Friday, April 24, 2009

Black and Blue (CBS, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a 1999 made-for-TV movie on one of my Lifetime recordings, though this one was originally shot for CBS and had a semi-respectable provenance from a novel by Anna Quindlen: Black and Blue, a tough if not particularly original melodrama about domestic violence and in particular one woman’s struggle to get away from her abusive husband and take their son with her. The woman is Frances Benedetto (Mary Stuart Masterson), and what gives this an intriguing twist absent from most domestic violence melodramas is that her husband, Bobby Benedetto (Anthony LaPaglia), is a star detective on the New York police force who’s just distinguished himself heroically in a dangerous drug bust and is about to receive a commendation from the police commissioner. He’s also part of an extended New York Italian-American family where it’s simply accepted that the husband is absolute master of his household and that it’s perfectly all right to treat his wife as an overgrown child (he calls her “Franny-Franny-Fran,” thinking that disgusting piece of baby talk is actually an endearment) and knock her around when she steps out of line — for something as simple as leaving dirty dishes in the sink instead of washing them immediately.

What makes it even quirkier is that Frances herself has a career as an emergency-room nurse — of course Bobby makes like he’s doing her an enormous favor by allowing her to work — and after some mild complaints to her sister, Grace Ann Flynn (Sabrina Grdevich — who doesn’t look anywhere near enough like Masterson to be believable as her sister, but that’s a common enough movie failing and it doesn’t really interfere with this film’s effectiveness either as message or as entertainment), and an attempt to tease out from her mother-in-law whether her husband ever beat her, Frances is finally propelled into action when she unsuccessfully tries to revive another woman who’s been beaten by her husband and shows up in the E.R. When that woman dies, a black-haired, black-clad domestic violence advocate shows up to give a press conference expressing zero tolerance for abusing husbands — and Our Heroine gets the message and seeks out this mysterious woman for help.

The mystery woman lays down the law: she has not only to leave her husband, but to do so secretly (he just happens to be getting his commendation the next day and that gives her the opportunity to sneak out), relocate to another state, assume a new identity, live as far off the grid as possible (in particular, to spend only cash and not use credit cards or cell phones) — and she puts Frances in touch with a sort of Underground Railroad for spousal-abuse victims that, in a nice bit of irony Anna Quindlen may have intended, moves in the opposite geographical direction from the original Underground Railroad and dumps Our Heroine and her son Robert (Will Rothhaar) in Florida. She struggles to adjust to her new life, while Robert misses his dad and has only the dimmest idea of why she dragged him down to the other end of the East Coast and has them living there in a roach-infested beach motel and calling themselves Beth and Robert Crenshaw.

Eventually Beth née Frances finds a job as a visiting nurse for terminally ill patients and falls in love with Robert’s fifth-grade counselor (do they have counselors in fifth grade?), Mike Riordan (Sam Robards, who may bear the name of a famous acting family but is also the sort of lanky, sandy-haired, decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous leading man Lifetime likes for these sorts of roles). Meanwhile, working with a former police partner who’s now a private detective and breaking the law by wiretapping Frances’s sister (and breaking it even further by sending a knife-wielding thug to sister’s house to try to get Frances’s whereabouts out of her), Bobby Benedetto is looking for his wife and son — and he discovers their whereabouts when sonny boy actually calls him.

The film builds to a final confrontation in which Bobby confronts Frances and slaps her around, then says she’s no longer worthy to be his wife and all he wants is their son, whom he kidnaps from his school soccer practice and takes home. Then there’s a title, “Five years later … ,” and five years later Beth née Frances is living in a nice suburban home, she’s married to Mike and they have a daughter (played by a child actress who looks considerably older than five), but she’s still lonely for her son — and just when we think the filmmakers, director Paul Shapiro and writer April Smith, are going to dare leave a loose end untied in the manner of real life rather than movies, we cut to a scene on the New York streets in which Frances’s sister Grace runs into a young man who’s supposed to be Robert, now grown up to young adulthood (and, like his half-sister in Florida, also cast with someone considerably more than five years older than the kid who played Robert in the preceding scenes), and there’s a burst of treacly piano-and-strings music in the best (or worst) Lifetime manner as the family is brought together at long last (though at this point the abusive husband is heaven-knows-where and we can’t help but feel for Robert’s plight and at the same time wonder if he’s going to grow up to be an abusive husband himself).

Black and Blue is a good movie for what it is but it could have been even better — the film brings up more themes than it can comfortably resolve in 96 minutes — though even when it seems most obviously patched together from clichés at least the limits of a TV time slot force Shapiro and Smith to give it the sort of narrative economy a lot of 1930’s and 1940’s films got from the fact that the audience knew the clichés already and therefore didn’t have to have them explained to them. The film also benefits from strong acting, especially in the leads; Masterson is believable both as the cowed victim in the early scenes and the woman who rises to a precariously held but still valid level of strength later on; and LaPaglia is equally good, resisting the temptation to portray the character as a florid villain and instead making him chillingly believable, not an evil man but a basically good one (he is a police officer, after all, and on the job he’s both capable and honest) with a serious blind spot when it comes to accepting women as equal and treating his family as anything but his chattels. The fact that an otherwise reasonable individual could have been raised by his culture and his own ancestors to believe that his wife and child are his property, and that he could terrorize his wife and not only see nothing wrong with that but see himself as the aggrieved party, makes Bobby Benedetto the character (and LaPaglia’s reading of him) far more chilling than he’d be portrayed as an out-and-out psycho.