The Deliberate Stranger (1986)

Television Golden Boy Mark Harmon (still golden in his golden years on “NCIS”) plays serial killer Ted Bundy in “The Deliberate Stranger.”  Aired three years before Bundy’s death, it does lack the finale we all know, but it is instead allowed to go into the details of the crimes much more deeply.  I admit this miniseries has the same gene of exploitation of all true crime miniseries, but since Ted Bundy was anything but typical, there are some big, and very positive differences, in “The Deliberate Stranger.” 

Though the first half of the movie drags, the second half is so tense it acts like a sleek horror or mystery movie.  Bundy’s case is so utterly fascinating because Bundy was so unique, so full of sophisticated charm that he fooled people for so long, and even when caught, maintained a superiority complex that baffled everyone who came into contact with him.  This gives Mark Harmon a lot to play with, leading an excellent cast of detectives and reporters on a nightmare ride. 

The prologue starts us in the tradition of classic thrillers: a young woman is walking alone, then followed without realizing it.  Her steps remain slow, but the man’s get faster and faster until…he’s grabbed her.

Just so we’re clear, the miniseries is based on the book by reporter Richard Larsen, spanning the years 1974-1979 and it’s not a celebration of Bundy, but rather of the men who chased and prosecuted him.  This is actually stated, lest we dare make a hero out of Bundy.  No, no.  That kind of film would have to wait another 20 years or so.

When first encountered, Ted Bundy couldn’t be more charming.  Mark Harmon in his prime was a total hunk, an ideal choice to play the handsome and suave Bundy.  He’s about to go to law school full time in Utah and has a lovely girlfriend Cas (Glynnis O’Connor).  At a party, he meets Richard Larsen (George Grizzard).  They and the hosts trade witty banter as everyone tries to get Ted to stay in Seattle and continue his life there.  “Sometimes the sight of Ted makes me a little wistful,” Richard says, envying Ted’s youth and possibilities.

Cas is worried because Ted might meet other women, and he can always win an argument with her, with his “psych major” mind, not to mention her raging insecurities.  Then again, if you are going to argue with a handsome man in just a towel while he’s shaving, you better have a damn good arsenal behind you.

Meanwhile, in this July of 1974, the police are trying to tie together a string of murders up and down the coast.  “Some kind of nut is walking around with an alarm clock of madness in his head just ticking away,” says Detective Sam Davies (M. Emmet Walsh).  The movie cuts between the detectives rattling off all of the recent missing women and Ted smiling as he drives to make his latest kill.  He spots a woman sunbathing alone and moves in, with a classic Bundy maneuver.  Sporting a dazzling smile and a fake cast and sling, he asks her for help getting his sailboat from the car.  “Flattery and a broken arm will get you just about…” she says, adding “anywhere” at the precise second he says it too, another occasion for that smile.  They go to his car, where of course there is no sailboat.  She notices it, wisely enough, but he says he has to get it from his parents’ house, which scares her off.  She mentions she has a husband and has to go back to wait for him.  But, Ted isn’t without another female for long.  Last we see of her, she agrees to help and Ted returns to the park afterwards to make a second kill! 

He’s supposed to meet Cas and her daughter afterward, and he’s awfully snappish when he does.  Obviously not happy with the two women he’s murdered, he is downright mean to Cas, who just wants to know if they are going out to dinner as planned.  “Maybe,” he says.  “That’s what I like about women,” he adds sarcastically, “maybe means a lifelong promise.” 

Later that night, the second girl he abducted, from the bathroom, is still missing, and her friends are concerned.  One has to even tell her mother, who breaks down hysterically with the knowledge only a mother could have that something is definitely wrong. 

At another party with Richard present, Ted brings his two co-workers, one of whom, Martha (Deborah Goodrich) has just started that day.  It’s a Republican fundraiser, which shocks Martha.  “You’re just kind of like a JFK, so I just figured you were a Democrat,” she chirps.  He impresses her by saying he grew up wealthy and loves caviar, on top of keeping everyone important liking him.  “What I wouldn’t give to have his future,” Richard says, to which Ken Wolverton (Lawrence Pressman) replies, “we’ll always say ‘we knew him when.'”  Yeah, okay, we get it.  After nearly 30 minutes, we get that Ted Bundy is sweet and lovable, attractive in so many ways to everyone he meets.  Another fundraiser full of groaner lines like these and…well, I won’t finish that sentence..

The woman who escaped Ted’s clutches in the park sees a news report about one of the missing girls, whom she had seen go off with Ted.  She remembers Ted’s name and the color of the VW.  This is a big break for the Detectives, including Bob Keppel (Frederic Forrest) and Robert Dunn (John Ashton).  They have two more girls who have been lucky enough to escape from Ted and so many of the details are the same.

Cas reads about this in the newspaper and finds all of the products needed to make a fake cast, and as she’s putting together the pieces, Ted calls.  She rattles off another conversation full of her problems and he quiets her down, but when she hangs up, she calls the police and reports what she knows, but hangs up before giving too much information.  I know that may sound corny, but “The Deliberate Stranger” aims to present the story in less of a documentary fashion and more as a thriller.  That’s exactly the kind of suspenseful moment that would be tucked into a thriller. 

“Well, fellas, this Ted is leaving town,” a cocky Bundy says to the television when he chuckles over news of the investigation.  He then goes to say goodbye to Richard before leaving.  Of course Richard is now becoming interested in the story of all the missing girls, so the timing is perfect.  He also has to leave Cas, who won’t let him sleep.  First, she babbles about her family in Salt Lake City that “might try to convert you” to being a Mormon and then it’s “is it because I didn’t like it that time you wanted to…” before he kisses her to shut her up.  Another tantalizing clue, especially because we find out that Cas and Ted don’t have sex.  He has very strong views on that subject, we find out.  “Sex without love, all that naked grappling to me has all the appeal of watching Washington play San Jose in the cold rain of Husky Stadium,” he notes as he assures Cas that he loves her.  This finally quiets her, but now Ted is bug-eyed and alert. 

Another stop before leaving his to his home, where he spends two seconds with his mother (Bonnie Bartlett).  She seems like an okay enough lady, but clearly Ted has issues with her, though he hides them during the quick conversation and peck goodbye. 

Off to Salt Lake City.  His brother drove him there and Ted promises to return to Seattle soon for his car.  “Wouldn’t know what to do without my VW,” he laughs.  It’s then that the police are discovering more corpses.  Mrs. Rose (Rita Zohar), the hysterical mother from earlier, is determined to find out what happened to her daughter and follows the police to the scene of the body dump.  They send her home, but soon the detectives are at her house asking for a piece of her hair.  It turns out to be a match for Mrs. Rose’s daughter. who knows what the police have to say before they can even knock on her door.  The detectives, especially Keppel become obsessed with the case (to the point where his wife nags him for not paying her and their baby enough attention). 

And the last point is an issue.  The allure of the Ted Bundy case was Ted himself, so unbelievably clean-scrubbed and handsome, not what the world knew of serial killers, who had always tended to be social outcasts.  Obviously a miniseries of Bundy killings one after another would not be possible (not to mention tedious and tasteless), but focusing on the detectives is just plain boring.  Of course watching them put the pieces together as Ted keeps steps ahead of them is fun.  It always is in these types of stories, but since the audience knows everything before the cops, this method of presentation cuts down on the suspense.  If, perhaps, Ted were shown doing everything but killing, and the audience found the clues along with the detectives, the movie might not lose its spark so often.  It has plenty of spark and thrill, but it also drags at times like these.

However, the detectives and their case are a whole lot more exciting than Cas.  Every time she’s on, it means another whiny breakdown.  Yes, of course, she tells a co-worker, she’s wondered if her Ted who drives a VW is the killer Ted who drives a VW, but she’s so low on self-esteem that she’s afraid to lose Ted’s validating love.  Blah, blah, blah.

In Salt Lake City, Ted piles up the body count, but the sling is gone.  All he needs is his charm and his unassuming intelligence.  He goes for the “I’m new in town” routine and the “I’m just a poor student” routine and it works on the girls.  He zeroes in on Katie (Terry Farrell) when he observes her playing football with her friends.  This one he has to chase, but she likes the fact that she finds him parked outside of her house in his VW.  He calls Martha to get a report on what’s new in Seattle, unsettled a bit that Richard is now writing stories on the case, but hanging up with a broad smile to know they have no clues leading to him. 

It’s Halloween and Katie is dressed in the flimsiest of little togas.  Very drunk, she goes to get cigarettes.  Her friend warns her that “Romeo,” as they call stalking Ted, “might be out there,” but she’s not afraid.  She should be, because he nabs her.  He then puts in a call to Cas, giving her hope again, before having dinner with her parents.  They fawn over him like everyone else.  Katie’s parents go to the police when she isn’t found, but they are too busy to pay attention to one girl, not seeing any pattern in Ted’s new hunting ground.

A week later, sporting a mustache, he pretends to be a cop, stopping a woman named Susan (Emily Longstreth) at a mall to tell her he’s seen a man breaking into her car.  The vehicle is perfectly fine, and he invents an elaborate ruse to get her into his car, flashing a fake police badge to make her feel comfortable.  She doesn’t question why she can’t drive her car or why he’s driving an increasingly beat up VW.  She actually manages to escape and goes to the police for real.  As always after an incident, he calls Cas, telling her “sometimes I feel like you’re the only one who keeps me from falling into a black pit,” which of course thrills her, but also speaks to his increasing desperation.  Having fooled her again, he’s all smiles and can comfortably listen to news reports of his various crimes. 

The scene where Katie’s parents identify her remains is positively heartbreaking, television heart-tugging at its best.

But it’s followed by another Cas scene where she refuses to admit she feels the truth.  Her friend once again tries to force her to open up, noting that the killings in Seattle have stopped and started in Salt Lake City.  “Every time I talk to him, he’s so wonderful.  His letters are so wonderful.  He even sends little poems sometimes,” she agonizes. 

Almost as a joke, the Seattle cops suggest “maybe he took his act on the road” and decide to check missing persons in all states.  “We would need a computer,” Davies notes.  It’s just then that Cas shows up at the station to discuss Ted.  Her prattle annoys the desk cop, who chooses not to take her story any more seriously than the “thousands” he tells her he’s received. Her story goes into the pile with the rest, right under the noses of the detectives.

Cas and her daughter go to Salt Lake City for Christmas where they decorate a tree, sing carols with her family and do everything but watch the Osmonds.  It’s purposely saccharine, though with a few hints of Ted craziness, such as when the kid says, “someday he’s going to be my dad,” and he retorts coldly, “yeah, when I’m rich.”  He tells Cas in bed he wants a son and a boat for a their summer home, dreaming again of riches while Cas just wants kids.  He’s not really listening to her.  “I’ve never been happier,” she tells him. 

As soon as he watches Cas’ plane take off, he goes out on the prowl at a ski lodge.  In a bold move, he snatches a woman in the lodge and carries her dead body out into the snow.   The woman’s boyfriend calls the police and Aspen Detective Mike Fisher (Ben Masters) is sent to investigate. 

Ted calls Richard to say he’s homesick, but Richard defends him to his boss as a “bright upwardly-mobile young man who did one shady thing,” spying on a candidate in a local election.  Still no warning bells.

Detective Fisher finds the missing woman buried in the snow once it starts to melt.  “Coyotes and magpies got to [the body],” he reports to her boyfriend, who had wanted to see the body.  Detectives Davies and Keppel are still obsessed, still in need of a computer, but “the brass” won’t spring for it.  The latter two are joined by their wives for a game night, but a body discovery brings Keppel to another of Ted’s graveyards.  “This wasn’t the way I hoped to find her,” he says, holding a skull in his hand.  That would be our cue for the first portion of the miniseries to end.

The second part opens with a search of the area, the knee-to-knee kind that turns up many a grisly discovery.  When done, he says, “I don’t think anything could still be up there, not even the skeleton of a mouse.”  It’s finally time for Keppel to confirm that they are looking for one killer.  This means the department gets its computer and the police form a “Ted Squad.”  The computer, the size of a parking garage, but it will help them keep information together.  “When you are feeling tired and overworked, and you will, remember…” and he lists the names of the missing girls. 

Detective Fisher decides to get together all the various Utah and Colorado police departments, still not connecting with Seattle, but drawing close.  Again, we have to watch the detectives play catch-up, but now the plot is moving a lot faster, so it’s less of a trial to get through.  Keppel is the one who comes up with the term “deliberate stranger,” saying that is the key to all of this.  The only thing every girl has in common is that she most likely did not know the killer; he chose them at random. 

Sitting outside a house in his car one night, a cop sees Ted, who floors it to avoid him, but he can’t outrun him.  Ted is arrest for evading arrest (and when the cop looks in his car, he sees rope, blankets and even handcuffs).  The Salt Lake City police call Seattle…at the very moment that Ted’s name and picture have come up on their computer screen.  Now, if you think this is all a bit too convenient, the dialogue takes care of that when Keppel tells Salt Lake City, “you’re not going to believe this…” but my detective skills went a bit deeper to wonder why all of the Seattle police force happened to be working very late that night (okay, Seattle is an hour behind Salt Lake City, but STILL!).

Salt Lake City’s Detective Thompson (Frederick Coffin) has spoken to Detective Fisher in Aspen and now Detective Keppel in Seattle and finally they realize this is the moment to work together, that they have to have the right guy.  The problem is that Ted Bundy is about to post bail because they can’t hold him on anything serious.  Thompson says they found a ski lodge receipt and Fisher says he can get a court order for Ted’s credit card bills, snapping to Thompson, “can I get a court order, does Goldilocks eat porridge?”  These two pieces of evidence put Ted at the ski lodge when the woman was killed.

Thompson himself does the stakeout of Ted’s house, watching him “cleaning up the evidence” as he washes the VW inside out.  They can’t get a court order due to lack of evidence and he knows they are watching, taunting them with a smile as he scrubs the car of all evidence.  Even more brazenly, Ted stops Thompson and tells him, he’s “grasping at straws, but if you find enough straws, maybe you can put the broom together.”  That’s a damn good line, and yet more proof of Ted’s overwhelming arrogance.

Thompson and Fisher show up at Ted’s house to give him a warrant demanding he be in a line-up.  They have brought in Susan, the woman who escaped from the shopping mall disaster, but since Ted does not have his mustache and has combed his hair differently, she has trouble.  That’s just building of tension, because she ultimately does identify him.

Ken and Richard run into each other on the street where Ken tells Richard Ted has been arrested in Salt Lake City.  “The Ted I knew couldn’t do something like that.  He stayed at our house, he babysat our little girls,” Ken says in deep confusion.  Cas’ parents call her to reassure her “it’s just a mistake…these things happen a lot…we know Ted, he’s a fine man.”  At the paper, Richard, not convinced his friend could be the killer, is ordered to go to Salt Lake City and talk to Ted. 

In prison, Ted says, “the bloody press is making me into some kind of serial killer!”  “It infuriates me, sensational journalism,” Richard replies, promising to help Ted in any way, turning to mush at Ted’s smile, rattling off his wonderful qualities (“looks, brains, wit, charm”) and again with the “you could be my son” routine.  But there is something very cold about Ted’s conversation with Richard, especially when he says he trusts the legal system because he’s worked in it as a law student and they have no proof.

Ted’s friends line up behind him.  His old coworkers raise money for his defense, Ken Wolverton publicly states it couldn’t be Ted and even his mother chimes in, “he was always such a good boy,” just like the mother of every serial killer.  Richard is determined to prove Ted innocent.  He and Keppel are pals and working the case from different angles; Richard wants to free him, Keppel to nail him. 

Inevitably, the past has to be dredged up.  Apparently, Ted was an illegitimate baby and passed off as his mother’s brother rather than her son.  “How do you think this kid feels?” soft Richard asks.  “My heart bleeds,” Keppel replies acidly, knowing that sort of defense is hogwash.

Eventually, Keppel gets around to interviewing Cas.  He still writes and calls from prison.  She finally admits the scary sexual act referral to earlier.  Apparently, he tied her up and was “in a trance” that her screaming finally penetrated.  “I think I’ve just been another victim, only I’m not dead.  Not quite,” she tells a female detective.  Oh, please, Cas!  Anyway, the main point of her scene is that she cannot provide an alibi for any of the times girls went missing.

Richard interviews Ted’s mother hoping to get an alibi out of her, but she’s no help.  Ted is out on bail and dining with Richard, telling him how wonderful freedom feels and, oddly, that being in prison has taught him how tough he is.  While they are eating, a cute blonde girl comes over to wish him luck.  “I seemed to achieve some sort of folklore status among the kids…you man victimized,” he says with excitement.  Ted feels that Susan was pushed to identify him and not a worry.

The trial for the attempted kidnapping of Susan begins in 1976.  When asked why he tried to escape arrest.  His reply is that he smoked two joints and was “paranoid…I can’t describe to you the feeling.”  He goes through this speech with such easygoing conviction.  Where was he when Susan was abducted?  At the movies.  Does he have handcuffs?  Sure, “I was a nightwatchman,” he admits, coming up with a phony story about having to hold a suspect. 

By this point, even Richard can’t deny the truth.  Talking with Thompson and Fisher, he says, “I used to like him.  I don’t hate him.”  “I hate him,” Thompson cracks.  Fisher tells Richard, off the record, that they have hairs from two of the girls from his car. 

Ted is found guilty of the attempted kidnapping.  Ted still manages to remain cocky!  He summons Fisher and Thompson.  “You want to talk about me?  Great, my favorite subject,” Ted starts off, but Fisher knows that he has been called by Ted to give him information somehow, but Fisher is too smart.  Even from prison, he’s working his psychological tricks on Cas.  Under psych evaluation for 90 days, he writes to her to blame her for making him seem crazy for lack of communication.  “I forgive you, can’t you forgive me?  I’m not Bluebeard.  I’m not Leopold and Loeb rolled into one…don’t sever my lifeline, please!” he writes.  Cas crumples up the letter. 

He also thinks he can “control” the evaluating doctor, though he supposedly knows the tricks, having been a psych major.  They go back to childhood, but Ted knows how to sugar coat everything.  In fact, he enlightens Richard on sociopaths and psychopaths, able to rattle off the definitions, much to Richard’s horror.  Richard writes a bizarre article about how the legal system is being ruined by the press because an unbiased jury can’t be found.  “Even an Eskimo has a television set in his igloo,” he types.  It’s a standard argument used by the defense, but Richard has trouble writing it, because he’s not really believing it so much anymore. 

It’s only at sentencing (“1 to 15 years”) that Ted’s facade shows signs of cracking.  His statement to the judge is awfully defensive, bashing the psych evaluation because, let’s face it, he can’t stand to hear anything bad about him.  Richard thinks Ted truly has no guilt.  “It’s the most twisted mind I’ve ever seen.  He can rationalize everything.  You know, I think he believes himself to be some kind of a martyr,” Thompson adds.  Fisher realizes that they need to attack the cracking Ted they saw in the courtroom, not the cocky calm one they always interview. 

In 1977, Fisher has enough evidence about the killing of the woman at the lodge for a Colorado murder trial, where Ted intends to be his own lawyer, calling the evidence “circumstantial,” and that “it’s so good to have things back in my hands again…just think, I get to be a real lawyer after all” in a letter.  Fisher and Keppel want to pull out all the stops to make sure Ted is convicted.  If that can happen, “it will be the single most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Keppel says, though he and Fisher can’t get Richard to fully admit he’s changed his mind about Ted.  Richard is able to play both sides, visiting Ted in prison and listening to his glowing tirades, actually noting, “you seem happy” because he’s in charge of his defense. 

Ted calls Cas, who won’t answer the phone, but Martha does!  In fact, she’s moving to Aspen to be nearer to him.  He’s only using her for money. 

Visiting the court, Ted is able to escape so easily it’s almost comical.  He steals a car, so proud of his good fortune.  This is the kind of true crime detail that makes for an exciting scene in a movie.  The second half of “The Deliberate Stranger” is so tight and perfectly written that everything has a heightened sense of alarm.  By the end of the evening, he’s been caught.  Richard tries to convince him to give up his own defense because “you have a whole new set of problems now,” but Ted only replies by asking where a “person is most likely to get the death penalty?”  “Georgia, maybe Florida,” Richard replies innocently.

But, Ted is desperate.  He plans a big prison escape. 

Katie’s friend identifies Ted as the man who followed Katie and reminds them that she gave a statement.  Fisher and Thompson go to the local police office, to be told all of the evidence, including hair samples and such, are “lost.”  “I think one of our boys must have thrown it out by accident when we were moving,” the petulant sheriff tells them. 

On December 30, 1977, Ted escapes from prison, with sublime ease.  Everyone involved in the case is given protection, and Ted heads to the train station, boldly walking through it with a smile and no cares in the world.  He gets to Florida without anyone noticing, amazed at his good fortune.  Fisher and Keppel are horrified and Fisher is worried that Ted is ready to explode.  “One murder is not going to do it for him,” he tells Keppel.  Indeed, Ted cruises around campuses and clubs looking for potential victims. 

Fisher is right, as Ted goes into a sorority house and kills a bunch of women by beating them to death, and apparently sexually assaulting them.  When news leaks out, Thompson, Keppel, Fisher and Richard all warn Florida that Ted is there.  Driving a VW, Ted is stopped by the police and tries to escape by beating the officer, but the latter wins out.  “I wish you’d kill me,” Ted tells him.

In custody in Florida, Ted talks a lot, which worries the guys who have been working him for so long.  Our gang from the west arrives and are stonewalled by the locals.  At dinner, Richard opines that Ted actually wanted to be caught and executed, which is why he chose Florida.  That makes sense with his strange line to the policeman who arrested him. 

At his trial, he tells the judge, “I find it absurd to ask for mercy for something I did not do.”  He’s as delusional as every other serial killer, but he maintained a different demeanor better and longer than all of the rest.  That’s what made him so fascinating.

Sentenced to die in the electric chair, he calls Cas and apologizes for his tantrum all of those years ago when she and her daughter wanted to go out for dinner.  He still just doesn’t get it.

The movie ends with Ted having appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, but as we know, all appeals led nowhere and Bundy was executed in 1989.

Unlike another mass murdered discussed here, Charles Manson in “Helter Skelter,” Bundy was not a comically larger-than-life character.  In fact, it was his calm self-assurance that made him so frightening.  So, Mark Harmon doesn’t get to play crazy too much, having to rely on more difficult character traits to give the performance of his career.  Like “Helter Skelter,” the focus is really on the effort it took to stop Ted Bundy, which can get tiresome, but the magnitude of his crimes and his personality are the stuff of great television.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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