Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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

Made-for-TV movies had a successful run during the 1970s - and also experienced something of a bum rap. The assumption was that they were inferior, simply because they were filmed for television. Never assume.

While it's true that most of these efforts were workmanlike, there were also some truly superior results, such as Buzz Kulik's "Brian's Song," with James Caan; John Badham's ”The Impatient Heart,” starring Carrie Snodgress (and written by Alvin Sargent, no less); John Korty's "Go Ask Alice," based on the popular book, and Daniel Petrie's "Silent Night, Lonely Night" and Lamont Johnson's "My Sweet Charlie," both based on plays.

There are many more. If I missed an important one, share!

This brings me to "A Death in Canaan," adapted from Joan Barthel's acclaimed piece of investigative journalism from 1976 and, arguably, the best of the lot. The film is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the great Tony Richardson.

The film's 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, Ct. teenager who found his mother, Barbara Gibbons (Sally Kemp), dead and mutilated and who, after being terrorized by police, 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 -Gibbons-Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of nerve, insecurity, resolve and charm. Clemens, the son of 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, aired on CBS on March 1, 1978 in a 150-minute time slot. (Without commercials, it runs 125 minutes.)  One of its last airings was on the Lifetime channel which ran a considerably shorter version in a two-hour time slot. I've no idea who made the decision to cut it, either Lifetime or Warner Bros., which produced it.

But the editing remains inexplicable.

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(from top) 

~The title card for "A Death in Cannan"
~photography: Warner Bros. Television 1978©

~Stefanie Powers as writer Joan Barthel in a scene from the film
 ~photography: Warner Bros. Television 1978©

~Director Tony Richardson, circa 1978


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?

Pauline said...

Does anyone know how to obtain a copy of this movie? I ask because it was filmed in a house in the neighborhood where I live. Any insight?

Thank you!

joe baltake said...

C.G. & Pauline- I'll ask around among my friends who are into film and are collectors. Also, hopefully someone here will respond. Please occasionally check this post for info. Good luck! -J

thomas whittaker said...

Hi, Joe.

There are publications that advertise old films for sale, but they are usually on VHS, not DVD.

Bree and c.g. should check out some of these, such as Classical Images.

Good luck!