Saturday, 12 January 2019

Barnaby Jones season 1 (1973)

Barnaby Jones started life as a spin-off from the very successful Cannon private eye TV series. Barnaby Jones would go on to be a massive hit, running for no less than eight seasons.

Buddy Ebsen was already a household name thanks to The Beverly Hillbillies which ended its long run in 1971. By that time Ebsen was well into his sixties but his career was far from over. Barnaby’s daughter-in-law Betty acts as his secretary and confidant. She’s played, and played pretty well, by Lee Meriwether.

The first episode of Barnaby Jones, Requiem for a Son, seems at first like it’s an episode of Cannon. Frank Cannon is preparing one of his gourmet meals when he gets a phone call from a friend who is also in the private detective business, a guy by the name of Hal Jones. Jones is in trouble and wants to talk to Cannon, Cannon tells him to come to his apartment, Jones doesn’t show up. The next morning Cannon finds out his friend has been murdered. He gets the news from Hal’s father, Barnaby. Now we find out about Barnaby Jones. He’s a private eye as well, but retired. His son had taken over the business. Now Barnaby is out of retirement and he intends to track down his son’s murderer, with some help from Cannon.

Barnaby is no spring chicken but he’s tough physically and mentally. He’s tough, but it’s his own distinctive brand of toughness. He doesn’t touch alcohol but he does enjoy a cold glass of milk. He also has a degree in forensic science and has his own little forensics laboratory - very convenient when you want some answers about a clue but you don’t want  the answers to come from the police.

Barnaby Jones slots into what you could call the gimmick detective category which enjoyed quite a vogue in the late 60s and early 70s. There was Ironside, the wheelchair-bound detective. There was Longstreet, the blind detective. There was Cannon, the fat detective. And then came Barnaby Jones, the old detective. Unfortunately apart from that gimmick Barnaby Jones is very much a routine private eye series, with some rather pedestrian scripts. On the plus side, like all Quinn Martin’s shows, it boasts high production values and it’s very polished and very well-made. Buddy Ebsen is excellent. What I particularly like about his performance is that he doesn’t try too hard to make Jones a loveable old codger but he also doesn’t try too hard to make him a crusty old curmudgeon. Jones comes across as a fairly likeable guy but one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Lee Meriwether doesn’t get a whole lot to do. She is pretty good though and she and Buddy Ebsen make a good team.

The Episode Guide
To Catch a Dead Man is a very very Columbo-like episode. It not only follows the Columbo formula, it has very much the Columbo feel as well. It opens with a rich man, Philip Carlyle, committing a murder that is clearly intended to cover his own disappearance. He then changes his appearance and pops up in the sleepy little town of Lake Tomac California under the name Fred A. Williams. Barnaby is employed by the murdered man’s girlfriend and he follows the trail to Lake Tomac where we are treated to a Columbo-like battle of wits between Barnaby and the killer, with Barnaby doing the exaggerated folksy schtick to persuade the killer to underestimate him. The killer is played by William Shatner and he’s a typical Columbo murderer - rich, clever, ruthless and arrogant but with an over-confidence that might well bring him undone. There’s nothing wrong with the story, in fact it’s quite hood, it’s just uncannily Columbo-like.

In Sunday: Doomsday someone is threatening to kill Barnaby. Of course we know it’s some crazy guy who’s just out of prison and who blames Barnaby for sending him there. Of course Barnaby also knows that it has to be some ex-con wanting revenge. So this is an episode that is not exactly scoring any points for originality. It’s executed well enough and there’s a clever touch at the end but otherwise it’s pretty routine.

The Murdering Class takes Jones to an exclusive boys’ school where the headmistress’s brother has met a violent death which has been made to look like an accident. The title is interesting since apart from it obvious meaning it seems to have some definite class overtones, with evil WASPs being the murdering class. An interesting episode.

In Perchance to Kill Barnaby is hired to find a teenaged runaway. The girl and her boyfriend are suspects in a murder but Barnaby doesn’t find the evidence to be overly persuasive, even if they are hippies. Barnaby is more interested in the victim’s business partner, and he’s especially interested in a white suit. A routine story but it’s OK.

Barnaby Jones has been in the game a long time but in The Loose Connection he suffers the embarrassment of being set up as a drug courier. The most interesting thing about this story is that we see that Barnaby is fallible. He makes not jut one but two big mistakes. A reasonably solid episode.

Writer Harry Doyle disappears in Murder in the Doll's House and Barnaby’s job is to find him, but we know from the first scene of the episode that Harry isn’t going to be found. This one features a strong guest cast including Jack Cassidy (always fun when he turned up as a sinister crazy in detective series) and Anne Francis. Harry had been spending some time in his home town and Barnaby starts to think that the answer to his disappearance may lie in the past, in a tragic accident six years earlier. It’s another solid enjoyable episode.

In Sing a Song of Murder a pop singer meets an untimely end and his business managers decide this could be an opportunity for them rather than a disaster. They have a plan. It’s a crazy plan but if it works it means lots of money. Meanwhile Barnaby has been hired to find the girl who was with the pop star on his unlucky last night on earth. Barnaby solves this case with forensic science which gives it bonus points. A pretty good episode.

See Some Evil... Do Some Evil starts of course with a murder. As usual we know the identity of the killer right from the start and we know the killer’s major secret as well. What we don’t know is why Stan Lambert he would want to kill Henry Warren. In fact we have no idea why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Barnaby picks up a couple of neat (and subtle) little clues in this story. And the trap he lays for the killer is quite clever. A very entertaining episode. It also has Roddy McDowall being sinister which earns it bonus points.

Murder-Go-Round presents Barnaby with a case that doesn’t sound too promising. A man visiting the little town of Parker Junction is killed by a hit-run driver. His wife gets it into her head that there was more to it. And it turns out there’s a whole lot more to it. Buddy Ebsen is the best thing about Barnaby Jones and he’s in particularly good form in this one, giving an amused and almost playful performance. A good episode.

To Denise, with Love and Murder is about a man who marries an older woman for her money. It works out for him as you might expect it to do. He starts an affair with a younger woman, she wants him to marry her, his wife finds out and it all gets very complicated and unpleasant. And ends in murder. It seems straightforward but everyone, including Barnaby,  jumps to the wrong conclusion. It’s not dazzlingly original but it’s well executed.

In A Little Glory, a Little Death a has-been Hollywood star has become involved in something very shady and he’s been very indiscreet about it and now he has a witness to deal with, a very inconvenient witness. Barnaby is hired by a young actress whose mother, also an actress, has disappeared having been last seen at a party at the home of that faded Hollywood star. The main twist is a rather hackneyed plot device that rarely works convincingly. A very pedestrian episode.

Twenty Million Alibis is obviously a story that hinges on an alibi. A reformed jewel thief turned author can’t possibly have committed a daring robbery because at the time he was on national television, and although six minutes are unaccounted for he couldn’t possibly have carried out the robbery, but he did. It’s up to Barnaby to break the unbreakable alibi. A fairly enjoyable story.

Final Thoughts
I mentioned Columbo earlier. This series does mostly follow the Columbo inverted detective story structure. We see the murder at the beginning and we know the murderer’s entity. The interest comes from seeing how Barnaby will arrive at the correct solution.

Columbo did it better of course. The scripts for Barnaby Jones are just not as strong or as consistent.

Barnaby Jones was however a huge hit, running for no less than eight seasons, so obviously audiences liked it more than I did. That’s not to say I disliked it. Not at all. It’s rather lightweight and it’s not exactly ground-breaking but it’s decent harmless entertainment.

Barnaby Jones is available on DVD pretty much everywhere. The first season of course was only thirteen episodes.

Worth a look.

Friday, 4 January 2019

The Avengers - five Tara King episodes

Some thoughts on several miscellaneous Tara King episodes of The Avengers.

Love All
Love All (written by Jeremy Burnham) takes a basic idea, a security leak within the highest levels of Whitehall, that The Avengers had done over and over again but it takes that idea and adds some wonderful twists to it and develops it with an enormous amount of style and wit. The result is one of the best of the Tara King episodes.

This is an episode in which nobody wants to take Tara’s theory about the security leak seriously. She thinks it’s all about love, that love is the only explanation for the particular kinds of odd behaviour that senior civil servants are suddenly displaying. Steed and Mother both scoff at Tara’s theory but it turns out that she was right. But this is not just another story of powerful men being caught in a honey trap by a glamorous lady spy. In this case they’re trapped by the most unglamorous female you could possibly imagine, a frumpy cleaning lady.

How the scheme works is pretty clever. There are lots of other clever ideas as well - the automated romance novels are a lovely touch.

This is one of the Tara episodes that compares very favourably to the best episodes of the Emma Peel era.

My Wildest Dream
My Wildest Dream has everything you want in an Avengers episode. Philip Levene provides a witty clever script about men who commit murders in their dreams only they’re not dreaming. There’s  a superb guest starring performance by Peter Vaughan as an evil psychiatrist, plus there’s the always wonderful Philip Madoc as one of the sleep killers. As a bonus there’s a delightful comic performance by Edward Fox as al elegant young man-about-town who is besotted with Tara.

There’s plenty of great visual style with the observation ward set being especially good. There’s plenty of action, with Tara getting an absolute corker of a fight scene (and it’s really quite a brutal and realistic fight). Steed and Tara both get plenty to do in this episode. Robert Fuest’s direction is lively and imaginative.

There are some nice unexpected plot twists. And you have to love the idea of an aggresso-therapist. This is one of the best Tara episodes, and Linda Thorson was really starting to hit her stride and get a handle on her character.

On the whole as very fine episode.

Pandora
In Pandora (scripted by Brian Clemens) Tara visits an antique shop and that’s the last thing she remembers until she wakes up in a strange house. She is wearing an Edwardian dress and her hair is done in Edwardian style. According to the morning paper it is the year 1915 and everybody is calling her Pandora.

Steed is rather concerned as Tara failed to show up for a luncheon engagement and there are some puzzling circumstances to her non-appearance. The key to finding her may be  the Fierce Rabbit. The Fierce Rabbit agrees, but has his own agenda.

This was Linda Thorson’s favourite episode, which is not altogether surprising since she gets to play a woman on the edge of madness. There are some great supporting players. Julian Glover gives a nicely twisted performance while John Laurie (a truly wonderful character actor) has fun as the Fierce Rabbit.

Director Robert Fuest throws in some suitably disconcerting camera angles but he doesn’t go overboard with the hallucinogenic stuff. It’s effectively moody and there’s an atmosphere of unhealthy obsession. The sting in the tail is rather neat as well. This is a pretty good episode.

Homicide and Old Lace
Homicide and Old Lace is almost universally regarded as the worst ever episode of The Avengers.

This episode has an interesting history. The departure of Diana Rigg coincided with a change of producer. John Bryce took over but after a handful of episodes had been filmed he was dumped and Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were hurriedly recalled to duty. The question was what to do with the material that had been shot under Bryce’s supervision. Clemens took parts of one of these unaired episodes, The Great Great Britain Crime, combined them with some new material and some material from earlier Emma Peel episodes and added a framing story and the result was Homicide and Old Lace.

Malcolm Hulke and Terrence Dicks are the credited writers but Brian Clemens added so much new material that he has to take much of the blame for the results.

It opens with Mother’s aunts surprising him on his birthday. They persuade him to tell them a real-life story. So he proceeds to tell them a tall tale of an outrageous crime. John Bryce’s intention as producer had been to return The Avengers to something much closer to the gritty realism of the very first season, and so one assumes that The Great Great Britain Crime was intended to have that gritty realistic feel to it. But as recounted by Mother it’s pure outrageous melodrama and totally fanciful and in fact quite silly.

Patrick Newell’s telling of the story is quite amusing, and the hyper-critical running commentary on the tale by the aunts has its funny moments. It does have one major thing going for it - Gerald Harper’s delightful performance as the dedicated but bungling security chief Colonel Corf.

On the whole though it ends up being a bit of a mess, although it is mildly amusing and not quite as awful as its appalling reputation might lead you to expect.

The Rotters
Written by Dave Freeman The Rotters starts with the murder of a government forestries expert and we then get one of the more bizarre scenes involving Mother. It became one of the major recurring jokes of this era of The Avengers that whenever Mother had to brief Steed and Tara it would always be in an outlandish setting. Sometimes these interludes were quite inspired. Sometimes (as in this case) they were just seriously weird, but they were usually at least mildly amusing.

Which brings us to the subject of Mother. In the earlier seasons we never saw Steed’s bosses. It was always implied that only Steed had contact with his superiors, and that his partners (David Keel, Venus Smith, Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel) were agents that Steed had recruited on his own initiative and that he was allowed to run them as he saw fit. That changed in the Tara King era. Steed and Tara were both clearly professional secret agents and the character of Mother was introduced as the spymaster figure. Not everyone thought this was a good idea but on balance I think it worked. Tara obviously had a different status compared to Steed’s earlier partners, she was a professional rather than a gifted amateur and the spymaster figure helped to emphasise that. Patrick Newell was always delightful and Mother and his silent assistant Rhonda added an extra dash of surrealism.

In any case, getting back to The Rotters, there’s a diabolical plot here and it really does revolve round wood. Wood rot can be a remarkably rapid phenomenon. It can be practically instantaneous. This can be remarkably useful, but not necessarily in a good way. In fact dry rot might well be the key to world domination (or at least it might be if you’re a crazy person). It’s a ludicrous premise but it works.

A good episode of The Avengers requires some oddball guest characters. The Rotters has that. In fact it has an amazing number of eccentric characters. It requires a reasonably imaginative villain or villains. The Rotters has that as well. The central idea doesn’t have to be wildly original but it does have to be offbeat. In this case it’s offbeat and it’s fairly original. The Rotters gets bonus points there. Most of all it has to be executed with energy and style and this episode scores there as well. It gets extra bonus points for two killers with impeccable manners and good taste.

So there we have it. Five Tara King episodes chosen totally at random. Four of them either excellent or at the very least extremely good (My Wildest Dream, The Rotters, Love All, Pandora) and one stinker that still has some mildly amusing moments (Homicide and Old Lace).

Saturday, 29 December 2018

highlights of my cult TV viewing of 2018

These were the highlights of my cult TV viewing in 2018. Not necessarily the best cult TV I watched, but the most rewarding in terms of exiting new discoveries, and some rediscoveries of forgotten old favourites.

The most exciting new discovery was Airwolf, which I think may well have been the best action adventure series of the 80s. With the 1984 first season being outstanding.

A fun rediscovery was Land of the Giants (1968) which turned out to be quite a bit better than my hazy memories initially suggested. Maybe not great TV science fiction but very enjoyable and with mostly fairly impressive special effects.

The Guardians (1971) is a British dystopian political thriller with some very unexpected subtleties and complexities.

There was also The F.B.I., an uneven, occasionally odd but interesting crime series.

As far as individual episodes are concerned the Danger Man episode Colony Three (1965) was the best of the year. The 1975 The Crazy Kill from Brian Clemens’ Thriller series was also exceptionally good with a great performance from Anthony Valentine.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Adventure and Comic Strip: Exploring Tara King’s The Avengers (book review)

There have been quite a few non-fiction books on The Avengers, but not too many dealing specifically with the Tara King era. So that in itself is a strong recommendation for Rodney Marshall’s 2013 tome Adventure and Comic Strip: Exploring Tara King’s The Avengers. An even better recommendation is that Marshall takes a very favourable view of this period of the show’s history.

Having said all this I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book. The big problem is that it’s kind of thin. There’s really not much to it. Basically it’s just an episode guide, and not a very detailed one. On the plus side he doesn’t give us just a synopsis of each episode. There is a bit of analysis. It’s not too in-depth but it’s a bit more than just fanboy gushing. On the whole he avoids pretentious academic jargon and he generally doesn’t try to ram his political views down the reader’s throat (which is a very unusual thing for a book published in our modern age).

The episode guides are reasonably stimulating and he shows a real understanding of the appeal of the series.

The biggest plus is that Marshall doesn’t start out with the prejudice that of course the Tara King era was inferior to the Emma Peel era and that of course Linda Thorson was a poor replacement for Diana Rigg. Marshall approaches the series with an open mind and finds a great deal to like about the Tara King episodes. Since I happen to be a very big Tara fan this naturally inclines me to approve of the book.

You just can’t get away from the fact that there’s not a great deal of text here. And there are no illustrations.

Marshall is incidentally the son of Roger Marshall, one of the great British television writers of the 60s and 70s.

Adventure and Comic Strip is a welcome reassessment of a much maligned period of the history of one of the great television series so I’m inclined to recommend it in spite of its thinness.

Friday, 14 December 2018

McCloud season 1 (1970)

The 1970s was a real golden age for American TV mystery/detective series. There were good 70s cop shows and good 70s private eye shows but the most enjoyable and most characteristic American 70s crime shows were the puzzle-plot murder mysteries in which a brilliant detective matches wits with a brilliant criminal. Columbo was the most famous of these series but Ellery Queen and Banacek were every bit as good, and McMillan and Wife had its moments.

And there was also McCloud. It ran for seven years on NBC so it was one of the most successful of the genre.

What all these series had in common, apart from obvious structural similarities, was that they had colourful and charismatic detective heroes. McCloud certainly qualifies on both counts. Sam McCloud is a Deputy Marshal from a one-horse town in New Mexico. An important case takes him to New York City and for reasons which never really make sense he ends up being on more or less permanent loan to the NYPD. The NYPD isn’t quite sure what to do with him, he can be a bit of an embarrassment but on the other hand he does keep on solving major cases for them.

Dennis Weaver had had a long career already by this time but in McCloud he demonstrates considerable and hitherto unsuspected star quality. When you take Weaver’s performance, combine it with the fish-out-of-water country hick teaching the city slickers a thing or two theme and some fairly solid scripts you have the ingredients for a pretty entertaining series.

Portrait of a Dead Girl was the pilot episode. Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud has to track down a witness who has ignored a subpoena. He finds him in the wilds of New Mexico. McCloud is not altogether thrilled at the idea of having to escort the prisoner all the way to New York, but McCloud always does his duty.

The witness, James Waldron (Shelley Novack), may be able to give evidence that would overturn the conviction of Luis Ramos for the murder of a beauty queen. Or his evidence may have an entirely different effect. No-one knows but clearly someone does not want Waldron to testify since he is kidnapped as soon as he arrives in New York. This is pretty embarrassing for McCloud and he intends to find the kidnapped witness and those responsible for snatching him.

McCloud’s presence in New York is unwelcome to chief of detectives Peter Clifford (Peter Mark Richman). Ramos’s defence attorney Del Whitman (Craig Stevens) also seems disturbed by McCloud’s presence. The one person who is delighted by McCloud is journalist Chris Coughlin (Diana Muldaur). She’s written a book on the beauty queen murder but she doesn’t seem to care if McCloud finds evidence to discredit her book. She finds him fascinating and she’s a good enough reporter to know that Sam McCloud is good copy and hanging around with him will undoubtedly be useful to her career-wise.

The plot is pretty far-fetched. It also has some political overtones and that’s something that American television invariably did poorly.

Dennis Weaver was already well known to viewers from his rôle in the long-running Gunsmoke series. McCloud made him a bona fide star. He’s perfect as the Deputy Marshal from New Mexico. He doesn’t overdo the wide-eyed innocence and he doesn’t overdo the dumb hick thing. Sam McCloud finds New York to be a very strange place but he’s a smart cop and he learns quickly and he’s nobody’s fool. To some extent he uses the Columbo technique of persuading suspects to underestimate him.

Diana Muldaur is a semi-regular character in the series and provides a love interest for Sam McCloud as well as managing to get him lots of publicity which gets him into constant trouble. She’s pretty good. Terry Carter as Sergeant Joe Broadhurst plays the sidekick rôle and does it fairly effectively.

Portrait of a Dead Girl doesn’t quite gel for me, partly because I just didn’t but the central plot idea as being plausible. But it does introduce Sam McCloud effectively enough.

The first episode of the first season proper is Who Says You Can't Make Friends in New York City? McCloud has been posted to Peter Clifford’s precinct in New York to learn about big city policing. I have no idea why a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico would need to learn such things but the premise of the whole series is that it’s about a hick cop in the big city so some justification for his continued presence had to be cooked up. McCloud proves to be a bit of an embarrassment to Clifford who is overjoyed when he finds an excuse to ship McCloud back to New Mexico. The only problem is that McCloud refuses to go until he’s cleared up the case he’s stumbled into.

Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue is about actual horse stealing on Fifth Avenue, and it’s about a gunman who won’t kill. It’s an offbeat tale and it plays to the strengths of McCloud as a character - he gets to crack a few down-home jokes, he gets to demonstrate his gift for understanding and empathising with people and he gets to approach a case in his own inimitable and unconventional way. And he gets to play the climactic action scene on horseback!

The rodeo comes to New York in The Concrete Corral and McCloud is assigned to keep an eye on the cowboys. He’s pretty annoyed by this since he’d rather be chasing actual criminals but he’ll find plenty to keep him occupied with those cowboys, especially when their dramas lead to murder. And McCloud finds that when you have to track down a country boy it’s a definite advantage to be able to think like a country boy yourself. A decent episode.

The Stage Is All the World plunges McCloud into the world of the theatre where a megalomaniac producer is receiving death threats but he has a track record of publicity stunts so the threats may or may not be bogus. The threats still have to be taken seriously, and McCloud is inclined to think there really is a tragedy brewing. A pretty solid episode.

In Walk in the Dark McCloud gets assigned to an all-female squad for training. As you might expect there’s a fair bit of politically incorrect humour (in fact there’s quite a bit of political incorrectness in this episode, this being 1970 when it wasn’t necessary to tread so carefully). McCloud fears he’s going to be stuck investigating shoplifting incidents but in fact he finds himself in the middle of a multiple murder case, with one of the victims being a policewoman. He’s not supposed to be on the murder case but when Sam McCloud is given an instruction he tends to interpret it rather loosely. He also finds time for some romantic dalliance with a pretty young policewoman (played by Susan Saint James). There are some interesting moral subtexts to this story, subtexts you would never get away with today, wth McCloud being less than happy about young women being used as bait for a murderer. It’s a good story with a solution that is a bit far-fetched but still quite clever.

Our Man in Paris is a change of pace. What could possibly be more fun than having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in New York City? That’s easy. Having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in Paris. Chief Clifford is held hostage and McCloud is forced to fly to Paris with a briefcase full of money, very hot money. It’s not all bad though, since McCloud strikes up a friendship with a pretty French stewardess. One thing they do appreciate in Taos, New Mexico is a pretty girl, and McCloud appreciates them more than most (and it has to be said that the ladies seem to find him irresistible). This is a fine thriller episode to close out the first season.

A word of warning in regard to the DVD releases of McCloud. After their original broadcast the six first season episodes were clumsily edited together into three feature-length episodes. The editing was done so badly that some of the original writers and directors subsequently had their names removed from the credits in disgust. The original hour-long episodes were later lost. When McCloud was released on DVD in the U.S. only the butchered movie-length versions were available and and so those were the ones issued on DVD. Then Madman Entertainment in Australia located the original hour-long versions, which fortunately were in excellent condition. Madman’s Australian DVD release of the first season includes both the original hour-long versions and the edited feature-length versions. So if you’re going to buy the first season on DVD the Madman release (which is in print and easily obtainable in the U.S.) is the only one to consider buying. Of course you’ll need to remember that the Madman release is Region 4.

McCloud isn’t quite in the same league as Columbo or Banacek but it’s still very enjoyable viewing and it’s recommended. There you go.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The F.B.I., season one part one (1965)

The F.B.I. was one of the many hit TV series in the action/adventure genre made by Quinn Martin Productions in the 1960s. In fact it was the most successful of all Quinn Martin’s productions, running for nine seasons from 1965 to 1974. The F.B.I. has been released on DVD in half-season sets and it's the first part of season one with which this review is concerned.

In this series we always know the identity of the perpetrator right from the start, so these are inverted crime stories. This is also very much in the police procedural mould, with the interest lying in the methods used by the F.B.I. to hunt down wrongdoers.

The two lead characters are Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) and Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks). Erskine is the old hand and he’s a complex character with some personal tragedies that he’s still working through. Rhodes is a young hotshot but he’s a decent guy and the two agents have a very amicable relationship.

You have to remember that this series originated in 1965 and in 1965 the idea of a series that painted the F.B.I. in an entirely heroic light seemed pretty reasonable. And this series really does present a very very favourable view of the Bureau. It was made with the blessing of J. Edgar Hoover (who was still F.B.I. Director at the time).

The fact that the series began its run in 1965 really is quite important. The F.B.I. deals with all sorts of crimes and this includes political crimes. In 1965 it could be assumed that any political crime would almost certainly be the work of communist agents working for Moscow. And it could be assumed that these communist agents would be working class. This is 1965, just before the social revolution of the 60s. Within a couple of years the F.B.I. would be looking for subversives at university campuses rather than among dock workers.

Social and sexual mores were also about to change radically. In the first season Erskine’s daughter Barbara and Special Agent Rhodes have fallen in love and want to get married. Erskine wants her to wait until she finishes college. Barbara and Rhodes want to get married straight away. Within a few years a senior F.B.I. officer like Inspector Erskine would be delighted by anything that would get his daughter away from the subversive atmosphere of university.

The Episode Guide
The Monster was a rather bizarre opening episode for any series. A con-man named Francis Jerome (Jeffrey Hunter) has escaped from a federal prison. Jerome preys on women. What the F.B.I. don’t know is that he also kills women. Jerome is a seriously weird guy with a weird history.

Erskine is convinced that Jerome will return to his home town. He also suspects that he will try to make contact with one of his previous victims, Jean Davis. There’s some rather odd flirtatious stuff going on between Jean Davis and Erskine. In fact Jean Davis is pretty seriously weird as well. This is just a weird episode.

Image in a Cracked Mirror is a lot better. Erskine and Rhodes are hunting an embezzler. Charles Gates (Jack Klugman) has covered his tracks well. He has managed to destroy every photograph that has ever been taken of him. No-one really seems to know what he looks like. He’s now on the run with his 13-year-old son and that could be his weakness. It’s a weakness that Erskine is prepared to exploit with a ruthlessness that shocks Rhodes. Erskine has an odd personal stake in this case because Gates reminds him of himself. A very good episode.

A Mouthful of Dust is like a flashback to the Wild West, with Erskine and Rhodes saddling up (with six-guns in their gun belts) to join a posse tracking down an Indian. Joe Cloud (Alejandro Rey) is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Erskine had been Cloud’s commanding officer in Korea and Cloud turns to Erskine for help. Erskine doesn’t want to let Joe down, but he does. Can he then put things right? Can Cloud be persuaded to save himself? Rey’s performance is OK but the Argentina-born actor’s very strong accent is rather wrong and jarring. Italian-American Robert Blake is no more Native American than Rey but he pulls off the important rôle of Joe’s brother Pete Cloud much more successfully. An offbeat episode that works, up to a point.

Slow March Up a Steep Hill is a case of history repeating itself, or at least it seems like it. A bank in Exeter Maryland is robbed and the same bank is robbed again three days later. Everything about these robberies seems to parallel a similar case in 1938. And the 1938 bank robber has just been released from prison. Erskine trusts his instincts on this one. Everyone thinks he’s on the wrong track but he won’t compromise. An excellent episode.

The Insolents involves a very rich young man accused of murder. Special Agent Rhodes seems to have a personal stake in this case. It’s a mystery that appears to have only one solution but what if that solution is the wrong one? This time around it’s Rhodes who has to trust his instincts. Not a bad episode.

In To Free My Enemy Erskine has been trying to find evidence to convict pornographer Bert Anslem. Now his suspect has been kidnapped by a trio of cheap punks and Erskine has to save him. By saving him he may also be helping him to escape justice. But Erskine has no choice. He has to do his best to save Anslem. A good episode with with some cool police procedural stuff.

Given the priorities of the F.B.I. in the sixties it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not until the seventh episode, The Problem of the Honorable Wife, that the evil commies make their first appearance. They’re planing to sabotage the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by planting bombs on the San Francisco dockside. One of the saboteurs is married to a Japanese woman and she unwittingly puts the Feds on her husband’s trail. This is an episode in which Special Agent Rhodes, who is basically a decent young guy, feels just a little uncomfortable about working for the F.B.I. This is quite an interesting episode.

In Courage of a Conviction Lew Erskine should be a very happy man. He’s just caught up with a master forger who has eluded all law enforcement agencies for years. He’s a forger on the grand scale and it’s quite a feather in Erskine’s cap. But he’s not happy. It’s all because of a girl he saw in Ray Lang’s office. The girl is a junkie and Ray is a lawyer who has been supplying the F.B.I. with quality information for years. Ray and Lew are also old buddies. But what is Ray Lang doing with a junkie? As he connects the dots Lew realises  that the unshakeable case he had against that forgery suspect isn’t so unshakeable after all. This is one of a number of episodes that emphasises two key things about Lew Erskine. Firstly, he trusts his instincts no matter what. And secondly, he will risk his own career rather than see a man convicted if he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Of course it not emphasises Erskine’s high moral standards but also those of the Bureau (and emphasising the honesty and probity of the F.B.I. was a pretty good idea for a series that relied heavily on the coöperation and goodwill of J. Edgar Hoover).

The Exiles would appear to be inspired by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Exiles from a certain Latin American nation are planning to launch an invasion to overthrow the ruling dictator. The F.B.I. have to persuade the leader of the exiles, General Rafael Romero, not to go ahead with the invasion. It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t want the dictator overthrown but the F.B.I. has intelligence that indicates that the invasion is guaranteed to be a messy and expensive failure and therefore very embarrassing to the U.S., especially given that the invasion is planned to be launched from Florida.

This is an intriguing one. General Romero and his private army (and his rich backer Maria Blanca) are not portrayed as being the bad guys, in fact they’re portrayed as heroes,  and yet they have to be stopped at all costs. And Erskine has to infiltrate Romero’s group and betray them. This is a surprisingly ethically complex tale and it’s also surprisingly realistic in depicting international relations as a frustrating quagmire. A very fine episode.

The Giant Killer is a total hoot. A fanatic is trying to sabotage a U.S. ballistic missile being transported by road to an Air Force base. This is not just a regular nuclear missile. This is a brand new design and it’s immensely important. If this missile is sabotaged the whole free world will be endangered and world communism will triumph. The paranoia is approaching Dr Strangelove levels in this episode. On the other hand it’s certainly exciting and the idea that a lone fanatic with a rifle can destroy a ballistic missile is intriguing. Robert Duvall is at his crazed best as the lone fanatic. The epilog to this episode is absolutely beyond belief. Dr Strangelove himself would have been embarrassed. A bizarre but weirdly and morbidly fascinating episode.

In All the Streets Are Silent automatic weapons are stolen from the U.S. Marine Corps. Erskine persuades cab driver Frankie Metro to turn informant but informing on the Murtaugh brothers is dangerous work. This one includes a fairly spectacular shoot-out. A pretty good episode.

An Elephant Is Like a Rope presents Erskine and Rhodes with an odd problem. They have a young man with a bullet wound in the head. He’s going to make a full recovery but is suffering from compete amnesia. So he can’t tell the G-Men where the half million dollars in his possession came from. There’s no actual evidence that he has committed any crime. The half million dollars seems to be clean. A strange little offbeat story but it works.

How to Murder an Iron Horse is somewhat silly but very enjoyable. It taps into 1950s obsessions that bad child-rearing practices were going to turn kids into juvenile delinquents. And this is really a typical 50s B-movie juvenile delinquent story with some bizarre diabolical criminal mastermind flourishes thrown in. A young man whose father was more interested in his model trains than his son now wants to blow up trains. Not model trains, real trains. And he demonstrates that he can indeed blow up a freight train. If he isn’t paid $100,000 he threatens to blow up a passenger train. It’s all quite crazy but if you like trains and explosions you’ll enjoy it.

Pound of Flesh is one of the few episodes in which we’re not sure of the identity of the criminal. The chaplain’s wife at an army base is murdered. Private First Class Byron Landy is the obvious suspect and there really isn’t much doubt of his guilt. In fact Erskine and Rhodes wouldn’t have any doubts about the case themselves if only Landy hadn’t confessed. But the confession really seemed bogus and now the two F.B.I. men are more or less convinced of his innocence. Unfortunately the media, the civilian authorities in the nearby town, the base commander and the top brass in the Pentagon just want a quick arrest and Erskine and Rhodes are put under extreme pressure. Of course if you try to put Lew Erskine under pressure like that he just gets really really stubborn. A very good episode with a good performance by Leslie Nielsen as the chaplain blinded by hatred.

The Hijackers is a rather light-hearted episode involving a truck hijacking which is actually a practical joke gone wrong. This one tries to combine whimsicality with sentimentality. The results are not as bad as you might anticipate.

The Forests of the Night deals with a fundamentalist Christian sect victimised by an extortionist on top of having to deal with less than sympathetic neighbours. When you’re dealing with such subject matter there’s always the risk of becoming preachy and that’s what happens here. This is crude hate-filled propaganda that portrays rural people as knuckle-dragging redneck bigots. A shockingly bad episode.

Final Thoughts
It’s easy to mock this series. There’s plenty of full-on hysteria about evil commies and the whole country seems to be overflowing with fifth columnists and foreign agents. But this is how reality looked to most people in 1965. There’s a sincerity about the series that tends to win you over. Erskine and Rhodes and their colleagues at the Bureau are brave dedicated men and they’re thorough professionals. This is basically a police procedural. We pretty much always know who the bad guys are right from the start so the interest lies in the methods used to track down the criminals. There’s some high-tech stuff but mostly Erskine and Rhodes rely on hard work and patient methodical routine investigative procedures. These guys do not give up. One of the things I really love is seeing the technical side of law enforcement in 1965 - it’s all still delightfully analog! To find a fingerprint match you go through thousands of fingerprints on file, and you go through them with a magnifying glass!

The series is a fascinating time capsule with a slightly melancholy edge - the American  society depicted in the first season in 1965 had to a large extent ceased to exist by the time the series ended its run in 1974.

The F.B.I. is a slightly odd series.  The tone is sometimes very serious, occasionally quite dark, and at other times light-hearted and even whimsical. The scripts are however mostly clever and well-constructed and often quite original and the execution is always top-notch. There are unfortunately occasional signs of the preachiness that was already starting to infect American television (signs that are also all too apparent in another contemporary Quinn Martin production, The Fugitive). Production values are high. Efrem Zimbalist Jr has real star quality. This was, like most Quinn Martin productions, very well-made television.

Recommended.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Naked City, season two (1960-61)

Naked City takes its name from the 1948 film The Naked City. The Naked City was a police procedural with a documentary feel. The TV series does owe something to the movie structurally and thematically. The TV series is also much much better than the movie.

The Naked City was a bad movie but a very influential one. Naked City was a good TV series and a very influential one. Naked City started out in 1958 with the half-hour format that was still more or less standard at that time. It did not do particularly well and was actually cancelled. It was then re-engineered and relaunched in 1960. The change to hour-long episodes was crucial. This is a series that takes a leisurely approach to is subject matter. It’s a world away from the frenetic excitement and urgency of a series like M Squad (made at almost exactly the same time). Naked City is a character-driven police procedural series. It takes the time to let us get to know the characters.

Naked City is also notable for featuring a substantial amount of location shooting. One thing it does share with M Squad is a gritty realistic feel. This is a serious attempt to show us life on the streets of New York - the sleaze as well as the glamour.

There’s also an emphasis on what today we would call adult themes. This is not cops and robbers with the cops being straightforward good guys and the robbers being straightforward bad guys. This is a show that deals with complicated people who are sometimes neither heroes not villains.

It should be emphasised that this was not all that startling in 1950s American television. American cop shows like the aforementioned M Squad and Dragnet (this is the 50s Dragnet I’m talking about, not the woefully inferior revamped 1967 version) could be surprisingly hard-hitting and intelligent. Both cop shows and private eye shows (such as Johnny Staccato and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) of that vintage were still heavily influenced by the dark-themed crime movies of the 40s and early 50s that we now label as film noir. There was a lot more to 1950s American television than Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The difference with Naked City was mostly one of degree - it used the hour-long format to delve more deeply into the private lives of not just the cops but also the criminals and the victims and the innocent bystanders.

Madacy  released a 10-DVD boxed set that includes 40 of the 99 hour-long episodes of Naked City (it doesn’t include any of the 39 half-hour episodes from the first season). It’s enough to give a pretty good impression of the excellent series. The boxed set includes nine episodes from the second season which aired from 1960 to 1961 and it’s season two we’re concerned with at the moment. Horace McMahon as Lieutenant Mike Parker and Harry Bellaver as Sergeant Frank Arcaro were joined by Paul Burke as Detective Adam Flint for the revamped hour-long second season that went to air for the first time in October 1960.

A Death of Princes demonstrates the willingness of this series to tackle dark themes of a type that would have been likely to provoke extremely hostile responses from the police at that time. It deals not just with a corrupt cop, but a corrupt out-of-control killer cop.

The hero of the series, Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke), sees his partner Detective Peter Bane (Eli Wallach) gun down an unarmed suspect. The problem is that while he can bring departmental charges against Bane there’s no way he can make them stick. He knows that, and his boss Lieutenant Mike Parker (Horace McMahon) knows it too. The only thing to do is to keep an eye on Bane. Sooner or later he’ll make a wrong move.

Flint doesn’t have long to wait. Bane is mixed up in an an extraordinarily complex conspiracy. It’s the sort of thing that only an incredibly arrogant man could think he could get away with.

Debt of Honor begins with a very high stakes card game, which is interrupted by three punks with masks and guns. One of the card players gets shot dead. One of the other card players is Nick Mori (Steve Cochran). The punks might have had second thoughts about their plan to rob these high rollers if they had known that Mori was a gangster.

Mori has other things to worry about. His wife has just arrived from Italy. He has never met her. It’s a complicated story. Mori owed a debt of honour to a very important man in the old country. When that man was dying he told Nick that he would have to discharge his debt by looking after the old man’s daughter. The best way to do that would be to marry her and bring her to the United States. Now he was to explain to her that he doesn’t want it to be a real marriage, which is a problem since she is filled with determination to be a wonderful wife.

To make things more interesting Nick isn’t actually a gangster as such. Not quite. He clearly has Mob connections. He movies in those circles. He’s no Boy Scout. But he isn’t an actual gangster and he’s really not a bad guy. He has no idea what to do with this wife he has suddenly acquired but one thing is certain. He doesn’t want to make her unhappy. He doesn’t want to hurt her. She’s an embarrassment to him but she is his wife.

Steve Cochran was a fine actor who never achieved real stardom but appeared in several bona fide film noir classics in the 50s including Private Hell 36 and the superb Highway 301.

The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half is a heist story and a delightfully complicated one. The police have no idea that the heist is being planned. All they have is some events that don’t make sense. A museum security guard shot but all that is stolen is a replica of a valuable diamond, and it was clearly marked a being a replica and being worthless. And there’s a wealthy Greek who wife’s valuable bracelet appears to have been stolen but it wasn’t stolen. There are other little things but they make even less sense. Detective Adam Flint doesn’t like it. He has this feeling that there is a connection, if only he could see it. Some nice twists in this one. Very entertaining.

Murder Is a Face I Know is about Nick Ross, an immigrant who is the American Dream personified. A hard worker, a loving husband, a devoted father, a solid citizen. The kind of man you’d be proud to know. Except for one minor detail. He’s also a contract killer for the Mob. His son Joey (Keir Dullea) is not surprisingly having trouble accepting all this. The police are having troubles of their own with the case, with Ross refusing to say anything at all. A good episode.

A Hole in the City starts out with a series of spectacular chases and shootouts and then becomes a hostage drama. But mostly it’s a psychological drama about a very strange young man. Lewis Nunda (Robert Duvall) has masterminded an armoured car robbery that has left a trail of corpses. It all started in his childhood.  He has a lot of childhood grudges and he’s never forgotten them and they’re all based on his total inability to understand the world. An episode that is very ambitious and very pretentious but mostly it works. And it ends with another very impressive action set-piece.

Button in the Haystack presents Adam with a real headache. A man was murdered in a service station and thee is very strong, almost overwhelming, evidence against the guy who runs the service station, an ex-con named Brewer. But Adam thinks he’s innocent. To prove it he has to find Brewer’s gun and that turns out to be an almost impossible task. This story is enlivened by a bit of humour and it works very well.

Shoes for Vinnie Winford is the story of a rich little boy who grows up to inherit his father’s vast business empire. Only Vinnie Winford never does grow up. He now has immense wealth and power but he’s still a little boy. A spoilt over-indulged little boy. A little boy with severe mommy issues. A little boy with a violent temper. Although he owns a huge business empire the one business that really matters to him is his dance hall, a sleazy business to be sure but it’s the only thing he has ever actually built up by his own efforts. And it’s the dance hall that will get him into trouble. One of his hostesses has disappeared. Vinnie has taken steps to make it seem like Judy Hill never existed but Adam Flint believes the story that Judy’s friend Ruby tells him. Nailing Vinnie will however be quite a challenge.

The best thing and the worst thing about this episode is Dennis Hopper’s performance as Vinnie. It’s certainly memorable. It may be the hammiest performance in the history of American acting. It’s like Hopper is channeling James Dean in Rebel Without a Clause (which also deals with the 50s fear that bad mothering was the cause of all social ills) but Hopper is even more ludicrously over-the-top than Dean. If you happen to get a kick out of  unbelievably excessive Method acting you’ll find Hopper’s turn in this episode to be bizarrely fascinating.

On the plus side there are some great shots of 1960s New York street scenes and the bridge climax is pretty impressive.

New York to L.A. starts off with lots of frustrating inaction. Detective Flint and Lieutenant Busti are in L.A. to take custody of two punks accused of armed robbery and murder but the extradition hearing looks like it’s going to drag on forever. Then suddenly all hell breaks loose. This is one of those episodes that taps into 1950s obsessions with child-rearing and psychology. The two punks were raised in an orphanage and the script goes perilously close to casting a couple of vicious hoodlums as victims although it’s not clear what they are victims of. This sort of thing can be a bit cringe-inducing. Despite some exciting action scenes this one is a bit of a failure.

Vengeance Is a Wheel deals with a gang that has staged a series of daring waterfront warehouse robberies. A night watchman is killed during one of the robberies. He was an Italian and his family decide that they will not coöperate with the police. They will deal with the matter themselves. It is to be a vendetta. Not just a vendetta as a figure of speech but the genuine article, just like in the old country. This is awkward for Adam as he knows and likes the murdered man’s family. Ethnic violence was a fairly daring theme for television to tackle in 1960. The Untouchables had tried hinting that maybe there were Italians involved in organised crime in the days of Prohibition and that had unleashed a storm of protest. Vengeance Is a Wheel is a fine episode.

But this is fairly typical of Naked City’s willingness to deal with serious subject matter in a grown-up way. Naked City has a good deal of the gritty flavour of the classic American crime B-movies of the 40s and 50s and there’s certainly a film noir tinge to a number of episodes. What makes Naked City so good is that it has that seriousness of intent and that slightly dark and troubled atmosphere but without the nihilism that we see in so many more recent series. This is very much grown-up television that is prepared to face sometimes unpleasant realities but it doesn’t wallow needlessly in misery or sleaze. In fact the tone of this series is close to perfect.

It also has a wonderful style, very much influenced by film noir but with a kind of tough urban visual poetry to it.

This brief sampling of the second season is enough to make it clear that Naked City is one of the great American cop shows. Very highly recommended.