In the days long before premium outlets like HBO turned out acclaimed original series and feature-length films with top of the line talent, the major television networks produced well-made, provocative films; these television films sometimes lured artists from the ranks of feature film-making and often gave opportunity to up and coming actors. The 1979 Frank Perry drama Dummy is an example of just such a television film. It's a thoughtful, well-acted, engaging, and emotionally powerful piece. I believe Dummy's release from the Warner Archive is the film's first appearance on home media and it's really a wonderful thing to have such a fine representation of Perry's work brought out from deep storage.
Up until Dummy, Perry's career had largely played out on big screens; while he was very prolific from the late '60s until the mid-'70s, Dummy came after a four-year absence from film and television. Perry's oeuvre of offbeat, singular films did not set box office records then and remain largely underrated now. This is probably how he came to find himself back in the world of television (earlier, he and his former wife Eleanor adapted several Truman Capote stories for television). Perry followed up Dummy with the Karl Malden pilot film Skag, before he moved into the second, far less successful feature film-making phase of his career (that said, 1980's Mommie Dearest would become a camp classic and box office hit).
|Shaft scribe Ernest Tidyman's 1974 novel was the basis for the screenplay, also written by Tidyman.|
Dummy is based on the groundbreaking case of deaf-mute Chicago man Donald Lang (LeVar Burton) who was accused of killing at least two prostitutes in the early 1970s. Lang not only cannot hear or speak, but he is also unable to read, write, or communicate in sign language. As an African-American child from a poor family in inner city Chicago, Lang was failed by the city's social services and education system, which did not provide him with adequate training or education, leading to his extremely impaired existence as an adult. It is up to his dedicated deaf attorney Lowell Myers (Paul Sorvino) to ensure that the court system doesn't bury Lang's case and keep the young man locked up in a mental hospital indefinitely. LeVar Burton became a star playing Kunta Kinte in the 1977 television phenomenon Roots and he capitalized on that fame with leading roles in a succession of made-for-television films including Dummy.
Burton's performance here is another in a line of "great silents"--that is, non-speaking roles in non-silent films. Burton is an immensely likable personality and this likeability, combined with the actor's gift of communicating all manner of emotions through his face and body, makes for a very sympathetic character. It may be that the filmmakers sometimes work a bit too hard to make Lang sympathetic at the expense of some of the real facts of the case--recounted in considerable detail in this interesting article from a Chicago cop's p.o.v.--which are either omitted or only referenced in the epilogue (Lang would later be implicated in more than one murder of a prostitute, though never found guilty), which to the film's credit is suitably disturbing and somewhat of a downer. Expanding on this, there are some moments in key scenes that suggest ambiguity, casting some doubt on Lang's innocence and overall goodness. The production must also be praised for working in some plot elements that were a bit adult and risque for network television at that time. Perry's film takes to the grittier, more depressed areas of inner city Chicago, so it's apt that his production designer was Bill Cassidy who was coming off of Rocky, which took place in similarly rough parts of Philadelphia. Cinematographer Gayne Rescher mixed features like A Face in the Crowd, Rachel, Rachel, A New Leaf, and Star Trek II with numerous television films, many of which utilized practical urban locations such as those found in Dummy.
As good as Burton is, it's Paul Sorvino who really blows me away in Dummy. I don't recall ever hearing an actor so perfectly mimic the speech patterns of a deaf person. I've seen Sorvino in numerous supporting roles, often in tough cop or gangster guises, but what a treat it is to see him in a leading role, in this case, a tireless force for justice who happens to be deaf. In contrast to the pervasive Sorvino screen persona, Lowell Myers is not physically imposing or tough in a traditional sense, as I mentioned before, but he is smarter and more compassionate and, ultimately, tougher, than those around him, including his opponents in the courtroom. He is never less than convincing as a person with a serious physical impairment and it's particularly wrenching when he reveals that he is losing his ability to speak clearly and, therefore, effectively be able to perform his duties as a lawyer. For me the most fascinating aspects of this film, are not so much related to the criminal case per se, but the details related to the day-to-day aspects of being deaf and the distinctions made between those born deaf and those that lost hearing at a later point in life. I also really like the relationship between Sorvino and Rose Gregorio, as the attorney's non-impaired sister who assists him in his casework.
As for those aforementioned up-and-coming actors, look for really good turns from Brian Dennehy as Donald's kind-hearted boss at the produce market and Gregg Henry as the priggish assistant DA; as much as that sounds like one-note role, Henry brings the same sort of humor, self-satisfaction, and smarminess to this role that he would several years later in De Palma's Body Double.
Check out this preview scene, one of the best in the film, which is a great showcase for both lead actors and also serves as an especially effective teaser for the some of the pleasures of Dummy described above: