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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Tv An Open Book On Sunday

May 08, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Literary mavens beware. Commercial TV, which often values pictures over words, gets bookish this weekend.

The big question: Will the authors be able to recognize their own books--"Hands of a Stranger," "A Gathering of Old Men" and "Queenie"--when the three TV novelizations clash at 9 Sunday night?

NBC's two-part "Hands of a Stranger" (Channels 4, 36 and 39) is by far the best and brainiest of these ratings-sweeps titans, a raw and terrifying nail-biter that captures some of the heat, passion and suspense of Robert Daley's best-selling story about a cop's obsession with his wife's mysterious rape. From start to finish (Part 2 comes at 9 p.m. Monday), it sizzles.

Adapted by Arthur Kopit and directed by Larry Elikann, "Hands of a Stranger" asks you to accept the coincidence that the wife of a police inspector would be sexually assaulted at the same time her husband is working on another grisly rape case with an assistant district attorney to whom he is attracted. The three form a curious triangle.

Once over that plot hurdle, though, it's all straightaway, for this is nothing less than a terrifically told story, one displaying the ugliness of rape along with the lingering anguish of the victimized.

There are first-rate performances by Armand Assante as newly promoted inspector Joe Hearn, who is driven to find his wife's assailant and discover the truth about her rape in a seedy hotel; Beverly D'Angelo as the lonely, suffering wife, Mary, and Blair Brown as superstar assistant D.A. Diane Benton, who specializes in prosecuting rape cases.

Although some of the dialogue is very candid ("How many times did he penetrate you?"; "Did he force you to use your mouth?"), Elikann conveys the evil and savagery of rape--the steely, meticulous efficiency of Mary's assailant in this instance--without having to be graphic.

What truly elevates this story above others pertaining to rape, though, is its energized suspense, internalized rage and delicate juxtaposition of terror and sexiness in a way that sharply distinguishes between sexual violence and mere bawdiness. Brown was born to flirt, as she proves in one delicious sequence where her character wheedles some assistance from Joe on a rape case.

Mostly, though, "Hands of a Stranger" is grim stuff--and an explosive, gripping tale.

"A Gathering of Old Men," on the other hand, is a two-hour exercise in botching and butchering on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). The victim is Ernest J. Gaines' eloquent, moderately hopeful novel about some elderly black men in rural Louisiana who gather their courage to confront and defeat an episode of racism in the late 1970s.

Its transfer to TV is a terrible rendering, disjointed and unfocused, and it squanders Louis Gossett Jr. as the most heroic of the blacks--the unbending, enigmatic Mathu.

Sparkling pedigrees don't help "A Gathering of Old Men." An earlier Gaines novel spawned that high-performing TV classic "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Sunday's Gaines story was adapted for TV by Charles Fuller, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play" was turned into a movie, "A Soldier's Story," that earned him an Oscar nomination. And the director here is the same Volker Schlondorff who directed last season's brilliant version of "Death of a Salesman" on CBS.

The story is a simple one of courage and long-submerged militancy rising to the surface, the good guys finally fighting back.

When a brutal, racist white man is shotgunned to death by another black man in self-defense in front of Mathu's ramshackle house, Sheriff Mapes is certain that Mathu is responsible. At the urging of sympathetic Candy Marshall, the 18-year-old white woman who owns the land on which the local blacks live, Mathu's friends gather at his place to protect him from Mapes and the Cajun victim's family.

The Gaines book makes for awkward TV because it speaks with numerous voices. He had his major characters alternate as narrator, not in giving conflicting accounts a la "Rashomon," but offering corroborating, chronological testimony that became the fabric of the story.

The TV version cries out for a single voice, though, instead of the occasional off-screen voices of characters that are clumsily interjected like meaningless, gratuitous footnotes.

Moreover, the story lacks context and basic information essential for the viewer's understanding. Watching it is like reading a book with half the pages missing. We're never told, for example, what Mathu has done to earn such admiration from everyone, including even the prejudiced Mapes, and why Mapes thinks that only Mathu would have had the guts to pull the trigger.

"A Gathering of Old Men" was shot in Louisiana, where actors with Cajun accents were hired to give authenticity to lesser supporting characters. Whatever Southern accent Richard Widmark is supposed to be delivering as Mapes, though, appears to have been imported from Hollywood and Vine.

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