Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Paper Man: Is the Nonexistent Henry Norman a Murderer?

The poster reminds me of the
later film "The Wicker Man."
When a financially-strapped college student mistakenly receives a credit card in the mail, he and his friends hatch a devious plan. They will create a fictitous identify for the cardholder "Henry Norman" and charge their hearts away. They rationalize their actions by telling each other they will make the payment in full at the end of the month. However, when they receive a large monthy bill, they choose a different route. They convince computer science grad student Avery Jensen (Dean Stockwell) to hack into various databases and "create" a more robust Henry Norman, complete with Social Security number, driver's license, employment history, etc.

The deceit starts to unravel quickly. One of the students ill-advisely confides in a faculty advisor. Avery also starts having second thoughts about his role in the scam. But those troubles are nothing in comparison to the sudden death of one of the students. After being admitted to a hospital for hypoglycemia, he dies after being administered the wrong medication based on his computerized medical records. An unfortunate accident or a murder engineered by the computer-created Henry Norman?

Originally broadcast on CBS in 1971, Paper Man was made during what I consider the "Golden Age" of made-for-TV movies in the U.S. Bolstered by the success of the ABC Movie of the Week, all three major networks financed dozens of made-for-TV movies in all kinds of genres. There were comedies (The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped ), horror (Gargoyles), drama (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys), Westerns (Yuma), and action films (The Birdmen). The most popular genre, though, was suspense and Paper Man was an above-average entry with an ingenius premise and a cast featuring Stockwell, James Stacy, and Stefanie Powers.

In 1971, Dean Stockwell was in the midst of a career tailspin, sandwiching Paper Man between lackluster efforts such as The Dunwich Horror and The Werewolf of Washington. He wouldn't get his once-promising career back on track until 1986 with a memorable supporting performance in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

James Stacy had just completed a two-year run on the CBS Western series Lancer. A motorcycle accident, in which he lost an arm and a leg, stalled his career. Still, he gave an impressive performance in Kirk Douglas's political Western Posse (1975) and earned two Emmy nominations for his later work. In 1995, he was charged with child molestation and eventually served a sentence in prison.

Stefanie Powers had gained fame in 1966 as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. She carved out a very successful career as a guest star in TV series and as the lead in made-in-TV films and occasional theatrical films. In 1979, she teamed with Robert Wagner for the hit TV series Hart to Hart. Powers has remained popular thoughout the years, touring with plays and even recording an album.

As for Paper Man, it's not an underrated gem--merely an above-average TV film with a great premise that's only partially developed. The lack of suspects certainly hurts. In the end, the only question is whether the murderer will turn out to be a "technological killer" or a human murderer. Still, the film has its fans--enough to warrant a videotape release--and, if you're feeling nostalgic about those memorable 1970s made-for-TV films, then you should definitely check out Paper Man.


  1. Great review, Rick! I haven't seen or heard of this film. I think it sounds like an intriguing film, and my interest is piqued. Though Stefanie Powers was mostly known for her TV roles, I really enjoyed her performance in the Hammer film, FANATIC (aka DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!). PAPER MAN is apparently on DVD with the 1980 thriller AGENCY starring Lee Majors and Robert Mitchum. It's reportedly of less-than-stellar quality, but if that's the only way we can see PAPER MAN, then so be it.

  2. Sounds intriguing.

    I do enjoy discovering Dean Stockwell's work as an adult actor. I watched him the other day in an episode from the 3rd season of COLUMBO, in that episode when the detective takes a cruise.

    It's so strange to see the precocious little guy who gets Frank Sinatra to sing to him in Anchors Aweigh (1945) full grown with a mustache and accused of murder.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Rick. I need to dust off my VCR and go buy PAPER MAN at Amazon.

  3. I liked a lot of the movies from that era too, Rick. I didn't see Paper Man, but it sure sounds like a predecessor to many future movies about computers who perhaps begin to think for themselves or are used for horror. You mentioned the movie Gargoyles, and I remember that one really well. My favorite memory of it is the way the gargoyles talked, with that eerie double sound to their voices.

    James Stacy was one who just broke my heart with what happened to him. To lose the arm and leg on one side is just horrific. I remember him appearing in Something Wicked This Way Comes with Jason Robards. Stacy was given a cruel vision of himself whole if he would only do the bidding of the devil carnival barker. That must have taken some courage.

    Wasn't it Stefanie Powers who was with William Holden during the dark days of his decline into alcoholism and stayed with him until he died? I may be thinking of another couple, but that's what comes into my head.

    You are quite right -- that picture looks a LOT like The Wicker Man poster. The original Wicker Man is one of my favorite movies. Really interesting and, obviously for me, thought-provoking article, Rick!

  4. Enjoyed all the comments! Sark, I saw PAPER MAN on DVD and the quality wasn't great, but watchable. Java, the young Dean Stockwell who starred in movies such as KIM seems like a different person from the adult Stockwell (especially after BLUE VELVET). Becky, yes, Stefanie Powers and William Holden were a couple. They were deeply involved with wildlife preservation and she later started a wildlife foundation in his honor.

  5. Rick, like Sark, I haven't seen or heard of this film. I'm a huge fan of Stefanie Powers, loved her in the TV series, Hart to Hart. I will be adding the film, Paper Man, to my list of "gotta see" films. Thank you for your wonderful review.

  6. Sounds like a great movie!

    I'll get it from Amazon!