The Day of the Wolves (1971)

Rating: B-

Dir: Ferde Grofé Jr.
Star: Richard Egan, Jan Murray, Martha Hyer, Rick Jason

While researching Bridge Across Time, I discovered it had definitely not been the first movie made in Lake Havasu City This beat it to the punch by well over a decade. It pre-dates the completion of the reconstructed London Bridge, and at the time, the city was only a few years from its establishment in 1963. At the census taken in 1970, the population was a mere 4,111. The McCuloch Corporation, which had founded the city, was keen to attract business and promotion for the new settlement, including film production, and Grofé took advantage to set his film in and around Lake Havasu City. Local actors were also cast in supporting roles, such as the Chief of Police’s son.

It’s the story of a robbery – not of one bank or business, but the entire town of Wellerton. This is planned by the mysterious #1 (Murray), who brings six other criminals to a desert location. They all wear beards to disguise their identity, refer to each other only by numbers, and train on a mock-up of Wellerton. The plan is to isolate the town, knocking out communications and access, then clean it out. Meanwhile, the town has just fired their police chief, Pete Anderson (Egan), after he hassles the son of a councilman, and he prepares to leave town with his family. When the “wolves” attack, the remaining three (3) policemen are quickly taken out of the picture, leaving Anderson as Wellerton’s only hope of finding off the raiders.

Some sources say this was a TV movie, but I’ve not been able to find any confirmation of it ever being broadcast as such. Even Wikipedia admits, “It’s unlikely the ending of Day of the Wolves would have been sanctioned for a TV production by one of the major networks,” due to it depicting that crime actually could pay – at least for some of the participants. Even now, it comes off as morally ambivalent. While it is clear that Anderson is the hero, I’m not sure he gets more screen-time than #1, who is depicted as extremely smart (to the extent you wonder why he hasn’t turned his intellect to bigger, more profitable targets than a tiny locale like Wellerton).

Despite budgetary limitations which are occasionally glaringly obvious, this is a well-assembled and taut little thriller. It pulls the viewer in from the start, because it’s quickly clear this is no ordinary heist, and once things kick off, there’s precious little downtime thereafter. It would have been nice to have had better characterisation among the robbers; despite the similarities, this is not Reservoir Dogs. Only #4 (Jason) comes over as much more than a hirsute henchman, a pawn being operated by their leader. The ending is clearly intended to be “open”, but it may be so much so that the logic fell out. However, this did a very good job of holding my attention overall, as well as offering a time-capsule view of Lake Havasu City, dating back more than fifty years.