Television

Men and Women Behaving Badly: 'Pursuit' and 'The Girl Most Likely To'

Made for TV programs of the '70s really knew how to dish it out. Michael Crichton's Pursuit is all about men conquering each other; whereas Lee Philips' The Girl Most Likely To is a poisoned bon-bon about making pain palatable.

Pursuit
Michael Crichton

Kino Lorber

11 Jun 2019

Other
The Girl Most Likely To
Lee Philips

Kino Lorber

11 Jun 2019

Other

Kino Lorber gives the Blu-ray restoration treatment to Pursuit (1972) and The Girl Most Likely To (1973), two very good examples of the early 1970s TV movie, a form that functioned as the B movie of its day. Like the major studios' B movies during the first decades of the talkies, TV movies were produced quickly, mainly in popular genres, and combined up-and-coming talent with those whose heyday had declined. They were also zippy; the 90-minute commercial slots allowing just under 75 minutes of story. All three commercial networks joined the bandwagon whose driving force was ABC's Movie of the Week, and such is the origin of these two titles from ABC Circle Films.

In his directorial debut, novelist Michael Crichton helmed Pursuit (1972), a suspenser based on his pseudonymous novel, Binary (1972), published as by "John Lange". According to sources cited in Wikipedia, Crichton agreed to sell the film rights to ABC on the condition that he direct, and ABC stipulated only that a professional screenwriter must do the script. That's why the script is by Robert Dozier, who'd soon be producing a series about a similarly low-key hero, Harry O. (If you care, Dear Reader, as I hope you do, please see my coverage of both its first and second season here on PopMatters.)

Crichton makes several modernist gestures for a TV movie. The opening shot is labeled "Utah" in a military font and "Zero minus 15 hours", after which a digital countdown begins on screen showing the subtracting seconds, minutes and hours. This visual motif will recur throughout the film, especially at commercial breaks.

After a convoy of soldiers is ambushed, causing them all to flip gracefully into the air in slow motion -- because that's what happens when you're shot -- the credits appear with more stylization in "binary" style. That is, they emerge simultaneously from both sides of the screen to overlap in the center, a graphic equivalent for how the two stolen nerve gases must combine to become deadly enough to kill everyone in San Diego.

Then the next recurring visual and stylistic motif is introduced: grainy newsreel footage of an actual political convention. It's not clear which convention, but we deduce it must be Republican if the movie's world reflects its outer world, for the President is due to arrive and that would be Nixon. In 1972, political conventions had an association with chaos, thanks to riots at the 1968 Democratic convention (footage of which was incorporated into Haskell Wexler's 1969 drama Medium Cool) and contentious business at both 1972 conventions, which took place after the film was shot but before it was broadcast.

These are what I mean by modernist gestures, along with a generally low-key, semi-documentary flavor that combines simply staged scenes with much driving and location footage, and in which Jerry Goldsmith's groovy score is used intermittently and with restraint. This approach of professionals at work, talking laconically, resembles such models as Jack Webb's Dragnet and other emblems of TV's "cool medium" mode.

Another modernist gesture is to introduce the antagonist via film footage being screened in a meeting room. James Wright (E.G. Marshall) is identified as an extremist who speechifies that it's time to act when our leaders betray our allies and deliver the country into the hands of our communist enemies, and that voting is useless because the only difference between the parties is their names. Coming on to 50 years later, this element feels not only modern but contemporary.

Wright also stresses the concept of "impotence", bluntly linking political power (or its lack) to masculinity and suggesting that the solution lies in large phallic objects that spray chemical components achieving fatality in doses invisible to the naked eye; in other words, a grotesque and perverse analogy to sperm. Mind you, nobody goes that far in spelling it out, but the subtext goes a long way to explaining the absence of women in this all-male film. It's about men conquering each other.

Ben Gazzara plays the puzzle-solving, low-wattage agent in charge of catching Wright, and he's surrounded by other suit-and-tie professionals played by William Windom, Joseph Wiseman, Jim McMullan and Will Kuluva. Martin Sheen appears as a "computer expert" (not called a hacker) who performs "an online theft". Yes, the word "online" is used in 1972; it's also heard in a series airing concurrently, Search.

The film belongs to an increasingly popular "countdown" genre of averting some chemical or nuclear disaster planned by criminals or madmen. The first of these might have been two 1950 productions, John and Roy Boulting's Seven Days to Noon and Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets. The latter isn't about a deliberate attack but plague-infected criminals, so the crime-plague correlation stays complete.

Like Steven Spielberg, who would direct the film of Crichton's Jurassic Park (1993), Crichton parlayed his TV movie success into directing features. His directing career was much less spectacular but began solidly with Westworld (1973) and ran through half a dozen efforts. He stuck with his day job and emerged to direct a movie now and again, and time has only made them more interesting and relevant.

Film historian and cinephile Lee Gambin and Crichton fan Tristan Jones offer a commentary with comparisons between book and film and linkage to other Crichton projects. Noting the simultaneous release of novel and film and the presence of a character named R. Dozier in the novel, Jones makes the case that they were developed concurrently. He reassures us that the most absurd detail in the movie (involving a psychiatrist) isn't in the book, and he makes the point that the novel named both its hero and villain John, thus underlining their "binary" status; both are necessary in conjunction to make the plot work.

Despite the film's jitters about domestic terrorism and political disillusion, it's basically a "square" movie in which the forces of professionalism save us all by doing their jobs as things we wish to believe are affirmed. The same cannot be said for the next year's The Girl Most Likely To, a subversive black comedy about a serial killer.

After the bright pink credits play over a woozy, slightly sinister version of "Here Comes the Bride", the film opens on a carefully framed, mostly occluded image of a wedding as seen from behind the bride's shoulder. As Miriam, Stockard Channing's voice-over tells us: "I'm not sorry for what I did. I have no regrets, because look what it got me: a man who appreciates me for what I am. All my life, my mother said to me get married, Miriam, get married, and I tried to get married, honest, but it wasn't that easy." Actually, we can't yet look, since the man is out of frame. All we know is that we're supposedly being granted a traditional happy ending from the get-go: a woman's marriage.

Then the narration brings us to flashback territory. Miriam spends the first half of the movie as a lonely college student so "plain" (dumpy, frumpy, clumpy, a triangle with heavy brows) that everyone laughs at her and treats her with the kind of broad, cartoonish cruelty we'd later see in crude revenge comedies of the 1980s -- and their flipside, the slasher movies. For that matter, we might compare it with a 2019 comedy, Isn't It Romantic, but I'll leave that to others for fear I'd have to sit through it first.

After Miriam's debut in a school play, which kind of turns into a foretaste of Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) complete with woozy subjective shots whipping around the laughing crowd, a silver-lining disaster turns her looks and life around, and her agenda promptly turns to exacting revenge on dumb heartless men who made her life hell, plus one stuck-up cheerleader, all in a farcical manner. Channing shines in a series of disguised identities amid people who don't recognize Miriam.

The early '70s had a line in bizarre body-count black comedies such as Robert Fuest's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Larry Yust's Home Bodies (1974). The latter stars Ruth McDevitt, who has one scene in The Girl Most Likely To. And only one month earlier, ABC had aired John Badham's brilliant TV movie called Isn't It Shocking, another mix of comedy and horror in a wacky serial-killer plot. There was definitely a lot of hostile wish-fulfillment going on in pop culture. Nor should we overlook the fact that Bob Clark's college-set Black Christmas (1974) was about to set the template for a long line of slasher films.

The killers all have their reasons, often an originating trauma, but only The Girl Most Likely To adopts the killer's voice and viewpoint from the start and identifies feminine conditions in its motives: the desire to get married, the desire (nay, the injunction) to be attractive, how people are treated based on appearance, how school is a source of humiliation and cruelty. While men may also identify with such themes (see Jeff Kanew's 1984 Revenge of the Nerds), this film adopts specifically the women's social perspective and maintains it until the end.

That's because Joan Rivers devised this story and co-scripted with Agnes Gallin. This is Gallin's only IMDB credit, but we trust everyone knows Rivers. You can easily imagine her voice delivering Miriam's wry narration or her various one-liners as she uses wit to deflect pain, and that implies that this broad slapstick comedy (with murder) comes from a personal source.

Film historians Amanda Reyes and Kier-La Janisse spend most of their commentary discussing Rivers as the film's auteur. Reyes mentions other films from director Lee Philips and producer Everett Chambers, as well as various other TV movies, but Rivers is undoubtedly the creative force in what would become an important step in Channing's career. They also discuss plastic surgery and revenge movies, and let's toss one more into the mix: 1973 is the same year Elizabeth Taylor starred in Larry Peerce's Ash Wednesday, where cosmetic surgery is the whole plot, so we can see how casually topical is this film.

They express reservations about the heroine's regressive marriage goal, but I'd say the ironies resound in an ending that literally equates marriage with prison. A person brought up by her mother and society to see marriage as the highest value becomes incapable of recognizing anything else, which is part of the film's critique not only of sexist society but of the highly flawed heroines it raises. All's fair on the way to the altar, for even the cheerleader summarizes her goal as finding a rich husband.

This film wasn't only popular at the time but it's one of those items that made an impact on those who saw it while young. Especially from a child's point of view, the simple yet curdled story is fun, shocking, transgressive (a child would say "naughty"), and very direct in its emotions, for what children don't identify with being patronized and condescended to? And as the girl-children grow up, they may realize that such experiences never quite come to an end. Both commenters speak to this.

Also in the comic-heavy cast are Edward Asner, Jim Backus, Joe Flynn, Larry Wilcox, Fred Grandy, Susanne Zenor, Chuck McCann and Warren Berlinger, with Dennis Dugan and Annette O'Toole in minor roles. Notably, Dugan's very queeny theatre stereotype, who is presented straightforwardly and without comment, is among the few characters aligned in sympathy with Miriam and in disgust at the jeering crowd, so that his judgment stands in for the viewers'.

Although we don't wish to overpraise a sometimes clunky film, we also mustn't underrate it. It's the sort of poisoned bon-bon about making pain palatable that 1970s TV felt comfortable dishing out and to which viewers responded. According to Reyes, the audience share for the premiere was an average of 48 million, and the rerun was 41 million. Numbers like that should give pause to anyone who calls any of today's shows popular. We may be saturated with more TV than ever, but who really sees anything?

As the commenters on this film and Pursuit agree, it's nice to see these once-faded memories, which used to play on low-resolution TVs and have recently circulated in ragged prints dreary to the eye and ear on certain streaming sites, looking so bright and polished. These Blu-rays bring out the best in projects hardly intended to last beyond their broadcast, and such refurbishment only clarifies how they illuminate their time and ours.

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