Someone with a lot of time–and a low propensity for retching–could probably do a fine comparison between television cop movies of the late twentieth century and b-movies of the decades immediately prior. In the Arms of a Killer is absurdist in its portrayal of police investigation, between John Spencer’s disgruntled detective smoking cigars first thing in the morning (at crime scenes, ashing over evidence, I’m sure), Jaclyn Smith’s rookie detective being promoted from… I think it’s some kind of civilian job, Spencer breaking and entering (with his handy, leather-bound lock pick kit), to I don’t know what. It’s a constant assault on the sensible.
But none of these elements, or even the ones my brain has (thankfully) already expunged), are particularly damning. Any number of solid police thrillers have such elements. What’s different about this one is the writing. Robert E. Collins is an old TV director, so the technical competence shouldn’t be surprising (it is surprising, while watching the movie, since the events transpiring on screen are so stupid). Collins has a nice moving camera, gets away with the impression of a lot of long takes, uses color to symbolize. He’s absolutely solid as a director. As a writer, he’s a joke.
Spencer hates rich people. From Smith’s character’s last name (Quinn), he can tell where she’s from on Long Island and her family’s financial history. I’m not familiar with the Quinns of Long Island (are they descendants of Dr. Mike?–Arms of a Killer is badly written to the point I’m admitting I can make “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” references… wow). I’m not sure what else Spencer has as a character except that constant and goofy hatred. He’s a good guy underneath it all of course, I’m sure. Watching Spencer have to chum out one liners at every scene break is painful enough, but having to listen to him deliver that wretched dialogue is painful. It’s clear Spencer’s a good actor, even if this performance is bad–due to the script–and, given I watched the movie because of him, it’s terrible he never got recognition until so late in his career.
As for Smith… she’s just awful. Her hair never moves and neither does her face. Every delivery is wooden (and unbelievable). I can’t believe Smith made a career out of being in lousy TV movies, especially given the incompetence of her performance. You’d think someone would have realized how stupid the dialogue sounded when she delivered it.
Unfortunately, it isn’t Spencer who manages to rise above the material. Instead, it’s Michael Nouri, who also did a lot of similar garbage, who turns in a reasonable performance. Nouri seems disdainful of the material as he delivers it and maybe it endears him to the viewer. It’s like he’s the viewer’s friend, acknowledging the viewer–just like he is–is wasting time on this movie. Precious time never to be recouped… except for Nouri, of course, since he at least got paid for it.