Missing Pieces (TV Movie 1983) Poster

(1983 TV Movie)

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Interesting in a quirky way, but sinks under the weight of its gaudy, overwrought style
mysteriesfan5 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this 1980s TV detective story when it originally aired, I think on a Friday or Saturday night on CBS. It struck me as memorable, but not necessarily good. Recently, I finally got to see it again. It was as quirky as, but more over-stylized and melodramatic than, I had remembered.

In the following four-paragraph plot summary, I have left out key details but, to play it safe, still identify it as containing POSSIBLE SPOILERS.

Taking time out from constant, loud, jarring flashbacks to bits and pieces of her witnessing the rainy, late-night, unsolved, months-earlier drive-by shooting death of her political reporter husband outside a roadside "coffee shop," and from tedious talks with her stubborn daughter, who is equally morbidly obsessed with it, Elizabeth Montgomery's Sara Scott, P.I., arrives at the office. She and her boss are about to be evicted for being three months late with the rent. After a lengthy phone-calling montage to flophouses, dives, and strip joints, Sara tracks down her boss at a mobile home, which is gyrating because he is inside with his new floozy girlfriend. So Sara shoots out one of the tires to get his attention.

Back at the office, Sara finds a fancy-dress, downcast blonde, who wants to hire a detective to find out if her doctor husband is cheating on her and who deals out a wad of bills as a cash retainer. How will Sara recognize him? "He's the only black man on the block." Sara tails the doctor to his office and then to a drug rehabilitation clinic where he volunteers and at which a female state senator and another government official happen to be speaking that day. The next day, she tails the doctor to a motel, where he meets a man who she first assumes for no apparent reason is his lover but later learns (posing as an FBI agent, using one of her album of collected business cards) from the desk clerk, is a reporter. Sara tails the doctor to an airport parking lot, where he is run down by an old-fashioned black sedan that appears, apparently as a symbol of some sort, throughout the film (including at her husband's shooting). A stewardess runs off with his bag and later turns up dead.

Sara's scruffy boyfriend Sam is vaguely introduced, and he helps her sneak into the state senator's home and, to little effect, bug it. This includes Sara watching intently from a closet, supposedly "disgusted" at the hypocrisy of it all, while the married woman and a cocaine-snorting "born gigolo" manager of the drug clinic romance each other -- "what they did to each other worked better than any sleeping pill."

Taking no precautions, Sam then goes undercover at the drug clinic, and predictably falls into danger. Meanwhile, the reporter from the motel turns up dead. Sara gets nowhere, and actually has flashbacks and breaks down, interviewing his hostile widow ("the nightmare had finally gone public"). After a supposedly chilling but ludicrously improbable attempt on and escape from danger by Sara, she identifies, somehow locates, and follows a murderous thug to and through the back door of the Sacramento state house after hours. She somehow finds the right office, listens as the plot threads of her husband's death, drug dealing, and political corruption vaguely and hastily tie together, and bursts in, gun drawn, on a politician and the thug, only to have another emotional breakdown, allow the thug to get the drop on her ("I don't know what's the matter with you, lady, but you sure blew it."), and fall apart into pitiful pleas for mercy. Help arrives out of nowhere. A light scene back at the office in LA shows that with some news exposure about Sara and her boss's role in the high-profile bust, business seems to be picking up.

The movie's strongest impressions are how miscast and out-of-place Montgomery seems to be in the role of a low-rent, hardboiled LA private eye (working for fat slob, boozing, carousing boss "Papazian" out of a drab office in a "bad location"), right down to her cynical, "tough-guy" narrations; how the character snaps from apparently determined, wisecracking, and experienced to pathetic and hysterical at the drop of a hat and back again (relentlessly described in the deadpan narrations); and how earnestly and flexibly Montgomery works away at the role.

It is the film's attitude and quirky contrasts that make it interesting. Dreary, depressing, maudlin material co-exists with mundane, cynical, silly, wisecracking elements. The cast, especially Montgomery and her screen boss and daughter, take their roles seriously, whether in the light or the serious moments. Beyond this, the insistently weird, artsy way the movie is filmed makes it feel as if it is about something urgent and important -- getting to the bottom of a life-or-death personal and political secret. At least some skeleton of story and dialogue supports the characters and the mood, perhaps owing to the book on which the movie is based.

The problem is that once the "provocative" touches thrown in for effect, "color," or humor and the stylistic, emotionally overwrought camouflage are cleared away, there is not much left. There is not enough to the thin characters and story, nor enough intelligent, sharp dialogue, to make the movie satisfying or meaningful in the end. The repeated flashbacks to Sara's husband's shooting, the overly stylized presentation (including big red lips that frame the screen at times, a plastic ketchup bottle being ripped through by a bullet, shattered eyeglasses, torrents and pools of rain, and all manner of strange shots, cuts, and camera angles), and related histrionics (screams, shouts, pleas, nightmares) not only become loud, trying, and unpleasant to watch. But they also recur so often and take so much time that they crowd out real character and story development. And I begin to wonder if a lot of the film's interest is not in watching characters embarrass themselves, rather than in genuine drama.
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a private investigation
petershelleyau13 February 2003
Sara Scott (Elizabeth Montgomery) is a Los Angeles private detective and wife of journalist Andy (David Haskell) who is murdered. Sara is hired by Helen Richman (Leigh Hamilton) to follow her husband James, and when James is killed, Sara discovers a link between the two deaths.

Montgomery is a brunette here and wears her hair on top of her head most of the time. The only memorable moment she has is her funny false hysteria as a decoy to planting a telephone bug where she is `a cross between Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce and Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford', though Montgomery undressing offering sex to a man who plans to killer her, and allowing her mouth to be photographed in extreme close-up, are noteworthy.

The teleplay by director Mike Hodges, based on the novel A Private Investigation by Karl Alexander, uses a Raymond Chandler-style narration, though Hodges doesn't have enough technique to delete prose phrases like `moreover'. The narrative is as labryinthine as The Big Sleep so the exhaustion factor sets in, particularly when aided by Hodges' directorial style. The only redeeming things are the occasional bon mots, which tellingly disappear about halfway in. `Tequila? It's a little early for me. It doesn't go with toothpaste', `He finished painting the office. Adolf Hitler couldn't have done it better', `She was a movie actress before going into politics. Soon we won't need political journalists, just film critics', and `Her bedroom looked like a set from The Desert Song'.

Hodges goes over the top with flashbacks in a rainstorm when Andy is shot, endlessly repeated, soundbites, whiplash editing, video graphics, low camera angles, an actor looking to the camera, and keyhole scene transitions, though the size of an elevated platform for politicians recalls the symbolic judges bench of John Ford's 1936 Mary of Scotland.
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