Few people of a certain age will fail to remember Telly Savalas’ lollipop-sucking Greek-American TV detective Theo Kojak, star of five seasons of homicide investigations for Universal Television in the 1970s and a repeats mainstay for many years afterwards. Kojak returned for two tele-movies in the mid-1980s, and with the first five seasons having been issued on DVD several years ago, Fabulous Films have finally given the two 1980s movies a shiny disc release now.
The first of these, The Belarus File was adapted from former Special Investigator John Loftus’ exposé revealing the US government’s practise of harbouring Nazi criminals and collaborators during the decades after WWII, specifically those who had originated in White Russia, and takes Kojak back to his televisual roots – Abby Mann’s pilot episode of the series had been an adaptation of a non-related, non-fiction work back in 1973.
Having dispensed with both the cavity-causing lollies and the slightly awkward catchphrases (albeit the most famous, “Who loves ya baby?” does make a fairly contrived appearance during the film), Kojak finds himself investigating the apparently unrelated brutal murders of a number of elderly Russian immigrants, parallel to helping a family friend out with her Russian immigrant father’s odd behaviour. While the former case takes him to the State Department and an initially reluctant co-investigator in Suzanne Pleshette, it’s the latter that – unsurprisingly to modern viewers – eventually leads him to the perpetrator, and a resolution that is as frustrating as any number of post-Watergate political scandal stories should have led him to expect.
Some of the humour and casual bigotry of 1970s Kojak has been dropped in favour of an approach that sticks just the right side of self-righteous, with even a soberly sanctimonious Savalas still a compelling enough screen presence to dominate proceedings, in spite of the likes of Max von Sydow – as the gentle but anxious friend, whose affable exterior conceals hitherto unexpressed troubles – in the cast. This is a grown-up variation on the Kojak theme, playing in the same arena as the likes of Defence of the Realm and The Manchurian Candidate, but remaining mostly understated and never overplaying its themes to the point of piousness.
The transfer is blurry and unrestored and the very 1980s soundtrack rather muddy, which together with a synch issue (we tried the review copy on a number of players which all revealed the same problem) give a not unenjoyable sensation of watching something evocatively historic. As a halfway house between the vaguely cartoonish Theo Kojak of memory and the gritty, relevant policiers of which it was a contemporary, The Belarus File is actually rather decent, being both compelling and human – if somewhat undernourished by today’s standards of complexity and characterisation.
KOJAK: THE BELARUS FILE / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ROBERT MARKOWITZ / SCREENPLAY: ALBERT RUBEN / STARRING: TELLY SAVALAS, SUZANNE PLESHETTE, MAX VON SYDOW, HERBERT BERGHOF, DAN FRAZER, GEORGE SAVALAS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW