Surprise packages: Kojak, and the SS
Don't let the titles fool you. Kojak: The Belarus File (CBS, Saturday, Feb. 16, 9-11 p.m.) sounds like an attempt to pump a former series into movie length, as has been done from time to time; and Hitler's SS: Portrait in Evil (NBC, Sunday, Feb. 17, 8-11 p.m.) promises a sleazy, sensational look at the horrible doings of Himmler and his gang, which has been done ad nauseum.
Neither made-for-television movie, it turns out, is what you might think.
``Kojak'' isn't just a reheating of old episodes, for instance. It begins in black and white with Telly Savalas, sans lollipop, standing with his back to the camera, staring at a New York river. His audible thoughts circle around World War II, and before we know it we are traveling in newsreel footage to the first inspections of Buchenwald, with Edward R. Murrow's voice as our guide.
It's the business of Kojak to bring us more contemporary Hollywood-style murder, however; and soon we are back in New York, the present day, in full color, watching an unseen assailant murdering a string of former concentration camp inmates.
Glamorized violence, and occasionally sanctimonious dialogue aside, the movie holds your interest with a neatly unravelling plot about Nazi collaborators harbored by the United States government. You don't go into one of these things expecting tight plausibility, however, and you certainly won't get it here. Kojak is his usual unvarnished self. He easily browbeats a hefty State Department official and even more easily enchants his beautiful assistant (Suzanne Pleshette).
Somewhere on the way to making the political grist of the film mesh with the romantic image of this tough city cop, it becomes a formula TV detective movie. But an interesting one, for all that.
At its peril, ``Hitler's SS'' stakes out much larger ground. Much, much larger ground.
The heavily promoted movie is not, as the title suggests, yet another unveiling of the ugliness inside that consummately ugly organization. It really deals in the shock waves sent through German life by the rise and fall of the Third Reich. For all its failures, the film tries at least to look at the sorry epoch through the eyes of ordinary German people.
The catch is that there aren't any ordinary Germans on hand to do the looking.
Instead we have here a shorthand retelling of history that uses its small coterie of characters as a microcosm for everything-going-on-in-Germany.
Hence, we discover: ``the idealistic Karl'' (John Shea), who joins the Nazis well before their rise to power, but soon has his eyes opened; the more skeptical brother Helmut (Bill Nighy), who gets drawn fatally into the high circles of the SS; the evil and loquacious secret-service official (David Warner), who conveniently gives us a pipeline into nasty doings at the top; the sympathetic Jewish professor (Jos'e Ferrar); the horrified mother (Caroll Baker); and so on.
I have neglected to mention the Marlene Dietrichesque cabaret singer (Lucy Gutteridge) and the white-faced homosexual comedian who dares political humor (Tony Randall). But, then, it might have been better had the film neglected to include them also, along with a crazy quilt of American, British, and nondescript accents.
Given a choice between watching a clumsy attempt to make solemn melodrama of the Hitler era and a frankly implausible, whiz-bang detective show that only uses it for an exotic springboard . . . who would hesitate?
Hey, Kojak, who loves you, baby?