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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Killer in the Family (1983)

In my neverending attempt to view any movie not previously seen I get through a silly number of films made for television.  However even I can't face the myriad Christmas-themed movies being flogged at this time of the year on dedicated so-called 'Christmas Channels', although I will make an exception for the delightful Doris Roberts in the Mrs. Miracle flicks. And while many TVMs are pretty disposable, occasionally one finds something really worth seeing like the above title.

For a start back in the 80s, established old-time film stars did make the occasional small-screen film appearance and there are some wonderful television movies starring the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and James Cagney. This film was one of a few TV outing for the iconic tough guy Robert Mitchum, which in itself is a sufficient recommendation, but it was also fascinating to discover early outings for recognizable faces who would become more and more visible on the big screen in the years following.  Like many a TVM this is based on a harrowing true story and I gather the producers stuck pretty close to the facts.

The film opens with a family picnic -- Mitchum, his loving wife, and three late teenaged sons enjoying their afternoon outing.  It is only when the camera pulls back that we realise that the family are eating together on the Arizona State Prison grounds during visiting hours.  Mitchum plays Gary Tison, a career criminal who has spent much of the previous twenty years inside and who has little hope of early parole.  So he spins a song-and-dance line to the boys that his life is in danger from another inmate, convincing them to help him break out and flee to Mexico. Two of the sons are James Spader and Eric Stoltz (the third Lance Kerwin is unknown to me -- but you can't expect breakout success for all TV actors).  They take guns and other paraphenalia with them on their next visit, hold the guards at bay, and allow their dear dad to escape with his pal Stuart Margolin ('Angel' from the iconic James Garner TV series "The Rockford Files".)

Nothing goes according to plan and the five of them find themselves on a frantic run from pursuing lawmen, constantly having to find new vehicles and to camp out in the wild.  The boys, especially Spader the eldest (previously a promising law student), rapidly discover that Dad is not the loving father he feigns, but a cold, selfish and hard-hearted psychopath, who was in no danger whatsoever from the other inmates who indeed feared him.  This all becomes blatantly clear after Mitchum and Margolin coolly assassinate a young family of four whose car they want to appropriate.  The boys, while technically good people, are now accessories to murder and Spader is unable to convince the other two to escape while they can and hand themselves over to the authorities. Stoltz in particular can not fathom that Mitchum is not the beloved parent he imagined.  The end credits let us know just how awful the outcome actually was for the doomed five. Needless to say, Mitchum doesn't need to stretch his acting chops to play a cool killer.  Screen acting was always so easy for him that the nuances in his many performances are often overlooked. 

In addition to the above-named actors, the keen-eyed viewer can also spot Arliss Howard as the father of the murdered family and Catherine Mary Stewart as Spader's college sweetheart before all hell breaks loose for him. There are also juicy roles for veteran actresses Salome Jens and Lynn Carlin.  All in all an involving scenario, even if an ultimately unpleasant tale.

I did sort of promise last time to make some Christmas viewing recommendations from the boring UK terrestrial schedules, where the premieres on offer include such crud as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua"!  OK, if you've not seen it, "Tropic Thunder" has its moments, but "Young Victoria", "Bruno", "Defiance" and "Step Brothers" didn't shake my world.  Apart from some minor animations, there is repeat after repeat after repeat -- which is only fine if you haven't seen the films in the first place or are eager to see them again.  (And chances are if you like them that much you might even own your own copy!)  The best bets are actually some black and white oldies from director Fritz Lang and some splendid B-chillers from producer Val Lewton.  Finally on Christmas Eve Channel 5 is showing the best Scrooge of all time, Alastair Sim, in, it is rumoured, a colourized version of this classic.  Watch his definitive performance by all means, but turn the colour down! I'll be back some time before the New Year...meanwhile, Seasons Greetings to all.
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