To catch a king, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart usually puts peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches on his hook.
In World War II, the fate of the free world hangs on two American expats—not to mention the Duke of Windsor and a lovelorn German general.
This is a by-the-book TV movie thriller, literally and figuratively. Drawn from a novel by Harry Patterson (better known as Jack Higgins, author of The Eagle Has Landed), it follows the adventures of Spanish Civil War veteran Joe Jackson (Robert Wagner, Hart to Hart, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and nightclub singer Hannah Winter (Teri Garr, Mr. Mom, Dumb & Dumber) as they try to get a MacGuffin—in this case, a copy of a memo explaining a Nazi scheme—into the hands of the Duke of Windsor (John Standing, Mrs. Dalloway, Lime Street). The DVD pack promises a movie like Casablanca, even recoloring the cover photo so that you're not sure whether it's a modern color film or a black-and-white classic you've forgotten when you see it as the Blue Light Special it's destined to be.
The tone and goals are established early with an opening in 1940 Portugal. The camera follows a butterfly collector through his paces. At first he appears genuine, but he soon begins his real task—photographing and spying on the Duke of Windsor, who is negotiating to come back to England with the "er, highness," the controversial former Mrs. Simpson. About the time we think the man's a would-be assassin, another man approaches him; there's a struggle, and the butterfly collector is knifed to death. In a final gesture, his assailant drops the net over the collector's face. Lisbon club owner Jackson is questioned, but knows nothing and takes no interest: "This town is filled with butterfly collectors. I try to make it my business not to know who's collecting what butterflies from whom." Wagner delivers his lines with a frown that occasionally grows into a scowl. As the movie goes on, that turns out to extend to love scenes.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Hannah is learning that her nightclub owner uncle Max (Barry Foster, Smiley's People) is working in the underground. Just before he's shot, he hands off the MacGuffin to Hannah. Garr makes Hannah likable and sympathetic as the frightened singer who's in over her head as she begins a chase from the basement of her uncle's Berlin club (through a secret passage, of course) to the safe, romantic hands of Jackson in Lisbon. She's tearful and scared, but defiant, as she confronts Nazi Gen. Schnellenberg (Horst Janson, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) about her uncle's death. Schnellenberg, who has fallen in love with her during his many visits to the club, has given her at least temporary protection, but his motives are unclear: Is he on her side, or is he using her as a stalking horse to snare Jackson? Janson does well at keeping his character's mystery alive, although the script tries to make him a cardboard villain.
Visually, this DVD takes its future as a Blue Light Special a little too seriously, as many of the night scenes are bathed in an eerie blue light. Others are cloaked in shadows meant to create a sinister atmosphere, but which only make you speculate about the electricity situation in World War II Berlin. In a few night interior scenes, actors' hair fades indistinguishably into the dark background. There's a sharp glow around lights—lamps, overhead lighting, and so on. You'll see hints of grain in night scenes, and hints of fading in daylight scenes. The Berlin scenes appear to be mainly shot on sets, but the location scenes in France and Portugal fare better overall. As for the audio, a few of Wagner's lines are lost, but Wagner, Standing, and Janson give their lines with stage enunciation, a bit overacted but clear. The music's a little overbearing at times, but it comes across well. The movie is a mild PG in nature, with only a fleeting glimpse of Wagner and Garr in bed and a bit of blood on a corpse taking it to that level. There are no extras, but given that it's an average TV movie with a debut price of $9.98 and falling, I can't fault Koch Vision for that.
If you've read the Jack Higgins book, you'll notice that it loses something in the translation. The story's there, but the characters were more finely drawn in print. Still, if you're looking for a lightweight diversion, it should satisfy. This King isn't one you have to catch, but I won't signal any red lights if you spy it as a Blue Light Special. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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