Though he’s had key lead roles in Tora! Tora! Tora! and 12 Angry Men, actor Martin Balsam is more well known for his supporting roles. He was the character in some of your favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. He was the detective who met the knife of Norman Bates in Psycho. Balsam was a constant of fifties and sixties films and television programming. Even after his prime, Balsam remained active, starring mainly in TV produced features until his death in 1996. One of his few seventies movie roles was the Andrew V. McLaglen film Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker of Walking Tall fame.
Mitchell is a boisterous and rule-breaking cop who is sent to stop a heroin shipment after he is booted off a murder case. As he works to stop the shipment, he gets embroiled in a citywide conspiracy where everyone plays him as the pawn. Martin Balsam stars as Jim Cummings, an opportunistic drug trafficker who Mitchell is assigned to take down in the film.
Though not one of Balsam’s most memorable roles, Mitchell remains to be an entertaining film and a great example of the cheesy action films of the ’70s.
It should come as no surprise that Mitchell has appeared in an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. From the buggy explosions and raining Schlitz cans to the corny theme song, this film opens itself to parody. Adding to the comical nature is Baker himself, who has no problem turning Mitchell into the greasy and bumbling personality needed for the film. Complete with thick Texas accent, Baker’s Mitchell is unforgivably abrasive. He has no problem getting in the face of potential villains or throw love interest Greta, played by Linda Evans, in jail moments after spending a passionate night together. His dialogue is simply priceless, some gems entailing telling a young kid to “piss off” to an exchange with Greta in which he finds weed in his garbage. “I smell grass. Yep, it’s grass.” Dialogue like this is the result of what would happen if the “Do you feel lucky?” speech from Dirty Harry came with a laugh track. Although the film is labeled as a crime drama, that doesn’t stop viewers from adding their own MST3K commentary, ultimately making the film more enjoyable.
While Baker is quite the character, Balsam is the anchor of the film. Though his position on the drug-dealing totem pole is low, he revealed to be the character that sets the events of the film in motion. He sends Mitchell on the path that will ultimately kill key leaders in the drug cartel he is a part of, leaving him with the heroin shipment. Blasam’s acting is playfully deceptive. He punches up his role as pawn manipulated by the dealings of more powerful men. He plays along with Mitchell, even giving him key clues to the case. Helping Mitchell seems to be a careless decision, but it’s all a part of Balsam’s plan to assume power. As a result, his character becomes more sinister than originally perceived. As his so-called associates treated him like a pawn, so he makes them the pawns in his quiet power play. He hides his true intentions from both Mitchell and the audience until the very end of film, making Balsam’s Jim Cummings a tastefully understated character. No matter the role, Balsam succeeds in bringing incredible talent to his films.
If you try to take Mitchell even remotely serious, you will never enjoy it. Pretty glaring holes in the plot and character motivations remove it from being considered classic cinema. However, the campiness breathes new life into the film.
So come prepared with some witty comebacks. If not, at least watch to appreciate another example of the prolific career of Martin Balsam.
This piece is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by our very own Jill Blake at her website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence, and by Michael Nazarewycz at his website, Scribe Hard on Film.