Made for TV movies have a terrible reputation. Network staples from the mid-‘60s until the late ‘80s, these anodyne films generally featured low production values (including unimaginative scoring, predictable plotting, and lazy cinematography), and were produced with built-in commercial fade-outs that sapped attention spans and (even worse) foreshadowed the imminent arrival of several minutes’ worth of ads.
Regardless of their inherent problems, however, not all TV movies were without value, especially during the genre’s early days. Consider this week’s “Made in Berkeley” feature, Along Came a Spider, an enjoyable if completely far-fetched thriller starring Suzanne Pleshette in a double role as a vengeful widow and a Cal student.
The Internet Movie Database states that Along Came a Spider (which has nothing to do with Paramount’s 2001 Morgan Freeman feature of the same name) was shot at Fox’s Century City studio, but there are shots of the Cal campus peppered throughout the film. It’s quite likely that most of the film’s interiors were indeed shot in southern California, but it’s indisputable that the cast and crew spent time in Berkeley.
After a brief opening scene in which a scientific experiment goes horribly wrong, Along Came a Spider transitions to a ‘present day’ establishing shot of the iconic Campanile, seen from the west, and framed between California and Wheeler Halls. This establishing shot is re-used at the film’s 66-minute mark — and is clearly the same shot, as the time on the Campanile hasn’t changed from 4:55!
The camera tracks star Pleshette as she enters the Valley Life Sciences Building on her way to attend ‘Physical Chemistry 62’. There’s no Physical Chemistry department at Cal today, but perhaps readers more knowledgeable about the history of the university will know whether or not there was one in 1970. (It would also be interesting to know whether or not the complex equation co-star Ed Nelson scribbles on the blackboard is complete nonsense. It looks like gobbledegook to me, but I’m terrible at math.)
A flirtatious scene between student Anne Banning (Pleshette) and instructor Martin Becker (Nelson) is followed by a cut-away to a groovy guy wearing a homemade tee-shirt with the intriguing message ‘love money power’ painted on it. He’s carrying a copy of the Berkeley Barb with a headline — ‘Christ in Khaki’ — almost as intriguing as his tee-shirt inscription. If anyone still has a copy of this issue I’d love to read the accompanying article.
Anne, however, is not a co-ed: she’s actually the widow of a scientist who died as a result of the opening scene experiment, now masquerading as a student to get revenge against the man she blames for her husband’s death. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the man she holds responsible is Becker, and her plan works perfectly until a letter arrives from El Salvador and changes everything. Really.
Though the bulk of Along Came a Spider consists of Southland-shot studio scenes and nighttime exteriors, it admirably tries to maintain the Berkeley illusion. Anne’s home phone number is 415-841-9994: at the time, of course, Berkeley’s area code was 415, and 841 remains a Berkeley prefix today. Your intrepid scribe must sadly report, however, that this number is currently not in service. (And a quick question on the side: did the telephone company really offer a wake-up service in 1970?)
We return to the ‘real’ Berkeley when Pleshette and Nelson meet outside the Life Sciences Building at the film’s 68-minute mark — as the weather and shadows are identical in the ‘Campanile’ shots, however, it’s probably safe to assume these scenes were filmed contemporaneously. Some curious shots of a pre-renovation Edwards Stadium follow, and there’s a well-matched scene outside something called the Cheviot Food Center. It looks like an authentic Berkeley locale, but a little research reveals Cheviot was actually a Los Angeles business incorporated in 1969. Thank you, Google.
Along Came a Spider then wends its way to a completely unbelievable dénouement, the details of which I will keep to myself in order to spare you from disappointment and/or prevent you from dying of laughter. However, the final reel does include an immortal line of dialogue that I simply cannot keep to myself:
“I want to speak to Detective Sam Howard. He’s at a tear gas convention in the Walnut Room.”
Surprisingly, screenwriter Barry Oringer — later responsible for developing the popular ’80s prime-time soap Hotel — did not win an Emmy for his work here. The film is a lot of fun, though.
Footnote: At one point in Along Came a Spider, a newspaper sub-head trumpets ‘Berkeley Professor to Serve Life Term’. Unfortunately, it’s not referring to John Yoo.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
This is the eighth article in an occasional series by John Seal on “locally grown” movies . The other movies reviewed in the series are: The Fear Woman (for which we are still looking for answers from historical sleuths), Shadow of the Thin Man; Changes; Harold and Maude; Tear Gas and Law Enforcement, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Graduate.
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