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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sullivan’

While I’m waiting for the next DVD box set to arrive (keep your little fingers crossed, it should be here some time next week) I thought I would go back and look in a little more detail at some of those episodes of The Incredible Hulk which I singled out as being particularly noteworthy just the other day. The logical place to start is with the pilot movie, and so, uncharacteristically, I have decided to start by looking at the pilot movie.

The rippling of Lou Ferrigno’s abs and the flexing of his triceps and delts are as nothing to the colossal, some might even say desperate efforts this movie makes to be as un-comic booky as humanly (or superhumanly) possible. Kenneth Johnson, the writer/producer/director, is very open about the fact that he didn’t want to do The Incredible Hulk; and indeed what he actually ended up making is a sort of Americana-inflected variation on Les Miserables where Jean Valjean swells up like a balloon twice an episode and knocks his way through a wall now and then.

Certainly, even the opening font and title card of The Incredible Hulk are more like the stuff of Masterpiece Theatre than a typical action TV series, and the pilot opens with, of all things, a flashback montage, shot in soft-focus: a pretty brave choice, especially considering it concerns the soppily happy marriage of David Banner (Bill Bixby). However, things take a more ominous turn as the sequence goes on – Banner and his wife are in a car accident; he is thrown clear, she is trapped in the wreck. He tries desperately to lift the car and free her – the flames leap higher – and the widowed Banner awakes from his recurring nightmare, ten months later.

In what some might call an unwise career move, given his personal issues, Banner and his colleague Elaina (Susan Sullivan) are researching cases of people displaying phenomenal strength or resilience in moments of extreme personal crisis. What’s largely left unsaid, of course, is that Banner is still consumed by grief and guilt over his failure to save his wife, and is not trying to find an explanation for his subjects’ miraculous strength but his own weakness.

Anyway, it turns out that everyone they investigate was subject to a rare combination of a freak DNA mutation, coupled to an abnormally high level of atmospheric gamma radiation (sunspots, or something) at the time of the crisis. Banner has the DNA mutation, but gamma levels on the day of his accident were unusually low.

You’d think that would have resolved it all, but Banner has his eureka moment late at night and, as often happens to me when I have a good idea late at night, goes a bit mad about it rather than getting some sleep and reviewing it rationally the next morning. In true Marvel Comics fashion he decided to test his hypothesis by – oh, Banner! – blasting his own brain with gamma radiation and seeing what happens. This sequence is well-mounted and Bixby’s performance is, as usual, immaculate, so much so that you happily overlook how hokey and more than a little contrived it seems. It leads into Banner’s interrupted journey home, when a recalcitrant flat tire in the middle of a thunderstorm results in a written-off car and the first in a very long line of ruptured shirts…

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This first Hulk-out leads Banner and Elaina to move to a more secluded lab, but also draws the attention of reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), a guy who they’ve been giving the brush-off to for ages as his newspaper is just too downmarket for them. McGee is intrigued by the testimony of the first people to see the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, though you can just make out original¬†performer Richard Kiel in one shot), and quickly figures out the boffins are hiding something (to be fair, they’re pretty bad liars).

Banner has his recurring nightmare again, which leads to a second Hulk-out and a terrifically well-mounted sequence in which the Hulk smashes his way out of a reinforced observation chamber before being placated by Elaina. This convinces the duo to try and find a cure for Banner’s condition, but before they can get very far with this, McGee sneaks into the lab and accidentally starts a disastrous fire…

Watching the pilot for The Incredible Hulk, you’re not really surprised that this show went on to run for nearly five years (as Johnson has noted, the most successful show of its kind): there’s really very little wrong with it at all. All you can really criticise it for are some of the dodgier moments of the Hulk-transformations, and even these were state-of-the-art back in 1977. The rest of it is an extremely polished and intelligent production, made with considerable skill and thoughtfulness.

Its success is largely down to Johnson’s script and direction, both of which are serious without being overly earnest or too po-faced, and the performances of the leading actors: a large part of the film is composed of a series of two-handed scenes between Bixby and Sullivan, and they succeed in creating a couple of believeable, sympathetic characters. You kind of know from the start that Elaina probably isn’t going to make it to the closing credits in one piece, and Sullivan does such a good job of making her intelligent, caring and likeable that you’re still rather saddened when she eventually meets her end.

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Rather less sympathetic than he would later become is McGee, who for the purposes of this movie is essentially the bad guy, sticking his nose into Banner and Elaina’s business for his own reasons. McGee is notably sleazier and less scrupulous than in later episodes, and his motivation for pursuing the Hulk is left unsaid. Had the show ever had a ‘proper’ final episode, one hopes they would have addressed the issue of McGee’s own culpability in the death of Elaina Marks and the disappearance of David Banner – because, ironically enough, it’s all quite clearly his fault! As it is, no-one ever wonders much about the exact cause of the climactic fire (although they do have other things on their minds).

On David Banner’s mind, one might guess, is Guilt; something that features as a bit of a motif in some of the weekly series’ most memorable episodes. He starts the movie consumed by his failure to save his wife, and it’s clearly this which is driving his research. Perhaps it’s this sense of failure which makes him so stress-prone, in which case the Hulk is birthed as much by guilt as by rage. There’s no ironclad reason given on screen for Banner to go along with everyone’s assumption that he’s dead and begin his lonely existence as a drifter searching for a cure, but it is entirely in keeping with his characterisation in the rest of the movie. Feeling responsible for one death turned him into the Hulk to begin with; it’s not surprising that a second might provoke such an act of self-chastisement. You really do feel for the guy: in an almost too-poignant final twist, Elaina confesses her love for David – who’s Hulked-out at the time – with practically her dying breath (Lou Ferrigno portrays the Hulk’s confusion and grief extremely well, by the way), but it’s later revealed that he has no memory of her telling him this.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into what is, after all, just a TV pilot about a slightly absurd superhero, but the quality and tone¬†of Johnson’s Hulk is such that it invites this sort of speculation, and you don’t feel ridiculous for thinking about it in these terms. Although this was made for TV, it got a theatrical release in Europe – and if you judge it as such, then simply in terms of its success as a piece of drama, this is still the best Hulk-centric movie ever made.

 

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