When the maudlin blockbuster Love Story (1970) reminded the world just how much blatant emotional manipulation audiences could withstand, a tearjerker renaissance was inevitable. Yet by the end of the ’70s, movies in the vein of Ice Castles (1978) and The Promise—both of which feature treacly theme songs crooned by Melissa Manchester—were rapidly approaching self-parody thanks to absurd plots and cheap endeavors to pluck viewers’ heartstrings. So, while The Promise is not to be taken seriously, it’s a certain kind of movie that’s almost guaranteed to touch a certain kind of viewer. Perceived with more critical eyes, the picture’s quite unsatisfactory on a narrative level, redeemed only by appealing production values and sincere performances.
Fresh-faced Stephen Collins stars as Michael, a rich college senior who is in love with Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan), an artist who was abandoned as a child and raised by nuns. Michael’s overbearing mother, Marion (Beatrice Straight), forbids the couple to marry. Then the young lovers get into a horrible auto accident. Michael falls into a brief coma but otherwise sustains only minor injuries. Nancy, meanwhile, suffers catastrophic facial lacerations. So, while Michael is still comatose, Marion offers Nancy an odd bargain—Marion will pay for Nancy’s reconstructive surgery if Nancy promises never to see Michael again. Predictably, the story then contrives to reunite the lovers years later. Michael doesn’t immediately recognize Nancy, who is living under a new name, because Marion told him Nancy died. Anyway, all of this goes exactly where you might expect, with virtually nothing that could qualify as a surprise happening along the way.
Director Gilbert Cates, who made a handful of offbeat dramas at the beginning of the ’70s, does what he can to infuse The Promise with actual emotion. He prudently employs extensive location photography, letting vivid places up and down the California coast provide a level of reality that’s lacking from the script. Cates also makes the best of a second-string cast, drawing smooth work from such undistinguished players as Bibi Besch and Laurence Luckinbill. As the film’s villain, Straight tries to play her one-dimensional character with a measure of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Quinlan moves through a full spectrum of emotions; in fact the story regularly twists and turns just to provide fodder for her character’s “moments.” Leading man Collins probably comes off best, for even though his character is a bit of a dope, Collins doesn’t slip into excessive histrionics or waterworks. The Promise isn’t much of a movie, but it’s a glossy presentation from actors and filmmakers who know exactly what audience reaction they’re trying to elicit.
The Promise: FUNKY