TV movies had been part of network programming since the sixties, but it wasn’t until the eighties that the format blossomed and became a monthly event on the major networks, sometimes including two-part mini-series based on mystery novels and crime books. The format was given further push from cable TV stations, in need of boosting their own content as well as creating cheap productions they could sell to international stations and syndicated channels.
There had been the odd TV remake of a classic noir film in the past – Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), Jack Smight’s Double Indemnity (1973), and John Badham’s remake of Les Diaboliques, Reflections of Murder (1974) – but the eighties sparked a few new productions, such as HBO’s This Gun for Hire (1991), and A&E’s Too Good to be True (1988), the latter the second filmed version of Ben Ames Williams’ novel, Leave Her to Heaven.
The original ’45 film wasn’t as high profile as the aforementioned noirs, but it was memorable for its utterly evil villainess, a dangerously possessive and scheming woman who murders a child, and later devises her own death to implicate her husband and / or sister as the chief perpetrators.
The first big hindrance for the filmmakers of the ’88 revision was the TV format, because unlike ad-free cable stations such as HBO, on A&E the teleplay would be subject to the standard onslaught of ad breaks, mandating phony cliffhangers every 10-odd minutes.
The stars and most of the supporting cast were drawn from TV, and novice, one-time screenwriter Timothy Bradshaw more or less doodled dialogue that sounds like minor variations from the ‘45 screenplay - a superior work with snappy repartee and beautiful in-jokes for audiences catching the film for a second time.
The changes to the basic story are interesting, however, because they compact the drama and spread around character traits to new or different figures.
Author Richard Harland (Dallas’ Patrick Duffy) is no longer the brother of Danny (Neil Patrick Harris, in his second film role), but his father, and the boy was crippled in a car accident that killed Richard’s wife. Vulnerable from the tragedy, he takes Danny to a desert-like resort operated by family friend/lawyer Glen Robie (L.A. Law’s Larry Drake), where he meets the Berent family.
In the ’45 film, Richard spends time at the resort alone with the Berents, but writer Bradshaw added son Danny to replace the scenes at a convalescence resort, bringing all he characters together in the first act.
The first blunder occurs, though, when Richard says he and Danny are planning to stay for what seems like a week, but the scenes drag on for a much longer period, which either presumes the Richard-Ellen Berent (WKRP in Cincinnati’s Loni Anderson) romance occurs in days, or months; there’s simply no clarification.
The end results are the same: the couple are slated to be married, they skip a romance, and Ellen becomes annoyed when Danny lives with them at the isolated cabin (no longer branded ‘Back of the Moon’).
Ellen’s arrogance and treatment of hired hand/family friend Leick Thorn has been split into two characters: it’s an amorphous housekeeper / family friend that’s treated like a servant (and pusher her to quit after one scene), whereas the hired hand is now a stud named Leif (Daniel Baldwin, in his acting debut) whom she taunts and teases while Richard spends hours a day at the typewriter.
Danny is dispatched to the Heavens in the same manner, but Richard runs to the lake earlier, seeing Ellen just sitting in the boat, and immediately realizing she let him drown – a major change from the ’45 film where Richard remained in doubt of Ellen’s guilt until her cruel admission in the final act.
The breakdown of Richard’s marriage occurs in near-identical stages, as does Ellen’s loss of the baby, and her self-poisoning, although she uses a massive overdose of sleeping pills instead of arsenic from her father’s shuttered home laboratory. The method of her death is also quite different, because the writer wanted to set up both Richard and Ellen’s sister Ruth (The Boy in the Pastic Bubble’s Glynnis O’Connor) as her killers.
The sugar for Ellen’s tea is still mixed with a drug, but the sleeping pills come from Ruth, which initially implicate her as the sole killer. During the court trial, it’s already assumed and hashed out by both attorneys that Richard loves Ruth (and visa versa), so the big moment where Ruth admits her love for Richard in the ’45 film is replaced with Richard confessing he believed Ellen may have killed his son, which translates as withholding evidence, and sentences him to jail for roughly 2 years.
His conviction wraps up the drama, and the teleplay closes with the same bookend scenes that have Richard taking a motorboat to the cabin, where Ruth awaits him, ready to start a new life, free from Ellen’s evil machinations.
More scenes are devoted to Ellen discussing with her sister and mother the salvaging of her marriage, but they amount to a few grains of intriguing expansions torpedoed by a fully banal production. The acting is flat because the script offers no challenges: Julie Harris is wasted as Ellen’s moping mother, Duffy has limited range, Anderson frequently punctuates Ellen’s scheming with self-assuring smiles to the camera, and James Sikking’s characterization of jilted fiancée / prosecuting attorney Russell Quinton lacks any dimensions because the seething jealousy and rage that drove Vincent Price’s portrayal of a vengeful ex-lover has been dialed down in Bradshaw’s script.
Christian Nyby II’s direction is banal, and the production went cheap by making use of existing custom homes: the resort at the beginning resembles a producer’s suburban mansion and backyard, and the cabin is a custom eighties luxury cottage. The womens’ hairstyles are massive, and the colour scheme is typical of the era: glossy eighties cinematography accentuated by unnatural chroma greens, purples, and blues.
Lastly, the inventive coarseness of Michael Rubini’s composing heard in films such as The Hunger (1983) is totally lacking here, and his score for Too Good is just loose piano tinkling and ambient chord progressions with synth tones and shimmering sounds – none of it appropriate for a noir story.
A&E’s production is a curio for fans of the original film, but the whole endeavor is merely cheap content designed to fill up a two-hour time slot, after which it deserved to vanish into the ether of syndication and late night airings.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan