Smile Jenny, You’re Dead (1974)

smile-jenny-youre-deadThis is was the second of two feature-length TV Movies that ultimately served to launch the short-lived private eye series Harry O (1974-76) starring David Janssen, which in its first season may have got as good as this genre ever got on the small screen.

Harry is hired to help solve a murder but gets tangled up in a case involving a stalker, a photographer obsessed with the wife of an older and powerful man.

The following review is offered as part of Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

Writer Howard Rodman’s unlikely inspiration for this TV-Movie’s protagonist was Harry Greener, the aged ex-vaudevillian in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust reduced to peddling ‘Miracle Solvent’ silver polish door-to-door until he finally keels over and dies. That book’s feeling for California’s alienated and disenfranchised also comes through in the romantic and mytho-poetic undercurrent to this vehicle for David Janssen. He plays Harry Orwell, an ex-policeman invalided out of the force after being shot in the back, the bullet lodged too near his spine for it to be removed. He lives on the beach making repairs (that will never be finished) on a sailboat called ‘The Answer’ and the story begins when one morning he finds a stray kid named Liberty (Jodie Foster) sleeping on it’s deck. He shoos her away, but soon takes her in while also trying to track down a psycho killer photographer (played by Zalman King, in his days before becoming Hollywood arch purveyor of glossy soft porn), investigating the death of the son-in-law of an old friend, though the focus is the man’s wife, the eponymous Jenny (the luminous Andrea Marcovicci).

This tender and melancholic private eye yarn ably sidesteps the clichés of the genre without sacrificing plot or character. It was the second attempt to launch a TV series and proved successful though Harry O, after endless tinkering (including the replacement of Henry Darrow with Anthony Zerbe, both excellent actors), was cancelled after just two seasons, much to the dismay of Janssen, Rodman and the fans.

DVD Availability: Part of the Warner Manufactured-On-Demand range, this transfer is a little dull but serviceable. There are no extras.

Director: Jerry Thorpe
Producer: Jerry Thorpe
Screenplay: Howard Rodman
Cinematography: Jack Woolf
Art Direction: Walter Herndon
Music: Billy Goldenberg
Cast: David Janssen, Andrea Marcovicci, Clu Gulager, Zalman King, Jodie Foster, Howard Da Silva, John Anderson, Barbara Leigh

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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29 Responses to Smile Jenny, You’re Dead (1974)

  1. Colin says:

    A good movie, or TV movie, that used Janssen’s talents very well. He was looking old beyond his years by this time but I think he was a terrific actor.

  2. Paula Carr says:

    I loved “Harry O” and was devastated when it was cancelled. Anthony Zerbe was excellent in this.

    Is that Martin Sheen in your screen shot???

  3. Now you mention this one, Sergio, I remember it. I hadn’t thought about it for a very long time. Nicely-paced, and Janssen was terrific in it. It really is one of those gems you don’t hear enough about, if that makes sense.

  4. Brad says:

    Sergio, you made me nostalgic for some of the great old shows of the 60’s. Not every one was great, but they took their time, and I still recall some episodes of shows that made for great mystery viewing. The series The Name of the Game had some great episodes. Mannix, Ironside, McMillan and Wife, Columbo, of course, The Mod Squad . . . all of them had some classic episodes. There is one stand-alone episode of Mission: Impossible where they drop the spy stuff and Phelps goes home for a class reunion, only to come up against a serial killer who has to be one of his old classmates. It’s a marvelous story. I loved The Fugitive but never watched Harry O. I should give it a shot. Thanks for the memories.

  5. tracybham says:

    This looks like fun. I will have to look into getting a copy. (Like allotting funds for it, there is only so much to go around you know.)

  6. In the first movie, Harry was portrayed in a more traditional tough guy manner. In the “studio’s”, really the network’s defense, it did believe in the show enough to commission two pilots. And the second season retooling was in reaction to weak ratings. The show’s ratings didn’t improve, and it was cancelled to make way for Charlie’s Angels – Farrah apparently got some attention appearing on Harry.

    • Thanks for that Bill. I’m sure the network hope that Janssen would deliver another Fugitive for them! I was sorry when Farrah got dropped from the show – some of the episodes from the second season are incredibly weak sadly …

  7. I think I vaguely remember this – but there were a lot of good crime films/series in the 1970s so it’s hard to be sure!

    • Thanks Karen. This had the advantage of being a strong character show, and a bit less of a genre piece. What I like about shows like this is that they work predominantly as anthologies – you have one or maybe two recurring characters, but that’s it so you can tackle a brand new thing each new episode. Not everybody likes this approach of course …

  8. Patti Abbott says:

    Big Janssen fan here so I am sure I saw it back in the day. I remember the series but not the movies.

    • Thanks Patti – I am sure the movies don’t get included in the syndication package either and I don’t think they were ever amended . reformatted so that they could be included that way (as two-part episodes etc)…

  9. Sergio – Thanks for the review. I’ll keep an eye out for this if it ever shows up on cable. I don’t recall ever watching HARRY O. Since it was cancelled after two seasons, maybe there were not enough episodes to go into syndication here. (I think the magic number is, or was, 100.) I’ve seen many episodes of THE FUGITIVE in reruns and liked them a lot. TV in the early 1960s must have had a thing for characters traveling around the country. Remember RUN FOR YOUR LIFE and ROUTE 66?

  10. Pingback: Smile Jenny, You’re Dead (1974) Featuring Jodie Foster! | Bill Ectric's Place

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