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The Deliberate Stranger (1986)

Theodore Robert Bundy, known in notoriety as Ted, once described himself as “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.” Bundy was a serial murderer who confessed to at least 30 murders he committed throughout the 1970s before he was eventually caught and convicted, with the real number of victims potentially tipping over a hundred. He started out with burglary and theft (though very possibly even murder as a teenager) and moved on to assault, murder and necrophilia. The blandly ‘handsome’ Bundy would use his charm and conman techniques to get close to women so he could attack them. Bundy had the archetypal serial killer’s childhood; his mother, Louise, could have been the victim of incest, Bundy the result. Louise would later marry and have more children, but Bundy himself stayed aloof from his new family. Bundy immersed himself in petty crime from a young age before working up to murder. There’s even been suggestion that his later victims all resembled a woman he dated in college who spurned him. Bundy’s story might even seem cliched at times but that’s because in large part his story set the cliché. The details of Bundy’s life and crimes are dramatic and need no embellishment to be transferred to film. Yet, there have been relatively few straight attempts at this, although numerous films have added elements of Bundy’s crimes or Bundy himself to their characters and plots. The best attempt at a straight crime biopic is still 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger, a two-part three-hour TV movie broadcast on NBC starring Mark Harmon as Bundy.  

The title comes from a police officer’s description of Bundy before they know who he is. It’s an approach to crime and murder that kept Bundy free for years, even though not all of his victims died. Bundy avoided attacking anyone he knew or that could recognise him. Based on journalist Richard Larsen’s book, Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger, it has generally been noted as being an accurate retelling of events by those who were involved. Larsen himself knew Bundy, having interviewed the young man during his time as a political aide to Senator Daniel J. Evans. The film necessarily focuses on key points in the Bundy timeline. As the film begins, Bundy has already committed at least five murders and numerous burglaries and assaults. But Bundy is a rising star — smart, charismatic and seemingly with a bright future ahead of him. The film tracks him from Seattle to Salt Lake City by way of Aspen. It does this as it’s the time when things started to slowly begin unravelling for Bundy. Previously, he had gotten away with almost everything he had done. The police hadn’t even connected the disappearances of the women he had murdered, no bodies were found, there was no evidence trail to follow. The manipulative Bundy seemed to have everyone convinced he was a great guy. For him, life is good. But a failed kidnapping and assault leads to police searching for ‘Ted’ and ultimately leads to them finally stopping him.

Robert D. Keppel was one of the detectives involved in the hunt for the deliberate stranger. His relationship with Bundy is notable because it continued until Bundy’s death and allegedly informed some of Thomas Harris’ world building in both Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988). In the film he’s played by Frederic Forrest, a noted character actor with an impressive list of performances often scored into most people’s memory as the grotesque Nick the Nazi in Falling Down (1993). Larsen is played by George Grizzard, a well-known actor who worked in film, TV and the theatre. Forrest, Grizzard and the remainder of the cast anchor the film but the most remarkable performance comes from the centre of it: Mark Harmon. Harmon is synonymous now with NCIS, having played central character Leroy Jethro Gibbs for some 15 seasons now. At the time of The Deliberate Stranger he was most well known for playing Dr. Caldwell on the popular drama St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), a show he had just left. Harmon had started 1986 by being named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. That title might have been utterly devalued this year with Blake Shelton being awarded the ‘honour’, but back in the mid-80s it could make someone’s career. That’s just what was happening with Harmon. Here was an actor about to parlay years working in TV and a role as a sensitive and handsome doctor into next-level stardom. Considering this, taking a role as a murderous sociopath perhaps wasn’t the next likely step. But it allows Harmon to inhabit Bundy in the film in a way which works massively in its favour. Harmon is all toothy grin, boy-next-door handsome, bland superficial charm. Underneath all that, Harmon shows us the hard flashes of the Bundy that lurks behind the facade. He also nails the other parts of Bundy’s character; the superficiality is all there, the moments of occasional fragility when his ego is damaged, the bravado, the arrogance. It’s a performance for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe and deservedly so.  

It was the mid-80s when this was made, and it’s about events that happened in the ‘70s, but there’s no ‘80s haircuts sneaking in or garish ‘70s fashions. It’s a purposely bland environment. This is the 70s as no one likes to remember them — dull and beige. The cinematography by Michael D. Margulies is all muted palette and it’s a choice the film takes to support the approach of being rigorously factual. Hesper Anderson’s script isn’t flashy, and has to overcome some clunky portentous dialogue early on, so is probably the most purely functional element of the film. Unlike other films about Bundy, this one changes, for the most part, only the victim names, to afford them and their families some privacy. The film can’t of course portray the reality of Bundy’s crimes. Even today, no network show could touch the details of the violence of his crimes, the barbarity involved. So instead it infers where it could show, and in doing so works in a way that many horror films do and this is where Anderson’s writing works best. By implying what Bundy had done, or showing us snippets of the aftermath, our minds fill in the rest and it’s suitably chilling. When this all leads up to Bundy’s brutal assault on the sleeping women in a college dormitory, the blood-spattered result is all the more effective because of director Marvin J. Chomsky’s previous restraint. Only this and Bundy’s failed attempt to pose as a cop and kidnap a woman earlier in the film show Harmon completely as the hidden Bundy and they are enough. Like Bundy, the film is outwardly polished but the implied violence is always bubbling just a frame away. We should also note here the remarkable electronic music by Gil Melle. His synth score is harsh, unsettling, abrasive. Even when Harmon is turning on the flashy grin, Melle’s score reminds us of the darkness hiding behind it.  

The three-hour running time also works here. The pacing is deliberate, and with the extra running time scenes can play out longer than they would if needing to squeeze everything into one episode or TV movie. In TV of the early part of this century things got so clipped and fast-paced we didn’t even have time for a credits sequence anymore. But the positive influence of cable dramas has been to redress this somewhat. We can spend more time on characters, on scenes, on the incidental things that make the world we’re visiting more authentic. We’re not so concerned with linearity and the relentless progression of plot.

Although The Deliberate Stranger might appear slow to some, it has more in common with this modern aesthetic than its competition at the time and this helps it still feel fresh. Added to this is the sense of time and place, and because it is set in the time the events happened, it avoids being dated. We’re also more used these days to long-form storytelling with season-long shows about single crimes. Or, in cinema, the slow, measured approach of something like David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Now, The Deliberate Stranger is not a small-screen Fincher but it does show the influence of a number of ‘70s crime films that gave it more ambition than much contemporary TV. It uses the tools of true crime journalism and the core of the police procedural to slowly reveal Bundy to us. It’s a strong piece of work that never attempts to humanize Bundy but uses its scope, attention to detail and relative freedom in running time to compel us and in that, it succeeds. 

About James Evans

James has written for Starburst Magazine and That's Not Current about his main loves, horror films and classic television. It passes the time until the alien overlords arrive to enslave us or people finally destroy the world, whatever comes first. You can find him on Twitter @J_PEvans.

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