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Prolific television director Jack Smight broke into features on a Sandra Dee movie at Universal, and then moved his tent to Warners for several years, making no major hits but scoring points in productions starring Paul Newman Harper, The Secret War of Harry Frigg) and Rod Steiger (No Way to Treat a Lady, The Illustrated Man). Smight's direction favored actors and was sometimes disparaged as TV-quality. That charge couldn't be leveled at his later films The Traveling Executioner and Rabbit, Run, which play like conscious attempts to adopt different styles.
Smight's first Warners' picture The Third Day (1965) is a thriller featuring George Peppard. If its prime subject weren't amnesia, the movie could be mistaken for the pilot of a TV series. The story of a wealthy family, the closing of a factory in a company town, and a possible murder sounds like a slightly down-market take on Vincente Minnelli films from a few years back -- "Some Came Running Home from the Hill But I Can't Remember Who." Character actors are distributed through the plot like guest stars. A couple of them are reasonably well cast.
A man (George Peppard) climbs back up to the roadway after a car plunges into a reservoir. He can't remember anything but learns his name, Steve Mallory, from his driver's license. By the time Steve makes it down the road to a local piano bar, he's discovered that he's a rich playboy despised by most of the locals, in particular the pianist Lester Aldrich (Arte Johnson), who hates his guts. Found by the Mallory family chauffeur, Steve is taken home, where he 'meets' his wife Alexandria (Elizabeth Ashley), her mother Catherine (Mona Washbourne), the paralyzed, incommunicative paterfamilias Austin Parsons (Herbert Marshall) and his brother-in-law Oliver (Roddy McDowall). In short order Steve discovers that his marriage is all but finished because of his womanizing. His business associates are frustrated that he's given a big issue so little attention -- Oliver is promoting an offer to buy the family factory, a move that which will throw the entire county out of work. While trying to remember just how big of an S.O.B. he really was, Steve begins to have flashbacks of a fateful encounter with his latest pickup, the uninhibited singer Holly Mitchell (Sally Kellerman). She was found in the reservoir and is not expected to live, and local D.A. Dom Guardiano (Robert Webber) is sizing up Steve for a murder charge.
If The Third Day sounds gimmicky, it is -- the amnesia idea serves mostly as a way of parceling out key exposition in a conventional mystery, and also to motivate a few okay memory flashbacks, as Steve Mallory is stricken by attacks of stylized optical smears, zooms, etc. Peppard is good but his character is a muddle -- the movie asks us to believe that a serious bout of amnesia will change one's personality. The original Steve Mallory sounds like a pretty unlikeable jerk, but the new Steve is morally reborn. He's never actually 'cured' of his memory problem and instead just remembers a few things. I have to admit that I was wondering if at the last minute he'd be konked on the head again, and suddenly start acting like his old self -- an obnoxious creep.
Elizabeth Ashley's pampered wife finds her marriage rebooted, only for the revelations about Steve's big toot with Holly Mitchell to come out. Roddy McDowall is an all-too predictable nasty relative, eager to sell out the family for a quick payday; he doesn't care about the local workers at all. Deserving better is Mona Washbourne (My Fair Lady, If....) who lends the proceedings some class. In his last film, Herbert Marshall simply stares and lies still to play Austin. Even so, he makes a satisfying connection with Steve, who is now a devoted son-in-law looking for business guidance, from a man who cannot talk. In a minimal but amusing part is Vincent Gardenia, as a bitter local eager to punch Steve in the nose.
Although she'd previously been in several pictures and many television shows, The Third Day was Sally Kellerman's big-studio debut. Her scenes are limited to Steve Mallory's flashbacks, which unfortunately show her go-go dancing while the camera zooms in and out. Sally isn't bad but neither the role nor the performance is the kind of thing that draws positive attention. But she'd continue to get better parts until her major breakthrough a full five years later in M*A*S*H. Ms. Kellerman would work again for Jack Smight fifteen years later, in Loving Couples.
The Third Day is designed along -- I have to say it -- TV lines, in that most of the actors are only seen in studio interiors, limiting the number of filming days on location in Northern California. The ending action scenes are something of a fizzle, and not only because Jack Smight's staging is unsure. Actor Arte Johnson is okay as a demented vengeance-seeker, but the final confrontation places him, a gun, Elizabeth Ashley and George Peppard on some rough rocks at the seashore. Everybody seems concerned about falling on those jagged rocks. In movie action terms the idea of the comparatively harmless-looking Johnson holding his own against the larger, more agile Peppard just doesn't add up.
What's too bad is that The Third Day constructs a much more interesting conclusion for a scene a little earlier on. Steve doesn't know whether to modernize the factory or sell it, and asks old Austin for help. Austin is paralyzed, but can use one finger to tap out two for no and one for yes. The movie comes alive for a few minutes when Steve realizes that this code tapping has brought Austin back into the world. In a suspenseful scene with the company's board of directors in attendance, including the venal Oliver, Steve sets Austin up to 'vote' with his fingers. It's such a great idea that we would have liked to see more of it, or at least see Austin reconnecting with his wife and daughter in this way. The movie should have ended with Steve playing this scene soaking-wet and wounded, fresh from his fight on the beach. 1
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Third Day is an immaculate enhanced transfer of this handsomely shot (by Robert Surtees) show; we particularly like the interiors of the Mallory mansion, and the Parsons factory headquarters. The main titles are very much in the style of Smight's later Harper and (without the animation & mattes) Warners' Bullitt. Percy Faith's music score sounds fine on the clearly recorded sound track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Third Day rates:
1. This has been another in Savant's ongoing series of irrelevant, arrogant "how dare they not do it my way?" reviews.
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T'was Ever Thus.