The showy, intrigue-filled miniseries Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers was the other Big Event of the 1976-77 television season. Producer Ross Hunter rounded up an impressive array of old-time movie stars and hungry newcomers for this tale of greed and corruption in the banking biz, which originally aired over four consecutive nights on NBC in December 1976. The fact that Roots came along just a month later and stole its thunder shouldn't dissuade vintage boob tube fans from checking out this potboiler, newly resuscitated on a two-DVD set from CBS and Paramount.
Unlike Roots, a groundbreaking show whose stature has grown since the '70s, Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers was entirely a product of its own time. Novelist Arthur Hailey was a big deal in the '70s, selling bucketloads of pulpy page-turners like Airport, Hotel and Wheels. Hailey's throbbing stories of industrial movers and shakers were a good match with the flamboyant sensibilities of producer Ross Hunter (Imitation of Life; 1973's floppo musical Lost Horizon). Collaborating with longtime partner Jacques Mapes, Hunter makes this project as luxurious as a TV-scaled budget would allow with a diverse all-star cast, plush settings like private jets and executive boardrooms, and a dynamic opening credits theme by Henry Mancini. While it's luxe and so very '70s (dig those airplane wing-sized lapels!), bland direction and overdone performances make The Moneychangers a lot more typical than the "miniseries" label implies.
The Moneychangers not-so-realistically delves into all aspects of a huge bank's dealings, from the executive offices to the bank itself (located on the ground floor of a modern skyscraper in downtown L.A.) to the nearby slums and criminal elements in the surrounding city. For all its shenanigans, it overwhelmingly feels like an Irwin Allen '70s disaster movie without the disaster. Each episode unspools with the lead actors' faces superimposed over images of coins and currency. In order, we have:
- Kirk Douglas as Alex Vandervoort, forward-thinking and altruistic vice president at Los Angeles' First Mercantile American bank. When the bank's president announces his retirement, Alex finds himself in a competition with his chief rival on the board to fill the position. His unconventional love life is detrimental to his career prospects, however.
- Christopher Plummer as Roscoe Heyward, pompous and sanctimonious vice president who schemes with fellow board members to discredit Alex so he can take over leading the bank. Roscoe's back-door dealings with a top investor in the bank will jeopardize his esteemed position and his loveless marriage.
- Timothy Bottoms as Miles Eastin, hotshot clerk at the bank's ground-floor customer service office. Miles is secretly embezzling from the bank to cover for his gambling debts, but he's quick to defend a co-worker who is accused of squirreling away the cash.
- Susan Flannery as Margot Bracken, Alex's plucky liberal lawyer girlfriend. Margot tries to sway Alex to secure funding for a planned housing development in the lower-income neighborhood where she works. Despite the fact that Alex is already married, their relationship is openly known (and criticized) at the bank's boardrooms.
- Anne Baxter as Edwina Dorsey, no-nonsense manager at the bank's ground-floor customer service center. Edwina keeps her cool under pressure, except possibly when hundreds of upset customers descend upon the branch.
- Percy Rodrigues as Nolan Wainwright, the bank's chief internal investigator. His probing of First Mercantile American's missing assets heats up when all indications of the culprit point to Miles.
- Guest Starring Ralph Bellamy as Jerome Patterton, grandfatherly member of the bank's executive board and Vandervoort's main council in all things business and personal.
- Joan Collins as Avril Devereaux, hotsy-totsy escort who eventually becomes Roscoe's lover and a conduit to his shady business dealings.
- Robert Loggia as Tony Bear, L.A. crime kingpin who has Miles in his clutches when the young man approaches him for a job to help pay off his gambling debts.
- Marisa Pavan as Celia Vandervoot, Alex's wife. Celia is mentally ill, shocked into a perpetually mute state, and under constant supervision. This puts Alex in a tight spot, since asking her for a divorce to marry Margot may cause her condition to worsen.
- Jean Peters as Beatrice Hayward, Roscoe's neglected wife. Accustomed to the couple's wealthy lifestyle, Beatrice is delighted at the prospect of Roscoe advancing to the bank's presidency.
- Hayden Rorke as Lewis Dorsey, Edwina's stuffy husband and a good friend of Alex and Margot's.
- James Shigeta as Wizard Wong, a crime boss who garners favor with Tony Bear by surreptitiously recording Miles' telephone conversations.
- Amy Tivell as Juanita Nunez, hispanic single mom who works as a teller at First Mercantile. She's wrongly accused of embezzling funds at the bank, eventually falling for the man who is the ultimate culprit - Miles.
- And Starring Patrick O'Neal as Harold Austin, an advertising agency bigwig who is one of the more powerful members of the bank's board. Harold conspires with his good buddy Roscoe to discredit Alex and make sure the right guy ascends to the throne.
- Special Appearance by Lorne Greene as George Quartermain, shady CEO of a multi-million dollar company who courts Roscoe to loan his company more money than is legally allowed. George plies Roscoe with all the perks his company offers, including the special attentions of "stewardess" Avril.
- Special Guest Star Appearance by Helen Hayes as Dr. McCartney, Celia's physician, who advises Alex to keep his other relationship under wraps so it won't further damage Celia's fragile psyche.
For nighttime soap fans, Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers can get pretty interesting since the miniseries shares a lot of DNA with later efforts like Dallas, Dynasty and Knots Landing. The closest thing I can compare it to is the earnest first season of Dynasty, before they decided to camp it up. The Moneychangers also deals with a wide range of people at different levels in society, although it flounders way too often whenever it focuses on the slum residents. It might be Arthur Hailey's non-grasp on the way lower classes live, but these segments often come across like a bad, torpid blaxploitation flick of the period (including groan-inducing lines like "To hell with the blacks, the browns, the yellows - we want the greens - the money!"). The terrible acting isn't restricted to the minor players, either. Although Christopher Plummer unaccountably received an Emmy award for his role as Roscoe Heyward, his scenery-chewing performance ultimately doesn't stand up as one of his finer moments. Patrick O'Neal and Timothy Bottoms also contribute some godawful acting, although they're somewhat redeemed by underrated Susan Flannery and seductive Joan Collins. The series starts off campy and lots of fun, but it gets more burdened as it goes along by its lethal combination of hokey screenwriting and melodramatic acting.
Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers has been rebroadcast with various edits over the years. The Paramount/CBS DVD edition lists the miniseries' running time at approximately five hours and 20 minutes - shorter than the 6-1/2 hours listed at the Internet Movie Database, yet more complete than the truncated four-hour version broadcast on cable TV in the '70s and '80s.
CBS/Paramount's DVD edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers arrives on DVD as a two-disc set housed in a standard-width, clear plastic keep case. While the package design doesn't really convey the ultra-'70s feel of the series, it may be eye-catching enough to draw in younger people unfamiliar with the original airings.
The fuzzy, pockmarked 4:3 picture on The Moneychanger looks as if it's been rolled around in gravel, then dipped in a vat of oil. The filmed elements haven't held up too well (some scenes are seen in a flurry of white specks), and the tight mastering job gives the picture less clarity and a lot more pixelization. A more cleaned-up presentation would have been preferred - but for hokum like this, the visuals are adequate.
The mono soundtrack has a few moments of distortion (particularly during the opening credits), and the compressed dynamics make the dialogue muffled and hissy. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also provided.
The plush 1976 miniseries Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers hasn't held up all that well, but I was happy to see CBS/Paramount dig it out of mothballs for a DVD release. The multi-part opus serves up campy, overheated drama and a contemporary, wealth-obsessed backdrop that prefigures Dallas, Dynasty and Knots Landing. Fans of those iconic shows will find this worth a look. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.