Because one can feel the presence of an esthetic sensibility behind it, "The Dain Curse" is ipso facto in a league beyond most films made for television. Unfortunately, the Long-Form Curse, new to CBS but already entrenched at the other two networks has to be reckoned with. The Dashiell Hammett detective mystery on which the film is based can be read in less than half the time it takes to see the movie.
"he Dain Curse" is six hours long - two hours each night at 9 o'clock on Channel 9, starting tonight - and the decision to expand a clean, lean novel into a big fat opus probably had much less to do with esthetics than with commercial programming logistics. In Europe, a re-edited theatrical cut of this film will be distributed with a running time of 2 1/2 hours maximum, strongly suggesting that the domestic TV version has been padded out for the convenience of the network sales department.
One the one hand, it's gratifying to come upon a TV production with a distinctive style and texture, since most network product has the same flat factory look, no real feeland little if any feeling. Suddenly, up pops this gleaming Pierce-Arrow on the old Ford assembly line - literally, in fact, because a Pierce-Arrow is among the 100 or so magnificent old cars that help establish the film's 1928 setting.
On the other hand, six hours of even the dreamiest of styles and most luxurious textures is too much, and since the narrative does not go sa shaying through generations or hopscotching among centuries, the plot tends to be engulfed by the atmosphere.
To the flaw of inflation are added serious acts of miscasting. James Coburn as Hammett's detective hero, unnamed in the book but called Hamilton Nash here, doesn't convey any of the self-deprecating urban dissipation established in Hammett's writing. Coburn doesn't look urban at all; he looks like a burned-out rodeo star. This may be just right for beer commercials but it doesn't suit Hammett's detective, and Coburn seems too much the modern macho and too little the '20s tough guy.
Similarly, Jason Miller was the wrong choice to play the perserve author Owen Fitzstephan, since he comes across on the screen as merely prissy, and Nancy Addison, as the addicted heroine Gabrielle Leggett, was both miscast and misdirected since she turns a provocative enigma into an overwrought banshee right out of "The Curse of the Cat People." Actually was far more subtle and Addison is to her discredit no Simone Simon.
Erros in judgement go deeper than the casting. Writer Robert W. Lenski, producer Martin Poll and director E.W. Swackhamer were probably attracted to his early Hammet novel because it meddles in affairs that have a contemporary air - clandestine religious etcs, a ritual murder and much dope-taking. They have seen all the seductive darkness in the aterial but almost none of what makes it a pleasure to read: Hammett's icy-cold yet weirdly warming flippancy. Lenski even goes so symptomatically far as to have the detective growl, "I don't find one damn thing about this case the least bit funny," when in fact Hammett's heros usually found a great about their cases funny, even though their lives were repeatly being jeopardized by such pranks as murder, manslaughter and assisination.
There is a sardonic tint to the titan, and now and then it brightens things up. Doped to the gills and crawling his way to escape, Nash is discovered lying on the floor of an elevator that fits him like a glove fits a moose. The sight of him cramped groggily into the elevator gives him a fresh funny vulnerability. A poker game played under bare light bulbs - with a chinese table noting, "Nash cheats, you know" - is another of the resonant incidentals that tend to upstage the central plot rather than support it.
If the TV version of "Dain Curse," like the book itself, tends to be short on irony, there's a whopper of an irony in the fact that the film should have been more brutal and shot in California. This is ironic because the most excessive excesses on television include California locations and gratuitous brutality.
There are lots of murders, but most of them lack impact, and, worse, the characters don't seem menacing in the good old classic film noir way - and if the filmmakers weren't aspiring to classic detective movie qualities, they should have updated the story.
And while the New York and Long Island locations chosen by Poll and Swackhamer make for very refreshing, even ravishing sights, the books true turf really is California, especially when it comes to the business of the nutty religious cult, "The Temple of the Holy Grail."
In the book, one of Hammett's characters says of the cult, "It's the fashionable one just now. You know how they come and go in California." This hasn't changed in 50 years.
For all the mistakes, and despite the grotesque length of the program, it's clear enough that the artistic motives behind "The Dain Curse" were for television programming, virtually noble. Many wrong turns were made, however, and eventually they outnumber the good ones, so that an experience one expects to relish becomes something endured. It's too bad, because a lot of people would love to have loved "The Dain Curse" to death; instead, it dies before you get the chance.