Friday, May 23, 2014

Manhunt for Claude Dallas (1986)

 The cover of my VHS copy of Manhunt for Claude Dallas

Manhunt for Claude Dallas (1986)
Director: Jerry London
Starring: Matt Salinger, Claude Akins, Beau Starr

Plot: Claude Dallas (Salinger) is a man of the land, living it rough in the mountains of Idaho. When he is caught by a festidious game warden for hunting deer out of season (Akins) Claude shoots him and his fellow warden dead. He goes on the run as a manhunt ensues.

The first comment I have about this 1980s TV movie is that the cover of the VHS (see above) is puzzling. It features Claude Akins prominently, which at first glance would lead you believe that he is Claude Dallas (adding to the confusion is the fact actor and character are both Claude). But instead Akins features for only 10 minutes or so, before being killed and then featuring in brief flashbacks. Odd choice for a cover.

Okay, so with that out of the way, onto the movie. It's directed by Jerry London, a veteran of TV series and TV movies throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, and apparently based on true events. More specifically it is an adaption of the non-fiction book Outlaw: The Story of Claude Dallas by Jeff Long, with a screenplay by TV veteran John Gay.

London and Gay knew what they were doing, and it shows. This is an above-average TV movie from an era when they really knew how to do TV movies properly. It follows the manhunt, then Dallas' capture and trial, with flashbacks thrown in to show his earlier life as well as some exposition surrounding supporting characters.

What really stands out is that this movie leaves it mildly ambiguous as to whether Claude Dallas was a cold-blooded killer or a kind-hearted man-of-the-land pushed too far by the government. The way that Dallas becomes a folk hero (even gaining his own "Dallas cheerleaders") is a theme that has been covered in countless movies, but remains as revelant today as it did in 1986.

Without having read the original book, I would guess that London and Gay stick pretty closely to the real life story. I say this because there were moments when a fictional story may have thrown in a plot twist, but here it was resisted. That's not to say it is entirely predictable, in fact by staying true to how real people act, it could be said that it's less predictable than your average Hollywood flick.

The acting is great across the board. Salinger (who played the titular hero in the doomed 1990 Captain America film) is an adequate leading man, eliciting sympathy while also showing Dallas' dark side. The supporting cast features several familiar faces.  Brent Spiner (Lt Data on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) is Claude's nervy friend who witnesses the murders. Pat Hingle (Jim Gordon in Tim Burton's BATMAN movies) is a friend who helps Claude. Rip Torn (MEN IN BLACK) is the cop that leads the manhunt. And Annette Benning makes her on-screen debut in a brief scene.

Perhaps not action-packed or exploitive enough for some people, fans of 70s and 80s TV movies should find this one an interesting enough watch.

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