Sometimes you almost think they don’t want you to watch. I’m not sure a more generic title could be conjured up than Revenge! (1971), an ABC TV movie that sounds like it should sit next to nacho chips and beer on the discount supermarket shelf. But, of course, it’s the ingredients that count, and with a stellar cast and a taut script by Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Revenge! has enough flavor to entertain the more discerning palette.
Originally airing on November 6th, this ABC Movie of the Weekend was up against NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies and CBS’s Mary Tyler Moore Show / The New Dick Van Dyke Show, but won out again. Revenge! may be a generic title, but ABC’s brand is strong.
Open your faux TV GUIDE to page 32 for all the saucy details:
REVENGE! (Saturday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A crazed woman believes that a man is responsible for her daughter’s death, and cages him in her basement until he confesses his sins. Bradford Dillman, Shelley Winters, Stuart Whitman star.
Frank Klaner (Bradford Dillman – Piranha) is a computer programmer grabbing a newspaper in a hotel lobby when his briefcase is switched by a mysterious woman, which he believes to be accidental. He receives a phone call later that night to pick up his briefcase, where he meets Amanda Hilton (Shelley Winters – Tentacles) and is invited into her home to retrieve his case. One brandished fire poker later, Frank awakens in Amanda’s basement locked in a cage. She believes he’s responsible for getting her daughter pregnant at a convention, leading to her suicide, of which he vehemently denies. Does Amanda have receipts on Frank?
Meanwhile, Frank’s wife, Dianne (Carol Eve Rossen – The Fury), holds off on reporting her missing husband to the police and instead enlists the aid of psychic Mark Hembric (Stuart Whitman – The Monster Club), who’s reluctant to help for his own reasons. But help he does, and soon he and Dianne are on the move trying to track down Frank, unsure if he’s even still alive. And the way things are going in the basement, their time is definitely running out…
There are two different threads woven throughout Revenge! and Stefano handles both well. The more intriguing is obviously Frank’s interrogation at the hands of Amanda; she’s quite certain he was involved with her daughter, and the way she rolls out new information and how he responds is the heart of the movie. Stefano is able to create suspense from the simplest of scenarios; it’s essentially a two-person show with a less compelling structure swirling around it. His real gift, though, is realistic dialogue; simple but with a ring of truth and interesting enough to push the story forward. Even the conversations between Dianne and Mark are reasoned and measured; she wants answers and confessions, he searches for the logic behind her statements. Of course, the central mystery is who’s telling the truth?
Director Jud Taylor helmed some Star Trek episodes, and hopped from series to series helping out where he could. In other words, a solid journeyman who could assimilate into any environment (for cheap, I imagine) and produce results. I think what sometimes people forget is even though TV shoots were often quick, the human component still remained behind as well as in front of the camera. As with many TV directors, style is usually the biggest sacrifice when dealing with a shrunken canvas. There’s really no need for scope or flourishes with a strong tale such as this, though; 75 minutes and four core characters carry it through, ramping up to a short, sharp, and shocking climax that brings out the big axes. And he gets some great performances.
Bradford Dillman has always been a favorite of the ’70s era for me; Bug (1975) and Piranha (1978) are shining examples of his knack for drawing the viewer over to his side with a weary smile and a sigh of resignation. This is important, because we’re never really sure if Frank is innocent or not, even up until the very end, and that’s because Dillman is so very good at projecting a pleading ignorance. I always admired Stuart Whitman as a rugged tough guy, but there’s vulnerability as well; he is sympathetic to Dianne’s plight (Rossen is also a strong presence), although reluctant to help because he is sure he can’t assist in her search.
Which brings us to Winters. This was her first made-for-TV movie, and if you’re expecting a lot of moans and hand wringing that would become her raisin d’etre in the genre, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Her Amanda is troubled, yes, distraught, sure; but instead of Winters’ normal histrionics, she slowly shows Amanda cracking when she doesn’t get the answers she needs, culminating in a melee with a very sharp instrument. It’s a surprisingly subtle turn that should not go unappreciated.
Revenge! will certainly not linger in anyone’s memory with a title that vaporizes as soon as it hits the screen. But, if you do carry on, you’re in for a solid thriller with a strong, simple story and some interesting performances. Sometimes no-name tastes good, too.Next: It Came From The Tube: BODY BAGS (1993)