Friday, June 26, 2015

The French Atlantic Affair

ABC’s adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s 1977 novel THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR does not get off to a promising start with LOVE BOAT-esque main titles (“in alphabetical order”) and a startlingly phony opening shot of a cut-out photograph of a cruise ship pasted to a monitor showing the New York City skyline. At least the long scroll of television stars and character actors shows promise of high camp (and Phill Norman’s titles won an Emmy, by the way).

The talented Douglas Heyes, a former MAVERICK and TWILIGHT ZONE veteran who adapted Lehman’s book and directed, doesn’t let us down, starting with KOJAK’s Telly Savalas as a charismatic cult leader in a flashy medallion who amazingly dresses, smokes, and acts more like the Savalas in the “If” video than Jim Jones. At least Heyes doesn’t leave us hanging. Before the first commercial break, a velvet-tuxedoed Savalas informs Louis Jourdan (GIGI), the captain of the SS Marseilles, that he and his followers, most of whom are posing as passengers, have taken the luxury liner hostage.

While we all wait with baited breath to find out Telly’s end game, life aboard goes on, including — of course — a masquerade party that gives us the unique spectacle of Chad Everett in a dog costume. The MEDICAL CENTER star is THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR’s male lead, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and journalist traveling with his estranged young son, who luckily smuggled aboard his ham radio, which is forbidden on a French ship. Savalas lured Chad aboard through false pretenses, as he wants the writer to tell the world his final story. Not that Everett, whose scenes with Savalas look like Battling Medallions, gets too worked up over the crisis. He even finds time for a haircut.

In typical disaster-movie fashion (really, that’s what THE FRENCH ATLANTIC AFFAIR is), Heyes tells us the backstories of the supporting cast, which includes Mama Michelle Phillips as Jenny Your Cruise Director, John Rubinstein (CRAZY LIKE A FOX) and Rebecca Balding (LOU GRANT) as a young couple, Shelley Winters as — what else — a blowsy old lady, Carolyn Jones (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) as a seasick passenger, and Stella Stevens as the suspicious wife of one of Telly’s flock.

ABC aired the miniseries in three parts over a November Thursday, Friday, and Sunday to unimposing ratings. The second part really drags, as Heyes takes the story off the ship to follow Richard Jordan’s (THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS) negotiations with cruise line execs Donald Pleasence (HALLOWEEN) and James Coco (MURDER BY DEATH) for the ransom and thinktankers Richard Anderson (THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) and John Houseman’s (THE PAPER CHASE) efforts to learn the extortionists’ identities.

It’s unclear if one can criticize an actor for overacting when everyone is doing it, but Everett and Savalas seem to be in a fierce scenery-chewing competition with Jordan trying to catch up. Strangely, it’s amusing when Telly does it and just plain bad when Chad does it. As is often the case, there’s a pretty good two-hour movie buried in Heyes’ six-hour miniseries. I’m sure we all could have done without Coco’s petulant resignation from the cruise ship company because Pleasence made fun of his fat ass.


Johny Malone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johny Malone said...

I read the novel. It is mediocre. Harold Columbine's character is a parody of Harold Robbins.