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Dig this: 'The Todd Killings' (1971)

"The Todd Killings"
"The Todd Killings"
National General Pictures

"The Todd Killings"

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Director Barry Shear spent the majority of his 30-year career in television, with only four feature films in his résumé. 1968's "Wild in the Streets," his first movie, was a broad yet subversive satire about a pop singer who gets elected President when the voting age is lowered to 14; "Across 110th Street," from 1972, is regarded as one of the best films of the Blaxploitation genre, while 1973's "The Deadly Trackers" is an under-appreciated, ultra-violent American spaghetti western revenge drama that fits right in with the director's bleak worldview. The other item in Shear's filmography is his darkest, the 1971 true crime tale "The Todd Killings" a/k/a "A Dangerous Friend" a/k/a "What Are We Going to Do Without Skippy?"

1971 One Sheet
1971 One Sheet
National General Pictures

Based on the real life case of mid-'60s murderer Charles Howard 'Smitty' Schmid, Jr., the so-called "Pied Piper of Tucson," who killed three teenage girls, the first for kicks, the other two to cover up the first one. Schmid enlisted the help of an adoring group of high school kids as his accessories after the fact.

"The Todd Killings" changes the names of the principals ("To protect the innocent...and in some cases, the guilty."), and updates the action to 1970. Robert F. Lyons plays Skipper Todd, a would be singer-songwriter who drives a groovy green dune buggy and specializes in statutory rape. The film opens in the desert, with Todd and two of his teenage accomplices burying the body of Sue Ellen, choked to death by Skipper because he "wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody."

The script, by Dennis Murphy and Joel Oliansky, stacks the deck pretty heavily against Skipper, who is, after all, a sociopathic sleazeball, and based on an equally unsympathetic guy. Unfortunately, Lyons, a 31 year old playing a 23 year old who sleeps with 16 year olds, ups the ick factor without demonstrating the charisma necessary to make his idolatry credible. It is one of the creepiest performances in the history of cinema, but still falls short of actually humanizing the character.

Lyons is still a working actor, primarily on TV. "The Todd Killings" remains his only lead role.

As the frigid rich girl Roberta, the lovely Belinda J. Montgomery (along with her real life little sister Tannis) is an unfortunate victim of Skippy's homicidal inclinations. The scene where Skippy climbs through Roberta's window and sexually assaults her, only to have her whisper, "I love you," is particularly appalling.

Richard Thomas, whose facial mole is reminiscent of Schmid's exaggerated "beauty mark" (a detail, like Smitty's stuffing his boots with newspaper and crushed beer cans to appear taller, that is omitted from this version of the story), plays Billy, the "born loser" befriended by Skipper who ultimately turns Judas.

The supporting cast is filled with great character actors like Edward Asner (as a local mafioso), Michael Conrad, and James Broderick, and middle-aged '50s sexpots Gloria Grahame and Fay Spain. A few years before playing matriarch Miss Ellie on "Dallas," Barbara Bel Geddes plays Skipper's overindulgent mother, who makes a living off old age pensioners and enables Skipper's sybaritic lifestyle.

The film ends with Skipper's defense lawyer blaming LSD for the murders, with an eye toward a reduced sentence. The real-life Schmid was sentenced to death, but later had his sentence commuted to life. In 1975, four years after the release of "The Todd Killings," he died in prison, after being stabbed 29 times by fellow inmates.

"The Todd Killings" was the first attempt to dramatize Schmid's dark tale, which has reverberated in later films like "River's Edge" and "The Lost." It stills packs a punch, and remains an unsettling, if at times skin-crawling, cinematic experience. It is available on DVD-R from Warner Archives.

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J.M. Dobies, Austin Classic Movies Examiner Facebook Page