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July 26, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS

The Fifth Missile (NBC Sunday at 8 p.m.), a 1986 TV movie, poses that all-important question: What would happen if the commander of a nuclear submarine went bananas during a war game because he had inadvertently been sniffing toxic paint fumes? The answer is as ludicrously contrived as it sounds it might be. David Soul, Robert Conrad, Sam Waterston and Richard Roundtree star.

Far better is the fact-based 1985 TV movie Murder: By Reason of Insanity (CBS Sunday at 9 p.m.), directed by Anthony Page and starring Candice Bergen as a wife battered by mental patient husband (Jurgen Prochnow, who is chilling).

Heart of Steel (ABC Sunday at 9 p.m.), a 1983 TV movie starring Peter Strauss, offers a realistic portrayal of the agony of unemployment only to undermine its integrity with a disastrous flight of fancy. Also a repeat: the 1986 "Disney Sunday Movie" (ABC at 7 p.m.) Leftovers, which stars John Denver and Cindy Williams as a couple devoted to caring for hard-to-adopt children.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (Channel 13 Sunday at 6 p.m.) is a very broad, amiable comedy Western directed by Burt Kennedy and starring James Garner as a con man who tries to pass off Jack Elam as a much-feared gunfighter.

Written by Horton Foote and directed by Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies (Channel 5 Monday and again Saturday at 8 p.m.) is a stunningly understated film about a stoic country singer (Robert Duvall, who won an Oscar as did Foote) whose drifter's existence is redeemed by a young Texas widow (Tess Harper) and her son (Allan Hubbard).

Melissa Gilbert is outstanding in the 1983 TV movie Choices of the Heart (NBC Monday at 9 p.m.) as Jean Donovan, an American missionary murdered in El Salvador in 1980.

The evergreen The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland on Monday kicks off a week of MGM Golden Era musicals screening on Channel 11 at 9 p.m. throughout the week. Others: Meet Me in St. Louis (Tuesday), The Pirate (Wednesday), Anchors Aweigh (Thursday) Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Friday).

Mafia Princess (NBC Tuesday at 9 p.m.), a 1986 TV movie, falls midway between "Daddy Dearest" and "Godfather Knows Best." It's a swell-looking but unfocused and occasionally confusing adaptation of Antoinette Giancana's autobiography, tracing her oppressed life as the daughter of the late Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. Susan Lucci is a convincingly miserable Antoinette and Tony Curtis is properly menacing as Giancana.

The Great Escape (screening in two parts on Channel 13 Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m.) is one of the most entertaining escape movies ever made, a rousing big-scale production directed by John Sturges and written by James Clavell. This suspenseful adventure, set in a German POW camp, stars Steve McQueen, James Garner and others.

Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (CBS Thursday at 9 p.m.) is a deft, witty and marvelously entertaining 1983 film about a reunion of seven baby-boomers (apparently all one-time campus radicals) brought about by the suicide of the eighth member, a brilliant dropout. Since the seven are played by William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams and Mary Kay Place, it's hardly surprising they engage us--but equally surprising is how little substance the film finally has.

One of the late director Robert Aldrich's best movies, the spine-tingling Dirty Dozen (Channel 5 Friday at 7:30 p.m.) stars Lee Marvin as a maverick U.S. Army major who receives the toughest assignment of his career: train 12 GI convicts--an assortment of murderers, rapists and robbers--to kill a group of German officers resting at a French chateau. Aldrich brought his black humor and diamond-hard style to Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller's script.

Sam Jones stars in the new TV movie The Spirit (ABC Friday at 8 p.m.), playing a small-town policeman who assumes a secret identity when he goes after thugs in the big city. That is followed at 9:30 p.m. by the disastrously unfunny National Lampoon's Class Reunion, in which a mad killer stalks a high school reunion.

The 1985 TV movie An Early Frost (Channel 9 Saturday at 8 p.m.) is a wise, honest and tender drama about a gay lawyer (Aidan Quinn) who informs his parents (Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara) that he has AIDS. In other words, he delivers a double whammy: He is dying and he is gay. Performances, which include that of Sylvia Sidney as the lawyer's grandmother, are heartfelt and achingly true under John Erman's direction.

In Neil Simon's deeply affecting Chapter Two (ABC Saturday at 8:30 p.m.), Marsha Mason is remarkable in her range and depth as she portrays a woman whose only rival for her new husband's love is his haunting, guilt-inducing memory of his late wife. What is even more remarkable, Mason is playing a character based on herself, for she married Simon shortly after the death of his first wife from cancer. James Caan has the somewhat thankless role as the widower-novelist who marries Mason. Even so, this is one of Simon's best films.

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