Frothy romantic intrigue somewhat the vein of the old Thin Man movies, Hart to Hart was the pilot movie for a series that ran from 1979 to 1984. (Eight reunion movies came afterward, airing from 1993 to 1996.) With former 1950s matinee idol Robert Wagner in the leading role, the Hart to Hart series never aimed for hipness or relevance, instead presenting the lighthearted adventures of jet-setting millionaire and his beautiful wife as they solve crimes for a hobby. Seen today, the pilot movie is creakier than ever, so it’s actually more interesting to note behind-the-scenes trivia than to explore the onscreen content. Two of Wagner’s famous paramours appear in the telefilm. His wife at the time of filming, Natalie Wood, makes a goofy cameo as an actress in a Southern-belle costume, and his future wife, Jill St. John, plays a supporting role. The series was created by novelist Sidney Sheldon, and the pilot was cowritten and directed by the prolific Tom Mankiewicz, who scribed many of James Bond’s ’70s outings and contributed to Superman (1978). Overseeing the whole project were producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, the titans of trash TV in the ’70s and ’80s.
Anyway, after a friend dies under mysterious circumstances, dashing businessman Jonathan Hart (Wagner) promises the friend’s widow that he will investigate. Clues connect the dead man to a pricey health farm, so Jonathan hits the road in his jaunty sports car. Along the way, he gets into a playful road race with a beautiful redhead, who leaves him in the dust when he gets pulled over by a cop. Jonathan reaches the health farm and encounters the redhead again, so they spar verbally—and yet that night, she slips into his room and his bed. Because, to the surprise of absolutely no one, she’s actually his wife, Jennifer (Stefanie Powers), recently returned from a European trip. The Harts investigate the health farm together, discovering a conspiracy to brainwash rich guests in order to steal their money. Concurrently, Jonathan flirts with yet another beautiful redhead, Sylvia (St. John), ostensibly to find more clues.
All of this plays out in tedious fashion. The elaborate introduction to Jennifer’s character feels like a cheap attempt at a Hitchcockian flourish, and Mankiewicz’ would-be pithy dialogue is like champagne that’s lost its fizz. As for the leads, they’re both so vacuous that they seem more like gregarious party hosts than actual performers. Meanwhile, supporting players including James Noble, Michael Lerner, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, and Mankiewicz favorite Clifton James play forgettable roles with bloodless professionalism, and future series regular Lionel Stander, who portrays Jonathan’s gravel-voiced butler, Max, is underused. Judging from the longevity of the franchise, the folks behind Hart to Hart obviously did something right, but it’s hard to determine what that is by watching this thoroughly enervated pilot.
Hart to Hart: FUNKY