Thursday, August 21, 2014


While recently watching Sweet Hostage (1975), I couldn’t stop thinking that Martin Sheen should’ve been a much bigger star. I didn’t get out to the movies much as a kid, and could only watch a small black & white TV in my bedroom. Hence, it was Sheen, the king of the TV movie, who gave me my first inkling of what an actor could do. 

Aside from his iconic turn as the homicidal Kit in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Sheen did most of his 1970s work on the small screen. He had a shifty-eyed way about him that screamed “troubled loner.” Granted, he could dial it down long enough to play Bobby Kennedy in The Missiles of October, but generally, he played twitchy, neurotic types. 

Sheen seemed to be on television every month in those days. I remember him as the doomed Private Slovick, shaking like a leaf as he stood in front of an execution squad. Then he was as a cocky hot rodder trying to upstage a sadistic sheriff in The California Kid. He was “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the Depression era bank robber. There was the Kennedy turn, and then, of course, the endless reruns of various cop dramas where he often appeared as misfits and derelicts, cackling all the way. 

Sweet Hostage originally aired on ABC in Oct. 1975, the peak of the “made for TV movie” era. Sheen’s portrayal of Leonard Hatch, an escapee from a Boston mental ward who kidnaps a lonely teen played by Linda Blair, was quite a big deal at the time, especially among women. I recall overhearing various females – aunts, teachers, ladies at the supermarket – talking about this movie. “Did you see it?” they’d ask each other. “Did you cry at the end?” 

In the decades since, the movie appeared to fall into the rabbit hole where a lot of made-for-TV flicks go, but it loomed large in my mind. I recalled it as a dark tale of a man who held a woman hostage, and somehow they fell in love. I’m not familiar with Nathaniel Benchley’s novel, Welcome to Xanadu, which served as the basis for the movie, but I’ve heard the movie is much more of a tearjerker. On a side note, I remember a day in the 1990s when Sweet Hostage was airing on an obscure local station, wedged in between Mexican mummy movies and infomercials. I hadn’t seen it in years and wanted to get reacquainted with it. To my surprise, the movie felt sentimental and overblown. But watching it tonight on the Warner Archive streaming service, it seemed a nearly perfect relic of the era. 

The first image is a tight close-up of Sheen’s gaunt, slightly haunted face. The wind blows his hair back, all the better to see his thousand mile stare. As Hatch, Sheen may have reached the pinnacle of his psycho period. He’s a literature spouting nutcase, the sort of eccentric who wanders the grounds of the asylum reciting poetry and demanding the nurses call him ‘Kublai Khan.’ He escapes one night, steals a truck, robs a store (while wearing a clown mask) and heads for parts unknown.

Blair plays Doris Mae Withers, a 17-year-old who dreams of the day when she can leave her father’s chicken farm. One day her truck breaks down on the highway and Hatch picks her up. When he decides she’s an illiterate who could use some mentoring, he holds her captive in his cabin, trying to impress her with the beauty of poetry. She makes a few feeble attempts at escaping, but gradually succumbs to Hatch’s weird charm. True, he has an irrational temper, but when he’s not yelling at her, he’s rather kind, like a man from another era, someone out of a story book of princes and rogues. He even wears a puffy shirt. Hell, it beats living on the chicken farm, so she gets comfortable and hunkers down for the long hall. Far-fetched? Sure, but I never said the movie was flawless.

Sheen, at times, comes dangerously close to overdoing it as Hatch. He’s a dervish of fake accents, odd mannerisms, cackling laughter, and manic outbursts. But for all of his frenzied behavior, we never learn why he was in the mental hospital. For all we know, he’d been locked away because he loved poetry. (There’s an odd scene where Hatch meets a townie who babbles at him in lines borrowed from Star Trek. He even gives Hatch the Vulcan salute. What do we glean from this? Quoting Mr. Spock is permitted, but quoting Lord Byron gets you a room in the psycho ward?)

Cinematographer Richard C. Glouner shoots the hell out of the Taos, New Mexico locations, but his strategy of filming the main characters from below works against the theme of the movie. Shooting from below makes Sheen and Blair look like large powerful figures, when they’re actually two little people in a big lonely world. Glouner’s work is striking, but it doesn’t fit the story. He does have a flair for making Taos look like big sky country, and he makes Hatch’s cabin look rustic and hard, but his best work is a scene where Sheen and Blair waltz around inside the cabin – he brings his camera above the scene, looking down at the two as they appear to be growing closer. It’s a warm scene, and it’s a reminder of how director Lee Philips carried off the neat trick of making us believe Blair could fall in love with her captor. 

Philips, a veteran TV director, keeps the movie motoring along, but he nearly destroys it with music, including a terrible theme song that he dumps into the movie at random sections. The song, which I won’t glorify by mentioning its title or singer, nearly capsizes the movie. Imagine if, while watching Badlands, or, say, Bonnie and Clyde, a scene was suddenly interrupted by Terry Jacks singing ‘Seasons in the Sun.’ That’s how off-putting the music is here. Since most TV shows of the period had an opening theme song where the plot would be described ( i.e. “Here’s the story of a man named Brady…”) television producers may have thought a TV movie needed the same thing, a song to describe the action. Still, it’s ridiculous. This is probably why I had a bad reaction to the movie back in the 1990s.

Philips also had a bad habit of laying drippy music underneath all of the emotional scenes, as if he’s determined to tell us how we should feel. The score, a mix of TV music clichés by Luchi De Jesus (who had done a lot of Blaxploitation movies),  hasn’t aged well. Some of the scenes were magical on their own, such as when Sheen and Blair embrace after she reads a poem that moves him to tears. Strip the music away and the scenes would have been much more powerful. And as much as I like Sheen, it was Blair who made this movie sit up and speak. As Doris Mae, Blair gives just about the most honest performance ever given by a teenager. 

Blair, like Sheen, had become a bit of a TV icon, emerging from The Exorcist to appear as various teen alcoholics and runaways on somewhat scandalous TV movies. (Her name is above Sheen’s on the credits, which shows you the power of The Exorcist was still in the air). And while Sheen hyperventilates as Hatch, Blair has the sense to underplay their scenes together – she’s the rock in the middle of his windstorm. 

And consider this: If female viewers fell in love with Sheen in this movie, they were doing so through Linda Blair’s eyes. Blair must have tapped into something that exists in all women, some strange desire to be trapped, combined with a need to nurture. The creepy cabin in the woods becomes a kind of enchanted cottage, with Doris Mae sweeping up and hanging curtains, her eyes widening as Hatch tells her of exotic, faraway lands. Yet, she also knows that this grown man is still something like a kid himself. For Doris Mae, Hatch is all men in one: the unpredictable but gentle father, the encouraging teacher, the playful brother, the flirtatious boyfriend, and even, in a roundabout way, the son who needs protection. With so many facets of Hatch to deal with, Doris Mae can only grow. To her delight, she likes growing. In what is probably the performance of her lifetime, Blair shows us the inner workings of a sad girl warming up to life. 

When Sweet Hostage was released as a feature film in Japan, the advertising played on Sheen's image from Badlands. The phallic imagery is a bit much, dontcha think?

The ending is a bummer, with bloodthirsty vigilantes closing in on Hatch’s cabin. When he spots a police helicopter hovering over his place, he decides to take the only way out he can think of, sacrificing himself so Doris Mae can live. TV viewers bombarded newspapers with angry letters, asking why the film had to end in a death. The movie was a success, though, and was even given a theatrical release in Europe and Japan. There were even rumors that 34-year-old Sheen and 17-year-old Blair had some sort of off-screen affair (which both denied).

Sheen announced at the time that he was leaving television to focus on big screen features. He started by killing Jodie Foster’s hamster in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. He got as far as Apocalypse Now, suffered a heart attack during filming, and spent the next 30 years bouncing between TV and independent pics. He’s never hit the peaks I’d imagined for him. As for Blair, well, Roller Boogie was beckoning. Blair, too, has worked steadily, but she was never better than she was as the girl in Leonard Hatch’s cabin, her eyes widening with love for the strange man who brought out the poetry in her.

(Sweet Hostage is available for viewing on the Warner Archive Streaming Service.)

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