There are some poignant and moving moments in "A Deadly Business," and the kind of professional acting one would expect from Alan Arkin and Michael Learned.
But the real power of this polished and chilling little CBS teleplay (to be broadcast tonight at 9 on Channel 9), is its honesty. It is based on the actual story of a small-time ex-convict, Harold Kaufman, who becomes involved in organized crime's attempt to take over the nation's toxic waste disposal business. Kaufman, we are told in an epilogue, is still called upon from time to time to be a government witness in efforts to prosecute cases of illegal and dangerous toxic waste disposal. . (The real Kaufman, who is 62 and lives under a new name, was paid $40,000 for the rights to his story, according to the New York Daily News. "There must be 20 contracts out on me," he told the newspaper.) In tonight's two-hour drama, Kaufman (played by Arkin) is paroled after serving 20 years on a bank robbery conviction. He is wooed by a hungry mob underboss, played with sinister e'clat by Armand Assante, who tells Kaufman he wants him because "anybody who can smuggle 10 pounds of kosher salami into the pen is my kind of guy."
*Rather much is made of Kaufman's Jewishness -- or lack of it; he is at a total loss at the Passover celebration he attends. But it gives the film an opportunity for a curious aside, when a Jewish policeman suggests that Kaufman ought to get away from the mobster because "I can tell you as a landsman fellow Jew they'll never accept you." Kaufman responds tiredly, "I can't tell you how often I've gotten that landsman routine from you guys; the first time I was 19, and it doesn't do any more good now than it did then."
But through Ann Behrens, played by Michael Learned, Kaufman gradually learns affection and love. The relationship gives him an introduction to a religious-cultural ethic he never knew before, so when he finally decides to go undercover for a skeptical FBI, he has a reasonable explanation. It is a not very subtle allusion to the Holocaust that leads him to draw his line, as it were, at the "mass murder -- kids and women and old people" who would inevitably be victims of the illegal disposal of toxic wastes. These, predictably, are seen being poured into streams, into the ocean, into city sewer systems. And then Kaufman adds, "For once in my life I want to do something good, so I can say when I die I did that one good thing."
What is painfully honest, though, about "A Deadly Business" is its suggestion that things could have gone more successfully. For all of Kaufman's late-emerging eagerness to atone, and for all of his courage in trapping his boss, corrupt politicians and a clutch of big companies, only "several" of 23 corporations and 25 individuals indicted actually were punished. And even those who were jailed got relatively short terms. The film's conclusion: Environmental laws are still being flouted and organized crime is still involved.