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June 23, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS

Never Cry Wolf (Channel 5 tonight at 6), Carroll Ballard's stunningly seductive 1983 film of Farley Mowat's autobiographical story of a young biologist sent on his own to study Arctic wolves, stars Charles Martin Smith, who is dumped unceremoniously in the middle of frozen God knows where. Such is the evocative power of this film that Smith changes before our very eyes from an amiable Everyman to a man intimately attuned to this alien world. Subtle and complex, the film is part saga, part preservationist's meditation.

To the gentle pulsing beat of "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day," the 1978 The Buddy Holly Story (Channel 13 tonight at 6) pays tribute to one of rock's most influential musicians and composers. In this Steve Rash film, Holly lives again through Gary Busey's uncommonly brilliant performance.

Nicolas Roeg's 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth (Channel 9 tonight at 8), with David Bowie as an extraterrestrial visitor come to find relief for his drought-ridden planet, progresses from the provocatively cryptic to the merely incomprehensible, thanks most likely to cuts before the film's release.

Roland Joffes 1986 The Mission (NBC tonight at 9) is a ponderous, pretentious allegory about an 18th-Century Jesuit mission, led by Robert De Niro, in the Brazilian jungle that is menaced by greed and politics. With Jeremy Irons.

David (ABC Monday at 9 p.m.), a superior 1988 TV movie about little David Rothenberg, who was nearly burned to death by his own father in 1983, never stoops to cheap sentiment. Bernadette Peters, John Glover and Matthew Laurance star.

The handsome, romantic 1979 Agatha (Channel 11 Tuesday at 8 p.m.) is a delightful film of Kathleen Tynan's novel that ingeniously imagined what had happened to Agatha Christie during her brief, never-explained 1926 disappearance. Vanessa Redgrave plays the queen of mystery writers; Dustin Hoffman plays a brashly confident American columnist on her trail.

In the rambunctious, sometimes leering 1990 TV movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean (CBS Tuesday at 9 p.m.), there's certainly plenty of mean in Suzanne Pleshette's portrayal of the embattled hotel mogul but Pleshette also manages to suggest Helmsley's personal torments.

Despite veering into a traditional ending, the 1978 Straight Time (Channel 11 Wednesday at 8 p.m.) is nevertheless riveting throughout. For much of the way, it's a dramatic and unsentimental social document with rare insights about the habitual criminal and the system that makes him inevitable. With Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, all terrific.

Fred Schepesi's glorious 1982 Barbarosa (Channel 5 Thursday at 8 p.m.) celebrates the mythical freedom and excitement of the outlaw life of the Old West; Willie Nelson and Gary Busey star.

In Jonathan Kaplan's feisty 1983 Heart Like a Wheel (Channel 11 Friday at 8 p.m.) Bonnie Bedelia takes home the trophies as drag-racing champion Shirley Muldowney.

The elegant, poignant 1984 British film Another Country (Channel 28 Saturday at 9 p.m.) dramatizes the public school years of future spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean; wonderful performances by Rupert Everett and Colin Firth.

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