Forget about fastening your seat belts. Fasten your seats . Fasten your feet .
Viewers of the three-part "Nutcracker: Money, Madness and Murder" (9 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday on Channels 4, 36, 39 and 42) will crash head-on with wickedness. These six blistering, brilliantly executed hours from NBC relate a scenario of astonishing evil, perhaps sewing up an Emmy for Lee Remick as vile, amoral, manipulative, human-wrecking Frances Bradshaw Schreuder. As a bonus, she was also quite possibly insane.
NBC's is the second TV telling of this lurid story about a wealthy New York social climber who was sentenced to life imprisonment for coercing her son, Marc, to murder her father, Salt Lake City multimillionaire Franklin Bradshaw, in 1978.
"At Mother's Request" was the earlier version, on CBS in January, with Stephanie Powers making a credible Frances in a production based on Jonathan Coleman's book of the same name. Its screen application was confusing and hazier than this NBC account drawn from Shana Alexander's book, "Nutcracker."
The arrival of these books chronicling the same case produced a nasty journalistic feud between the two authors that included charges and countercharges rivaling the bitter acrimony of the Schreuder case itself. Although differing in some details and traveling somewhat different routes, however, both accounts tend to meet at the pass.
You watch this splendidly cast story on NBC and can hardly believe it happened: that the erratic, destructive Frances could live for so long among normal society; that this mother of two sons and a daughter could exert such control over her children and others, that such an illogical murder could actually be carried out.
Here is mysterious, foreboding, unsettling truth far more bizarre than most fiction.
If co-executive producer William Hanley's script at times seems a bit too definitive, replacing some of Alexander's question marks with exclamation marks, it also represents old-fashioned storytelling at its uncomplicated best.
Paul Bogart directs suspensefully--quite a feat, in that the essential facts of the case are well-publicized--and artfully. Bogart is especially adept at creating uneasiness and odd sensations from colliding images. He effectively merges times and moods, for example, in juxtaposing scenes of Frances' idyllic betrothal to Frederick Schreuder and scenes of their violent marriage's stormy collapse. And, along with an eerily sweet score, he evokes a sort of poetic disharmony in repeatedly presenting chalky white scenes of Frances' young ballet-dancing daughter over an undertone of dark disturbance.
It is all very intriguing, even though there is simply no one here to like.
Not Marc (Tate Donovan), the abused younger son who is so terrified of his mother's rejection that he kills his grandfather to please her. Not Larry Schreuder (Frank Military), the abused, also-fearful and mentally bent older son who attacks his sleeping college roommate with a hammer.
Not Franklin Bradshaw (G.D. Spradlin), the cold, selfish, dollar-hoarding patriarch whose murder seems hardly worth mourning. Not Berenice Bradshaw (Elizabeth Wilson), Frances' weak, unresisting mother who tolerates and even abets her daughter's predatory behavior.
Not Marilyn (Inga Swenson), Frances' older sister, whose attempts to nail Frances for the murder seem self-serving (although she is treated gentler here than in Alexander's book). Not Vittorio Gentile (Tony Musante), Frances' ineffectual first husband, who is aware of her murderous plans, but does nothing.
Not Dickie Behrens (John Glover), Frances' frightened best friend and confidante, who turns against her only for selfish reasons.
And certainly not Remick's Frances, who is a maxi-macabre Scarlett O'Hara, at once coquette and monster, flash-tempered and torrential, violent and unpredictable, "The Bad Seed" sprouted to homicidal adulthood, a mother whose sons become extensions of her psychosis.
Dream performance, nightmarish character.
Frances dispatches Marc and Larry to Salt Lake City to steal from their grandfather. Later, faced with being written out of her father's will, she tries to hire a professional killer to murder him, and when that fails, her sons become her designated hit men. The three of them plot the act, as coolly and casually as coffee klatchers, while snacking, lolling in bed, playing cards. She's serious, the sons only half-serious. She presses. They stall. Time passes. She presses, again and again, coaxing, pleading, threatening. They stall some more. More time passes. Ultimately, Marc gives in.
There are some fascinating bits of ambiguity here, including hints of something veiled between Frances and Marc bordering on the incestuous. Other times, the story has a searing intensity, wherein a mere kiss becomes an act of aggression.
The supporting performances, especially Wilson as the mother and Glover as Dickie, are superb. In fact, everyone here is so convincing that it seems almost impossible that a single family could produce so many warped, ugly characters.
"Frances, she's not wrapped too tight. You know what I am saying?" Dickie tells the Salt Lake City cops. In this story, no one is wrapped very tight.
Docudrama? Uh-oh. Accurate? Maybe. A terrific way to spend six hours? Absolutely.