Made-for-TV movies are pretty much a thing of the past these days when it comes to the big four networks, but it was a whole different world back in the 1970s. In those days the warped minds at NBC, CBS, and ABC were the only games in town — and they got away with murder. Some of the decade’s scariest and oddest thrillers actually premiered on square TVs including Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971). While those titles are probably familiar to you, though, there’s a whole creepy world of TV terrors that aren’t nearly as well remembered.
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry sees greed, room-sized computers, and Dean Stockwell get mixed up with murder in 1971’s Paper Man.
When: November 12th, 1971
It was a victim-less crime. When a computer malfunction somewhere results in a credit card being sent to a college student in someone else’s name, four friends (including Hart to Hart‘s Stefanie Powers) decide to take advantage of the windfall and contribute to the economy by racking up some debt. They mostly keep up with the payments and complete the illusion by having their friend Avery (Dean Stockwell, Quantum Leap) create a digital identity for “Henry Norman” via the school’s networked computer lab under the card’s imprinted name. He only exists in the computer and on paper. For now.
Things take a turn, though, and it starts with the quartet noticing a gun has been purchased with the card. Each of them deny they’re responsible, but before they can dig deeper one of them dies after an apparent computer error results in him receiving the wrong medication. Then another is killed when a computer-controlled elevator system malfunctions. They soon realize that the false identity has grown in the system to include additional details and reach, and then a third person dies in a computer-related incident.
Identity theft is a rampant problem these days, but no one was worrying about it in 1971. Its presence at the heart of Paper Man marks the film as more than a little prescient even if it takes the idea in a more genre-oriented direction. Typically it’s those employing the stolen identity who are the villains, but here they’re relative innocents who instead become targets as someone — or something — takes ownership of the identity and sets out to dispatch anyone capable of interfering.
The mystery behind the paper man’s existence and the related deaths is handled well as the script (by James D. Buchanan and Ronald Austin) offers plenty of suspects, albeit ones who dwindle in number, while also upping the ante of what this “Henry Norman” can accomplish. A digitally connected world is a dangerous one it seems, and a college experiment involving a life-like, motorized mannequin for medical procedures takes these futuristic fears into an even creepier direction.
Being that this is 1971 we’re talking about a technological side of things that’s most frequently represented as large panels of blinking lights and whirring sounds, and CBS’ budget for TV movies clearly wasn’t stretched here. Display screens are minimalist affairs, and the world of computers is presented mostly as a career for men, but even here characters are already being warned of the dangers of automation and computers in regard to replacing people. Someone even warns Stockwell that he will probably be replaced, but the joke’s on that fool as Stockwell of course went on to meld with technology and play a hologram on Quantum Leap.
Stockwell gets the meatiest role here as his brainiac of a college student has something of a troubled past, and he actually becomes something of a template for Tom Hanks’ turn in Mazes & Monsters (1982) as a borderline disturbed personality pushed over the edge after joining new friends on an ill-advised adventure. He works to solve the mystery, but there’s every chance the killer he’s pursuing is himself. Powers is compelling too as the only non-techie of the bunch, and special mention is deserved for Tina Chen‘s (Three Days of the Condor) performance and presence as one of the four friends. She’s good, and it’s even better seeing an Asian-American actress in the 70s playing a character devoid of stereotypical “Asian” hallmarks.
Kudos to director Walter Grauman on that front as well as his handling of the film’s various suspense beats. The aforementioned mannequin sequence is a highly effective one, and while action is minimal it’s staged with an energetic eye. All told the whole of Paper Man isn’t flashy or twisty enough to warrant it a lost classic or a film that should be better remembered, but it’s a fun enough watch all the same.
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