Electric Dreams: Sam Irvin Talks Guilty As Charged (1991)

Dave gets on the blower to the always delightful Sam Irvin for the scoop on his deliriously droll debut.

“I was just on such a high. I don’t know where I found the confidence, but I did. I think it was partly because Larry was putting so much faith in me, so I didn’t want to let him down – especially on a film with Rod Steiger in the lead role.”

The film business was always going to remain central to Sam Irvin, no matter which direction he headed. And in the wake of a life-changing apprenticeship as a production assistant on Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill (1980), his Hitchockian short Double Negative (1985) attracted a deserved degree of festival buzz. However, it was his long-standing connection to industry player Larry Estes that led to his feature-length debut falling into place.

“I met Larry when I was at the University of Carolina,” explains Irvin. “I was head of the film committee, and we ran a retro movie theatre on campus. Back in those days it was 16mm and there were companies like Films Incorporated that were in the game of simply licensing the movies as they had deals with a lot of the major studios. They had a branch office in Atlanta, Georgia which was just a few hours’ drive from the campus, and the guy who I dealt with there was called Larry Estes who booked all the films. I ended up working out a year-round deal with him to get some good rates as we were ordering so many films from him and we were his biggest clients. We became great friends as he was a huge film buff, and we liked so many of the same movies. One of our favourite films was Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), and he made it a personal mission to get the rights to the European ‘Dance of the Vampires’ version, which was longer. In fact, we gave this cut its American debut at the UoSC in 1975.

“Flash forward to the late ’80s and early ’90s, and Larry was based in Los Angeles and he was head of Columbia TriStar Home Video. Larry really was a legend. He would read scripts and greenlight them, which led to him being named in Premiere Magazine’s top one-hundred powerful people in Hollywood list for years. He was a real mover and shaker. Now, because I had remained in touch with him and kept him updated with the work I did alongside De Palma, I got a call from him and Paul Colichman who ran a company called IRS Media, and they asked me to come out to L.A. to potentially direct Guilty as Charged. Larry had shown Paul my short film and had told him that if he fancied a dark, comedic thriller then Sam is your guy!”

An outrageously enjoyable combination of comedy and crime and convivial caper, GUILTY AS CHARGED (1991) is certainly a perfect fit for Irvin and his brand of clever humour. Written by Charles Gale, the plot concerns Ben Kallin (Rod Steiger): the successful owner of a meat processing plant who, beneath his jovial façade, is really a cut-throat vigilante who’s constructed his own version of death row in the bowels of his factory, replete with a homemade electric chair. Parole officer Kimberley (Heather Graham) is the first person to notice the glut of missing ex-cons caused by Kallin’s crusade – and as she probes further, she uncovers a wider conspiracy that may well justify this one-man lynch mob…

“It was absolutely everything that I dreamed of,” gushes Irvin. “I used all the little things that I had learned from Brian De Palma. I studied Hitchcock in film school, and it’s ALL about the groundwork so you just go through the motions when the shoot comes about, and that’s exactly what I did. I planned every shot, and we built all the sets – which was great. I just had it made to order. It was so freeing and fantastic. I don’t always get that luxury. This was a dream come true and I was able to go wild with my influences. German expressionism and James Whale – I loaded it up with all those influences that would put a smile on my face.  I was given unbelievable free reign to do whatever I wanted to do. We were constantly coming up with fun ideas. We needed a car for him, so we’d be like “Hmm, what can we get. How about an Electra?” [laughs]. “What street would they be on? Franklin and Edison? Let’s create a sign!” [laughs]. EVERY opportunity that came up, we’d highlight the electricity aspect, but it was just a friggin’ blast.”

Irrespective of his preparation and professionalism, Irvin was still anxious about how a Hollywood heavyweight like Steiger would react to a first-time director. The grizzled Oscar winner had been on a lengthy run of B-pictures for a chunk of the ‘80s – despite this, he showed nothing but respect to the novice helmer.

“I was terrified on the first day!” confesses Irvin. “But as soon as Rod saw I was prepared, he relaxed a little, and he’d just say, “OK, kid, what have you got for me today?” He was helping build my confidence up, and it was just a dream way to do a debut feature film. Did you spot the in-joke too? We required several actors to get electrocuted, so we thought “Can we get Mitch Pileggi from Shocker (1989)?! Let’s see if he’d agree to come and get fried again!” – and he did!”

A dizzying mix of Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982) and Bill Lustig’s Vigilante (1982), Irvin’s film is an absolute hoot thanks in no small part to the vigour and vitality of the distractingly hirsute Steiger, who injects his character of Kallin with just the right amount of camp. True, it probably won’t make you roll on the floor with laughter, and nor will it pin you to the edge of your seat with tension, but there’s a lot to be gained by just marvelling at this charming romp’s endearing sense of theatricality.

And sometimes, that’s all you need.

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