Today, it is difficult to think of Steven Spielberg as a television director, but for the first five years of his professional career that was the avenue he had to take. After directing episodes of “Marcus Welby”, “Columbo” and two episodes of “Night Gallery”, he moved up to made-for-television movies. We’ve already discussed Duel, which is well-known in his cannon, but what is not so well known are the other two TV movies that he directed, and that is my purpose in this special bonus review. Between Duel in 1971 and his first theatrical feature The Sugarland Express in 1974 he made two films, one a horror film and the other and unsold pilot for a series that was to star Martin Landau.
First came the horror drama Something Evil, produced for CBS in 1972 and starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as a married couple who move into a farmhouse in Pennsylvania only to slowly (very slowly) come to the realization that there are evil spirits living there. By night, Dennis hears a baby crying and investigates only to find nothing. By day she is inundated with neighbors who try again and again to convince her that the place is haunted. Worse is the feeling that the spirits are attempting to posses her 12 year-old son (Johnny Whittaker). When she tries to tell McGavin,he thinks she’s losing her ever-loving mind.
In looking over the early work of any great director you find yourself always looking for signs of things to come. If Duel seemed to contain elements that would become Jaws, then I suppose that Something Evil could best be compared to Poltergeist. Both films feature families besieged by evil spirits; both place the mother as the protagonist, both have a spiritual medium as the mother’s guide – Poltergeist had Tangina, this one has old Harry Lincoln, played with amusing kookiness by Ralph Bellamy. Along with comparisons to Poltergeist I also detected influences from Rosemary’s Baby (which also starred Bellamy) as a young woman fears for her children amid a group of men who question her psychological well-being.
While enjoyed Something Evil, I found myself at odds with it very TV-movie style. In trying to find Spielberg in the filmmaking I sensed him working with his hands tied. It might have been interesting to see how this might have turned out after his major success with Jaws three years later or even in the mid-80s when Spielberg was able to control his own projects. It’s not incompetent, but it is flawed. The camera work is overplayed, as is the music and you get the feeling that the movie is taking its sweet old time getting to the point. Plus, the sight of little Johnny Whitaker as the son of The Devil is, yeah, it’s a little silly. Since you can find it free on YouTube, I suppose I could only recommend it as a curiosity.
The same, I’m afraid, could also be said for Savage, an unsold pilot for a TV drama series to be produced by NBC. It starred Martin Landau as an investigative television journalist modeled after Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite but with looks that resemble Mike Wallace. His fame comes from his nightly news show “The Savage Report.” which has apparently made him a legend in the field.
This two-hour pilot (actually 90 minutes without commercial breaks) deals with Savage’s investigation into the problems of a potential Supreme Court nominee (Barry Sullivan) whose past sexual behavior are killing his chances. The fiction works okay, I suppose but when you think of the spark of real-life scandals that were to come, namely the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal, this drama comes off a little weak. The script is dull, the dialogue is flat and the production has that badly-edited early 70s herky-jerky feel about it.
Also, when one considers the idea of television news you could think of directors who understood the field. I imagined this material directed by Sidney Lumet or Mike Nichols. Spielberg just didn’t have much to work with. This movie doesn’t do any thing that Network didn’t do better three years later.
Yet, one can see the potential. At a time when television journalists like Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Peter Jennings and David Brinkley were lionized by the public, this kind of overstuffed drama might have seemed right for television. It’s impossible to know where this show might have gone. The pilot episode isn’t bad, but you can spot evidence of what might have been.