Melinda May 14, 2021
Hugh A. Robertson
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
n the vein of Play Misty for Me (1971) — a thriller that, simply put, sees protagonist Clint Eastwood’s life thrown all out of whack because of a one-night stand with a dangerous woman (Jessica Walter) — 1972’s grippingly plotted Melinda uses a short-lived romance to propel an unlikely story of suspense and intrigue. Calvin Lockhart stars in Melinda as Frankie J. Porter, a smooth Los Angeles disk jockey — a job also shared by Eastwood’s Play
Misty for Me character. Porter is something of a celebrity in his neighborhood. In the first act alone, he's asked to publicly speak at church and high-school events, and when he stops by a bar later in the day the manager makes a point to interrupt tonight's band to announce that Porter is among the guests this evening. A friend of Porter's who owns a karate school practically begs him to even fleetingly mention his academy on air to bring it out of its financial funk. Porter feels on top of the world (his self-assurance manifests in his perfectly coiffed hair, immaculately tailored suits, and enviable sports car), but is brought down to Earth when, early in the movie, he meets a woman named Melinda (Vonetta McGee).
Though receptive when Porter almost immediately asks her out, this new-to-L.A. Chicagoan doesn’t swoon over her suitor’s external flash. And when she tells him after spending the night with him that Porter, to her eye, has the makings of a “deep and heavy” man if he would stop fixating so much on his glamorously false exterior, it resonates with him. But just as soon as Porter seems ready to declare his love for her (it really does feel that serious that immediately — a testament to McGee’s allure), the unexpected interrupts. Hours after tacitly concluding to himself that he wants a serious relationship, Porter walks into his apartment and finds Melinda slashed to death in his bed.
This scary development has a real jolt; if you didn’t know anything about the movie beforehand it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think it would evolve into a tender romance where a lothario learns to be selfless — the taming of a playboy. Melinda, whose narrative wheels always energetically turn, keeps us on our toes. Has its title character’s untimely demise been brought on by something Porter has done, something from Melinda’s past, or sheer ugly coincidence? Porter, promptly named the case’s prime suspect by the police, is made to embody a reluctant sleuth. Additional tension saturates the plot when Porter’s ex-girlfriend (Rosalind Cash), who’s still reeling from their break-up, hesitantly agrees to assist him on his amateur investigation.
Though sometimes the action plays stagily, the writing tinnily, Melinda spins a genuinely absorbing mystery; it’s bolstered particularly by McGee’s performance. (She isn’t on screen long, but she performs inscrutability wonderfully — Melinda doesn’t feel like an underwritten character because McGee plays her just right as a tantalizing figure we want to know better.) Part of Melinda’s fun is realizing that screenwriter Lonne Elder III has planned something a lot headier than we might have initially anticipated. He keeps peeling back layers, but what they reveal doesn’t feel contrived. This less-varnished cousin to Alan J. Pakula’s disillusioned, conspiracy-minded thrillers of the same decade is worth seeking out. B