1971-1980DramaSidney LumetUSA

Sidney Lumet – Network (1976)

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“Network” will shake you up. Paddy Chayefsky’s absurdly plausible and outrageously provocative original script concerns media running amok. Faye Dunaway and William Holden, each in two of their finest performances, plus Peter Finch and Robert Duvall star in this superbly cast and handsomely produced Howard Gottfried production. Sidney Lumet’s direction is outstanding. The Metro picture, released by United Artists, is a potent commercial blend of artful tirade, visual excitement and sociological horror.

In terms of older films about the broadcast media, this is no soap opera film, like MGM’s long-ago “The Hucksters.” Nor is it low-key, intellectual drama like “A Face In the Crowd.” This is a bawdy, stops-out, no-holds-barred story of a TV network that will, quite literally, do anything to get an audience. The strangest thing about the film is that, while often preachy, hysterical, shrill and bizarre, it also makes a compelling statement from amidst its sound and fury. It’s a verbal and visual equivalent of a dozen top-40 radio stations blaring out at you in the same room. In short, it’s just mad.

The fictional TV network, United Broadcasting System, has been acquired from control of founder William Prince by a conglomerate headed by Ned Beatty, whose hatchet man, Robert Duvall, succeeds to operating control. Holden heads the money-losing network news division, where Finch, the longtime, oldtime and passe evening news anchorman is about to get the heave. To the dismay of all, Finch announces his own axing, becoming an instant character.

Dunaway has become programming chief. You can see her cunning ambition and her origins. Perhaps in earlier years she had a minor tv column, peddling her copy and her body to a small group of people in as much need of stroking as she. She probably was paid off a few times with bit roles in tv series episodes, eventually piling up enough brownie points to get a low-level programming job in the last-place network. You know, the type–sexless, but pushing her sex; brainless, but with a fair line of gab; in short, your total windup mechanical dame. So much for Chayefsky’s imagination in forging her fictional background.

Finch’s on-the-air freakout suggests to Dunaway that she turn the news into a gross entertainment package. It works, of course. Simultaneously she hires a professional Communist, played superbly by Marlene Warfield, to help assemble a documentary show with the assistance of urban guerilla-terrorist Arthur Burghardt. Idea springs from latter’s bank heist, in which kidnapped heiress Kathy Cronkite participates (a la Patty Hearst).

A scene in which the revolutionaries, network execs and their respective lawyers scream at each other over syndication fees and overhead charges is an example of how Chayefsky takes a good idea, pushes it relentlessly past discretion and through the barrier of intellectual credulity, making it so outrageous that it comes across as brilliant.

Finch’s evangelical appeals to the frustrations of the viewing public in time cross Beatty’s stock-market merger plans. But when Beatty himself emerges as an apostle of the multinational state, Finch is converted. Yet ratings falter (people don’t like to be told they should surrender their humanity; they prefer the regular stroking garbage); Beatty won’t let Duvall cancel Finch; only one solution–kill Finch on the air, as a lead-in to the revolutionaries’ show.

The large cast is uniformly excellent. One quiet moment in the film–but a dramatic sequence of the type that can endure for years as a terrific playlet exercise between thesps–has Holden discussing his infatuation with Dunaway to longtime wife Beatrice Straight. Her range of responses, complementing his, constitute one of those outstanding film memories of a lifetime.

Philip Rosenberg’s production design, Owen Roizman’s camera, and all other key technical achievements are magnificent, all polished and enhanced by that customary MGM post-production miracle which remains unique in Hollywood filmmaking. The project is an MGM picture, with UA as the production partner, and certainly a suitable valedictory for former Metro production chief Dan Melnick. There’s a lot of award potential here, above and below the line.



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