Special Delivery
(a.k.a. Dangerous Break)

Director:Paul Wendkos                            
Bo Svenson, Cybil Shepherd, Michael Gwynne

I like being pleasantly surprised by a movie I rent. I didn't know too much about Special Delivery when I picked it up, except that I heard it was an action movie with some comedy elements. (In fact, I found this movie in the video store's comedy section.) I was surprised to find that Special Delivery, though having both action and comic elements, wasn't a movie that could be labeled as an actioner or a comedy. In fact, I would say it's more of a suspense drama, though this is a close call; it might also be considered a crime drama or a forerunner to the genre of movies made and inspired by Tarantino. It's difficult to exactly pinpoint what kind of movie this is, but all of these elements come together to make a very entertaining whole.

Certainly, it gets off to a more conventional start. In Los Angeles, four bank robbers disguised as toy manufacturers apply for a loan, manage to use their ploy to enable them to smuggle guns into the bank manager's office near closing time. Guns in hand, they proceed to start robbing the bank, locking up the staff and getting access into the cash hold in the basement. Exiting the bank, they start to make their escape, across the rooftops in downtown L.A. Of course, this isn't the first movie to start off with a bank robbery and escape. But this execution is pretty well done. It's swiftly done, yet at the same time it's quite believable; the things the bank robbers do to complete the robbery are both plausible in what's done and in the speed they do these things. Even their rope climbing and scrambling on the roofs has an air of realism to it.

Near the end of their escape to safety, something goes wrong for the gang, ending up with member Murdock (Svenson) getting away with both his life and his freedom. Still being pursued on foot by the cops, he pauses in his sprinting to jam his share of the haul into a mailbox, continuing his run until he has shaken the cops off his trail. Later, he returns to the area to retrieve the money from the mailbox, finding out he has to wait until midnight for the mailman to come and open the box(*). While waiting around the neighborhood, he encounters Mary Ann (Shepherd), and soon finds out from her that she saw him putting the money in the mailbox, and she wants a share. Reluctantly, he agrees to let her into his plans, but neither of them know that another person saw Murdock put the money in the mailbox -  and that person is making his own plans to get the money for himself.

The rest of the movie concerns these three characters primarily making their plans and waiting, but also finishing some personal details in their lives. For example, the mysterious third person is forced to somehow supply his dire drug habit while at the same time trying to get support to enable him to get the money before the mailman does. Murdock, who holes up in Mary Ann's apartment, takes the time to go elsewhere in the city to finish something personal. So does Mary Ann at one point. These scenes don't actually distract us from the characters' aim at getting the money - we know that they are trying to get through and finish their business as quickly as possible so that nothing can distract them later as they try to get the money. Also, their private business makes these characters multi-dimensional. As that junkie character meets some shady people to get what he needs, we learn more about him and his life. These scenes also bring in more people into the situation, complicating matters and bringing more challenges for all three characters. The movie does stumble a little with Svenson's character - the attempts to show him as a nice guy deep down, by doing stuff like holding the hand of a little girl who wants to cross the street, or beating up people hassling a begger, usually come across as a little silly. At least there are only a few brief scenes like this, so the movie doesn't suffer greatly in this area.

Otherwise, these interactions are nicely done. The movie is directed so that from the start of the bank robbery to the climax, there is a seamless feel. Though several hours go by, and we go from character to character, all these scenes are put together so that it seems like things are constantly going without stopping or skipping time. Going back to the script for an instant, I'd like to praise it for always having a healthy amount of mystery around what's happening. More specifically, you know what's happening as it happens, but you have no idea how everything is going to end. I really didn't know if any - or none - of these three people were going to get the money or not. That made the proceedings much more interesting than if they were going on in a formula story. Praise should go to the actors as well, who play an important part in whether we believe what these characters do or not. Svenson is fine, though Shepherd is the real star here. Shepherd's acting in the '70s has been criticized at times, but here she does a very good job. Her character may have thrown off many actresses, having to play a woman who has followed the rules for years, and has now decided to say "To hell with it," and break the rules. I can see it difficult for someone to portray a sudden change in character like this, but Shepherd does it. She has some very nice scenes in her character's apartment when she and Murdock find themselves together, deflecting easily everything Murdock says in an attempt to throw her off.

A few scenes don't work in Special Delivery. Murdock's Vietnam flashbacks are obviously filmed in California, and are edited in an inept fashion to make what's going on in them hard to follow. What's also very confusing to watch is the fight in the back of the porn theater, since it's both so dark and you don't know (then) why exactly the characters are fighting. Speaking of punch, that's what the climax lacks. It is a believable climax, one I could see happening in real life, but I think I would have liked it better if the filmmakers sacrificed some realism to make a climax more exciting. I won't say any more about the movie - just that even what you know of the movie from what's written above, you'll still get more than enough of a pleasant surprise if you rent it and take a look. Whatever you think you'll see in this movie, you won't.

* Do mailmen in Los Angeles really pick up mail after the sun has gone down? Did they even do so in 1976? Even where I live in Canada, the latest pickup time is 5:00 PM.

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See also: The Ambassador, Fast Money, Year Of The Comet