Vintage Cable Box: “Max Dugan Returns, 1983”

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“Listen. I’m trying to keep so many people happy, all at the same time, and I’m not one of them. But don’t give up on me. I’m worth it, I promise.”


Max Dugan Returns, 1983 (Marsha Mason), 20th Century Fox

Timid schoolteacher Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason) is having a rotten day. Her refrigerator breaks down. Her car is stolen, and with it her graded test papers. She meets-cute with the investigating officer Brian Costello, (Donald Sutherland) who takes a shine to her that isn’t strictly professional, and the feeling is mutual. He gives Nora a motorcycle, and in the middle of a riding lesson, they apprehend a liquor store robber.

Later that night, Nora’s estranged father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards) appears out of nowhere wanting to reconcile. He arrives wearing a black raincoat and hat, carrying two briefcases. He offers her a thick stack of bills for a drink. Max invokes anger in Nora over his abandonment of her family. He tells her he is going to die in about six months, and that some disreputable people would like to see him go a lot sooner.

Some discussion fills in the blanks. Max studied real estate in prison, bought several pieces of property, only to have it appropriated by (I assume) eminent domain as a result of a casino development. He gets a job as a blackjack dealer with the casino, and for seven years, ingeniously embezzles the money back, to the tune of some-odd $600,000. He wants to leave the money to Nora and her son, Michael (Matthew Broderick), or at the very least, buy back his relationship with his distrustful daughter, and also to spend time with his grandson.

The next day, Dugan buys fancy new appliances for Nora’s dilapidated kitchen, and shiny electronics and toys for Michael. He turns Nora’s modest Venice home into a palace. With Dugan and Nora trying to conceal his identity from Michael and Costello, they concoct an awkward story about winning prizes on a game show. Nora and Dugan argue constantly over Michael’s sense of values. Nora believes in working hard to get the things she wants, and she detests Dugan’s easy short-cuts through life, but they call a truce and try to work through their differences. Nora’s relationship with Costello complicates matters.

A dedicated officer and an extremely curious soul, Costello doesn’t buy Nora’s explanations about Dugan’s identity. He doesn’t understand Nora’s family suddenly coming into all these riches, and for a while, he represents a kind of benevolent antagonist, as does Dugan. It seems everybody in Nora’s life want to provide for her and her son, while she approaches hysterics juggling Max’s return to her life, her befuddled son, and the advances of Donald Sutherland.

Max Dugan Returns is a wonderful and damned charming movie. It speaks to a world filled with the fantasy of human expectation. Max Dugan is a Santa Claus character who enters the dismal lives of his loved ones, and pays back a debt that was never assumed. What Nora wants is validation and acknowledgement from her father. Dugan wants forgiveness. Ultimately, Nora protects him and he protects her. I remember absolutely loving this movie, and watching it now, it still holds up. I can’t tell you what this movie means to me, except to say that I never knew my own father. I always wondered if he would show up with a briefcase full of cash, and a ridiculous excuse for his life-long absence at the ready.

Herbert Ross directs a tight and economical Neil Simon screenplay. The back-and-forth between Mason and Robards is superb. Robards, especially, is a treasure. He has effortless chemistry with Mason, Broderick, and Sutherland, and he is a true joy to watch. Mason, for her part, works very well as a character type she made famous – that of the clever, wild-eyed, neurotic woman from The Goodbye Girl and Chapter Two. Max Dugan Returns is the very definition of a feel-good-movie. It doesn’t pull it’s punches, and it doesn’t feel forced. If life gets you down, try to dig up this movie!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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