Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pursuit (1972)

          By the time this made-for-TV thriller aired in late 1972, the project’s writer-director, Michael Crichton, was already on his way to becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. Three of the doctor-turned-novelist’s books had been adapted to theatrical features, and Pursuit began his side career as a filmmaker—which subsequently peaked with the hits Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978) before losing momentum. Later, Crichton found his niche as one of the world’s best-selling authors, and, in the hands of other directors, some of his books became massive hits, notably Jurassic Park (1993). He even found time to write original movie scripts and to create the blockbuster TV series ER (1994-2009). Considering the whole of Crichton’s Hollywood career, Pursuit represents a humble early effort. It’s an adequate little potboiler that comes together nicely at the end, despite bargain-basement production values, but it’s unlikely that Pursuit would be remembered today if not for Crichton’s involvement.
          Based on a novel called Binary, which Crichton wrote under one of his many pseudonyms, Pursuit follows a government agent’s surveillance of a potential domestic terrorist. During the first half of the picture, intrepid Steven Graves (Ben Gazzara) tracks the movements of right-wing nutjob James Wright (E.G. Marshall) without knowing exactly what Wright plans to do. During the second half of the picture, once Graves discovers that Wright has built a complex biological weapon that he plans to detonate in downtown San Diego while the president is visiting the city, Graves and his colleagues use psychology, strategy, and tenacity to prevent Wright’s weapon from detonating.
          Throughout Crichton’s career, he was better at plotting than characterization, and his stories were often convoluted and far-fetched. All of those shortcomings manifest here. What carries the day, as per the norm, is the novelty and strength of Crichton’s concepts. In Pursuit, he dramatizes the ease with which a well-funded criminal seizes dangerous chemicals, and then meticulously illustrates the simple techniques by which those chemicals are transformed into a homemade WMD. So even if the people in the movie are familiar types—Graves is a brilliant hothead, Wright is a dignified psychotic—Crichton puts all the pieces in place for a fun ticking-clock finale. (Never one for subtlety, Crichton actually superimposes countdowns over many scenes.) And while the picture’s visuals are quite bland, the quality of acting is strong, with the leads abetted by supporting players including Martin Sheen, William Windom, and Joseph Wiseman. Just don’t probe the logic of the piece too closely.

Pursuit: FUNKY


Unknown said...

Peter, I not only thank you for tracking this, but the title "Pursuit" triggered a search of my own. I could have sworn there was a TV movie called "Hunter," but sadly "Hunter" is a rather generic adventure title. Before Fred Dryer grabbed it playing Dirty Harry Lite on TV, James Franciscus played a spy by that name. Anyhow, it doesn't seem to be what I was looking for, but there's a 1973 TV movie called "Hunter" in which John Vernon gets to play a good guy for once. Footage of the winged monkeys from "The Wizard of Oz" is used to brainwash a race car driver into becoming an assassin. Evidently this movie is the source of the deathless line "Please, stop the monkeys!" This Wizard of Oz brainwashing business in turn reminds me of the 1968 Dirk Bogarde thriller "Sebastian" -- and there I had better leave it, before I vanish down a rabbit hole of my own digging ...

Coyote Cosmonaut said...

This has just received a US blu-ray release on Kino Lorber.