A creaking plot still affords Katharine Hepburn a chance to show how genuine polish can put a shine on worn-out silver. It’s an uphill struggle, even for Hepburn, and co-star Ryan O’Neal’s shots at light comedy barely rise. But, because of Hepburn’s presence, “The Man Upstairs” should climb to the upper floors of the ratings chart for CBS.
James Prideaux’s teleplay delivers smalltown spinster-recluse Victoria (Hepburn), untouched by human emotions, living comfortably alone with daytime housekeeper Molly (Helena Carroll). Victoria’s uninterested, as usual, in Christmas, which fast approaches.
Inept petty thief Moony (O’Neal), newly escaped from prison, slips into her attic one night for food and shelter. Naturally, they bump into each other, and Victoria, after ordering him out, recants and he becomes the attic lodger–without Molly knowing. The secret’s half the would-be delight of the piece; the two principals, trading observations on life, and conspiratorially getting acquainted, should be the other.
But neither is that interesting, and without Hepburn’s superb timing and knowing characterzation, the drama would go nowhere. As it is, progress is interrupted by dead stretches, as when Moony (she never asks the obvious–why’s he called “Moony?”) drones on about the system and his mother’s burning him with an iron, or as when Victoria, mentioning she would like to have been a dancer, too vaguely reflects on her flat life.
Carroll’s Molly is diverting, while Brenda Forbes as Victoria’s snooty sister-in-law Cloris gets caught up in a leaden tea scene with Victoria and Moony. She hasn’t a chance.
Lawrence King as Moony’s fellow escapee and Henry Beckman as the determined sheriff are suitable.
Writer Prideaux and director George Schaefer teamed on the 1986 Hepburn charmer “Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry” and on the smart, wise “Laura Lansing Slept Here” four years ago, so it’s all the more disappointing that this teleplay stalls.
But the production under Schaefer’s immaculate direction looks sharp, with Trevor Williams’ production design handsome, Walter Lasselly’s camerawork terrif. As an early Christmas gift, “The Man Upstairs” is richly packaged. But the contents, except for Hepburn’s luminosity, are disappointing.