A plane crashes in the wilderness en route to a convention for the blind, leaving only seven sightless passengers to find their way back to civilization. A woman receives phone calls from her long-dead nephew. A man is locked in a department store overnight with just six vicious guard dogs for company. A woman on the jury in a murder trial slowly realizes her husband—not the person being tried—was the real killer.
If you like your films to have a good elevator pitch, the ABC Movie of the Week has you covered. With limited budgets, and the necessity of airing one every week of the year for the five years of the slot’s existence, an intriguing idea would often work as a movie’s chief selling point—particularly useful during those occasions when the cast wouldn’t be enough of a draw. Happily, See the Man Run delivers a great cast and a great concept.
A call wakes Ben Taylor (Robert Culp) first thing in the morning: “We’ve got your daughter! We want fifty thousand bucks, and you get her back alive.” But he and his wife Joanne (Angie Dickinson) haven’t got a daughter. The ransom demand was delivered to the wrong number. Oops.
Rather than go to the police, or even tell the kidnappers their mistake, the Taylors decide to capitalize on the situation. Ben is an actor who’s been out of work for a long time. They could really use the money.
So they decide to act as secret middlemen between the kidnappers and the intended recipients of that horrifying phone call (Eddie Albert and June Allyson). The ransom was $50,000, Ben will pretend to be a kidnapper and ask for $150,000; they’ll pocket the difference, and the terrified parents will still get their daughter back. Easy, right?
As you may have guessed from that synopsis, the Taylors are, to put it mildly, not nice people. Joanne married Ben when he seemed on the verge of stardom; the stardom never developed, and she’s furious to have hitched her wagon to such a dud. She spends much of the movie luminescent with utter disdain (Dickinson’s turn is gloriously venomous), before she realizes she can manipulate him into the life she always dreamed of.
And Ben, well, Ben is mostly just happy to have acting work (such as it is…) and that Joanne seems interested in him once again. While he’s not as vociferously viperous as her, neither do we see him give any thought to how the kidnapped girl’s real parents must be feeling; his sole worry is getting caught.
Culp and Dickinson had had similar career trajectories on the way to See the Man Run; both—she more than him, however—had had some success in big screen ventures, before settling into a TV movie groove in the 1970s. Culp was one of the medium’s most frequently seen faces, starring in four other MOTWs, and as one of the most frequent murderers in Columbo. (He was only bested by Patrick McGoohan—no shame in that!)
The two old pros provide See the Man Run with much of its dynamism: Their ego, greed and libido-fueled scheming is mesmerizing for its sheer, soulless awfulness. The ‘70s-style Shakespearean tenor of their toxic relationship is electric. Although we do spend some time with the kidnapped girl’s real parents—played convincingly but uninterestingly by Albert and Allyson—Culp and Dickinson are the real show here.
And what a gamut the movie puts them through! After months without work, Ben suddenly gets a meeting that could lead to the biggest role of career—but he has to see them that day. Because the Taylors have been in dire financial straits for so long, the power company sends a man to cut their mains off—disastrous, when the whole sordid business is taking place on their landline phone. Not to mention the myriad things that were always going to go wrong in a situation involving distraught parents, unhelpful cops and an awful lot of money. In a propulsive 73 minutes, that premise—What if kidnappers phoned the wrong number with their ransom demand?—is spun out in all sorts of fiendish directions, ending in a delicious, devilish twist.
TV movies are hardly known for their aesthetic gleam, and there is nothing in See the Man Run to counter that (Robert Culp in this excellent disguise is perhaps the only visually noteworthy element). There’s no pizzazz to Corey Allen’s workmanlike direction. Most of the scenes are set in the Taylor’s dreary apartment, or in their car. All the movie has is its concept and its actors, and that proves ample for a gripping ride.
More often than not, a MOTW faded into oblivion moments after it aired. Sometimes though, they would have unexpected afterlives, and few were quite so unexpected as See the Man Run’s. While in the U.S. it met the typically underwhelming fate, in India it was a different story. In 1989 its kidnapping/wrong number plot was adapted into classic Malayalam comedy-drama Ramji Rao Speaking, which was remade the next year as the Tamil Arangetra Velai, and in 2000 as the Hindi Hera Pheri. Then you have the remakes of those remakes, including the Telugu Dhanalakshmi, I Love You, Kannada Trin Trin, Odia Wrong Number and Bengali Hera Pheri. The success of these various Indian adaptations dwarfed that of their modest MOTW source material; to give you some idea of the scale, at the time of writing See the Man Run has 137 ratings on IMDb. The Hindi Hera Pheri has 68 thousand.
Besides being a tremendously fun film in its own right, See the Man Run demonstrates that no matter how visually humble they may have been, if a MOTW had a good elevator pitch—as so many of them did—they had the potential to travel far beyond the living rooms of America.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.