Times Staff Writer

Tense and stylish, “The Mean Season” (citywide Friday) is a provocative variation on “Tightrope.”

Like Clint Eastwood’s New Orleans cop, Kurt Russell’s Miami reporter confronts himself in the pursuit of a serial killer. But celebrity, not sex, is the turn-on here. In selecting Russell as his “conduit” to announce to the world his upcoming murders, the unknown killer not only is calling attention to himself but also to Russell, who soon discovers that he enjoys his new fame almost as much as the madman does his.

Adapted by Leon Piedmont from a novel by John Katzenbach, a former reporter for the Miami Herald, “The Mean Season” makes deft use of the thriller form to examine the relationship between those who report the news and those who make it, and how that line can blur dangerously. The film is very honest about how seductive a byline can be.

Ironically, Russell, like a veteran cop lassoed into one last case before calling it quits, has decided to resign from his job when he receives a call from a man claiming to be the killer of a young woman. Russell and his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway), an elementary school teacher, plan to move to her small hometown in Colorado, where he is to become managing editor of the local paper, owned by her family.


“The Mean Season” depicts with conviction and economy how Russell is transformed by covering the serial killings. Russell, in turn, excels in retaining our sympathy as he becomes caught up in his assignment. Hemingway, however, actually has the tougher role because it is she who fears that Russell is in danger of becoming, in a sense, a participant in the murders rather than merely a reporter of them. (It’s all well and good that Hemingway is concerned with how the killer is affecting Russell--and their romance--but how else are the police to maintain a link to the madman except through Russell?)

The woman who criticizes her man instead of standing by him in crisis has become a cliche of the women’s lib era, but somehow Hemingway manages to make her schoolteacher more often seem merely naive and unthinking rather than downright dumb and shrewish.

From the start, you know that eventually Hemingway will be menaced, just as Eastwood’s daughters were in “Tightrope.” But why is it that in the movies the loved ones of pursuers of homicidal maniacs are invariably left unprotected? Why, in this instance, does Russell tell the killer that he’s going to have Hemingway guarded round the clock, and then not do it! “The Mean Season,” which was vigorously directed by “The Grey Fox’s” Phillip Borsos, builds and sustains enough momentum to succeed despite this lapse and the further drawback of the triteness with which Hemingway’s character is drawn. Since the film is on the whole so intelligent, you wonder why cliches weren’t avoided entirely.

Richard Jordan has the first of several great all-out moments as an apparent disabled Vietnam vet, a wreck of a man living in a ramshackle trailer who says he has a lead on the killer, and Richard Masur is excellent as Russell’s hard-driving, gung-ho editor. In few words Richard Bradford generates a great deal of sympathy as a seasoned cop who believes that Russell’s relationship with the killer is getting out of hand. William Smith is the administrator of a halfway house who provides the police with their first solid lead to the killer’s identity.


“The Mean Season” (rated R but admirably discreet in the presentation of carnage) gets off to a great start with a vista of a stormy tropical sky accompanied by Lalo Schifrin’s equally tumultuous score. It proceeds with suspense-genre make-believe but rings true to human nature.

‘THE MEAN SEASON’ An Orion release of a Turman-Foster Co. production. Producers David Foster & Lawrence Turman. Director Phillip Borsos. Screenplay Leon Piedmont; based on the novel “In the Heat of the Summer” by John Katzenbach. Camera Frank Tidy. Music Lalo Schifrin. Production designer Philip Jefferies. Associate producer Steven H. Perry. Miss Hemingway’s costumes by Julie Weiss. Film editor Duwayne Dunham. With Kurt Russell, Mariel Hemingway, Richard Jordan, Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano, Richard Bradford, Andy Garcia, Rose Portillo, William Smith, John Palmer.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).