then, to put it mildly. Today the unwillingness of people to talk about it for so long is exploding in the #MeToo movement. The times are different, but there is a certain parallelism that made the film especially compelling to watch this morning.

That, and the fact that the movie is a veritable cornucopia of recognizable past and future character actors. Some of them were major stars at the time, testament to the importance and weight that was given to the project, both by the producers and the actors themselves.

Though they only have small roles in “Death Scream”, Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman were probably the film’s biggest stars at the time it debuted, hence they were featured heavily in publicity

Among the all-star neighbor/witnesses: Art Carney and Nancy Walker as an older couple (the husband discourages her phone call to the police — too much trouble!), Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman as another couple (the husband tries to keep the cops at bay because he knows his slutty wife will screw one of the detectives — and she does!),  Eric Braeden and Dmitra Arliss (as a couple of immigrants who don’t want to get involved because they’re undocumented — hello!), Diahann Carrol (as a young lady who was too loopy from the fistful of pills she swallowed to save her friend), and Tina Louise (as the victim’s lesbian friend — probably the most clumsy script element).

Julia and Hunt, who apparently can’t afford chairs on a cop’s salary

A very young Raul Julia is the story’s main character, a Puerto Rican police detective — one of the most positive and non-stereotyped depictions of such a character I have seen this early. An even younger Helen Hunt plays his teenage daughter! And O, the rest of the cast! Tony Dow from Leave it to Beaver as an attention seeking false confessor! A pre-Charlie Angels Kate Jackson as a young lady walking her dog after dark! Lucy Arnaz as a quick thinking crime victim! Thelma Houston, a year before “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as a hooker named Lady Wing Ding! John P. Ryan (The Right Stuff, The Cotton Club) as Raul Julia’s partner. Future Oscar-nominated Sally Kirkland plays a waitress with personality! Veteran character actor Bert Freed (who’d played Columbo seven years before Peter Falk on The Chevy Mystery Show) plays the chief of detectives. And the inevitable sick-o perp in a trench coat is played by Todd Susman, highly visible in the ’70s in things Neil Simon’s The Star Spangled Girl, Love American Style, M*A*S*H and Barney Miller (and still highly visible today on shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Orange is the New Black).

The screenwriter was also a star: Stirling Silliphant, writer of the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), as well as my personal faves The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974). The brilliance of the script (and also its direction by Richard T. Heffron) is the way it implicates us as voyeurs. Like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a crime goes down in an arena-like courtyard, surrounded by front row seats. And then WE watch it on television. The murder/attack scenes play like a slasher movie (with music to match), effects reinforced by the title of this movie. The rest of the film plays like the gritty police procedurals of the day, like Kojack, Baretta and so forth. While the story is fictionalized, differing from the Genovese case in many particulars, we still find ourselves contemplating someone’s real life misery and tragedy from the comfort of our living rooms for our enjoyment. Then, as now, people refused to get involved — and we all suffer.