Black Christmas (1974): John Saxon as Lt. Fuller
John Saxon as Ken Fuller, intrepid police lieutenant
Toronto…or some small American college town near the Canadian border, Christmas 1973
Film: Black Christmas
(U.S. title: Silent Night, Evil Night)
Release Date: October 11, 1974
Director: Bob Clark
Wardrobe Credit: Debi Weldon
The second remake of Bob Clark’s cult holiday horror classic, Black Christmas, was released in theaters today, more than 45 years after the original starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon as police lieutenant Ken Fuller. Clark had changed the script’s original title, Stop Me, to Black Christmas to tap into the irony of such sinister events darkening an otherwise festive holiday. Christmas would prove to be a fruitful source of inspiration for Clark as he would go on to direct the now-classic (and considerably less violent) A Christmas Story (1983).
Black Christmas would become not only a trailblazer in the slasher genre but also an early installment in the burgeoning “holiday horror” subgenre that also included contemporaries like Home for the Holidays (1972) starring Sally Field and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1972) with Patrick O’Neal. Clark got his start with horror cinema in the early 1970s and, after the production of Deathdream, he moved his operations to Canada to take advantage of the substantial tax benefits. His subsequent movie, Black Christmas, hardly disguises its Toronto production with plenty of “oots” and “aboots” and names like Graham and Mrs. MacHenry, though Lieutenant Fuller muddies the issue of setting by keeping an American flag prominently placed on his desk.
The level-headed lieutenant was originally to be played by Edmond O’Brien, though the actor’s failing health due to Alzheimer’s Disease surprised the producers when he showed up on set. With little time to spare, compose Carl Zittrer called John Saxon—an actor 20 years O’Brien’s junior who had already read the script— to offer him in the role, giving Saxon two days to travel from New York City to Toronto to begin shooting.
Inspired by the urban legend of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” as well as an actual series of killings committed by “Vampire Rapist” Wayne Boden around Quebec’s Westmount neighborhood, Black Christmas focuses on a sorority house where, after a series of threatening phone calls, the inhabitants are stalked and murdered by a deranged intruder who takes sadistic delight in picking them off one by one. While few take the threat seriously until it’s too late, the girls have an ally in Ken Fuller, the police lieutenant who balances an easygoing personality with a no-nonsense professionalism as he takes action to try to prevent additional murders.
Black Christmas stirred controversy when it was scheduled to make its televised debut (under the title Stranger in the House) in January 1978, only two weeks after Ted Bundy terrorized the Chi Omega house on FSU’s campus, murdering two women in their sleep in an incident eerily mirroring the events of Black Christmas. (As a compromise, NBC gave its affiliates in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia the option to air Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze instead.) While the film was hardly a critical or box office success when it was released, its reevaluation over the decades since has established it as a cult classic, ranked among Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
What’d He Wear?
While the wardrobe for Black Christmas was credited to Debi Weldon, who also appeared uncredited as one of the sorority sisters, the film’s small budget of around $620,000 meant many actors were encouraged to provide their own clothes for their characters to wear. I’m not sure if Saxon was among the cast members who provided his own clothing, though I liked his earthy ensemble of a large-checked sports coat with an understated shirt, tie, and trousers. Given that some of the elements of his wardrobe, particularly the shirt, overcoat, and hat, are suggestive of an older man, I suspect that Ms. Waldon or someone else from the costume department had originally selected Fuller’s wardrobe for an older actor like Edmond O’Brien to wear.
Patterned in a large-scaled brown-and-black basket-woven check, similar to a broken houndstooth pattern, with a black and green plaid overcheck, Lieutenant Fuller’s single-breasted sport jacket has notch lapels that roll to a two-button front. Due to how the shots are framed, it’s hard to discern other details other than the welted breast pocket and long double vents.
Under his jacket, Fuller wears his snubnose revolver holstered under his left armpit in a tan chamois leather shoulder rig with an adjustable white ribbed nylon strap. The holster suspends his piece in the manner similar to the “quickdraw” holster that Steve McQueen famously wore in Bullitt (1968), adapted from the rig worn by his real-life contemporary, the Zodiac-chasing inspector Dave Toschi of the San Francisco Police Department.
Fuller wisely balances the bold check of his jacket with a subdued shirt, tie, and trousers to avoid the potentially chaotic effect of too many conflicting patterns. His ecru poplin shirt has a spread collar of moderate width, though it looks considerably narrow when compared to the wide collars that were fashionable at the time, during the height of the disco era. The shirt has a plain (French) front and single-button rounded cuffs.
His charcoal tie is divided into uphill-direction stripes by narrow black stripes that have such a low contrast against the charcoal ground that the tie often looks solid at a distance and in certain light. Bronze box shapes are intermittently placed along the tie’s charcoal stripes, adding a touch of tonal coordination with his brown jacket and trousers.
Fuller wears dark brown straight-leg trousers with frogmouth front pockets, a popular full-top style of trouser pocket that was popular from the 1960s into the ’70s and were particularly flattering with the tight-hipped trousers of the era as they wouldn’t flare open like side pockets. In lieu of a belt, Fuller’s flat front trousers have buckle-tab side adjusters.
Fuller’s leather lace-up shoes are a lighter brown than the rest of his outfit. Based on the profile of his shoes seen as he approaches Peter Smythe’s piano, they appear to be derby-laced low shoes though any further detail is next to impossible due to the angles available on screen and the lack of production photos showing more of John Saxon’s costume.
One of my favorite parts of Fuller’s outfit is the dark brown wool bridge coat he wears when he’s out investigating the crimes. This large double-breasted coat originated as a part of military uniforms and was still popular, particularly among officers of European military forces, well into the 20th century. Fuller’s coat has a broad Ulster collar similar to a pea jacket, a full fit without notable waist suppression, and flat black plastic sew-through buttons in parallel columns that characterize the coat as a bridge coat rather than the similar greatcoat which has buttons placed in a keystone formation up to the top.
The traditional bridge coat and greatcoat have been generally eclipsed by shorter, more commute-friendly topcoats like car coats and walkers, though certain fashion houses have maintained this classic style such as Rubinacci with their authentic Italian Casentino wool Ulster coat (via The Rake) and the admittedly short but similarly styled custom coats offered by Hockerty. You can also take a more military approach with the wool greatcoats available from Kent & Curwen, though such a grand coat with its shoulder straps and maritime-inspired gilt buttons needs to be worn with the correct panache to prevent its wearer from looking like Dwight Schrute.
Fuller wears a black leather three-point gloves, named for the triple lines of stitching that taper toward the wrist on the dorsal side of each glove.
Of all of Lieutenant Fuller’s attire, the dark brown tweed trilby with its pinched crown and self-band seems the most out of place, suggesting that the costume was meant for the much older Edmond O’Brien rather than the younger John Saxon who was still under 40 at the time of the production and a decade beyond the decline of hat-wearing culture among fashionable gents in North America.
While many aspects of Fuller’s attire aren’t prominently seen on screen, his frequent phone calls give us plenty of time with his silver-toned wristwatch with its light silver round dial. The case and bracelet are likely stainless steel, with the latter resembling the five-piece link “Jubilee” bracelet that Rolex introduced on their Datejust model in 1945.
If Fuller’s watch is a Rolex, it was likely the owned property of John Saxon rather than a piece purchased for the production as there would be no reason to purchase a Rolex for the character, even if they were considerably less expensive in the early 1970s, even when accounting for inflation.
What’d Barb Wear?
You’re a real gold-plated whore, Mother, you know that?
I can’t let a discussion of Black Christmas go without a shoutout to the sublime Margot Kidder and her entertaining performance as the brash and boozy Barb, one of the sorority sisters targeted by the mysterious caller. The acerbic alcoholic spends most of her time drinking anything from pulls of Labatt’s 50 ale in the police station to G.H. Mumm champagne straight from the bottle. After Timothy Bond added the university setting at the behest of producers Richard Schouten and Harvey Sherman, Bob Clark added Barb’s constant drunkenness as comic relief, further attracting Kidder to the role “because she was wild and out of control” and eventually winning her a deserved Canadian Film Award for Best Performance by a Lead Actress.
In the opening Christmas party scene, Barb lounges from drink to drink in a barely buttoned blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, leaving the collar also unbuttoned to lay flat and wide over her shoulders and showcasing a black velvet neckband bedazzled with a shiny brooch reading “YES” from the center of her neck.
Barb’s look has tragically dodged iconic status, and I remain hopeful each year to see an attendee at a Halloween party (or, perhaps even more appropriately, a Christmas party) channeling Barb’s insouciant look with a cigarette in one hand and champagne coupe spilling from the other.
Outside of his shoulder holster, Lieutenant Fuller’s sidearm is seen only in silhouette, but the elongated ramp-style front sight and secured ejector rod suggest a relatively recent Smith & Wesson revolver chambered in .38 Special and with a 1 7/8″ or 2″ barrel. While the six-shot Smith & Wesson Model 10 “Military & Police” is a possibility, the more compact silhouette suggests the five-shot Smith & Wesson Model 36 “Chiefs Special”, built on Smith & Wesson’s smaller J-frame.
After Smith & Wesson resumed civilian production following World War II, they recognized the need for a concealable and durable police revolver to contend with the iconic Colt Detective Special snub-nosed revolver that could fire the powerful .38 Special ammunition that had become the standard for American law enforcement. Smith & Wesson’s existing compact I-frame was deemed unsuitable to handle the powerful load, so the manufacturer developed the J-frame for this new revolver, sacrificing one extra slot in the swing-out cylinder to allow it to reliably fire the substantial .38 Special.
The revolver was introduced at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in 1950, where the attendees gave it their blessing and voted to christen it “Chiefs Special” (not “Chief’s Special” or “Chiefs’ Special”, mind you.) Though the revolver received its new Model 36 designation when Smith & Wesson began numbering its models later in the decade, the Chiefs Special moniker stuck and remains to this day.
How to Get the Look
Bold checks were increasingly fashionable during the ’70s, and John Saxon shows how to wear a large-scaled check sport jacket with taste in 1974’s Black Christmas by keeping the rest of his outfit subdued and classic without surrendering to the excess-driven menswear trends of the decade.
- Brown-and-black basket-woven check (with black and green overcheck) single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, and long double vents
- Ecru poplin shirt with spread collar, plain front, and single-button rounded cuffs
- Black-on-charcoal uphill-striped tie with bronze box motif
- Dark brown flat front trousers with buckle-tab side adjusters, frogmouth front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown leather lace-up shoes
- Steel wristwatch with round silver dial on steel “Jubilee”-style bracelet
- Tan chamois leather “quickdraw” shoulder holster with white ribbed nylon suspension strap
- Dark brown wool double-breasted bridge coat with wide Ulster collar and set-in sleeves with two-button cuffs
- Dark brown tweed trilby with self-band
- Black leather three-point gloves
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Nash, I don’t think you could pick your nose without written instructions.
As long as you are handy with a needle, or have a good tailor, it’s not too difficult to transform a bridge coat or greatcoat into a more dress-appropriate garment. I have a very heavyweight (40 oz Melton) US Navy surplus bridge coat that I swapped all the buttons out for black horn and removed the shoulder straps. It’s dressy enough to wear with anything short of black tie and it’s heavy enough to stand up to anything Cleveland can throw at me in the winter. The Ulster collar provides better protection against the wind than the standard coat collar on my Crombie coat does as well.