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