Times Staff Writer

True to form, commercial television tries to play it both ways in “Casanova,” the three-hour movie that ABC is broadcasting Sunday about the famed 18th-Century Italian lover, played by Richard Chamberlain.

It starts with him being described as “a notorious rascal, a swindler, an adventurer"--assessments that are amply born out by what follows--but ends with him lamenting to the Woman Who Got Away: “God, what I’ve missed. If only I’d been different.”

This is ABC’s way of saying that despite the millions of dollars it has spent turning his dalliances and exploits into entertainment, the network isn’t endorsing Casanova’s promiscuous life style.

The film suffers for its identity crisis. Lacking a clear point of view about their subject, writer George MacDonald Fraser and director Simon Langton are unable to establish a sustaining tone. Chamberlain’s scenes with Faye Dunaway, as a wealthy French woman who longs to be young again, are played as farce, while those with Ornella Muti, as the one woman he wanted to marry, are played for pathos.


In between are long, tedious passages about Casanova’s efforts to escape from prison and, later, to escape with some of King Louis’ profits from a French lottery.

Chamberlain exudes his usual charm, but even that is put to poor use. Though Casanova tells us at one point that “there was only one career that I could really take seriously: women,” there is little evidence of his seduction skills here. Women fling themselves at him and apparently want nothing more than his sexual favors.

“Casanova” (at 9 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) doesn’t want to be taken very seriously, but it’s too muddled and drawn out to be taken for fun, either.

“Casanova’s” network competition on Sunday will be the premiere of the four-part “I’ll Take Manhattan,” a CBS miniseries with Valerie Bertinelli, Perry King and Barry Bostwick, and, on NBC, “The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission” (sort of a redundant title, don’t you think?), with Ernest Borgnine and Telly Savalas.


Tonight, meanwhile, Home Box Office steps in where the networks no longer care to tread by serving up a new Western at 8 p.m., an adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s “The Quick and the Dead.”

The story isn’t much but the film has something else going for it: the presence of Sam Elliott, one of the all-time great-looking Western stars. Decked out in a wide-brimmed hat and leather-fringed coat, he is wonderfully cast as a mysterious rider who decides to play guardian angel to a family of Easterners (Tom Conti and Kate Capshaw) being trailed across Wyoming in 1876 by a gang of would-be marauders.

There isn’t any great drama here as the focus shifts back and forth between the pursuers and the pursued, whose lives are disrupted more by their uninvited friend than their peril. But there is sufficient compensation in watching Elliott eye Capshaw and in listening to him spout quintessential Westernese.

“You’ve been acting like the meek are gonna inherit the earth,” he snaps at Conti. “Well, let me tell you somethin’: The meek aren’t gonna inherit nothin’ west of Chicago!”


For Western lovers, a line like that excuses a lot. Here, it has to.