Difficult situations rife with tension, especially matters of life and death, can really change a person. How else could a self-centered daytime soul radio DJ become a righteous, sympathetic super-sleuth, if not for the transformative pressure cooker of his own impending doom? As the central protagonist of Hugh A. Robertson’s 1972 action-mystery-drama film, MELINDA, Calvin Lockhart takes the audience on a substantive journey of personal change that also provides us with a healthy sampling of 1970s Los Angeles nightlife, a wide range of options for exotic animal taxidermy decor, and the many benefits of membership in one’s local kung-fu community club.
Frankie J. Parker (Calvin Lockhart) is a young, black bachelor in the city of Los Angeles who has a lot of good things going: the local celebrity status associated with being the voice of a hot radio show (“…the mind tripper, the mighty dipper and the honey dripper!”), a hyperactive love life, close friends in high places, and the sort of charisma and good looks that can stop Frankie in his own tracks to remark, “… I am a pretty motherfucker.”
After a rousing morning martial arts class taught by his old college friend, Charles (Jim Kelly), along with his usual afternoon radio gig at KJLA, Frankie spends his evening hours on this day at a popular live music club owned by his friend, Tank (Rockne Tarkington), a former pro football player and local mover-and-shaker. Shortly after arriving to a lively scene, he fixes his gaze on a gorgeous woman (Vonetta McGee) sitting quietly in the corner by herself and smoking a cigarette. His usual playbook of self-aggrandizing and cheesy one-liners has little effect against her inscrutable wall of sass, which only emboldens Frankie further. Though uninvited, he sits down anyways. She won’t share her cigarettes, but she does reveal her name: Melinda. In a last-ditch move that feels as much a boast as it is a proposal, he invites her to an exclusive party aboard Tank’s yacht, and like magic, she obliges. Not even an awkward and combative run-in aboard the boat with his ex-flame, Terry (Rosalind Cash), can derail his determined courting of Melinda. Love, both old and new, dances in the air like smoke on the sea breeze.
What neither Frankie nor Melinda realize is that a stranger in a mysterious car is tailing them the entire night. This sets into motion a course of events both chaotic and combustible that forces Frankie to navigate a murky network of junkies, pushers, thieves, cops, and killers in search of an awful truth.
Featuring a predominantly African American cast supported by a predominantly African American production crew, MELINDA is a suspenseful and action-oriented crime thriller that occasionally struggles with the pacing of its story but still delivers solid twists during its 109-minute runtime. Director Hugh A. Robertson, who served as editor for 1969’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY as well as 1971’s SHAFT just the year prior, has good command of his story beats and frequently artful visual touches. If there’s a critique to be made, there’s a lot going on here! That Robertson only occasionally wavers in weaving this yarn is a testament to his focus and sense of craft. He juggles not only the arc of his main protagonist, but also the changes of supporting characters around him: one character goes from tough confidante to groveling subordinate, and a previously sidelined character grows into arguably the most important person in the whole film.
MELINDA goes to places both dark and quite strange, but almost nothing feels out of place. After a failed stick-up and against all logic, a hopeless junkie runs directly into the ocean. There’s union-busting, extended hygienic maintenance prior to a love scene, acrobatic kung-fu ambushes, and the most hazardous snake-filled glass gazebo in the history of Los Angeles. In the foyer of Tank’s sprawling mansion, there’s a full-size taxidermied polar bear holding a bottle of liquor and nobody even acknowledges it. A brief flashback scene intimates a not-so-distant past where Melinda may have been conned (or trafficked) into a life marked by ritualized group sex and forced drug use. The film’s action-packed climax comes more than an hour after a climax of another sort occurs in the hallway of an apartment building. All of this is to say that the film engages you on various fronts peppered throughout the offbeat screenplay from Lonne Elder III (who wrote the screenplay for SOUNDER and also plays a small part as one of MELINDA’s detectives). Through it all, Parker changes from a conceited jerk to an intense anti-hero trying to fight his way out of an impossible situation.
The film also serves as an interesting nexus between two of its most well-known stars. Jim Kelly was hired for MELINDA not just for his debut screen role but also to help with the martial arts fight choreography. As the story goes, Rockne Tarkington – who had a long and successful television acting career that included THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and DANGER ISLAND – was the original choice to play the role of the kung-fu-fighting tournament entrant, Williams, in 1973’s ENTER THE DRAGON but mysteriously dropped out before shooting began. Producers scrambled, Jim Kelly was re-cast in the part, and he made it one of the true highlights of the film. While both actors had continuing success in the film industry, MELINDA would be the only film in which their paths really crossed.
Unfortunately, Robertson would only direct this film and one other – 1974’s BIM – to completion and release. His 1987 voodoo horror film, OBEAH, produced in Trinidad and Tobago, was never completed due to insufficient funds during post-production. While we are left to lament what could have been if Robertson had a longer and more fruitful career as a film director, MELINDA is evidence of his talents behind the camera as a storyteller, and it’s a compelling watch for crime film enthusiasts and fans of blaxploitation films alike.