Although he doesn't receive top billing, Saul Rubinek's brilliant performance in "36 Hours to Die" steals the show. 

The Brightest Star

"36 Hours to Die"
Debuts Sunday, April 11, at 8 p.m.
Repeats through April 26

Does the name Saul Rubinek ring a bell?

He's been acting for ages, never in starring roles, but you'd know him when you see him on-screen. Short. Pudgy. Looks about 50-something. Has the face of a heavy. Or a nebbish, depending on how he's playing it.

His career goes as far back as "Young Doctors in Love," and includes "Bad Manners," "Death Wish V," and — if you want to scrape the bottom of the barrel — "Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story." On the upside, he was in "Unforgiven" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Rubinek is a versatile guy.

And he absolutely, hands-down, without a doubt steals every scene he's in "36 Hours to Die," which is worth seeing for Rubinek's work alone. His performance is brilliant.

There's nothing special about his role, with the exception of a very few lines that Rubinek may have ad-libbed on the spot. In fact, there's nothing very special about the movie at all other than Rubinek's tour-de-force turn. He plays a bad guy, a mobster who's trying to swindle a brewery. Sharing the cast with him — and taking top billing, of course — are Treat Williams, Kim Cattrall and Carroll O'Connor.

The plot is nothing out of the ordinary, despite the fact that the original screenplay was written by Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan"). Noah Stone (Williams), who owns a brewery, has the titular 36 hours to outwit a swindle planned by a bad guy named Morano (Rubinek). Cattrall plays Mrs. Stone and O'Connor plays her uncle, a retired cop.

The story begins when Stone has a heart attack and leaves the brewery in the care of his ne'er-do-well brother. The rest of the plot is as predictable as rain, although — in an odd leitmotif — Stone keeps having chest pains when the going gets rough.

But it's the mediocre nature of most of "36 Hours to Die" that makes Rubinek's performance stand out. A villain hasn't reveled in his villainy this way since Laurence Olivier in "Marathon Man." Rubinek brings a true touch of madness — the scary kind, where the madman appears almost likable — and, I swear to you, even a touch of macabre humor, although you'll hate yourself for recognizing it.

There's this, for example, when Morano is selecting a handgun to use for his debut as an assassin: "I don't know which one to pick. These are all so great! I'm sure one of them is, uh, the real me. Oh, wow! That's pretty!"

But although his screen time probably eclipses O'Connor's and is surely greater than Cattrall's, Rubinek doesn't even get featured billing in "36 Hours." Nor did the production company supply any photographs of him, or even a short biography.

If there were justice in credits, Rubinek's name would appear above the title. His performance is that good — in fact it's the only thing that saves "36 Hours to Die" from being just another pedestrian made-for-TV


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