Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Cold Night's Death

Author Barbara Harrison is mostly known for historical literary works and contemporary romance novels. In 1973, Award Books assigned her the job of creating a novelization of an ABC made-for-television movie entitled “A Cold Night's Death”. Typically, movie novelizations are reserved for big screen releases or higher budget films needing additional marketing. It's a mystery on why Award wanted an ABC “movie of the week” in print, but alas here it is. I haven't seen the film (it's on YouTube) but couldn't resist the cover and promises of “Icy terror, suspense and violence”. 

Again, I haven't seen this film. But based on what I endured for 156-pages...I will never watch it. Perhaps Barbara Harrison was welded to the film's restraints, but reading “A Cold Night's Death” felt exactly like the novel's title. This is a lethargic, dull narrative where two scientists are literally thousands of miles from civilization and have nothing else to do but bicker with each other. And they drag you and I into it against our will. I wanted the suspenseful mystery that was teased to me during the novel's opening chapters.

Tower Mountain sits 14,000 feet into the thin air of Northern California. It's a snowy, wind-swept Hell where a small research station houses a lone scientist. For reasons the reader doesn't know (spoiler: you never know), this scientist is at the peak of madness and broadcasting on the short-wave radio for help. Why? What has happened? 

In chapter two we are introduced to the book's two protagonists, Frank and Robert. Both are esteemed scientists that have worked together for a number of years on a dozen projects. Dr. Horner, the research leader (at ground control), has asked that Frank and Robert fly to this frozen wasteland to determine what has happened to the missing scientist and the monkeys that are being used for the grant experiment - the effects of high altitudes and stress on humans. Against their better judgment, both agree to the assignment.

Chapter three begins with Frank and Robert arriving at the ice station and learning the whereabouts of the missing scientist. The mysteries here are aplenty – who locked the scientist in, why is there a window open, who destroyed the interior and how did the scientist die. I was hoping for an engaging hybrid of sleuth, murder and locked room mystery. The end result is nearly a three-month stay for Robert and Frank that includes a lot of experimentation on monkeys, radio dialogue with Dr. Horner and the two main characters jousting at each other like The Honeymooners. 

Barbara Harrison has nothing to offer more than Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg's screenplay (no it isn't our beloved Lee Goldberg). That's the whole issue here...there's nothing to add because nothing really ever happens. There's some bump in the night suspense here and there, a few items knocked over and a lot of accusations tossed about. At the end I was dog-tired from this pointless exercise. Absolutely steer away from “A Cold Night's Death”. It's a soul killer.


  1. One's mileage may vary. I wish Harrison had approached the script with more juice (what she presents is transparent and efficient; if the gig had gone to Avallone, Cameron or Sam (really Linda) Stewart, or one of the young-turk horror writers at the time (it was a little premature for that), it would have been livelier. But the book seems to me just fine as a summary record of the experience in a pre-VCR period (the script, strangely uncredited on the book, is by Christopher Knopf, by the way). As for deciding not to see the film — the reason why the script was novelized (the reason ANY TV movie of the period was novelized AFTER its broadcast, rather than before) is because it became a kind of water-cooler cult favorite overnight. There IS a lot of talk and accusation, but the key factors are tone and delivery and filmcraft and performance. Like Hitchcock's defining the difference between shock and suspense: Shock is, a bomb goes off in the room. Suspense is, two people are having a casual conversation, not knowing (as we who watch know) that there's a ticking bomb about to go off. In A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH, the whole trick is the tick-tick-tick of the clock; we don't know what the bomb IS, but we know it's there. And for goodness' sake, you've got two masters, Robert Culp and Eli Wallach, sustaining a two-hander as well as any two masters would sustain WAITING FOR GODOT or SLEUTH. I will readily admit, the punch line is so Out There it's almost silly — maybe it IS silly — but it really is the perfect fresh-but-inevitable twist … and at the time, that film (in a good way) scared the hell out of a lot of people. It's only 70 minutes of your life; do as you will, but I say, you *should* see it.

  2. You really need to give the movie a try. It’s all over YouTube. Just a warning: it’s a TV Movie from the 70s and as such is dialogue heavy with room for commercial breaks. It’s a taut chamber piece for two showy actors and the final moments haunted my childhood dreams.