Take a conventional, awkwardly arranged thriller, add one part meditation on the power of The Press, spice with crummy photography and crummier music, bake till inedible, and voila! "The Mean Season."
How mean is it?
It's so mean, hurricanes are building in the Miami sky. It's so mean, Alan Delour (Richard Jordan) frolics with a .45, tidily numbering each victim with a scrap of paper (earning him the catchy nickname "The Numbers Killer"). Delour calls Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell), a reporter who's "burned out" and ready to quit, but stays on to cover the story for his boss (Richard Masur), who's so mean he sees this tragedy as a way to sell newspapers. Anderson is so mean he makes his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) cry, because she wants him to leave this craziness and move with her to Colorado, and sanity.
How sane is it? (Just kidding.)
Director Philip Borsos relies on a few time-worn cliche's in building suspense: someone walks into a dark room, the music rises to a needling pitch, a hand sneaks up on a shoulder, and (boy, what a relief!) it's just a friend roaming around the house. "The Mean Season" was written by Leon Piedmont, a television writer, and the movie has a TV feel -- the newsroom is a replica of "Lou Grant," complete with disgruntled woman reporter and nutty photographer cum Hawaiian shirt. It doesn't help that "The Mean Season" has a TV score, all cello-sawing and solo brass, contributed by Lalo Schifrin, who hasn't advanced from the work he did on "Mannix" and "Mission: Impossible."
Of course, Borsos and Piedmont aren't interested in the plot -- they have bigger fish to fry. A bunch of time-lapse shots of clouds roiling overhead are supposed to suggest something about the destructiveness of nature, including human nature; surely, they have nothing to do with the weather -- Frank Tidy's overly bright cinematography makes Miami look like Phoenix (it's not the heat, Frank, it's the humidity). More important to "The Mean Season" is its critique of the power of the press. Anderson makes hay out of the carnage ("you're entering Pulitzer territory," says his smarmy editor); once embroiled in the affair, he gets a taste of his own medicine. The horde descends, notebooks ready and shutters clicking, ever ready to profiteer from the misery of others. Where's Hildy Johnson when you need him?
Russell has a loose, jovial charm, and before he and Hemingway come apart at the seams, they play nicely together -- they'd make a good pair for a romantic comedy. But soon enough, the tension builds, Hemingway becomes a screeching harpy, Russell grows morose. He doesn't project the kind of intelligence he needs to drag along the movie's sociological freight.
Jordan, though, gives a triumphantly creepy performance as the killer. For the first half of the movie, you don't even see him; you just hear his voice on the phone, resonant and educated but broken by nerves, like Boris Karloff on his second pot of coffee. When he finally appears, pale and tubby with a wet thatch of hair, he evokes a favorite, eccentric high school teacher: When a victim asks, "Are you going to kill me?" he replies, "Let's try to keep these things as abstract as possible." He's the Nutty Professor for real.