"Rearview Mirror," the NBC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 4, is a strikingly well-done nail-biter. I couldn't wait for it to be over. It's a nasty sort of entertainment, the story of a woman terrorized during a long drive around the South in the clutches of an escaped convict who is the very definition of the phrase "armed and dangerous."
Where the film veers away from the standard formula for menaced-heroine thrillers is in the depiction of the menacee, a middle-aged woman named Terry Seton, and the way she is played by Lee Remick. Seton does not just quiver, sob and scream. She uses her wits, and her sexuality, to try to escape. Of course, the fact that she repeatedly fails to escape somewhat blunts the feminist revisionism, but the character is still refreshingly smart and resourceful.
Lorenzo Semple Jr., who wrote the screenplay from a novel by Caroline B. Cooney, throws in enough strange twists to make the film more than a recycling of similar thrillers. But it's basically the performances by Remick and by Michael Beck, as the convict, that give it distinction. Finally Remick has a TV role in which her hair gets messed up. She isn't just sitting around being beautiful-for-her-age or lecturing with her chin taut, as in "Mistral's Daughter" earlier this season. This is a real performance and a formidable one. She's radiant but she's real.
Beck, who played the crazed evangelist of last year's "Celebrity," is even more convincingly crazed as psychotic redneck Jerry Sam Hopps (never trust a man named Jerry Sam), whose first act upon breaking out of prison is to trash a house and chop up the hamsters he finds in it. He barges into a schoolroom and drafts his dimwit cousin (Ned Bridges) as a companion for a cross-country toot. But when they steal a station wagon in which parents have thoughtlessly left their baby, the story takes on sinister complications.
The director, Lou Antonio, knows how to sustain suspense, even over the potholes of implausibility that riddle the plot. But he can't really wring much drama out of the parallel story of a transplanted Brooklyn cop (Tony Musante) who assumes the case from his South Carolina colleagues and finds himself falling in love with the kidnaped Seton from afar as he learns more about her and marvels at her ability to survive. Since the cop keeps failing to arrive in the nick of time, his contribution amounts to little more than trivial pursuit.
There is something almost comical about the way the kidnaped woman keeps flirting with and humoring her captor, then attempts to escape, then has to wangle her way back into his confidence again when recaptured. It probably happens once or twice too often; one does begin to wonder why this maniac with no morals repeatedly stops short of rape. Seton's character, though, is the thing that holds the film together and makes it work in the slightly unsavory way that it wants to.