The extensive movie programming on Home Box Office and similar cable television systems is built around familiar titles--most of the big hits or disappointments that played theatrically six to 18 months earlier. About three-dozen films rotate in the HBO repertory each month, and that number triples if you also subscribe to HBO's satellite movie channel, Cinemax.
A small percentage of this programming is represented by theatrical misfits like Jack Fisk's "Raggedy Man," scheduled for several showings on HBO this month, including two--at 10:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.--tomorrow.
It's gratifying to get a look at this orphaned product, but it's difficult to believe that it would have rallied a first-run audience. "Raggedy Man" isn't untalented or unappealing, but its attractive aspects are never strong enough to persuade you that Universal miscalculated when it withdrew the movie from release last summer.
A small-scale story depicted with a ponderous, inert sort of pictorial handsomeness, "Raggedy Man" doesn't have much dramatic or esthetic "dimension" to lose transposed to the miniaturized TV format. Although it's tricked out with gratuitous and ultimately ruinous gothic gimmicks, William Witliff's minimal screenplay recalls the wistful little romances in small-town southwestern settings that Horton Foote more or less patented during the heyday of live TV drama. Witliff even borrows from a Foote movie credit--the screenplay of "To Kill a Mockingbird"--for his awkwardly shadowy title character, who functions much like the deceptive Boo. A freaky outcast on the outskirts of the plot, Mr. Raggedy is revealed to be a devoted protector when he rescues the heroine and her children from the filthy Triplett Brothers. (The most impressive performance is contributed by William Sanderson, a young character actor cast as a small-town degenerate named Calvin Triplett. Tracey Walter joins Sanderson as the lesser of two evils.)
Sissy Spacek's character, Nita Longley, has found temporary refuge for herself and her kids (the gravely compelling Henry Thomas--now being celebrated as the young protagonist in "E.T."--and the expendably cutesy Carey Hollis Jr.) in a barren little town, circa 1944, after being wronged by her man. The principal events are supposed to take place within a few days, a time period that seems infinite because of the monotonous, lead-footed exposition. Nita's unhappy marital history is outrageously skimpy, for tactical reasons that become obvious at the conclusion. The plot merely sets up a "surprise" twist so lame (and, in retrospect, so shamelessly masochistic) that maximum concealment is essential.
One is accustomed to the sorry spectacle of filmmakers who miscalculate by overreaching. Spacek and Fisk, who are married, seem to go wrong on "Raggedy Man" by underreaching. This was Spacek's first project after winning an Oscar for "Coal Miner's Daughter," and it was Fisk's first directing effort, following an impressive career as a production designer on pictures like "Phantom of the Paradise," "Carrie" and "Movie Movie." The Witliff script must have looked like a compact, manageable opportunity, something nice and modest that the Fisks could do together. They could even do it in Spacek's native Texas. Regrettably, they overrated the quality of the material, which proves too flimsy to supply the star with an adequate role or the director with an adequate plot.
Perhaps Spacek was carried away by a couple of set-piece speeches in which Nita appears to anticipate Women's Liberation by telling off her insensitive, exploitative boss. It would have been more astute to envision Nita as a struggling young mother smart and resourceful enough to figure out that the opportunities might be greater in nearby Corpus Christi or San Antonio. What's she doing in sleepy little Gregory for the duration, anyway? She has no family there. She doesn't even have women acquaintances to talk to. When Nita's one-time lover, Teddy (Eric Roberts), takes the boys to an amusement park and movie in Corpus Christi, it's evidently the first such treat of their lives.
Far from taking charge of her life in some heroic fashion, Nita is a peculiar combination of dim bulb and bump-on-a-log. There's nothing much going on in Gregory, but even less in her upper story. Ultimately, the unveiling of Mr. Raggedy makes a mockery of the assertive speechifying. If he's who he's supposed to be, Nita has to be a colossal stupe.
As long as Witliff was on the scene, working as a second unit director yet, it seems a pity he wasn't pressed into service in his original capacity. "Raggedy Man" is starved for scenes that might fill out our scanty store of information--for example, a little more about the marriage, the love affair, her identity as a mother. Even the location needs to be filled out, since one forms the misimpression that Gregory is not so much a small town as a ghost town. Next time, the Fisks owe it to themselves to bite off enough material to chew.