Released: March 31, 1973
Runtime: 75 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Michele Carey, Dabney Coleman, Barry Sullivan, Susan Howard, Paul Richards, Jack Bender, Louise Latham
Available to watch on YouTube.
Now that’s more like it. And more like him.
Though not up to the small-scale mastery of Duel yet significantly superior to Something Evil, Steven Spielberg’s final TV movie Savage is a respectable exit from the small screen. More significantly, it’s one where he starts to flash some of his signature flourishes.
A film produced as a TV pilot, Savage wasn’t picked up by NBC for series so the pilot ran instead as a one-off TV movie in the spring of 1973. While it doesn’t appear that the network missed out on running a classic, Savage nevertheless has a distinguished hook: it’s a political thriller by way of procedural, one set in the world of TV journalism that also examines the behind-the-scenes ethics of media exposés.
Martin Landau plays the title character Paul Savage, an investigative anchor/reporter who hosts his own half-hour news magazine. Barbara Bain is Gail Abbott, Savage’s producer, Dabney Coleman their news chief Ted Seligson (who strikes a handsome Robert Conrad-ish profile), with Jack Bender as their main assistant Jerry.
As Savage follows clues to build a story, this quartet essentially works as a surrogate police detective team within a crime drama formula. Savage and Abbott are partners, Ted is their skeptical-but-ultimately-supportive precinct chief, and Jerry their beat cop gopher, but all under the guise of their equivalent news room roles.
In a script written by Mark Rodgers and would-be series producers Richard Levinson and Mark Link, Paul Savage is tipped to a possible elicit affair by a nominee for the United States Supreme Court. A respected journo (with a bust of JFK on his desk, no less), it’s not Savage’s style to run salacious stories, but the implications of the nominee being compromised by a blackmail shakedown is what concerns him, so that’s what drives Savage: who are the blackmailers, and what’s their agenda?
The whole sordid tale becomes further complicated when Savage’s key source turns up dead (ruled a suicide, but who are they kidding?).
From the opening shot, we see classic Spielberg in nascent form: it’s a brief Oner (a technique I’ll unpack in the next review, for The Sugarland Express). It starts in close-up, then dollies back to an ominous silhouette, and then tracks out to end on a two-shot.
In one uninterrupted move, Spielberg frames and reframes multiple shots within a single take, each one distinct in style and composition. This is an Old Hollywood staple, but one that Spielberg would embrace and ambitiously expand within his own cinematic language.
From there, Spielberg employs kinetic camera moves, brisk editing, and fast rack focuses. (There’s even a brief camera lens voyeurism that feels like a nod to Rear Window.) Just in his mid-20s, he was showing a real knack for the style and rhythms of the era, even as the aesthetics of1970s political thrillers were still on the early end of that decade’s curve.
Sure, this was a work-for-hire that Spielberg was tagged to take on in order to complete his contract with Universal, but rather than indifferent mediocrity we see the cinematic enthusiasm that Spielberg was itching to unleash. About the only glaring hiccup is some poorly ADR’d dialogue; granted, that was also common to the era, but it’s particularly egregious here.
(ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement; in layman’s terms, it’s re-recording dialogue in a studio and trying to sync that up with the final takes, rather than using the on-location dialogue source.)
Landau and Bain (who were married) have a sharp, natural chemistry that instinctively flows, and Coleman’s rough-edged snark adds a fun flavor. Gorgeous pin-up girl Michele Carey (famous for co-starring opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado and Elvis Presley in Live a Little, Love a Little) is a sultry-voiced guest player who gets caught up in the intrigue, unclear if she’ll end up a victim or femme fatale. Barry Sullivan is also strong as the compromised judge/nominee, bringing a nuanced integrity to a role that could’ve easily been flat.
But Landau is the anchor here, both literally and figuratively, and he may have even won an Emmy or two if this had gone to series as intended. The climax is a contrived and even a bit hokey, but it’s tagged with a very thoughtful, circumspect coda in which Sullivan and Louise Latham (who plays the judge’s wife) really shine.
For casual Spielberg fans that love his blockbusters but aren’t drawn to his work beyond that, this is little more than a curious outlier to skim and sample. But for true Spielberg completests, Savage is a must-see, and one you can watch exclusively on YouTube or in the embedded video below.
In many ways, even with its perfunctory network conventions, Savage is the ultrasound for a legendary film career that was about to be born.
- Two years after Savage aired, stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would reunite for a UK series that ran for two years: Space 1999. It was eventually broadcast in North America via syndication.
- Spielberg reunited with cinematographer Bill Butler for Savage. The two had worked previously on Spielberg’s TV movie Something Evil and would again, just one more time, on Jaws.