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What to Take: ‘Pelham,’ ‘Lake’ or ‘Letter’?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An epic battle for the TV remote is shaping up for Sunday night, so plan ahead and hide the clicker where your mate can’t find it until you’ve already tuned in the program of your choice.

New made-for-TV movies will go head to head at 9 p.m. on the three major networks. Men--left to their own hormones . . . er, devices--most probably will opt for NBC’s “The Lake,” hoping that Yasmine Bleeth will run along its shores in a swimsuit, like she used to do on “Baywatch.” Don’t let ‘em, ladies. It’s pond scum of a movie, and besides, you’ll want to watch CBS’ “The Love Letter,” an imaginatively unusual romance that stars Campbell Scott and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

If you need to find middle ground, it exists on ABC, which is airing a capable remake of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” Edward James Olmos headlines this edgy, smartly paced movie about a New York City subway train hijacked by a band of automatic-weapon-toting crazies.

The best of these movies, hands down, is the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation of “The Love Letter.” (Give in to it, guys. Just cuddle up with your loved one and let yourself enjoy it.)

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Walking arm in arm along a picturesque street in present-day Boston, Scotty Corrigan (Scott) and his fiancee, Debra Zabriskie (Daphne Ashbrook), duck into an antiques shop, where Scotty spies a Civil War-era writing desk. Polishing his new acquisition that evening, he reaches into a drawer well and accidentally trips a latch that opens a secret compartment. In it, he finds a letter written in the 1860s by a former owner of the desk--a 29-year-old woman who’s lamenting to an as-yet-unmet dream lover that her family is urging her toward a marriage with a man she doesn’t love.

Captivated by her plight--and urged along by his mother (Estelle Parsons), a free spirit who believes communication across time might be possible--Scotty sends a reply. “Funny farm, here I come,” he dryly observes as he finishes his missive.

Soon, he’s exchanging increasingly heartfelt love letters with Elizabeth Whitcomb (Leigh), a radiant, headstrong poet held back by the stiflingly paternalistic attitudes of her time.

As written by James Henerson--based on a short piece by the late novelist Jack Finney (“Time and Again,” “The Body Snatchers”)--and directed by Dan Curtis, “The Love Letter” is a luminous, achingly romantic movie. And to its credit, it frankly acknowledges the underhandedness of a guy who’s stringing along one woman while conducting a clandestine affair with another (even if the latter has been dead a hundred years).

To enjoy “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” you’ll have to get past the question of why anyone would remake the gripping 1974 original. There is, of course, no good reason. But this project--rewritten by April Smith and directed with a sort of ‘90s noir grit by Felix Enriquez Alcala--provides an admirable acting showcase for Olmos, playing a steel-nerved Transit Authority cop negotiating with the hijackers; Vincent D’Onofrio and Donnie Wahlberg, as the iciest of the bad guys; and Lisa Vidal, as a subway conductor who firmly stands up to her captors.

As for “The Lake,” well, let’s just say that if NBC would adjust its marketing, it might find this to be the comedy replacement for “Seinfeld” that it so anxiously seeks.

Unfortunately, “The Lake” was meant to be something else entirely: an “X-Files” clone to cash in on America’s conspiracy-addled millennial madness.

Bleeth plays Los Angeles nurse Jackie Ivers, who reluctantly returns to her hometown (a fictional hamlet on the Central Coast) to tend to her ailing father--an abusive alcoholic from whom she has long been estranged.

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The domestic drama of the early scenes abruptly shifts into sci-fi thriller mode when Jackie realizes that townsfolk are becoming mirror opposites of themselves. She enlists her high school sweetheart, now a local doctor (Linden Ashby), to help get to the bottom of it all, and soon they’re spouting such predictably tired lines as: “The lake. There’s something in the lake.” (No, Bleeth doesn’t strip down to a swimsuit; yes, she’s earnest enough to work up what little appeal this film has going for it.)

Like the half-baked, half-explained mirror world that is introduced to explain the eerie goings-on, “The Lake” itself is a reverse image--for, as written by J.D. Feigelson and Alan Brennert, and directed by David Jackson--it gets backward everything that is so good about Fox’s dementedly clever, stylishly spooky “X-Files.”

* All three movies air Sunday at 9 p.m. “The Love Letter,” on CBS (Channel 2), is rated TV-G (suitable for all ages). “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” on ABC (Channel 7), is rated TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for viewers younger than 14, with a violence advisory). “The Lake,” on NBC (Channel 4), has been rated TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).


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