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Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in the HBO film Phil Spector. (Phil Caruso/AP)
Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in the HBO film Phil Spector. (Phil Caruso/AP)

john doyle

It's Al Pacino and HBO. But be wary of the strange, scary case of Phil Spector Add to ...

Anyone expecting Phil Spector (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) to be an exciting foray into high-grade trashy TV is going to be disappointed. The movie is very good but tough going at times, a lacerating excursion into the depths of egotism, success and public perception of celebrity in America.

Spector (Al Pacino, in extravagantly good form), the legendary music producer, was charged with murder in 2003. A woman, Lana Clarkson, had been found dead at Spector’s mansion, shot with one of the many guns kept in the house. His lawyer Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor, who is very good here) immediately thinks that the best legal argument is that it was suicide. Clarkson, depressed and drunk, put a gun in her mouth and shot herself while Spector was present. He also knows that it’s likely to fail. Any jury will perceive Spector as a freak, a strange, unknowable recluse who loved guns and has a reputation for a fiery temper. Other women will testify that Spector forced them, at gun point, to stay in his house when they wanted to leave.

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Cutler brings in lawyer Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) to bolster his case; to help find any angle that will help Spector. Baden, tired and suffering from a cold, isn’t impressed with what she finds in the case. But she decides to meet Spector and probe him for any information that will help. Thus we get the key scenario – smart female lawyer engaging with the notorious music genius, famous for his hostility to women.

It’s true that Spector was charged with murder. It’s true that Kenney Baden was instrumental in the trial ending with a hung jury. It’s also true that a second trial found Spector guilty and he’s been in jail ever since.

But what appears on the screen prior to the opening scenes of this HBO movie is startling: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor comment upon the trial or its outcome.”

Get your head around that. It helps to know that the movie is written and directed by David Mamet, considered by many to be America’s greatest living playwright. The man responsible for the gut-wrenching Glengarry Glen Ross takes an artist’s approach to the Phil Spector story, exploring, in a sideways manner, the idea of Spector as a caged madman, a figure from mythology, misunderstood by the mainstream media and pretty much everybody else.

Much depends on Pacino in this variation on the celebrity true-crime biopic. And he savours the role. Mainly though, what he savours is Mamet’s meaty language. Mamet-speak is fast, aggressive, often snarling dialogue. The speaker is usually at pains to taunt others, bluffing or deceiving by using words as lethal weapons. In Spector’s case the key is his interaction with Kenney Baden. He takes her on a chilling tour of his house, alternatively bragging about his enormous success in music and painting himself as the victim of people who hate his genius and dislike his personal code. “What are we talking about here?” he barks rhetorically. “Hatred! What do they hate about me? I’m alive.”

Thing is, and this is the real point of the movie, he succeeds in sowing doubt in the lawyer’s mind. Is he manipulative and strange? Yes. Is he correct about what happened when Lana Clarkson died? Well, the second jury found him guilty. As to whether he can manipulate the viewer, in Mamet’s version, it’s up to you.

Watch it for the depth of egotism and derangement that Pacino brings to the part. Watch it for Mamet’s vision of Spector as a man living happily in hell. But don’t expect a big payoff. Just as Spector’s version of events is a matter of taunting reality and his personal history, David Mamet is messing around with real people and real events, and asking viewers to stick with him. Some will, some won’t.

Airing Thursday night

Dog Dazed (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is must-see for dog owners. Made by Helen Slinger, it’s a journey into the gulf between dog lovers and those who loathe the ever-increasing intrusion of dogs into public spaces. As it points out, there are now more households with dogs than kids, and the result is a dog-owning community with a lot of power. For some, rationality evaporates when it comes to freedom for their dogs. There’s a lot of interesting punditry about the power that dogs have over their owners. And the tensions that arise over dogs are handled with wry amusement – there are bits of clever animation created by Oscar nominee Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back) to illustrate the madness, devotion and despair that dogs inspire.

Now then – I’m away to Ireland for a bit. Back just after Easter. Happy viewing.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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