Pursuit (1972) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film


Ben Gazzara, E.G Marshall and Martin Sheen star in this ticking clock thriller by Michael Crichton in which the countdown is actually shown superimposed on-screen. This was a pretty nifty gimmick for a modest ABC TV Movie of the Week from 1972, a good thirty years before the espionage series 24 turned it into a cliché.

The following review is submitted for your approval as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. I also offer it as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here.

“We can’t just stand here and watch!”

When his books became bestsellers and were optioned for the movies, Michael Crichton parlayed his current popularity to make a sideways move into filmmaking. To begin with, like so many before him, he was assigned a modest thriller – in this case, one adapted from his own current ‘John Lange’ book, Binary (which I reviewed here last Friday). The rights were bought before the book came out in the Summer of ’72 (the copyright was only registered in July and the movie was screened in December of the same year) and by way of insurance the screenplay was not by Crichton but assigned to industry veteran Robert Dozier. In addition the neophyte director was given a cast of rock solid actors and a great composer in Jerry Goldsmith – so, what did he come up with?


Ben Gazzara heads the cast and sports large spectacles seemingly modeled on the ones Crichton wore at the time. He is perfectly decent in a fairly colourless part but not especially engaged either as the slightly unwilling game-playing hero – he is given a fairly two-dimensional role after all and so provides a performance to match. The script follows the original very, very closely (Dozier and Crichton presumably worked together pre-publication as there is even a character named ‘R. Dozier’ in the novel), even to the extent of retaining the all-male cast (which really seems weird for a film set in a contemporary urban environment that is not in the military or a monastery). This is something that might usefully have been changed but this sticks remarkably close to the original text – in fact most of the few changes are purely cosmetic, like having protagonist John Graves have his first name changed to to Steve. Otherwise the location (San Diego), timescale (twelve hours) and the cast of characters are all retained.


Graves is called in after some nerve gas is stolen and a secret government computer is hacked. The primary suspect is Wright, who hates the President, is very rich and a very right-wing extremist who is also highly influential – thus the government is predictably reluctant to accuse him without solid evidence. Graves arrives on the day of the Republican Convention when the President is due to give a speech (courtesy of some scratchy stock footage). He is somewhat grumpy about dealing with the military but compared with the book his working relationship with his superior Phelps (played by the ubiquitous and always utterly wonderful William Windom) is certainly a bit less fractious. He starts following Wright, tailing him all over town, leading him to Timothy Drew, played by Martin Sheen who here gets a nice little scene as one of Wright’s co-conspirators. In one of the few negative changes from the book, Graves’ questioning of Drew proves a bit less effective as here he doesn’t (albeit unknowingly) put the pressure on by threatening to keep him in San Diego overnight – in the book this leads to Graves’ discovery of when the bomb is due to go off as Drew is too scared to stick around – here the hacker just folds under questioning, and a bit too quickly frankly.


A highly competitive Alpha Male and a lover of puzzles, Graves soon realises that Wright knows he is tailing him and has turned the pursuit into a game, having accessed his antagonist’s personal psyche files. Graves’ psychiatric history is sensibly conveyed not through documents as in the book but in a lunch break interview with his shrink (played by Will Kuluva, who in the pilot to The Man from UNCLE played the boss before being replaced by Leo G. Carroll). Otherwise most of the dialogue is lifted pretty much intact from the book (minus, inevitably, the profanity). Wright (whose first name is now James, not John, in another small change) is played superbly by veteran scene-stealer and character actor supreme, E.G. Marshall, his maniacal glint and barely suppressed delight at besting Graves very well conveyed. The first half of the movie sees Graves pursuing Wright all over town trying to guess what plan is being hatched; in the second half, once the bomb has been found, it’s all about coming up with a plan to disarm it and trying to figure out what booby traps have been laid.


Crichton’s tricks out this standard madman with a bomb plot with occasional use of the then fashionable slow motion technique, but which adds very little. On the other hand the on-screen time clock counting down is quite effective as a gimmick, popping up at dramatic moments and for station breaks before remaining permanently on-screen for the final few minutes. This last section is stretched out to the maximum quite nicely, though a section in which a character is forced to go down about 19 flights of stairs to get a piece of equipment out of his car (a ‘sniffer’ that can detect explosive residue) and then climb back up again, when they could have radio’d downstairs to have it just sent up, is definitely one suspense sequence too far (you just feel sorry for Jim McMullan, as Graves’ second banana, who has to do all that redundant running).


If there are no major surprises then this modest thriller gets by on its cast of well-known actors (Joseph Wiseman is very good as the nerve toxin expert) and a propulsive score by the ever-dependable Jerry Goldsmith. Written in the minimalist style he was using for a lot of TV work at the time (it is a bit reminiscent of his music for Barnaby Jones and Police Story for instance), this was the first of 5 scores he would write for Crichton’s directorial outings over the decades, including Coma, The First Great Train Robbery, Runaway and The Thirteenth Warrior (in the case of the latter, Crichton re-shot after original director John McTiernan’s departure). It’s a small-scale, low-budget suspense yarn with a decent cast, an explosive climax and a few nice gimmicks along the way – more than passes the time.

DVD Availability: A rather drab-looking DVD of the film is available in the US that may even have been sourced from a 16mm print rather than the original 35mm elements. The result is a bit soft with lacklustre colours – the constant use of opticals to superimpose the ticking clock of course further reduces the resolution. It is perfectly acceptable but could have been much better. There are no extras but it is available easily and cheaply.

Director: Michael Crichton
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Screenplay: Robert Dozier
Cinematography: Robert L. Morrison
Art Direction: Robert Emmet Smith
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Martin Sheen, E.G. Marshall, Joseph Wiseman, William Windom, Will Kuluva, Jim McMullan

For those interested in find out more about Crichton’s life and work, they should visit his official homepage: www.michaelcrichton.net

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, John Lange, Michael Crichton, San Diego, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Pursuit (1972) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Perhaps it’s not a spectacular and memorable triumph, but it sounds like a decent film, and sometimes, well-known and skilled actors can do the trick. And I have to say I always like it when the original author is involved in the creation of a film based on her or his novel. It seems to lend a little more authenticity to the story. And that clock-on-the-screen is inventive.

    • That Margot – I saw the film some 30 odd years ago, long before I read the book, and it is very interesting to see something that is so close to the original and then consider why specific changes have been made – but yes, a terrific cast does help despite the fact that there are no female characters at all, which is just weird.

  2. TracyK says:

    There are some really good actors here, for that alone it would be worth watching. I am going to try getting it from Netflix. Very interesting post, Sergio.

  3. Colin says:

    That’s a great cast, as many old TV movies seemed to be blessed with. I wouldn’t mind trying this one out but I have to say I could see that on-screen clock getting on my nerves.

    • The cast is the main thing – I always think if the great Warning Shot, which was released theatrically but which I always think of as a TV-Movie, which just has this extraordinary cast of cameos from Lillian Gish to Joan Collins. Yeah, in Pursuit as a gimmick it probably seemed pretty amazing on TV at the time – it’s not too bad (used a lot like 24 at ad breaks predominantly and to heighten cliff-hangers) and only gets used in a sustained manner for the big climax.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers. It’s a pity too that these TVMs either don’t get a release at all, or if they do the prints used aren’t always of the best quality.

        • I know and there are so many fantastic TV-movies from the 70s I would love to get in decent editions! I must admit, Pursuit really is a bit dank and murky – it may have been from a 16mm source in fact …

      • John says:

        I saw WARNING SHOT several years ago for the first time. I was amazed at a movie that had both Joan Colins and Lilian Gish in the cast. It has David Janssen (one of your favorites, I recall) in the lead as well. An interesting and flawed movie saved by a great cast. Here’s the revi/ew I left on Netflix right after I saw it:

        “Sometimes I don’t really care about the plot of a movie and I just want to watch actors. This is one of those times. Who could pass this up – Lillian Gish and Joan Collins in the same movie! Talk about two extremes of the performance spectrum. This is very much like a TV movie even though it has some interesting cinematic touches. The entire opening (including the animated title sequence) promised so much. But once the inquest began it kind of started to become another 60s TV cop show and not a movie. Since when is a coroner’s inquest of exceeding interest to newspaper reporters? And when is an inquest conducted as if it were a criminal hearing? I had a little trouble with that part. The movie really is only worth watching for the cast and the excellent acting from all. Janssen had his heyday as a leading man and this is the kind of troubled/trapped guy he played so well albeit dully at times. He is surrounded by far more interesting actors who do indeed raise this up a few notches. Ed Begley (ALWAYS excellent), Keenan Wynn and George Grizzard lead the pack among the men. I liked Carroll O’Connor in his brief role doing a Latino coroner – complete with fairly legitimate accent. Hysterical knowing he would later became the world’s most lovable bigot on TV. Joan Collins in another one of her sexpot roles, a very young Stefanie Powers, and brash Eleanor Parker are just as good among the women. Lillian Gish is adorable as a self-absorbed and dotty old lady – the kind of role that Helen Hayes would do umpteen million times in the 1970s when she seemed to be the only senior actress Hollywood would employ before they discovered Angela Lansbury. Truly fascinating acting from a great cast in what might otherwise have been a fairly routine cop drama. Check it out.”

        • That is a very fair and accurate review chum, thanks very much for that. Grizzard is great as the cool cat neighbour and the Jerry Goldsmith score is always fun too in its minimal way (adding to the TV-Movie feel). The whodunit element is handled fairly as I recall though the disappearance of the gun is explained a bit less interestingly as I recall – shall have to watch it again though I would like to read the book, one of the Masterson titles that Wade wrote solo after Miller’s death (at age 41 which is horrible early).

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Indeed, the ABC Movie of the Week was actually kind of a big deal for them, at first…they didn’t stop caring about such things till the ’80s…

    • Thanks Todd – it is impressive how much care was taken with some of these. It would be great if they would start releasing more of them in decent editions – there are lots illegally uploaded to YouTube and the like but they usually look pretty woeful.

  5. John says:

    I was addicted to made-for-TV movies when I was a teen — especially the ones on ABC like THE ELEVATOR, KILLDOZER, THE CAT CREATURE, DEATH CRUISE, etc. etc. I don’t remember this one at all. This post was most interesting to me for the background on how Crichton got involved in filmmaking. That always made me scratch my head. From med student to writer to movie director and screenwriter so quickly. I thought it happened around the time of WESTWORLD, but I guess I was wrong. Now it’s all explained. Great post as always, my friend.

    • Thanks John, very kind – ah yes, I have great memories of Killdozer from the Sturgeon story and Bloch’s Lewton homage in Cat Creature but missed the other two I’m afraid. I shall have to inverstigate

  6. 282daniele says:

    Caro Sergio, ho aperto un altro blog, questa volta su questa piattaforma. Per cui, mi perdonerai, prenderò qualche elemento compositivo dal tuo blog, che mi è sempre piaciuto moltissimo. Tuttavia, non riesco a capire delle cose nella creazione del blog:
    innazitutto, quando si intitola il blog, come si fa a spostare la scritta a sinistra, come viene a te?
    A me il titolo viene automaticamente spostato a destra!
    a seguire..il motto cos’è? Quello che nel tuo caso è “Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media”?
    infine…come si fa ad inserire una immagine per la testata che non sia una dei tre modelli predefiniti? Siccome il mio nuovo blog è destinato esclusivamente a Camere Chiuse e delitti impossibili (si chiama “Vanished into the air” in onore di Carr), vorrei inserire l’immagine di una serratura, o di una porta sbarrata. Dove trovo delle immagini che possano essere usate per l’header di un blog, ma che siano anche prive di diritti di copyright?

    • Ciao Piero – una risposta veloce veloce e poi semmai un altra piu approfondita. Comunque, se vai su “Appearance” vedrai ‘header’ – li puoi fare un upload di qualsiasi immagine – potrari ridurre l’immagine in WordPress usando edit image ma non credo che sara’s necessaro perche do da sempre la sceta della grandezza. La direzione del testo non sono sicuro – io uso TWENTY TWENTY a me lo offre cosi – ti stai usando un altro ‘theme’ quindi non so.

      Se poi vai su ‘settings’ e’ li che puoi cambiare il ‘tagline’ – cioe il tuo motto

  7. 282daniele says:

    ..E poi come si fa a tagliare l’immagine per adattarla alle dimensioni di 200 x 770 pixel?

    • Normalmente WordPress lo riduce per te – se no, su il tuo computer in Word fai clock sul mouse a destra, fai ‘edit image’ e cosi poui alterare l’immagine prima di fare il upload su wordpress.

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Like John says above, the 70s was a great time for TV movie (some favorites of mine include SCREAM OF THE WOLF, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, SATAN’S TRIANGLE, SNOWBEAST, A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH and of course the two Kolchak telefilms, THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER). This one sounds interesting, and that cast is something else. Very nice write up, Sergio , and a neat idea you’ve been pursuing of late, writing first about a source novel then covering the movie made from it. I’m rather ambivalent on Crichton as a writer; he’s a great “central gimmick/idea” man, but to my mind a rather boilerplate prose stylist. He directed some fine films, though, especially WESTWORLD, and one of his books, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was made into one of my favorite science fiction films of all time (though that one was directed by Robert Wise, of course.)

    Pity about the drabness of the DVD…too many of these TV movie gems are only available in sub-par shape.

    • I think you’re spot on there Jeff, as always – the Andromeda movie is pretty amazing, thanks mostly to Wise’s extraordinary visual command (makes a great companion to his version of The Haunting actually – in essence both are all about characters stuck in a building being chased by an unseen menace). I hope to get round to reviewing more of these TV movies soon, with the help of **cough** the internet …

  9. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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