Norm Swallow (Blackmail)

Created by Bill Crenshaw

“Now, knowing what I know about you two, I could turn you in. It’s my civic duty. But it ain’t that simple.”
— Norm decides to cut himself in

SLEAZE ALERT! Here’s a real low-budget pleasure, if your tastes run towards those old noirish B-films of yesteryear. In the densely-plotted 1991 straight-to-cable Blackmail, everyone’s out for themselves, and nobody’s to be trusted. The various schemes, counter-schemes, and counter-counter-schemes loop around and around, circling, circling, like vultures.

It’s enough to make you dizzy. Think of it as a low-rent, cheesier Blood Simple.

Even the tagline is a slice of cheese: “A private affair is about to get maximum exposure,” floating above a shot of a camera lens zooming in on a couple going at it in a window.

The action kicks off when Scott (Dale Midkiff,) and Charlene (Beth Tousaaint), a couple of wandering attractive young hustlers, set up a lonely, bored, well-off Californian housewife Lucinda Sullivan (Susan Blakely) for a little blackmail.

But this isn’t any ordinary frustrated suburban hausfrau–Suzy Homemaker’s hubby happens to be a big shot mobster.

And then in steps NORM SWALLOW, a shady Fort Worth private eye who’s been on the trail of Scott and Charlene since Texas, who decides to cut himself in on the action.

Norm’s a good ol’ boy, full of tall tales and wise sayin’s, and he ain’t too fussy about scruples. He’ll do what it takes, from posing as a lingerie salesman to using a l’il ol’ car bomb, to get what he wants. Singer-songwriter Mac Davis, oozing oily charm, plays Norm to greasy aw-shucks perfection in his best performance since North Dallas Forty (his role as another P.I. in the appalling Cheaper to Keep Her is best not mentioned).

Everyone is this thing seems to think they’ve got the goods on each other, and it’s a hoot watching them scramble around, trying to outfox and betray each other, all trying to make the big score. Like Norm says, “It ain’t that simple.”

The film was scripted by Miguel-Tijada Flores, expanded from a short story by Bill Crenshaw that originally appeared in the March 1990 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. But I don’t remember a P.I. in it. Looks like I’ll have to dig that one out and re-read it….

All I know for sure, is that I–unlike most of the rest of the planet–sorta liked this one.


  • “Soon, everybody is betraying everybody else, and Blackmail turns into a dumber version of The Grifters. Each character is assigned but a single expression: Midkiff broods, Davis leers, Toussaint sneers, Blakely stares. Saturday-morning cartoon shows have more emotional variety.”
    — Entertainment Weekly


“Passing for Love” (March 1990, AHMM; by Bill Crenshaw)


  • BLACKMAIL | Buy this video | Watch it now!
    (1991, USA Network)
    84 minutes
    Premiere: October 23, 1991
    Rating: “R”
    Based on the short story “Passing for Love” by Bill Crenshaw
    Teleplay by Miguel Tejada-Flores
    Directed by Ruben Preuss
    Filmed in Vancouver
    Produced by Ruben Preuss
    Supervising producer: Matthew O’Connor
    Associate producer: Benjamin A. Weissman
    Executive producer: Barry J. Weitz
    Starring Susan Blakely, Dale Midkiff, Beth Toussaint, John Saxon
    with Mac Davis as NORM SWALLOW
    Also starring Kevin McNulty, Gary Chalk, David Wasman, Kiara Hunter, Sherry Bie, Ken Kirzinger, Steve Adams, John Destrey, Steve Makaj, Pedro Salvín
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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