"What do you think?"
Another entertaining Hart to Hart reunion movie. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Hart to Hart: Crimes Of The Hart, the third of eight Hart to Hart reunion movies produced in the mid-90s (Sony has just recently re-released all eight of the Hart to Hart reunion movies in two handy four-volume sets). With gorgeous Stefanie Powers and charming Robert Wagner on board, along with Lionel Stander and an eclectic group of supporting players including Alan Rachins, Lew Ayres, Richard Belzer, John Stockwell, Alec Mapa, and Audra Lindley, Hart to Hart: Crimes Of The Hart has a nice wintry New York feel to its light take on The Phantom of the Opera, giving fans of the original series a nice change of pace from the show's usual sunny SoCal climes. No extras, unfortunately, for this good-looking release.
The Great White Way, Winter, 1994. Multi-millionaire industrialist Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner), and his best-selling author wife, Jennifer (Stefanie Powers), are in the Big Apple by invitation from David Kramer (Alan Rachins), Broadway's hottest producer/director. Searching around for new ideas for his upcoming Jack the Ripper musical, one of Kramer's interns discovered an old play written by Jennifer during her one semester stint at NYU; intriguingly, the play postulated that Jack the Ripper was really a woman, suffering from emotional and physical abuse from men. This is just the kind of hook Kramer is looking for for his new play, and he convinces Jennifer to work with him. Jonathan is initially encouraging, but he soon begins to wonder if he did the right thing when he sees Kramer's intense dealings with Jennifer...and when bodies begin to pile up backstage. One of New Yawk's finest, Detective Frank Giordano (Richard Belzer), is inclined to believe the Harts are suspects, while agent Peter Rubin (John Stockwell) is suspicious of Kramer, whom Peter believes has designs on his client/lover, Dori (Michelle Nicastro), the lead in the play. As for the Harts' faithful servant Max (Lionel Stander), he has his own troubles: he's thinking of marrying the maid next door to the Harts' fabulous New York apartment, Katherine Kendrick (Audra Lindley).
Hart to Hart: Crimes Of The Hart, while perhaps not as emotionally resonant as Hart to Hart: Home Is Where The Hart Is, is another solid little mystery, beautifully photographed and cleanly scripted and directed by the same crew as Home. Certainly anyone who has seen a stage or movie version of The Phantom of the Opera won't have any difficulty figuring out the mystery here, but as someone once said, familiar stories are always the best ones, so the fun in Hart to Hart: Crimes Of The Hart comes in seeing how the plot is played out. It shouldn't be surprising that screenwriter Lawrence Hertzog (whom I believe was born in N.Y.C.) and particularly director Peter Hunt are able to create a believable New York theatre milieu here (Hunt won a Tony, after all, for the musical, 1776) that fits in nicely with the Christie-meets-Phantom framework. Location work in New York is extensive, with the heavily-snowed cityscapes gorgeously photographed by Roy Wagner (another hold over from the previous movie), who also achieves big-screen lushness for his interior work (his Hitchcockian effects are quite good, including an off-kilter spiderweb staircase shot that I particularly enjoyed), while the production design is equally swank and luxurious.
Staying true to the Hart to Hart formula, Hertzog's script still has Jennifer and Jonathan just as interested in each as in their mystery, so it's part of the enjoyable fantasy of these shows to see the fabulously wealthy (and over-abundantly beautiful) Harts laughing their way through traumas that would make a nervous wreck out of most real people. Critically, it's not that the script is blasť about their effortless abilities (Jennifer is a best selling author we never see writing; Jonathan makes millions by apparently never working), but rather, we're asked to take it for granted in this fantasy world that a guy like Jonathan, who should be a stressed-out businessman with a peptic ulcer and hypertension, is, when called upon, almost a Bondian figure who can beat up a younger assassin, or make his way, hand over hand, along a precarious balcony railing. Unlike the original series, where those smack-'em-ups were played for campy spoofiness, these reunion movies (so far at least...) are much more "realistic," if you will, about the Harts' abilities, making for pleasant little fantasies that are more grounded in the actual mysteries.
As for the supporting cast, they also help get across the movie's New York-in-winter, New York theatre world atmosphere. Alan Rachins, apparently putting in a very early audition for Showgirls, has just the right amount of straight-faced intensity called for in his role; he's not hamming it up (which would have sent the movie into spoof territory), and he's glib and charming enough to pull off a successful Broadway director. Richard Belzer is just as good; he's a real shot in the arm to the established Hart to Hart formula, giving the smooth Jonathan some amusing friction in his questioning of the Harts' involvement in the case. It's a funny, self-reflexive performance (you can almost here him say, "I'm in a Hart to Hart movie? I've got to comment on this somehow..."), providing the necessary lightness to leaven the heavier Phantom elements. As for our leads, Lionel Stander, who looks quite ill, has a potentially interesting subplot, but not nearly enough context is given for us to buy his sudden marriage-worthy romance with wasted Lindley. Robert Wagner looks good in his dark winter ensembles, and again, he plays better when he's pushed a bit by snarky Belzer. As for Powers, what more can you say? She's beautiful, and elegant, and she has that delightful, throaty laugh, and she's sexy without being coarse (she does a little cheerleader number here that's probably the best thing in the movie; Wagner clearly enjoys it). It's too easy to say a role like Jennifer Hart is something Powers could probably do in her sleep (the same for Wagner); charming and attractive and fun are a lot harder to capture on camera than viewers and reviewers give performers credit for. So it's not simply a little thing to say that both she and Wagner go a long way towards making Hart to Hart: Crimes Of The Hart as light and entertaining as it is; "magnetic" and "alluring" ain't exactly easy.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.