The Borgia Stick

Neglected made-for-TV classic: 'The Borgia Stick'

Some time ago while putting together a study on the development of early made-for-television feature films, and working from a comprehensive list of these productions, I managed to neglect not only one of my favorites of the form, but also one of the first network TV flicks to win accord from both the viewers and critics. THE BORGIA STICK, which originally aired Feb. 25, 1967, on NBC and starring Don Murray and Inger Stevens, is a crackerjack crime/suspense thriller that marked the progression of the made-for-TV film from its uncertain beginnings a few years earlier to a more acceptable form of entertainment. Rarely seen today except on home video, THE BORGIA STICK holds up with an involving storyline, location shooting and sincere acting from a well-chosen cast.


Universal and NBC had moved into the field of producing movies as originals for television with SEE HOW THEY RUN, featuring John Forsythe and Senta Berger, in October 1964. An earlier endeavor, ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S THE KILLERS, a remake of the 1946 film noir classic shot late in 1963 as the first network made-for-TV movie, was instead shunted into theaters by Universal the following summer due to concerns over its violent content. The film, directed by action specialist Don Siegel, starred Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson and in his last feature role, Ronald Reagan.

Given what's been seen since, its violence seems no worse than other movies or TV shows of the period, but executives at the studio and the network responded to lingering national grief over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy while THE KILLERS was in production; the film includes a scene where Marvin and his associate (Clu Gulager), the hit men of the title, are fired upon by a sniper.

Aside from a series of "specials" produced on behalf of the United Nations (including CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS, 1964, and THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER, 1966) and films strung together from episodes of KRAFT THEATER AND KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER (also shot at Universal), the made-for-TV movie was dormant until the 1966-1967 season when it resurfaced as a means of selling potential TV shows for slots in the fall network lineup, among them Jack Webb's update of his pioneering police procedural DRAGNET. (NBC picked up the series in January 1967 but inexplicably kept the well-made pilot movie under wraps for two years).

Thus, THE BORGIA STICK with its novel plotline by veteran TV writer A.J. Russell was well-positioned for its intended audience. In the New York City suburb of Mount Croton, outwardly average couple Tom (Murray) and Evie (Stevens) Harrison live out a quiet existence, but are actually fugitives from past crimes taken in by an up-to-date, mechanized crime syndicate Tom refers to as "the company" planning a takeover of the U.S. economy. Tom's role is to seek out and then buy businesses, financial institutions and other enterprises to serve the organization's money-laundering operations. Once away from home, Tom assumes the identity of an elderly man named Benet to make the buys, while Evie maintains the home for Tom and keeps everything appearing normal, particularly for jolly, bibulous next-door neighbor and fellow commuter Hal Carter (Barry Nelson).

The film's title derives from the sinister-looking walking stick with an evil reputation that Tom totes around as part of his disguise. "A gruesome talisman," a small-town bank president (House Jameson) taken in by Tom/Benet dubs the piece.

As a growing unease about what he's doing takes hold of Tom, he finds himself annoyed by a man (Ralph Waite) who, although unknown to Tom, knows all about Tom's previous life as Andy Mitchell, an accountant from Toledo, Ohio, who joined the company to escape an embezzlement charge. And while Tom and Evie are essentially strangers to one another, thrown together by the company, they fall in love. Tom then follows a circuitous path to resolve these issues to Anderson (Fritz Weaver), a slick attorney fronting for the organization who comes to suspect Tom and Evie as potential weak links in the grand plan. They are separated, with Evie put to work in a seedy nightclub, to test their fidelity to the company.

We then learn that affable Hal is a federal agent using Tom and Evie as a means of breaking the company. Showing his hand, Hal tries to convince Tom that the "man from Toledo" is actually working for the company. Tom knocks Hal out and Anderson spirits Tom and Evie away to a private hospital to start their escape from the law. But the couple find to their horror the facility performs a "nice, neat operation" to turn potential witnesses against the company into vegetables, forcing them to flee and face a climactic shootout with some of the company's goons.

All of this unfolds in a breathless fashion under the direction of David Lowell Rich, who was making theatrical features for Universal at the time, including MADAME X with Lana Turner and a remake of THE PLAINSMAN with Murray as Wild Bill Hickok, both released in 1966.

The film's opening cleverly draws us into the action by showing what seems to be the end: Anderson, whom we don't know anything about yet, arrives at a funeral home to pay his respects to the deceased, who are Tom and Evie. The owner of the establishment (Frederick Rolf) finds the circumstances leading up to their deaths curious, noting he believes the police are suppressing all of the details. "That man just blasting away like that," he adds. "I know that it's shocking ... tragic," Anderson responds sadly. The credits then roll over scenes of the Tom and Evie's flight from the company's killers, and the story then begins proper with a typical morning for the Harrisons, whose fate, thanks to Hal and not to give anything away, is not sealed in the satisfying wrap-up.


The film plays with audience expectations, offering surprise after surprise as nothing is what it appears to be, from the routine nature of suburban life to the veneer of civilized behavior that masks the company's true brutal aims. A palpable air of paranoia comes to dominate THE BORGIA STICK's latter portion, where Tom and Evie find they can no longer trust the company and even good guy Hal's actions seem suspect. Although the technology the company uses for its nefarious purposes looks hopelessly outdated now, it points to the modernization of criminal enterprise Russell's script hints at to stay ahead of the government.

Meeting with Alton (Sorrell Booke), his disagreeable contact with the company over the business purchases, Tom finds the man lamenting how fast everything must now be accomplished and yearning for a simpler time of turning a dishonest buck. By the same token, Hal has effectively planted listening devices all over Tom and Evie's house and we learn hs true identity when playing tapes of their conversations to his FBI supervisors. These touches, along with George Benson's music for the club where Evie briefly works, reflected contemporary tastes and concerns when THE BORGIA STICK was shot in the New York area apparently in the summer of 1966, giving the film the feel of a time capsule that's mitigated by the force of the story and the growing predicament faced by Tom and Evie. Small wonder the film was greeted enthusiastically by the audience, making it the highest-rated entry in the admittedly small made-for-TV flick market of the time, and by critics who appreciated its "now" feel.

Russell and Rich attempted the same approach with a New York-shot theatrical feature for Universal, A LOVELY WAY TO DIE (1968) starring Kirk Douglas, Sylva Koscina and Eli Wallach, but the film lacked the more intimate quality and likability of THE BORGIA STICK. Russell's more ambitious (and shopworn) plotline wound around Douglas' character, a roguish cop hired to protect a potential witness against the mob (Koscina). The theme of no one being who say they are also informs another made-for-TV film written by Russell, THE DEATH OF ME YET (1971), a spy yarn that featured Doug McClure, Richard Basehart and Darren McGavin.

Indeed, the cast of THE BORGIA STICK responded well to the production, with our sympathy for Don Murray's Tom and Inger Stevens' Evie set right from the beginning. Stevens, coming off her situation comedy stardom with THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER (1963-1966), shines dramatically as Evie copes with being dislodged from her home and planted in one of the company's sin bins. Fritz Weaver practically leaves an oil slick in his wake as the urbane yet treacherous Anderson, while Hollywood veteran Barry Nelson uses his reassuring manner to great effect as Hal. Supporting parts were filled with Big Apple-based talent ranging from playwright (and sometimes actor) Marc Connelly as a kindly old guy who aids Evie to Olympia Dukakis, cast as a bystander in the wake of the gun battle that precedes the conclusion.

Well worth your time, THE BORGIA STICK should be seen more often on broadcast TV, where it was a favorite on New York stations in the 1970s (and cable's A&E in the early '90s). As it is, a DEVD copy exists for the curious, whose inquiry into the production as one of the better entries made directly for TV will be well rewarded.

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