"Travis McGee," the "ABC Movie Special" at 9 tonight on Channel 7, brings the detective hero created by John D. MacDonald to life, but just barely. It really brings him to more of a catatonic state. Fans of the MacDonald novels will have to decide whether the Stirling Silliphant screenplay is faithful to the spirit of the books or not, but as a TV movie, the film is drowsily static and talky.
Silliphant's dialogue may remind some viewers of why they used to be driven up the wall and then across the ceiling by the more world-weary episodes of "Route 66," Silliphant's old CBS series. All the characters in "McGee" seem chained to the floor by that old bugaboo, The Human Condition. Such a burden it is. There's talk of "mid-life angst" and of "a certain bleakness" and of a woman providing a man with "medicine for the soul."
You get the feeling that one undercooked entree at a fancy French restaurant would be enough to push any of these tortured creatures right over the brink.
McGee is played by Sam Elliott, not so much a craggy actor as one great crag; his voice comes straight up from Middle Earth and his countenance is rangy and dry to the point of caricature. The cast includes a part for his girlfriend, the rather provocatively empty Katharine Ross, but the best acting in the film is from old reliable Barry Corbin, as a tough but--unsurprisingly enough in this context--guilt-ridden sheriff, and by Vera Miles, a pleasure to encounter once again, making a tangily bittersweet impression as the tart-tongued widow of a profligate entrepreneur.
The whereabouts of the woman's husband, and the matter of whether or not he really died in a boating accident, are the essence of the puny mystery plot, and send the hero off in his sailboat to Sands Point, where he meets with resentment from just about everybody, including a lonely saloon singer who coaxes him into bed, then barks out her hostility when he leaves in the middle of the night.
"Magnum P.I." made the world safe again for first-person voice-overs in detective stories, so Elliott is also heard droning away on the sound track. "There's nothing worse than comin' down on somebody when you know they can't take it," he grrrs at one point. Travis doesn't do much, actually--this is one show that a few car chases would help--but he talks up a sodden storm, especially when we get to his Life's Credo, which goes like this:
"Boy, if I were king of the world, I'd roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes on the people who are nice with no special reason to be nice, and I'd have my troops lopping off the heads of all the mean, embittered little weasels who try to inflate their own self-esteem by stomping on yours. Heh-heh-heh. There'd be so many heads rolling around, the whole world would look like a berserk bowling alley."
This sort of thing sounds less like a cynical dick ruminating on the ills of the world than it does Stirling Silliphant wreaking vengeance on all the headwaiters and network executives who ever wronged him. "Travis McGee" makes one think maybe all those headwaiters and network executives had their reasons. Perhaps we should hear their side of the story