They say the best dramatic performances are often delivered by actors known for their work in comedy. The conjecture goes, underneath humor lies darkness and anger, that the precious ability to elicit laughter belies a potent understanding of the human dramatic condition.
Case in point: Sally Struthers became a household name by playing Gloria Stivic on the long-running classic sitcom All In the Family. People tend to forget her fine acting chops in other arenas. For early on, she was terrific in 1970's Five Easy Pieces and The Getaway (1973).
A Gun In the House was produced by Stockard Channing and her then-husband David Debin's production company for television. Channing was to have starred originally but was replaced with Struthers by the time filming began. It aired on February 11, 1981.
An affluent neighborhood has been plagued by violence. Lena Webber (Millie Perkins) is the victim of a rape at the hands of two men wearing Halloween masks. Henry (Frank Koppala) is reluctant to rape the woman but his partner Matt (Joel Bailey) is insistent - and the younger thug participates in the violation. When they're done and have left, Lena decides she cannot go through with calling the police.
Emily Cates (Struthers) is a real estate agent with a young daughter Diana (Missy Francis) and a pilot husband named Joe (David Ackroyd), who spends 3-4 days at a time away from home.
Unnerved by the increase in crime, Emily attends a neighborhood security meeting with her friend Marcie (Belita Moreno) and hears a lecture from a local police officer. There's the usual advice: locks on the doors and windows, outside lighting, alarm systems, a dog, neighbors should get to know each other, etc.
The subject of guns comes up and some of the local residents are hesitant. The officer tells them there has to be a "clear and present danger of death or great bodily injury to justify taking a life."
Emily puts a chain lock on the front door but it doesn't seem adequate. Guns scare her so she gets a dog...a little puppy. She has no idea that the two local thugs have been casing her house and are well aware of Joe's work schedule.
She soon realizes that she could be the next target when her daughter sees the men outside a window one night and screams. Emily and Marcie take a gun course and soon learn how to shoot. Unbeknownst to Matt, Henry tries to warn Emily by telling her, "Go away someplace, please!" It does no good. Emily can't figure out what this cryptic warning means.
When Joe is out of town, a masked Matt and Henry strike. They've had an extra key made, which gives them easy access to the home. Emily is forced to crawl on the floor, beg for mercy and is kicked and humiliated by having Brandy poured on her head...after which she is made to wipe the floor with her body.
She manages to make a run for it, grabs her gun and keeps Henry and Matt at arm's length. The two assailants make a dash for the kitchen and have an argument that culminates with Matt shoving Henry. When Henry falls through the door into view, Emily shoots him several times in the back. Matt escapes.
The nightmare is not over. Despite the fact that Detective Campbell (Dick Anthony Williams) believes Emily's story, an overzealous district attorney has her arrested for murder. The charge is that she killed her "young lover" who may have threatened to leave her or reveal the romance to her husband. After all, she wasn't raped and there was no evidence of a struggle - or even a break-in. And Henry's mask was nowhere to be found.
While out on bail and with Joe's assitance, Emily finds out that Lena was a victim as well. But the woman has put her ordeal behind her and will not help out.
Emily realizes that the second assailant (still on the loose) is connected to the airline industry. It turns out that Matt is the son of Joe's co-worker, who is in charge of the rotation roster for pilots. This is the reason Matt knew when Joe was to be out of town.
Matt finds out that Emily is getting warmer and makes a return visit while Joe is away. No longer armed because of her arrest, Emily beats him with a bat and then manages to take his gun from him. She is reluctant to fire it and they scuffle. But Emily ultimately gets the upper hand because of Matt's injuries and she pounds him with her fists until the police arrive.
Sally Struthers is extraordinary in a part that takes her on a journey from non-violence to self-defense and empowerment. It's the kind of acting that should win awards - but too often does not.
A Gun In the House is by no means a revenge-flick or about a vigilante. The bad guy, after all, returns to the scene of his crime and gets his comeuppance. Instead, it is a plea for victims' rights. And a powerful argument for why we should protect our homes, our possessions, the people we love and our right to live safely. By all means necessary...