first James Garner in "Space" and now Cliff Robertson in Ken Follett's "The Key to Rebecca" (the first of two parts to be aired tonight at 8 on Channel 20) -- should leave the boys in their Sergio Valente jeans once and for all crying in their Diet Perriers.
Oh, for a man with stubble! The whiskey-swilling, motorcycle-riding Robertson has never looked better, even if his British army-issue khaki uniform is unbuttoned farther than Bob Guccione's.
His downy chest, his steely blue eyes, his desert-bronzed and crinkled face add fire to the already sizzling spy thriller deftly directed by British actor David ("Blow Up") Hemmings.
If you can forgive the initial leisurely pace and periodic lapses into B-movie dialogue, "The Key to Rebecca" is a chilling four hours of suspense and romance, with just enough sex and violence to qualify as a highly commercial mini-series.
But unlike other small-screen fare, sometimes as flimsy as a pre-fab shower kit, "Rebecca" has the look of big bucks. Filmed on location in Tunisia with an international cast, Follett's best seller has been transformed into a sweeping World War II story of intrigue and betrayal, with suitably smarmy characters. The photography is lush, the sets authentic. The musical score is predictably stirring -- especially whenever Robertson appears -- but after all, this is Us against the Nazis.
The action takes place in 1942 as the Desert Fox, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Robert Culp), is cutting a swath through North Africa. Culp looks as if he were fitted with a bad pair of dentures, and hisses his way through the dusty battlefields sounding like a cross between Baba Wawa and Colonel Klink.
The villainous Nazi spy Alex Wolff, played with appropriate callousness by David Soul, formerly one-half of television's "Starsky and Hutch," is part German and part Egyptian. A one-man Teutonic plague, he is enlisted by the Germans to spy on the 8th Army's high command and relay its battle plans to Rommel.
He will, as they say at Ma Maison, stop at nothing.
But one thing he wasn't counting on was the "fearless Allied officer" Maj. William Vandam (Robertson), who will also stop at nothing.
"They use anything and anyone to get what they want," the narrator growls, "and sex is the ultimate weapon."
He's talking about the characters, not the producers.
The story begins as the dehydrated Wolff is picked up in the desert by his Bedouin cousin and nursed back to health. Once on his feet, he hitches a ride with British officers, and shortly thereafter commits his first of several gruesome murders. Armed with a suitcase full of counterfeit money and a short-wave radio, he makes his way to Cairo, infiltrating the high command with the help of a bisexual belly dancer named Sonja (Lina Raymond), whose navel power is awesome enough to seduce the sweaty Maj. Smith (David Hemmings) into several compromising positions.
"I must say, you do wear a European gown beautifully," the lust-struck major drools.
Raymond's ample talents are prominently displayed, but, unfortunately, her acting is not as well-rounded.
"I loathe him," she tells her lover Wolff after he forces her to seduce the major. "His touch is like sullllime."
Wolff: "If you fail me, I will surely slice off your lovely lips."
Sonja (pouting): "You do not luf me."
Sonja also has a weakness for young girls, and slinks into Wolff's arms growling, "You know what I need."
What she gets, or almost gets, is Elene Fontana (Season Hubley), a young lovely enlisted by Vandam to play footsie with Wolff. Hubley does the best she can with the part. Her accent is thicker than Turkish coffee, and she looks as if she's wearing one of Elizabeth Taylor's wigs from "Cleopatra," but she is convincing as Robertson's love interest.
Veteran British actor Anthony Quayle makes a brief appearance as local power broker Abdullah, and there's an Egyptian supervisor of police doing a weasel-like Peter Lorre imitation.
But the dramatic moments belong to Vandam and Wolff.
Robertson, with his war-is-hell macho-ness (he even breaks down and cries), is a perfect foil for Soul's cunning, pretty-boy charm. (His goatee even looks sinister.)
There is genuine suspense and a bang-up ending.
Produced by David Lawrence, Robyn A. Watson and Adam Lawrence, Hemmings' film is a worthy entry in the cinema spy genre.
It's not "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." More like "Soldier Spy."