This 1973 oddity -- a team-up between Arena productions (who made “The Man From Uncle”) and ITC -- was originally conceived as a pilot for a weekly occult-themed American TV show, filmed at Pinewood studios in the UK and starring the unlikely detective team combination of Leonard Nimoy as a psychic playboy Formula One driver, and Susan Hampshire as the dealer in antique books and expert on the Occult who teams up with him to solve supernaturally based crimes.
It’s not hard to see why it failed to get taken up as a TV series, despite an interesting premise on paper; sometimes billed as an early forerunner of “The X-Files”, but in truth, playing more like a cross between “Hart to Hart” and “Scobby Doo” (Nimoy even rips a rubber mask off of a supposedly wheelchair bound old woman during a cartoonish punch-up in the knock-about denouement, to reveal a bloke in drag underneath!) -- this feature-length pilot episode was briefly released to British cinemas, although its made-for-TV origins are always blatantly obvious, not least in the crude title sequence made up of clips from the film itself. This was a common convention of ’70s U.S. TV shows at the time, but usually the clips would be derived from a number of different episodes from later in the series. In this case, there is only one episode though, so the title sequence ends up giving away a large portion of the coming story. Although this actually puts us in the same situation as Nimoy’s perpetually smirking racing hero Tom Kovack, who catches psychic glimpses of a crime that has not yet happened which cause him to crash while in the middle of a race; eventually he ends up travelling to England with Hampshire’s occult expert, Michele Brent, in order to prevent the crime from taking place.
The show adopts a trivial, light-hearted tone from the start, and both Kovack and Brent are thinly written characters who hardly react to the strange events that befall them in anything like a believable manner: Michele Brent turns up at Kovack’s apartment after first seeing him discussing his strange vision on TV; the duo already know, thanks to a convenient snatch of dialogue captured during Kovack's vision, that the manor house is in England, specifically Devon (everyone in England lives in a manor house and has a butler, especially in ‘70s American TV) and a crudely drawn scrawl made by Kovack is enough to pin down the exact location, which turns out to be a large country manor house that’s been converted into a Devonshire hotel.
Kovack is surprisingly tolerant of Brent’s claim that he has been given these psychic powers for the purpose of combating supernatural evil, mainly because he fancies her and is attempting to come on to her the whole time she‘s trying to convince him of the fact (a grinning Nimoy chasing the ladies seems somehow wrong doesn't it!). He only begins to take these claims at all seriously when he has yet another vision, this time of himself falling from a cliff-top into an icy ocean. He wakes up covered in salt water! The duo arrive separately at the hotel to avert suspicion, Kovack purchasing an embarrassing hat and a classic Bentley and turning up at the hotel to find the evil looking young girl and the screaming woman from his vision are actually a devoted mother and daughter -- the woman being Andrea Glenn (Vera Miles) a famous American movie star (so how come he didn't recognise her straight away?) and her twelve-year-old daughter Jennifer (Jewel Blanch), themselves newly arrived in the UK after being summoned suddenly to the country retreat by the girl’s estranged father Duncan Sandford. When they get there though Sandford is nowhere to be found.
The manor house hotel is indeed set on a cliff-top, although from the front exterior there is no sign of this. The place is of course populated by a host of suspicious guests and assorted types who make up the stock characters of countless Agatha Christie murder mysteries or Daphne Du Maurier Gothic romances: there’s the puritanical hotel proprietor Mrs Farraday (Rachel Roberts); honeymooning couple George and Peggy Tracewell (Ray Brookes and Angharad Rees), who just may be involved in drug smuggling on the side; sneaky wine-loving Italian Verelli (Christopher Benjamin); and Sandford’s mysterious, crippled cousin, the Mrs Danvers-like Louise Sandford (Valerie Taylor). All of them are acting suspiciously enough for them to be possibly involved in the plot against Mrs Glenn, but which one is it?
“Baffled!” does enjoy the potential to have made quite an interesting TV series; it stands out mainly because not only does Tom Kovack use his ESP and Michele’s occult knowledge to solve crimes or prevent them from happening, but because there also turns out to be a supernatural/Black Magic element to the crimes themselves that could have made for an unpredictable and varied approach over a series run: it turns out that an old associate of the dead Duncan Sandford is using voodoo in order to cheat Andrea Glenn out of her millions, relying on the occult power of an amulet with a wolf’s head symbol in order to take possession of the twelve-year-old daughter and turn her against her own mother. There is a slightly less cosy feel to these scenes when the possessed daughter starts dressing in provocative ’70s fashions (short skirts and go-go boots) and acting like an adult, while the aged hotel manager starts to look ever younger. Of course, this is a mainstream American TV show (or would have been) so we don't get Exorcist-style profanity, but the possession element still brings a slightly unsettled edge to this otherwise standard U.S. TV fare.
The overall aim seems to have been to make a sort of funky ‘70s version of “The Devil Rides Out“, with a bit of Avengers-style repartee between the leads. But it never quite comes off. Director Phillip Leacock’s CV reads like a catalogue of every major ’70s American TV show ever made: “Hawaii Five-O”, “Columbo”, “The Waltons” -- and in the eighties: “Dynasty” “Fantasy Island” and “Falcon Crest”. The formulaic writing and routine TV movie direction ultimately hold it back though and never let it loose to run with the potentially odd and unpredictable nature of the material. But the thinness of the relationship between Kovack and Brent is probably what torpedoed this muddled effort from getting off the starting blocks in the end. It’s a curiosity though, and certainly worth checking out; just don't expect a lost classic. The disc comes with an extensive photo gallery that includes behind-the-scenes shots as well as the usual publicity stills and there are several flyers available in PDF form by inserting the disc into your computer. This Network release is only available via the company’s website: www.networkdvd.net