James Coburn tangles with dames and diamonds in the 1978 miniseries adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's THE DAIN CURSE, out on DVD again from Scorpion Releasing.
Private detective Hamilton Nash (Coburn, IN LIKE FLINT) is hired by an insurance company to look into the theft of eight diamonds from the home of Edgar Leggett (Paul Harding, CITY OF SHADOWS), a scientist whose coloration experiments have potential applications to make lesser quality diamonds look more expensive. Right away, Nash suspects something is not right with the case when he finds one of the obviously planted diamonds (after the public detectives have made their sweep) and all of the more valuable pieces the thief ignored in favor of eight low quality stones not worth more than five hundred dollars. The Leggetts themselves are strange: from chilly Edgar to his suspiciously calm wife Alice (Beatrice Straight, POLTERGEIST) to beautiful but obviously unbalanced daughter Gabrielle (Nancy Addison, TV's RYAN'S HOPE) who believes herself to be cursed by her mother's bloodline (the titular curse), and her curiously straight-laced fiancé (Martin Cassidy, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH). Nash's solution to the twisted circumstances of this staged robbery turn out only to be the tip of the iceberg in a series of bloody happenings that lead to mysterious "The Temple of the Holy Grail" (overseen by BLACK NARCISSUS' Jean Simmons) and further misfortunes that suggest the Dain Curse – with compelling historical evidence provided by Nash's Bohemian occult writer friend Fitzstephan (an almost unrecognizable Jason Miller, THE EXORCIST) – will claim quite a few more lives including possibly Nash himself should he allow himself to fall for Gabrielle.
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett – published in book form in 1929 after its serialization in the magazine "Black Mask" – and mounted by scripter Robert Lenski (veteran of crime shows like THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, CANNON, and MANNIX before becoming a regular writer of Hallmark Hall of Fame movies) and seasoned sitcom director E.W. Swackhamer, THE DAIN CURSE is no artistic triumph nor is it a particularly thrilling ride. Running nearly five hours spread over three ninety-eight minute parts, THE DAIN CURSE starts to drag in the first episode and the excessive radio-play-detailed narration (despite being delivered by Coburn's always pleasing voice) slows things down even farther with rooms full of characters even seeming to pause in wait for Nash to finish speaking in his head (or a camera slows its panning to synchronize its revelation with the narration). Part one really should have ended at around seventy-five minutes for a ninety minute spot in a better cliffhanger than the one it rushes towards in the remaining twenty minutes (and then immediately spoils with an overlong "next time on" teaser). Presumably the filmmakers and Coburn were quite taken with Hammett's prose as scenes outside of Nash's immediate purview unfold with more showing than telling (such an approach applied to other scenes might have lead to better overall pacing). The audience shares with Nash not the suspense but the dogged determination to follow the series through to the solution which is as pathetic as the culprit's motivations.
The film is quite the showcase for Coburn even if he's done better elsewhere, while gorgeous Addison is not quite the "black angel" Nash describe her as but quite committed. Miller and Simmons are wasted with too little screentime, as are Hector Elizondo (LEVIATHAN) – who has billing under Coburn throughout but doesn't appear until the second episode (and several departed characters retain their credits in subsequent episodes even if they only appear in recaps) – as the Quesada sheriff and ALL MY CHILDREN's David Canary as Nash's reporter pal. Hattie Winston (then known only for the kid's show THE ELECTRIC COMPANY) appears as the Leggett's suspicious maid, as does Brent Spiner (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) as a magician's assistant who works magic at the "Temple of the Holy Grail", and a Eric Brown (PRIVATE LESSONS, THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE) plays Simmons' young son. The film is beautifully shot by Andrew Laszlo (THE FUNHOUSE) with some lavish period production design by John Robert Lloyd (CLUE) and Gene Rudolf (TRADING PLACES), but Charles Gross' (BLUE SUNSHINE) score adds to the plodding feel.
Previously released in a barebones two-disc set by Image Entertainment, THE DAIN CURSE is presented by Scorpion with the first two episodes on a dual-layer disc and the third on a single-layer in an original aspect ratio fullscreen (1.33:1), progressive transfer that is colorful and sharp enough given the age of the master as well as the period setting but many of the fine houndstooth and herringbone patterns of the period clothing do sometimes evince chroma noise in some shots. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks for each episode are in good condition. There are no extras related to the film, but disc two features trailers for PAPER MASK, SAINT JACK, THE GIRL HUNTERS, GO TELL THE SPARTANS, THE OCTAGON, and THE INTERNECINE PROJECT. (Eric Cotenas)
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