Steven Spielberg is quite possibly the most well known American director of all time. From Jaws to E.T. to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park, Spielberg has cemented himself as a pioneer of film as we know it today. However, his roots in television often get glossed over when discussing his work. If people know anything about his pre-theatrical career, it’s usually that he directed one of the first episodes of Columbo. However, after directing various TV episodes, but before truly jumping to the big screen with The Sugarland Express, Spielberg directed three TV movies. After catching one of them (Duel) screening at the Somerville Theatre, in Somerville, Massachusetts, over the summer, I decided to go through the other two to explore an oft-neglected part of Spielberg’s history.
Savage was a TV pilot for a series titled The Savage Report that failed to get picked up, but in the years since has ended up classified as a TV Movie. Richard Levison and William Link (of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote fame) had been trying to get the series greenlit, and they requested Spielberg – who, after the success of Duel’s theatrical release, was attempting to move away from Television – be assigned to direct the pilot. Spielberg, reportedly, hated the script and was less than happy with being forced to direct more TV, but ended up attached to the project anyways.
While there are some similarities between Savage and Columbo (the opening of Savage uses the same credit and title font that many mystery programs used at the time, including Columbo), there are some key differences that make Spielberg’s second Levinson and Link outing feel lesser than his first. The most obvious failing is Martin Landau as the titular Paul Savage. Despite being an excellent and wildly prolific actor, Landau’s performance here fails to measure up to the unmatched charisma of Peter Falk. Paul Savage does not have even a fraction of the character of Columbo. The most personality he ever shows is occasionally getting mildly curt with people. Additionally, while Spielberg’s turn at directing Columbo was visually interesting in a way television usually isn’t, Savage features a lot less creativity, with the only mildly interesting sequence being a confrontation in a darkened studio that lasts all of two minutes. It’s very clear no one was bringing their A-game. Had The Savage Report even been picked up, it’s doubtful it would end up any good.
Something Evil (1972)
Spielberg’s second TV movie, Something Evil, is probably the one I have the least to say about. For a director who would go on to fundamentally change the film industry, Something Evil feels relatively formulaic and bland, potentially as a result of the limited creative control Spielberg was given with the project (at least according to Spielberg). The performances are all fine, but probably the worst aspect is the way certain scenes will abruptly stop and change over to the next scene with no clear indication of the passage of time. For example, in an early scene, an incredibly dated window-cracking effect causes a car to crash (and for the pitch black night to suddenly become mid-day as the camera cuts to stock footage of a car crashing). Then, without warning, the scene switches to some indeterminate amount of time later, where the main character is bemoaning the loss of her friends to the accident. The limited budget really does show in this production. To be fair, there have been much worse movies made for far more money, but I still can’t exactly muster up any enthusiasm for Something Evil.
To be honest, the reason I went through the films in reverse chronological order was just so I could save the best for last. The first of the three TV Movies Spielberg directed, Duel, is the only one people do actually occasionally bring up. It’s an incredibly tight and minimal movie that is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and rife with tension. This movie is an excellent elevation of every nasty road encounter anyone has ever had. By staying true to that common experience, the movie manages to feel grounded and real, even as the action keeps ramping up. The only real misstep is the occasional voiced internal monologue we get from Dennis Weaver’s character. Weaver is a good enough actor that it is almost crystal clear what his character is feeling at any given moment just from his facial expressions. Weaver giving voice to his very obvious thoughts brought back unpleasant memories of the narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Outside of that, however, it is a well structured and thoroughly entertaining movie that is miles ahead, quality wise, of Savage and Something Evil, and (in my opinion) superior to his first theatrical outing, The Sugarland Express.
Overall, I’d say that – with the exception of Duel – these movies really aren’t worth a watch unless you’re a film completionist. The copyrights for Something Evil and Savage have both expired, and as such have been uploaded to youtube in their entirety, where you can watch them for free, completely legally. Duel is on one of the streaming services, which is unfortunate as it is really, as mentioned before, the only one worth watching. While there are some hints of Spielberg’s style and voice in both Something Evil and Savage, I don’t think there’s enough to really be worth a prolonged viewing. It was an interesting idea, and I feel that Spielberg’s reputation was at least worthy of some examination of his early films. However, overall, I feel pretty confident saying I’ll likely never rewatch the non-Duel films ever again.