Warning Shot is almost successful. For most of the film, director Kulik and screenwriter Mann Rubin craft an engaging mystery. Then the third act happens and they both employ cheap tricks and it knocks the film off course. It’s a rather short third act too–the film’s got a peculiar structure, probably to allow for all the cameos–and it just falls apart. What’s worse is the plot was already meandering (and promised more meandering) by that point.
David Janssen is a cop about to go to trial for killing an upstanding doctor. He’s got to prove himself innocent–or the doctor dirty–which means he visits various people. The first act–with Ed Begley as his boss, Keenan Wynn as his partner, Sam Wanamaker as the DA out to get him and Carroll O’Connor as the hispanic coroner–is completely different than the rest of the film. Kulik uses cockeyed angles, which Joseph F. Biroc shoots beautifully (though he doesn’t do as well with the hand-held look Kulik goes for in other early scenes). It makes all the exposition sail. The angles and the actors. The actors are very important.
There’s only one weak performance in Warning Shot–Joan Collins as Janssen’s estranged wife–all the rest are good or better. Even when it’s a single scene like Eleanor Parker or George Sanders. Parker’s better, she’s got a lot more to do than sit behind a desk and be a snot, which Sanders accomplishes admirably. George Grizzard is solid as Janssen’s newfound ally and Stefanie Powers is great as the dead doctor’s nurse. Lillian Gish has a small part as a witness and she’s a lot of fun. Begley, Wynn and especially Wanamaker are all strong. Carroll O’Connor as the–wait for it–Hispanic coroner is a little weird, but he’s not bad, just Carroll O’Connor playing a Mexican.
There’s a lot going on in the story for the first half of the film; the second half doesn’t have much material as far as the mystery, but it does have material for the supporting cast. They work at it and Janssen’s a phenomenally sturdy lead. He’s able to sell everything, from drinking buttermilk as a vice to fending off a seductive Collins. Bad performance or not, the latter seems unlikely.
I suppose the somewhat lengthy slide into troubled mystery waters is a bonus. It makes Warning Shot less disappointing. Even the finale, with its problems, should be better just because of location and Jerry Goldsmith’s competent score, but Kulik fumbles it. He also has some really bad blacking out sequences, one near the end, which might help to forecast the problem finish.
Still, some good acting, some great acting, a fine lead from Janssen; Warning Shot diverts for its entire runtime and intrigues for more than half of it.