The notion of a sixth remake of "Madame X" may not exactly set every heart spinning with anticipation. But the new NBC movie version of the old, old story, tonight at 9 on Channel 4, is a felicitous surprise. It's a tear-jerker you can watch with a smile on your face. A smile of appreciation.
Edward Anhalt wrote and Robert Ellis Miller directed this seventh screen version of an inarguably venerable weepie that began life as a French play in the 19th century. Although it belongs to a purply pulpish tradition of suffering fallen women, the new version, starring the eerily luminescent Tuesday Weld, isn't kitsch and isn't camp. You really don't have to hate yourself for loving it, either.
Miller and Anhalt have lightened up the story without blunting its slightly mysterious impact; they didn't approach this hokey material with anything resembling snooty condescension. As a result, "Madame X" is more satisfying in its rather oblivious way, than many of those TV movies dripping with relevance and gouged from headlines.
The heroine is a carefree spirit as the movie opens, after a brief prologue that leads into the flashback tragique. It's the '50s, in this moderately updated edition, and she's happily married to a rising young Republican politician and returning to her adorable daughter from a blissful second honeymoon in Bermuda (originally the movie opened with the honeymoon but Fred Silverman personally ordered the flashback approach; he was right).
The husband's political career intervenes to separate the happy couple, and in a week moment while he is away, she submits to the amorous advances of a family friend and then, accidentally, pushed him down a flight of stairs to his death. And that's only the first 20 minutes or so.
Observed in this indiscretion by the politician's imperious and manipulative mother (made slightly Rose Kennedyesque by the script and played by Eleanor Parker with her nose aimed at the stars), the heroine is convinced to disappear and is exiled away to foreign lands, where she tumbles around in international gutters until years later when she is brought back into her family's life by the most improbable coincidence.
The final reels of the film are so guaranteed to elicit sniffles that we may be due for a national Kleenex shortage starting tomorrow morning. Miller pours it on thick, but not sloppy, and Angela ("Watership Down") Morley's music is in a similarly classy, manipulative vein. "Madame X" is real escapist escapism, very meaningless and terribly entertaining.
Two bright and saucy young producers, Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche, helped drag "Madame X" back to the screen, and it was worth it (the most famous version of the film is probably the one Lana Turner wept and schlepped through at Universal in the '50s). The picture was shot in a wizardly 21 days of those in Santa Barbara, Calif., a versatile town that plays the roles of Bermuda, Madrid, suburban New York and the Costa Brava in Spain.
Even Santa B is upstaged, though, by Tuesday Weld, now 36, as the heroine, who ages convincingly 20 years in the course of the picture and has her best moments when called upon to suffer. There's always been something about Tuesday Weld that makes her thoroughly fascinating even during those interludes when she is not particularly believable. In 'Madame X," the distinction between believable and fascinating is effectively made moot.
The story has not, mercifully enough, been laundered in feminist lather in order to make it appear chic. Still, as played by Weld, the character does become something of a Pop-Literary Everywoman. She commits a second murder late in the story, and the victim turns out to be a man himself guilty of various "crimes against women."
Weld's competition in knocking people for loops is chiefly supplied by Jeremy Brett, who pops by as a Dublin doctor who helps snap Weld back after an overdose of liquor and Nebutol. Marching her around the hospital room, he says to her, "Good. That's better than being dead, isn't it?" Brett's scenes with Weld are so bright and crisp -- he has a dashing, David Nivenny kind of debonair masculinity -- that viewers may wish the decline and fall would be aborted so this handsome twosome could play out some other love plot together.
But Madame X has other worlds to be conquered by.
Miller is a real movie director who has made this a real movie, greatly aided by the resourceful cinematography of Woody Omens. In the first part of the picture, there's a beautifully composed, lyrical montage that takes the heroine from the scene of her faked death at sea through a tour of world capitals. Using a time-compressing montage like this may not be the inspiration of all time, but it's dreamily effective, and the kind of effort most TV directors don't bother to expend.
And on some privileged and inscrutable plane, the story works all over again. It annihilates disbelief the way Orson Welles might crush a cricket. "Madame X" is Grade A -- as delectable as good gossip and as watchable as a Malibu sunset.