''Manhunt in the Dakotas'' -- Ken Tucker says this ''In the Line of Duty'' TV movie starring Rod Steiger is the best yet

This week’s In the Line of Duty TV movie, Manhunt in the Dakotas, the third in a series begun in 1988, is the best one yet. In a jolting career comeback, Rod Steiger portrays Gordon Kahl, the right-wing fanatic who refused to pay his taxes, converted a number of Midwestern farmers to the beliefs of the racist, anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus, and, in 1983, murdered two federal marshals who tried to arrest him. Steiger resists turning Kahl into a wild-eyed nut; keeping his voice los and his eyes cold, he seems like an archetypal American stoic who’s gone haywire with hate.

”This movie is about something; it’s not just blood and guts,” says Ken Kauffman, who along with coproducer Tom Patchett and director Dick Lowry, has overseen all three of the high-rated, fact-based Line of Duty films. ”It’s about the way Kahl exploited the desperation and resentment of farmers in the Midwest whose farms were failing.”

Manhunt also features Michael Gross as a polite but canny FBI agent. His performance is another demonstration of the range this former Family Ties star is capable of, following his chilling portrayal of a killer in the first movie of this series, The FBI Murders. Kaufman says NBC has offered his production team a weekly In the Line of Duty show, but adds, ”We didn’t want to do that — we want each one to be special. We didn’t want to have to grind one out every week.” Going for quality rather than fast bucks, Kaufman and company have added immeasurably to TV’s police genre.