Friday, October 3, 2014

When the Bough Breaks (TDF Productions, Taft Entertainment Television, 1986)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For our feature film last night I ended up screening Charles When the Bough Breaks, a 1986 TV-movie that for some reason remains the only time any one of Jonathan Kellerman’s novels featuring his main “sleuth” character, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware (Ted Danson), has been filmed. I’d recorded this on VHS “in the day” in the late 1980’s and run it quite often for my late partner John Gabrish — it was one of our favorites — and recently I’d run across a DVD of it in Auntie Helen’s thrift store and picked it up, wondering what it would be like to see it again. In some ways it seems surprisingly dated while in other ways it holds up quite well. Certainly the main intrigue — Dr. Delaware and his friend on the LAPD, openly Gay detective Milo Sturgis (Richard Masur), bust a ring of well-connected pedophiles who’ve set up a camp called “El Pueblo de los Niños,” ostensibly to help homeless kids but really to help themselves to the homeless kids’ bodies — is all too believable, especially given the sense of entitlement these people have, the idea that their money, power and influence literally puts them above the law and entitles them to do whatever they want no matter how many people they hurt in the process. The story begins with a member of this ring, Stuart Hinkle (Tom Williams), having been arrested and indicted for child sexual abuse (apparently he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants with kids off as well as on the well-protected environs of El Pueblo de los Niños); he’s let out on bail — much to the shock of the mother of one of his victims — but six months later he’s found dead in the office of Dr. Alex Delaware, whose work with the victims was instrumental in getting their testimony and building the case against Hinkle.

Both we and Dr. Delaware assume Hinkle committed suicide — indeed, the shock of finding Hinkle’s body in his own office sends Dr. Delaware into a months-long bout with post-traumatic stress disorder — but in fact he was murdered by a hit squad organized by the “Gentlemen’s Club,” the well-connected guys who run El Pueblo de los Niños and are willing to knock off people right and left who might expose them. Among their victims are a corrupt psychiatrist named Kennedy who was on their payroll and a Latina teacher who was first his patient, then his girlfriend. Delaware finds the Latina teacher’s colleague and best friend, Raquel Santos (Rachel Ticotin), interviews her and ultimately starts an affair with her; she gets him in to see the victim’s mother (Lupe Ontiveros) despite the hostility of her two sons, one of whom is a spaced-out drug addict and the other a thug who threatens to kill the Good Doctor just for daring to show his white face and bod and fancy car (a BMW) in the barrio of East L.A. Delaware infiltrates El Pueblo by posing as a prospective member, and he also nearly gets himself and Raquel killed by a mysterious black-clad assassin riding a motorcycle — who turns out to be a coach he’d met at El Pueblo and who had targeted him for death because he might have known something. The main threat to the gang is Melody Quinn (Marcie Leeds), a seven-year-old girl who saw the murders of Kennedy and his girlfriend go down but is being treated by Dr. Warren Towle (James Noble), who’s diagnosed her with ADHD and is dulling her memories by keeping her on drugs that basically turn her into a zombie.

Delaware spends a day with her, weans her off the drugs long enough to hypnotize her, and gets enough information to deduce the identities of the three killers — one of whom, Tim Kruger (a marvelously smarmy performance by Merritt Butrick), is athletic director at El Pueblo. Given what’s happened since, especially with the pedophilia scandals that have wracked the Roman Catholic Church, the script by Phil Penningroth (adapting Kellerman’s novel) manages to do an excellent job blurring the distinction between the actual pedophiles and their protectors and enablers. It’s also ironic that the head of the ring is a minister, Vicar McCaffrey (David Huddleston) — though his denomination is carefully unspecified — who was actually a janitor at the elite college in Seattle where the ring’s members went and hooked up as undergraduates; he blackmailed Dr. Towle by threatening to expose him for the murder of his wife, and for years the gang used that leverage to keep Dr. Towle on retainer and have him patch up (physically and mentally) their ruined and traumatized victims as best he could. Meanwhile, Milo Sturgis traces another branch of El Pueblo in Mexico and he and Delaware get enough evidence to bust even such well-connected people — though there’s an over-the-top ending (which I suspect is Penningroth’s work, not Kellerman’s) in which Delaware threatens to shoot McCaffrey and Milo has to talk him out of it, saying that he’s already under arrest and if Delaware murders him he’ll just be sinking to his level. The main problem with When the Bough Breaks is it simply hasn’t worn well; much of the dialogue is almost risible in its melodrama and, with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in its 16th season, these sorts of plots simply don’t have the novelty value they once did. It’s also amusing that, when Delaware and Sturgis discover one of the ring’s victims in Glendale, Delaware tells Sturgis, “We have to find a phone” to call in the killing to the Glendale police — “That really dates this movie!” I told Charles. (He had the same comment later on when Delaware traces someone by looking them up in the phone book.)

As Charles pointed out, there’s also an air about this movie that’s way too self-congratulatory of its own liberalism: when we see Milo and his partner, Dr. Rick Silverman (Scott Paulin), making breakfast for Dr. Delaware at their home, the writers seem to be saying, “See? They’re Gay — and yet they live together and make breakfast like any other couple!” The film also takes us on a Cook’s Tour of L.A.’s more “alternative” neighborhoods, including West Hollywood (where we get a lot of nice mid-shots of male extras costumed to emphasize their baskets — indeed, through most of the film Ted Danson is wearing a nice pair of jeans that shows off his “equipment”) and East L.A., and there’s a bit of self-congratulatory liberalism about that as well (“See? We’re showing you Latinos — as real people!”). Also, though I haven’t actually read When the Bough Breaks I have read enough of Kellerman’s later novels in the Delaware series (as well as some of the ones he’s written featuring other characters) and these days my vision of both Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis is considerably darker and more obsessed (in Delaware’s case, more cerebral; in Milo’s, more dyspeptic, literally and figuratively) than Danson and Masur give us here —though I remember one of the things that drew me to this movie when it was new was that both Danson and Masur, who here team up to catch a gang of child molesters, had previously played child molesters themselves in earlier TV-movies: Danson as the suburban dad who diddled his daughter in Something About Amelia (1984) and Masur as the child-man pedophile who unwittingly recruited kids for a kiddie-porn ring that exploited them in Fallen Angel (1981). When the Bough Breaks still comes off as a workmanlike piece, ably directed by Waris Hussein (who deserved more of a chance to break out of the TV-movie ghetto than he got) and well enough acted by the principals, though it’s hardly as innovative now as it was in 1986 and there are parts of it that seem dated, as well as parts (including that over-the-top ending) that don’t seem true to Jonathan Kellerman’s dark, somber but ultimately hopeful and restrained view of the world.