FRANK CAPRA thought his movies would seem more exciting if he had his actors talk fast. So they did. Howard Hawks and Orson Welles among others, went Capra one further and had their actors overlap dialogue, with one another as they spoke.
George Stevens made the action sequences in "Gunga Din" more frenetic by "cranking down" the camera, which speeded up the movements of the actors and stuntmen. So what if it looked a little funny? This was not supposed to be reality but an improvement on it."
What many film directors and writers working for television are doing now - expecially in the long-form malingering serials - is to undo the work of the great film directors of the past. They had made film an art of compression; TV filmmakers fill vast spaces of air with air. They put back in all the stuff that skilled storytellers would have thrown out and pace their films with the electric zest of a siesta.
It doesn't happen with every mini-series, but it does happen with "The Word," an eight-hour plod for CBS that starts with a two-hour Chapter tonight at 8 on Channel 9. On the basis of the opening installment, which one would think might go as heavily on attention-grabbing as possible, "The Word" is void. And 10, "The Word" is null.
The film, directed by Richard Lang and written by a team of writers, is based on an Irving Wallace novel about how a major archeological discovery of ancient biblical writtings brings out the best and the worst in dear old mankind. There is espionage and skullduggery in attempts to suppress the document, but there is also general spiritual revival as a result of its discovery.
This premise is not much different from such wholesome Hollywood hokum as "The Next Voice You Hear," in which God himself preempted a few minutes of prime time on national radio (it was 1950) to help straighten the world out; or even "The Day of the Triffids," in which humanity gave thanks to the Almighty for having stopped the spread of man-eating plants from other space. The fact that they'd all been struck blind in the process didn't seem to curb their favor.
Somewhat in the same spirit, "The Word" has the kind of plot and character elements that ought to be on the surefire side as TV fare. Not a piece of cake, perhaps, but at box of cackerjacks with a St. Christopher medal inside.But the project came down with a bad case of long-form fever, so that what could and probably should have been a two or three-hour feature will take for plans at two hours a pop to unfold.
The producers must have wanted to take as pokey an approach as possible with this material. For one thing they cast David Janssen, the human poke, in the lead, playing a jaded and cynical public relations man who is drawn into the discovery of the mystic parchment and hired to help spread the "word" in question.
The project is dubbed - seriously and not facetiously - it appears - "Resurrection Two," as in "Jaws 2," and the idea that, were a second coming imminent, a public relations firm would be the one to stretch out the palm branches - really works better as the premise for a satirical comedy than as the pretext for a clammy chiller.
All of the possible lighter ironies plainly escape the straight-faced filmmakers, who go more for a tone akin to the preposterous pomposity of "The Shoes of the Fisherman." another Hollywood film about spiritual reawakening which coincidentally, had a score by Alex North, just as "The World" does.
Janssen grumbles and scuffs his way through the film in his usual surly and desultory style, but he's only one of several wet blankets on the fire. Director Lang has seen to it that every entrance, exit and scenic drive through a foreign location take as long as possible, padding out the plot line so voluptuously that you continually forget what the plot line was.
Commercials don't really interrupt programs like this, so much as they wake you up and bring you back to consciousness. The directors of TV commercials are the people who are keeping the art of narrative compression alive. They know how to tell a story quickly, delineate characters in a pinch, and wrap things up with punch and if not joie de vivre, at least joie de vende.
Perhaps the goals of TV products is to provide drowsy and hazy backgrounds to set off spritely and peppery commercials. If so, we TV critics are reviewing the marginalia and not the main attractions.
"The Word" is television for the wandering mind, produced as if under the assumption that viewers will have something else to do while they watch it. Woe unto those that don't. All they'll get is a rest until the next advertisement.
The craftsmanship that went into this production is not very impressive. In order to establish Janssen's character as spiritually dissipated, the writer deploys eight uses of the word "hell" in the first half hour. So that in a flashback the character recalls telling his father to "Go to hell," says "Aw, hell. I'm sorry" to his alcoholic teen-aged daughter, and informs his estranged wife that "it makes a heluva lot of difference" to him whether she is having an affair or not.
The simplest exchanges become arduous encounters in a script that is trying to fill as much time as possible. Janssen has to coax simple exposition out of Diana Muldaur as his wife with, "tell me, tell me, tell me," and "come on, out with it, come on." Maybe "The Wordy" would have been a better title.
The snappiest of their trite exchanges is probably this merry go-round:
Wife: "All you hear is what you want."
Husband: "I hear, I want, I want.'"
Wife: "Of course I want."
Meanwhile through all of this elliptical philosophy, Janssen is demonstrating the expressive range of an oyster. He's numb, we're numb. It's no wonder that James Whitmore, the very actor who heard God on the radio in 1950 and who here plays an evangelical publisher, at one point complains to Janssen, "I get a rather overwhelming feeling that your enthusiasm is not very great."
What may be amazing or dismaying in all of this is that millions of people will tune in "The Word" and find it passable, if not precisely plausible entertainment. It does have streaks of suspense and intrigue and it does meddle in religious topics other than demonology and occultism, those tiresome themes that have taken over the B-movie repertoire once more cheerfully dominated by the likes of Tarzan, Jerry Lewis, and Francis the Talking Mule.
Now of course even the networks are heavily into the devil - as witness the recent and ridiculous CBS potboiler "Devil Dog, Hound of Hell." There's a title worthy of American-International pictures, home of "I Was A Tenn-Age Frankenstein," or Russ Meyer, author of "Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill." How interesting that the networks are emulating these artists.
To take "The Word" at its word, or as any sort of statement of anything, would be the sincerest form of folly. Besides, it's length makes it not so much a statement as an interminable soliloquy. Curiously enough, characters keep quoting one another Matthew 28:7, "Go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead." What the filmmakers ignored is their own source material was its essence: Go "quickly," like it says in the Good Book. Those who cannot obey the law should not be so ready to quote it.