Movie review: ‘Murph the Surf’

mtsJack “Murph the Surf” Murphy was a Miami beach bum-turned-jewel thief who gained an international reputation before being convicted of murder. Despite being a glorified made-for-TV movie, “Murph the Surf” from 1975 is actually a decent little film – if you can get away from its ’70s TV-like production – and, besides, it stars that wonderful TV icon Robert Conrad of TV’s “The Wild Wild West” fame. This one is a bit tough to find (you can usually find it in the bargain DVD bin at a big-box discounter on a double-DVD set with another Conrad film).

‘Murph the Surf’
(1975; 101 minutes; rated PG; directed by Marvin J. Chomsky and starring Robert Conrad, Don Stroud and Donna Mills)

BASED ON A TRUE STORY … FOR THE MOST PART

(NOTE: This review was expanded on Sept. 2, 2014, and I then expanded it again, updated some links and corrected a few typos on Feb. 13, 2016.)

Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy was a south Florida bad-boy legend in the 1960s, going from jewel thief to murderer. His story as a high-profile thief is brought to the screen in “Murph the Surf” from 1975. It has also been released under the title of “Live a Little Steal a Lot.” Bringing him to the screen with this effort doesn’t do the whole story justice and only its broad brush strokes of history are accurate, but it’s a good try and it’s always easy to enjoy a performance by Robert Conrad, who, of course, is the original “Jim West” from TV.

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The basis of the story is Murphy’s theft along with Allan Kuhn (the real-life screenwriter of the story and who claims to be the genius behind the star power of the real “Murph the Surf”). The two pull off the biggest gem caper of their day: the theft of the Star of India sapphire and several other international-class stones (including the de Long Ruby) in New York City in 1964. The caper was called the biggest jewel heist ever and put them into the crosshairs of law enforcement.

The film opens as, according to the real-life Kuhn’s telling of the story through the screenplay, as Don Stroud as “Jack ‘Murph the Surf’ Murphy” is hanging around with Robert Conrad as “Allan Kuhn,” unaware that Conrad is the biggest jewel thief in South Florida. He finds out, but it’s his over-the-top personality that takes over and brings a spotlight unwanted by Conrad but desired and then needed by Stroud. In the end you know that they’re going to get caught, but there are some nice plot twists and turns (OK, maybe one or two) that actually work.

With its TV movie-like production, “Murph the Surf” comes up really short in just about every way from a cinematography point-of-view. Even the storyline can be cheesy – for example, in one caper where they rip off an entire hotel in the Bahamas, there’s a scene where Conrad cuts a master key to the place … by hand. Also, the story’s facts have been streamlined (four people including Murphy and Kuhn were involved in the real heist, just to name one), so like other “based on true story” films, it’s not a documentary and not a complete historical account.

It’s funny, but Stroud was also in another movie biopic that wasn’t historically accurate: “The Buddy Holly Story” from 1978. However, while “Murph the Surf” changed a few things and glossed over others, “The Buddy Holly Story” is more flat-out inaccurate than it is accurate.

While the verisimilitude in “Murph the Surf” is lacking, it does have great eye candy backgrounds, especially with the 1970s locales in the Miami area. I grew up there and recall just about every locale that was shown from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area – having been to just about everyone in the year it was filmed.

Now, on to members of the principal cast (and you’ll find an outline of the real history of Jack Murphy at the end of the review):

  • Of course the main player in “Murph the Surf” is Conrad, and here he’s affable, fun and non-threatening … but also tough, competent and efficient as are the characters in the majority of his roles. As Kuhn, he fits the bill well and is quite watchable. Conrad crafted an historic career of, well, cheesy, B-movie and TV roles (actually not a putdown, since they’re all so watchable like the hitman he plays in an episode of “Mission Impossible”). Conrad’s signature role remains “The Wild Wild West” on TV as he played title character “James ‘Jim’ West.”
  • As for Stroud, he went on to a very prolific career, including as I already mentioned, becoming a bandmate to Gary Busey in “The Buddy Holly Story” and did most of his work in TV with roles in such as “CHiPs” and “Charlie’s Angels” as well as just about every other popular TV program in the 1970s and 1980s. Stroud most recently was in 2012’s “Django Unchained,” but you’ll have to look closely to recognize him.
  • Burt Young, a career character actor, offers a nice turn in “Murph the Surf,” as he plays doggedly determined detective “Sgt. Bernasconi.” He’s pretty much Burt Young here as you’ve seen him in “The Killer Elite” (click here for my review) or even in HBO’s spectacular series “The Sopranos.” Young was nominated for an Oscar for his work in “Rocky.” He was also in two other critically acclaimed films: “Cinderella Liberty” with James Caan and “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson.
  • Donna Mills plays Stroud’s girlfriend “Ginny Eaton.” It’s pretty much a wooden effort from Mills here, but she really doesn’t have much to work with. Her character is a stereotype and she delivers her lines as if she’s auditioning for a high school play. Mills is best remembered from TV’s “Knot’s Landing” and was Clint Eastwood’s girlfriend when a psycho went after him in “Play Misty for Me.”

It would take more digging than I’m prepared to do for this blog to find out the box office and budget numbers for “Murph the Surf.” However, it was far down the list from the top two films: No. 1 was “Jaws” with a staggering $260 million, which was more than twice made by the No. 2 film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with $112.8 million, according to the Wiki year in film for 1975. Another film from 1975 that I’ve reviewed is Robert Redford’s brilliant turn in the outstanding “Three Days of the Condor” (click here for my review),

Some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Morgan Paull plays “Arnie Holcomb,” who is a federal agent previously friendly with Stroud. He brings his boyish enthusiasm to the role, but it is small and doesn’t make that much of a mark. Paull was also in “Blade Runner” and played one of George C. Scott’s aides in “Patton.”
  • Lindsay Crosby plays “S.A. Thomas” and has the interesting background of being the son of Bing Crosby and Dixie Lee. Crosby, who was also in “The Mechanic” with Charles Bronson (click here for my review), died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 51 in 1989.
  • Conrad’s daughter has a small part in the film. Nancy Conrad plays “Edna.”
  • IMDb.com’s entry for this film is so sparse it doesn’t list any trivia.

NOW, SOME REALITY NOTES:

According to his Wiki biography, Jack Roland Murphy in real life found that the glory faded fast and while the movie posters called him and Kuhn “playboys,” the grimy, violent reality of Murphy’s life isn’t much of a lifestyle.

Three years after the Star of India caper, Murphy was implicated in the first-degree murder of a woman near Fort Lauderdale and was convicted in 1968 for the killing and the robbery of another woman.

Murphy, who found religion in the Florida state prison system, was paroled (he was originally set for parole in 2005 but was released in 1986 after serving less than 20 years for the killing) with the help and support of several people including former football superstar Roger Staubach. Murphy has been involved ever since in religious-based efforts mainly involved with reforming convicts.

Directly from Wiki: “As of August 2011, Murphy had been serving as a Vice-President of International Network of Prison Ministries, visiting prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities all over the world. Murphy wrote a book about his experience and testimony entitled Jewels for the Journey.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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