14 JULY 1979, Page 25

Big fights

Ted Whitehead

The Champ (Empire, Leicester Square) Love at First Bite (ABC, Shaftesbury Avenue from 19 July) A bad week for liberated women. First, a patronising weepie by Franco Zeffirelli, The Champ (A), scripted by Walter Newman and based on a story by Frances Marion. King Vidor would be relieved to know there is no credit to the movie of the same name that he directed in 1931. That concerned an alcoholic ex-boxer who has lost his way and is guided back to the ring and the rediscovery of his manhood by his cocky young son. It was a parable that appealed to the audiences of the Depression years with its promise of a younger generation restoring courage and dignity to the frightened and bewildered elders.

Zeffirelli's film also concerns an alcoholic ex-boxer and his young son. The emphasis here, however, is not so much on their relationship with each other as on their relationship with the divorced mother. The parable of the relationship between generations becomes a routine tug-of-war melodrama. Nothing wrong with the new emphasis as such; it probably says more to us. It is Zeffirelli's treatment that makes it all desperately embarrassing.

The boxer cries, the son cries, the mother cries, and even the horses look as if they are about to burst into tears; by the end half of the audience was awash, which says a lot about the director's popularity. Every emotional cliché of writing and direction is relentlessly exploited. Sometimes the screen itself looks like a rainswept window, an effect reinforced by the pretentious sweetness of Dave Grusin's music.

Jon Voight, who won an Academy Award for his role in the opportunist soapopera Coming Home, hams and roars his way through the part of the boxer in a way that suggests he is still playing Marlon Brand° playing Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar. He did the play some years back with his co-star here, Faye Dunaway, whose performance as the mother is properly strained and unconvincing. Eight-year-old Ricky Schroder, a professional model since the age of three months, can perhaps be forgiven for giving his all to the role of the son.

The simple story is sustained by a series of specious and awkwardly contrived incidents culminating in a big fight scene. Father and son eke out an enviable living on a racetrack. Mother, now an internationally famous fashion designer married to a wellpreserved gerontologist (Arthur Hill), happens upon the boy and introduces him to the high life. Father is consequently driven to return to the ring to win for the boy the benefits he has forfeited, i.e. a house with a swimming pool. Shortly before the big fight we suddenly learn that father suffers from serious headaches. Guess the ending.

Love at First Bite (AA) offers a fresh look at the Living Dead. I would have thought it impossible to inject new life into old Dracula but amazingly the film works very well. It opens with the Count being forced to give up his Transylvanian castle by the local Communist Party, who want the premises for use as a gymnasium. Dracula flees with his manservant, the ghoulish fly-eating Renfield (Arte Johnson), to New York, where he seeks the one and only woman he has truly loved. She turns out to be a top model, Cindy (Susan Saint James), who unfortunately has liberated attitudes: advising a heartbroken friend, she says, 'Look, you ball them once and then — adios muchacho.' She also has a psychiatristlover, who refuses to regard their nineyear-old affair as a stable relationship.

Robert Kaufman, executive producer and writer of the film expertly milks the basic premise — Dracula colliding with contemporary New York — for all it's worth. His screenplay is rich in maniacal incident and knowing repartee. There is a hilarious scene in a restaurant as the psychiatrist tries to out-hypnotise Dracula, and another when, before setting fire to the monster, he worries about his own credulity and says: 'Can I really do this? A Jungian would, a Reichian would — but I'm a Freudian!'

George Hamilton does a splendidly controlled send-up of the 700-year-old vampire, and Richard Benjamin is engagingly fanatical as the shrink — repeatedly assaulting the Count, and repeatedly hauled away by the police, complaining `I'm a doctor — I know what I'm doing!'

Cindy finally rejects the joys of promiscuity, independence and career for the bonds of true love. A happy end, then, except that her true love is the vampire and the life she chooses is that of the living dead. So perhaps it wasn't such a bad week for the liberated woman after all.