Cinema: Beat the Clock

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Directed by LARRY PEERCE

Screenplay by EDWARD HUME

By now, everyone knows about the McGuffin—Alfred Hitchcock's pet name for the object (microfilm or rare jewels) that kicks off the action in a suspense film. Less renowned, but just as important, is "the clock." This is movie shorthand for the deadline toward which villains push their mean plans and against which the virtuous struggle mightily. Two-Minute Warning, which concerns a sniper (Warren Miller) in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, has more clocks than a Swiss trade show.

Two-Minute Warning is a movie full of clocks, not people. It is hardly enough that the sniper has hidden himself in an inaccessible perch above the stadium Scoreboard. From there, armed with his Remington 742, he can draw a fine bead through his telescopic sight on any of the 92,000 assembled fans, among whom are the mayor of L.A., the Governor of California, the President of the U.S. (who is en route) and Merv Griffin (who opens the football game by delivering the national anthem as if it were a carton of half-and-half). Not even all this is enough. Besides worrying about who is going to get shot, and when, we must fret over who will win the big game between L.A. and Baltimore.

Soapy Roles. There are also little pockets of drama in the stands: Will Car Salesman David Janssen stop treating Mistress Gena Rowlands mean and marry her? Will Gambler Jack Klugman, way in the hole and threatened with immediate extinction unless his debts are settled, beat the point spread? Most of all, will Good Cop Charlton Heston and Stadium Manager Martin Balsam be able to neutralize the sniper without having to turn to the dire methods of Tough Cop John Cassavetes and his blood-hungry SWAT team?

Most of these matters cancel each other out, but there is just enough energy remaining to make Two-Minute Warning an amusing time waster. Rowlands and Janssen contrive to make something real and affecting out of their soapy roles, and the closing sequence of the movie—full of determined cops, flying bullets, panicked fans and trampled bodies — is good for a few edgy moments. Of course, the quiet after so many clocks wind down is itself impressive, not to say a relief.