Narcotics Noir: Hard Evidence (1995)

Dave dissects one of the peaks of ’90s neo-noir, penned by direct-to-video screenwriting royalty.

“It’s my favorite of all of my stuff that was put on screen and also the most successful of all of my movies – it out rented the Julia Roberts movie Something To Talk About (1995) in the USA. It was the #7 rental on the charts and Julia’s movie was #8. I was going to run an advert in Variety saying ‘I Beat Julia Roberts’ – but it might have been taken the wrong way.

Screenwriter William C. Martell is renowned for his not-so-subtle put-downs of how various directors have mangled his scripts, but HARD EVIDENCE is the rare exception where what we watch is exactly what he wrote. “He [director Michael Kennedy] did his job. I did mine,” Martell told Screenwriter’s Utopia back in 2004, even recounting how the action sequences were shot beat for beat. “The underground garage scene for example, it runs four and a half pages in the script, and four minutes and forty seconds in the film. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

Bear in mind, this was without either writer or director ever meeting, with Martell’s script Fed-Ex’d northwards over the border for Kennedy to shoot on behalf of a Canadian production company for media behemoth Saban Entertainment. A faithful adaptation it may have been, but Martell still regards aspects of it as a missed opportunity:

“I wish it had a better director,” sighs the DTV legend. “The problem with so many of these films is that they are just ‘jobs’ to the directors who have to get it shot in three weeks so that they can move on to the next one. So it’s all about making sausages. In this case we had a Canadian director who shot it blandly and much of the suspense was never realized”.

Nevertheless, Martell’s neo-noir script rarely loses its punch as we meet Trent Turner (Gregory Harrison) – a man who has everything. The perfect house, the perfect wife and the perfect business. But, as noirs rarely dwell on success and contentment, Turner is soon standing over the body of a DEA agent that he’s just gunned down, having recently discovered that his mistress (Cali Timmins) is a drug runner. Worse, he’s about to be blackmailed by her boss (Colin Cunningham)…

That script was inspired by a movie called Pitfall (1948),” recalls Martell. “The one with Dick Powell as a married man who has an affair with a woman whose boyfriend gets out of prison and starts blackmailing him. I liked the idea of a suburban guy having to deal with violent criminals, and not being able to go to his best friend (his wife) for help. The other influence in that one was Paul Schrader’s script for the Brian DePalma directed Obsession (1976) – the trusted business partner who ends up behind the scheme. I put those films and some novels I read and other movies I saw into the mental blender and Hard Evidence came out.” 

Taut, tense and terrifically written, Hard Evidence is the perfect gateway into the work of one of the most lauded scripters of the ‘90s DTV era. Despite Martell’s protestations, Michael Kennedy does a fine job of adapting the screenplay while retaining the flavour of the ’40s noirs that Martell clearly holds so dear. Harrison is fine as the lead, and Timmins is great as the lace-clad seductress with a secret to hide. It’s Severance who predictably catches the eye though, relishing the steely disapproval towards her philandering husband.

“I loved Greg Harrison in the lead,” enthuses the scripter. “He is the perfect TV movie suburban husband. And the ‘Texas Tornado’ Joan Severance as the wife was also great casting.”

Martell reserves special praise, however, for newcomer Cunningham in the meaty role of Dietrich.

“He stole the movie! He completely understood the character and ran with it farther than I wrote it. When he is tapping Harrison on the face with his gun and joking around, it is scary as fuck. I wrote the character to be unpredictably violent – joking one moment and shooting someone the next – and he nailed it.” 

In terms of its success on the video rental store shelves of America, Martell concludes that it was simply the result of a perfect storm of circumstances:

“It got great reviews in the two Video Store trade magazines, and Ma & Pa video stores ordered extra copies and then recommended it. That’s what jumped it into the top ten videos. Then, Blockbuster saw how well it did and ordered extra copies for all of their stores – the Blockbuster down the street from me had it on their recommended wall – and it had a second wave of rentals a month later.  That was a time when there were enough Ma & Pa video stores to turn some unknown but well reviewed VHS tape into a national hit!” 

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