Monday, April 23, 2012

Footsteps (1972)

          Nominated for a Golden Globe as the best TV movie of its year, Footsteps is a hard-driving character drama set in the competitive world of college football. Yet instead of focusing on the tribulations of athletes, as is the norm for the genre, Footsteps explores the psychology of a ruthless coach whose belligerence, drinking, and shady ethics have made him a pariah among top schools. Richard Crenna, putting his customary intensity to great use, stars as Paddy O’Connor, a cocky ex-player with a good record of guiding teams toward victory, but a bad record of holding onto jobs.
          When the movie begins, he arrives in a small Southwestern town to start work as a defensive coordinator at a regional college. Since the school’s head coach, Jonas Kane (Clu Gulager), once played for O’Connor, O’Connor bristles at taking orders from a former subordinate. O’Connor also angles for Kane’s job, sleeps with Kane’s secretary to get inside information, cozies up to a deep-pocketed sponsor (Forrest Tucker) in order to have a star player moved to defense, and makes passes at Kane’s girlfriend, beautiful drama teacher Sarah Allison (Joanna Pettet). For a while, O’Connor gets away with his behavior by delivering a winning season, but things come to a head when moral crises reveal how conscience sometimes inhibits ambition.
          Although it suffers from brevity, running the standard 74 minutes for a ’70s TV movie, Footsteps is quite solid. Featuring a script co-written by future Oscar winner Alvin Sargent, the movie has several compelling confrontations. Moreover, the O’Connor character is such a force of nature that it’s fascinating to parse how much of his act is bluster and how much is justifiable confidence. Though generally not the deepest actor, Crenna slips into this role comfortably and delivers a virile performance. The supporting cast is fine as well, with Bill Overton doing strong work as O’Connor’s star player. (Ned Beatty is wasted in a tiny role.) Veteran TV director Paul Wendkos accentuates the story’s inherent tension with tight compositions placing actors in close proximity, and the filmmakers employ trippy effects like solarization and split-screens to enliven big-game montages that were obviously cobbled together from stock footage.

Footsteps: GROOVY

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