Wickedness has been defanged on television -- made cute in TV soap operas like "Dynasty" and "Dallas" -- and so one of the refreshing things about the two-part CBS mini-series "Blood and Orchids," airing Sunday and Monday at 9 on Channel 9, is that it restores to wickedness some of its lost luster.
A tale of alleged rape, actual murder and the settling of various scores in 1937 Hawaii, "Blood and Orchids" is a gripping courtroom thriller with sober social reverberations. The screenplay, which Norman Katkov wrote from his novel, is solid and satisfying, and director Jerry Thorpe doesn't let any of it get away.
A couple of passionate romances are thrown into the film for good measure. Or not-so-good measure, since once or twice the romances slow the picture down and seem trumped-up and obtrusive. Still, just about everything in this drama works, including the film's "Chinatowny" aura of pervasive corruption, of dirty little secrets that an overprivileged ruling class conspires to keep locked away.
Most of the wickedness is handled by Jane Alexander as Doris Ashley, the hateful plantation owner who tells her daughter Hester, "I'm not evil. I'm a survivor." She's an evil survivor. As the film opens, Hester (Madeline Stowe), married to a Navy lieutenant stationed at Pearl Harbor, is having an adulterous sk,1 affair with her husband's best friend, also a Navy officer (Bryce Parker). They quarrel when she reveals she is pregnant by him and, in a drunken frenzy, he gives her a vicious beating and leaves her lying on the beach.
She stumbles away, dripping blood on a nearby orchid -- hence, the title -- and collapses on the side of the road. Along come four young Hawaiian men who see the body, wrap it in a blanket and take the unconscious woman to a hospital. As the story evolves, these good Samaritans will themselves be charged with the assault and with rape, victims of a racist society that has imposed itself on a tainted paradise. Their trial ends, as Part 1 ends, on a note of sudden trauma.
As in "The Jewel in the Crown," the story is set in motion by a violent sexual act, illusory or not, and complicated by culture clash. Not that "Orchids" is in the "Crown" class; it certainly doesn't aspire so high. Still, as compelling as it is as a courtroom thriller, there's definitely more going on here than that.
Although the deck is clearly stacked against the four young men, they are not without a source of hope -- chiefly, Capt. Curt Maddox of the local police force. Kris Kristofferson, who is still not quite an actor, plays Maddox in a state of permanent clench. His strong silent approach has its little payoffs, and a big one at showdown time. Many of his scenes, though, lack emotive oomph, and the other actors have to compensate.
Now and then Maddox visits a diner to try to rekindle a romance with Susan Blakely as ex-girlfriend Marie, but true love arrives later on a ship. A famous old diabetic lawyer (poignantly played by Jose' Ferrer) comes from Washington with his young wife (the unnervingly beautiful Sean Young) and she and the cop fall for each other thunderously.
Young gets the worst line of dialogue in the film. To Kristofferson she says in the course of a rendezvous, "You make me feel new, as though you've invented me."
Members of the Asian-Pacific community in Los Angeles, who've been angered by Asian portrayals in such recent film projects as "16 Candles" and "Year of the Dragon," reportedly were pleased after an advance screening of "Blood and Orchids." The film has many good parts for, and several first-rate performances by, Hawaiian actors, although it's too bad they don't get the kind of billing that Kristofferson, Alexander and Young do. The four young men, for instance, are all but anonymous in the credits.
Most instantly indelible of all the characters is Princess Luahine, a proud and bitter entrepreneur who laments the way the islands and their people have been exploited. Haunani Minn, who plays the princess, has at least as much authority as the whole FBI. Put together.
James Saito plays a former math teacher born on the islands who, as lawyer for the four men, will be trying his first criminal case. The performance conveys both his nervousness and his resolve. He gets a romance, too -- with Sarah Liluohe, sister of one of the accused, played by Elizabeth Lindsey. They have a twilight meeting on the beach that is one of the few bluntly scenic moments in the film.
As the wickedest thing hereabouts, Alexander underplays enough so that her villainy could never be mistaken for the just-kidding chicanery of an Alexis Carrington or a J.R. Ewing. This is not bitch chic. This is comparatively serious business. From "Blood and Orchids" you get the shimmering lowdown. 'Crossings'
For a good deal of its ornery six-hour running time, the three-part ABC mini-series "Crossings," airing Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 9 on Channel 7, doesn't just kill time; first, it tortures it. There's a saving grace here, however, that comes in the form of mildly electrifying shocks. "Crossings" contains what may be the most erotic love scenes yet seen in a television film.
The complete title of the logy opus is "Danielle Steel's Crossings," in deference to the author of the novel on which Bill and Jo LaMond based their perfectly silly screenplay, the story of a wartime romance that takes forever to bring to a conclusion. It must be admitted though that as these things go, and as these things go on, "Crossings" is definitely on a higher plane than something like the Joan Collins' ordeal "Sins." The characters in "Crossings" have the same kind of enjoyably artificial aura as characters in the old Universal weepies of the '50s.
And now and then director Karen Arthur, who wastes little energy on the narrative itself, lets loose with a real humdinger of a love scene, going as far as she can within TV standards to set off sparks. The first of these also helps establish characters, albeit with no subtlety whatever. It's a twin bedroom scene: Cheryl Ladd, in a prim white nightie, with Christopher Plummer as her husband and, in an adjoining frame, that naughty naughty bad girl Jane Seymour, in sinful black lingerie, with Lee Horsley.
This is during the first of the film's crossings, in 1939. Ladd plays a rich nice lady married to a French diplomat (Plummer) who joins up with the Vichy government as a spy for the resistance, sending Ladd back to the States on a subsequent voyage. Seymour is the trampy Hillary, who seems to have a man in every porthole. She cuddles sensually in a slide at the ship's pool with a gigolo, her marriage to handsome Nick Burnham (Horsley) having become one of those In-Name-Only deals.
Nobody brings a sassier snap to the roles of fallen women these days than Seymour, and she is always fun to watch. Conveniently, Horsley falls for Ladd, and they keep having clandestine meetings throughout the film. However, she is still in love with her husband, who is over there in Europe fighting for what he calls "Frawnce." The story is constructed so that the Gestapo will be freeing Ladd to marry Horsley should it decide to prop Plummer up before zee firing squad.
However, we know that Ladd is of good character because not only does she feel guilty about adultery, she also pauses every now and then to inquire about "the Jews." The way she refers to Jews, you'd think they were creatures to be patted on the head. Using aspects of the Holocaust as background for a sudsy love story is offensive, but this film is hardly the first to do it.
Arthur shows a real knack for such baldly sensuous stuff as Seymour getting a hot oil massage in Cannes, and for the more rapturously romantic interludes, like Ladd and Horsley sharing a shipboard shower (their response to seeing a troop ship torpedoed nearby) or slowly-slowly-slowly undressing each other by a roaring fire in Carmel, Calif. For television, these scenes are real heart-pounders, beautifully done.
The other maestro contributing to the effect is the great composer Michel Legrand, one of the most prolific romantic melodists of our time. For most of the film he alternates his own original melancholy love theme for Ladd and Horsley (a movie cousin of the Ashley and Scarlett theme Max Steiner wrote for "Gone with the Wind") with Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." Then in part three, Legrand combines both melodies in counterpoint while the two stars share a homecoming dance.
Stewart Granger and Joan Fontaine each show up, briefly, as do Horst Buchholz as a Nazi and Zach Galligan, of "Gremlins," in a pitifully vacuous performance as Plummer and Ladd's son. But then vacuousness is hardly jolting in this context. "We're two different people," mopes the lad. "That's right," says Ladd. "He's your father, and you're his son." The screenplay is on that level. But Arthur's direction elevates "Crossings" to the status of Real Movie -- and even, on occasion, that rare thing, Real Sexy Movie.