A trio of small-time crooks (Cybill Shepherd, John Laughlin, J.E. Freeman) kidnap a little boy (Martin Gardner) and hold him for a $60,000 ransom in late-’50s Memphis. A couple of things make Memphis a bit different from other such kidnapping tales. For one thing, the crooks are white and the boy is black, and the boy’s father (Law & Order‘s Richard Brooks) quickly discovers that the town’s white police force won’t work very hard to find his son. The boy’s grandfather (Moses Gunn) then goes to local black mobsters and hires them to locate his grandson. The kidnappers never expected this sort of aggression, and it makes for some effective suspense.
But the other plot development in Memphis drags it down. The frightened little boy brings out maternal feelings in Shepherd; she wants to comfort and protect him. Shepherd’s character quickly loses her initially hard, shrewd demeanor and becomes morose and guilt-ridden. The way the movie is set up, you’re supposed to think that everything in this scheme would be just fine if one of the schemers wasn’t a softhearted woman. Memphis is based on a novel by Shelby Foote, September, September, with a script cowritten by Shepherd — the first screenwriting credit from this Memphis native — along with Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Susan Rhinehart; all this talent has resulted in little more than a tediously sentimental melodrama. C-