Mongo’s Back in Town was adapted from a novel by E. Richard Johnson, a convicted murderer and armed robber who spent most of his life in Minnesota State Prison. He won the 1968 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut novel Silver Street, and Mongo was his equally well-received follow up. He wrote seven books in four years of imprisonment before escaping, succumbing to drug addiction, and getting recaptured. The terse teleplay by Herman Miller (Coogan’s Bluff) feels very faithful to Johnson’s book in its bleak and withholding nature. The basic story is straightforward but willfully opaque in its details. Mongo is called home by his estranged brother Mike (Charles Cioffi) to knock off one of his rivals. The reasons are murky, cloaked in brief, diversionary bits of dialogue. The film reveals its intentions with its opening sequence, six minutes of wordless action that introduces the characters.
Joe Don Baker arrives in town with nothing, not even an overcoat to protect him from the sheets of rain. He smashes the cheap knick knacks being sold by a blind peddler. The camera then follows the peddler, who enters a rundown strip club. As the floor is scrubbed by a little person in the extreme foreground, the peddler whispers a message to Mike that we cannot hear. Mike then climbs the staircase into his upstairs apartment. Upon opening the door to his bedroom, a deck of cards set up like dominos tumble down in a line to his wife Angel’s (Anne Francis) feet. It’s a willfully strange sequence, one portraying the city as a network of criminality laid down at the feet of Angel. Whether this sequence was orchestrated by director Marvin J. Chomsky, DP Archie R. Dalzell or producer Bob Banner, it’s an effectively disorienting way to set up the knotty plot to come.
The countervailing forces are the investigating detectives, played with exhausted Kojakery by Telly Savalas and a callow Martin Sheen (sporting the same pompadour as in Badlands (’73). Lieutenant Tolstad (Savalas) is burnt out from working this scummy precinct, represented in exteriors of dive bars, peep shows and strip clubs. He seems as nihilistic as Mongo, who flicks lit matches at his brother and picks up runaway coal miner’s daughter Vikki (Sally Field) at a diner, only to cruelly play with her emotions. In the triangulated climax, Vikki is torn between these two used up men, her face tensed up, staring at the phone booth that could call Tolstad, and at the club doors that Mongo is about to bust out of. In the end, like all of the characters in this strange, bitter little film, she chooses apathy. Fate decides for her, as it did for E. Richard Johnson.