Sunday, January 10, 2016

cinema obscura: Tony Richardson's "A Death in Canaan" (1978)


This superior television movie, based on the 1976 Joan Barthel best-seller, is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the estimable Tony Richardson. The solid acting ensemble includes such reliables as Brian Dennehy, Kenneth McMillan, Conchata Ferrell, Jacqueline Brooks, Charles Haid, Charles Hallahan, Tom Atkins, Bonnie Bartlett and Paul Clemens in his first role as Peter Reilly, a New Canaan, Conn. teenager who found his mother's mutilated body and was charged with her murder.

Based on a true story, "A Death in Canaan" follows Powers, playing Barthel, as she tries to document the investigation of the 1973 case and the hands-on involvement of the townspeople, friends and neighbors of the solitary, fatherless Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of nerve, insecurity and charm. Clemens, the son of the late actress Eleanor Parker, is astonishing. Around the same time, he also appeared in another fine lost film, Jerome Hellman's "Promises in the Dark" (1979), starring Marsha Mason, Kathleen Beller, Ned Beatty, Susan Clark and Michael Brandon.

Profoundly moving, "A Death in Canaan" is enhanced by Richardson's subtle direction of an exceptional cast.

The movie, now very difficult to see, was originally made for a 150-minute time slot, including commercials. One of its most recent - and last - TV airings was years ago on the Lifetime channel, which inexplicably edited it down for a 120-minute time period.

7 comments:

Rennie said...

I remember when made-for-TV movies were a joke. Then there was this period when they got really good because they were dealing with subjects and material that theatrical films had abandoned. "Canaan" is a really good example. It's a real movie, unlike "Brian's Song," for example. I hope you write more about stuff from this period.

Ben said...

Forgot all about this movie. Loved it. At least films that play theaters make it on to video and dvd. Someone should start putting TV movies like this on dvd.

Jeff said...

The remarkable thing is that much of the script is the verbatim taped police interrogation of young Peter Reilly. It's a terrifying look at how the cops can get people who've done nothing wrong to say they did, even to the point of murder. If you can't see the movie, get the book. It's a must read

Brian Lucas said...

There was a lot of great work done in the TV movie format in the 70s, and so little of it is readily available now. A real shame.

Haven't seen A DEATH IN CANAAN; sounds great. One I'd love to see again is THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS, which I managed to see twice back in the day (it first aired in 1973). It gave us Kojak, and won Emmys for Joseph Sargent and Abby Mann. Joe, any idea whatever happened to Gene Woodbury, who was so great as the accused killer in this? It was his first role, and his credits abruptly end in 1981.

c.g. said...

I need to find a copy from the uncut original March 1, 1978 broadcast. Some scenes were later cut to fit in the alloted time. I need all scenes intact. Does anyone know where I can find an intact version?

Beef said...

This was an outstanding production that I remember watching IN 1978--and haven't seen since, unfortunately. Thanks for the write-up!

I've been startled and pleased that *some* of the great (and not-so-great) 70s/80s miniseries HAVE been released on DVD: "The French Atlantic Affair," "The Moneychangers," "Aspen," "Captains and the Kings, "Nutcracker: Money, Madness, Murder," etc. Had given up hope of EVER seeing these shows again. So I think there's at least a chance of seeing the great "Death in Canaan" again someday? At some point?? (And, hopefully, "Wheels," "79 Park Avenue," "Favorite Son," etc.!)

joe baltake said...

Beef! How about "The Impatient Heart," a gem written by Alvin Sargent, directed by John Badham and starring Carrie Snodgress. Televised in 1970, the year Snodgress broke through with "Diary of a Mad Housewife."