Monday, 17 June 2019
Perry Mason was such a popular and iconic series that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was extraordinarily radical for a 1950s American network TV series. After all the message of Perry Mason is that one should never ever under any circumstances trust the police. The criminal justice system is stacked against the little guy, the police and the District Attorney hold all the cards and they will use those advantages against an accused person. You cannot expect fair treatment from the police. It’s not in their nature to play fair. If you are innocent you have everything to fear from the police. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a very good and very expensive lawyer like Perry Mason then you have a chance of getting justice. If you can’t afford a hotshot lawyer then you can forget about justice.
These things are not explicitly stated in the series but they are still made very very clear. The TV series unfortunately somewhat softens the message of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels but it doesn’t soften that message completely. It’s still a pretty uncompromising condemnation of the American criminal justice system.
Here are my thoughts on a few episodes I’ve viewed recently.
The Case of the Substitute Face is a maritime murder mystery, a sub-genre of which I’m excessively fond. Perry and Della are returning to California on a British passenger liner when a passenger asks for his help. She believes her husband Carl Houser has embezzled a large sum of money from his employer, a Los Angeles bank. He certainly has an immense sum of money on him but things start to get puzzling when it turns out that no money has been stolen from the bank. And then Houser is apparently lost overboard, in circumstances that suggest murder rather than an accident or suicide.
link to my review.
The Case of the Deadly Double is one of the minority of episodes not based on an Erle Stanley Gardner story. It is however a story dealing with psychiatry, and I’m inordinately fond of psychiatric murder mysteries and thrillers of the 40s and 50s. The more outrageously silly the psychiatric content the more I enjoy such stories. This one deals with what would later be known as multiple personality disorder which is especially fun since it’s a condition that was probably pretty much created by psychiatry.
In this case businessman David Reed is trying to gain sole custody of his son on the grounds that the boy’s mother is an unfit mother. It’s hard to believe that prim and proper housewife Helen Reed (Constance Ford) could be anything less than a perfect mother but unfortunately Helen Reed is also Joyce Martell, and Joyce Martell is a drunk and a floozy and pretty much a textbook example of an unfit mother. Perry Mason gets involved when Helen has a nightmare in which her husband is murdered. It’s obviously more than just a nightmare. Her brother finds himself arrested for murder. The trial becomes a kind of psychiatric circus and it’s all incredibly silly and great fun.
The Case of the Empty Tin (scripted by Seeleg Lester) bears virtually no resemblance whatever to Erle Stanley Gardner’s novel, apart from the fact that there’s a China connection in both. There’s an empty tin in the TV version but it’s not the same tin as in the novel, it doesn’t have the same significance, it’s not found in the same place, it wasn’t placed in that position by the same person. In fact this empty tin was simply shoehorned into the plot to justify the use of the title. All the characters are different, their relationships are different, the criminal’s motives are different, the crimes are different and Perry Mason is retained by a different client for very different purposes compared to the novel. You expect movie and TV adaptations to differ somewhat from their source material but offhand I can’t think of many cases in which the changes have been as drastic as this. In short it’s an entirely different story.
review of the novel.
The Case of the Daring Decoy is set against a background of vicious corporate in-fighting. Daniel Conway (H.M. Wynant) is struggling against his bitter rival Warner Griffith to maintain control of the Cal-Texas corporation. Conway receives a telephone call from an unknown woman who claims to have information that will be of immense assistance to him. All her has to do is to meet her in a hotel room. What he finds in the hotel room is a corpse. It appears that he has walked into a trap. Now Perry Mason has to try to get him out of that trap. A good episode.
The Case of the Sulky Girl involves 23-year-old Frances Celane who has inherited a great deal of money which unfortunately is tied up in a trust administered by her uncle. Frances wants Perry Mason to have the trust overturned. Before that can happen murder occurs. Rarely has District Attorney Hamilton Burger had such an easy case to prosecute. The evidence is absolutely clear-cut and unshakeable. Or at least it gives the superficial appearance of being clear-cut, but superficial appearances can be misleading.
This is an episode in which the court-room scenes dominate and Perry demonstrates his knack for legal pyrotechnics. It’s almost cruel watching him set up the D.A. - when Mason explodes his mine poor old Burger just doesn’t know what hit him. An excellent episode. It was based on one of the very early Perry Mason novels, my review of which can be found here.
I read Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Rolling Bones the day before watching the TV episode based on that novel. Which I now realise was a big mistake. The most amazing thing about television and movie writers is that they keep thinking they can improve on the plots of people like Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner. Of course they can’t and they always fail embarrassingly when they try. This is one of the most cleverly plotted of all the Perry Mason novels but the TV episode eliminates all of the really interesting plot ideas. It’s also one of the most interesting of the novels for its passionate denunciation of unethical and illegal conduct by the District Attorney’s office. This also gets eliminated from the TV episode. A superb novel (here's my review) gets adapted into a mediocre TV episode.
The Case of the Long-Legged Models could be sub-titled a Story of Three Guns. The trouble with these three guns is that they’re all identical. Even the owner can’t tell them apart. Yes, they’re all owned by the same man. He has a habit of lending these guns to people. And one of the guns was used to commit a murder. The police can certainly determine which gun fired the fatal shot but no-one seems to know which gun was where, and in whose possession, at the time of the murder. Unless that can be determined there is no way to identify the killer. And Perry Mason unwittingly makes things worse by doing a bit of gun-switching himself. This is great television.
You can be sure of more Perry Mason posts in the not too distant future.
Sunday, 9 June 2019
It was an ITC series so production values were quite high and it features a lot more location shooting than you expect in a mid-60s British cop show. The London locations are a definite highlight. It shared the same production team as The Saint - producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman and script supervisor Harry W. Junkin. It was shot at Elstree Studios in tandem with The Saint.
Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric.
An interesting feature is that while most cop shows have an Inspector or a Chief Inspector as the protagonist, natural enough since these are the officers who are going to be the ones conducting the actual investigations of crime, Gideon’s Way focuses on a very senior officer. A Commander is very unlikely to have any intimate involvement in investigations so this series has to fudge things a bit by finding ways to get George Gideon out on the streets. The experiment does succeed pretty well though, with Gideon mostly making command decisions that influence the course of investigations while the hands-on stuff is mostly left to Chief Inspector David Keen (Alexander Davion).
In John Creasey’s Gideon novels Gideon’s marriage is not exactly on the rocks but it’s far from being a perfect marriage and neither Gideon nor his wife could really be described as happy. The TV series makes the Gideon family pretty much the perfect happy family. I think it was a positive change - personally I get a bit tired of tortured heroes whose personal lives are a train wreck.
Unfortunately the series gets off to a rocky start. State Visit deals with terrorism but it’s a bit too inclined to be sympathetic to the terrorist. The ‘V’ Men taps into 1960s hysteria about neo-nazi conspiracies and an imminent fascist takeover of Britain. Worse than that it’s an utterly predictable story. And then we get The Firebug, another story that tries too hard to portray a villain as a victim. And it’s also very contrived.
The fourth episode, The Big Fix, is a more straightforward crime story but again with too much emphasis on criminals as victims, plus it’s a fairly unexciting story.
To Catch a Tiger is great stuff. A death-bed confession by a nurse suggests that a man may have murdered his wife. Gideon is determined to get this murderer but the odds seem hopelessly stacked in the murderer’s favour. There’s no hard evidence and there seems to be no way to prove the case. But Gideon hates admitting defeat.
Big Fish Little Fish is a Dickensian tale of child thieves but it’s the Fagin behind them that Gideon wants. Melodramatic but enjoyable. The White Rat pits Gideon’s team against a ruthless but dangerously unbalanced crime boss. The ending is a fine suspense set-piece.
How To Retire Without Really Working is about a very pleasant middle-aged couple who happen to be very successful thieves. Now it’s time to retire but that requires a lot of money. If only they could pull off one big job they’d be set. The twist in this episode is that they’re so nice that Gideon really doesn’t want to catch them.
The Tin God concerns a prison breakout. For Benny Benson it’s a chance to even the score with the person he believes betrayed him to the police - his own wife. And his wife knows that promises of police protection won’t do her any good. Benny will get her sooner or later, unless he is recaptured. A fine episode with a great performance from Derren Nesbitt as Benny.
The Alibi Man is an interesting tale of loyalty with some elements that are very surprising and very daring for 1965. A racing driver has been cheating his business partner and the ensuing confrontation ends in murder. The racing driver has an alibi but Gideon and David Keen are not entirely convinced by it. They’re not entirely convinced by any of the apparent circumstances but their suspicions do not amount to proof. A very good episode.
A Perfect Crime is the title but the perfect crime involved is like most perfect crimes. It’s very imperfect. It’s a brilliant and daring jewel robbery except that a girl is killed in the course of the theft. And the two thieves don’t trust each other. There’s good police procedural stuff in this episode but as usual in this series it’s the criminals’ own folly that brings them undone. A good episode.
The Millionaire's Daughter is a kidnapping story and to be honest the plot is fairly routine. But the execution is good and we get to see an early Donald Sutherland performance as a psycho. An average episode.
Morna is a 19-year-old girl found murdered. She was the perfect English Rose, an angel come down to dwell among mortals. Everyone loved her. No-one could possibly have wanted to harm her. At least that’s the story everyone is telling. But if all the is true there’s one problem - somebody most definitely did want to harm her. Maybe Morna wasn’t quite so perfect after all. This story is told largely through flashbacks which gives us the chance to see Morna through the eyes of various possible suspects. A good episode.
Despite that very bad start Gideon’s Way is a top-notch police drama with some clever scripts and by mid-60s British TV standards very high production values. John Gregson gives a very sympathetic performance but he doesn’t let us forget that while Gideon is a sensitive civilised man he’s also a cop, he takes his profession seriously and he doesn’t flinch from tough decisions.
Alexander Davion as Chief Inspector David Keen is also excellent. He’s smooth and sophisticated, a bit of a college boy type, with a seeming air of carefree irresponsibility but underneath he’s a non-nonsense cop who gets the job done.
Gideon’s Way is the product of an era in which cop shows were starting to move towards greater realism and greater emphasis on detailed police procedural stuff but before the unfortunate trend towards making everything dark and edgy and cynical. It gets the balance right, whereas from the early 70s on British cop shows veered too far in the direction of violence and nihilism. Gideon’s Way is a grown-up police drama that doesn’t insist on wallowing in the gutter. Highly recommended.
Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric. I’ve reviewed the first of the novels, Gideon’s Day, at Vintage Pop Fictions.
Sunday, 2 June 2019
But they weren’t ready to give up and die just yet and they hadn’t run out of ideas. In fact they came up with an extremely good idea - a horror anthology TV series. Hammer House of Horror went to air in 1980 and was quite well received by both critics and audiences. It really was a very sound idea. ITC (with whom they partnered for Hammer House of Horror) had had immense success with the Thriller anthology series in the mid-70s. Thriller concentrated on psychological rather than supernatural horror. There was no point in merely doing a retread of Thriller so it made sense for Hammer House of Horror to specialise in out-and-out supernatural horror. And Hammer had always been good at getting surprisingly high production values from very tight budgets, so again TV production seemed like the answer to their problems.
One of the many problems Hammer had faced in the 70s is that for commercial reasons it was necessary to keep upping the ante as far as violence, gore, sex and nudity were concerned. Hammer were OK with this up to a point, but only up to a point. As it became increasingly difficult for them to make feature films the move to television production made a lot of sense. They could keep the gore and nudity at very moderate levels whilst still being, by television standards, reasonably daring. Hammer House of Horror has occasional nudity and occasional gore but mostly it relies on the writing, the directing and the acting. All of which are of fairly high standard.
Witching Time kicks off the series and is, very obviously, a witchcraft story. Composer David Winter lives at remote Woodstock Farm and he is not dealing with things very well (he suspects his wife is having an affair and he’s right). After a severe thunderstorm he finds a woman in the barn. She claims that her name is Lucinda Jessup and she was born at Woodstock Farm. In the year 1627. She escaped from the witch-hunters, and ended up in 1980.
Lucinda decides that David now belongs to her, which means she will have to find a way to get his strumpet of a wife out of the way. It’s the beginning of a nightmare for both David and Mary.
It’s not a dazzlingly original idea but it’s done reasonably well. The budget for the TV series was limited which meant that period settings were pretty much out of the question. In this case the idea that one of the characters is from the 17th century and that the events in the present day are intimately connected with events three centuries before means that at least you get some period flavour. And it certainly has as much gothic atmosphere as you can get in a modern setting.
Whether it’s a real or imagined horror the bigger question is whether it’s going to destroy David and Mary.
The cast is excellent. Jon Finch, whose star had burnt very brightly very briefly in the 70s, gives a pretty effective portrayal of a man living through a nightmare. Prunella Gee is very good as Mary, managing to make her fairly sympathetic in spite of the fact that we know she is unfaithful to her husband. Patricia Quinn, quite correctly, chews the scenery in a major way.
Witching Time is an effective series opener.
The Thirteenth Reunion moves the series in black comedy territory. Ruth Cairns is an ambitious reporter who longs for a chance to get away from writing for the Women’s Page. An assignment to check out a new weight loss program provides her with her opportunity. It’s a fat farm that uses humiliation as an incentive but Ruth soon discovers that there’s something much weirder going on. It’s certainly odd that there seems to be a connection between a weight loss clinic and a form of funeral directors. What the connection is will seem obvious to the viewer but there’s an unexpected and very nasty twist in store at the end.
This one was directed by Peter Sasdy who did several movies for Hammer. Sasdy was a fine director and does an excellent job here. Considering the subject matter there’s surprising little gore and there’s no nudity at all, in contrast to Witching Time. This is another quite successful attempt to achieve a genuinely creepy gothic atmosphere in a contemporary setting. There’s plenty of humour and it’s very black indeed. The Thirteenth Reunion is creepy but highly entertaining.
Rude Awakening is another Peter Sasdy-directed episode and once again it’s a black comedy. Norm Shenley (Denholm Elliott) is a middle-aged real estate agent who has a nightmare and then wakes up. Or does he wake up? Does he have a series of dreams? Do any of them correspond to reality? Are they just dreams or is he going insane? Dreams always have the potential to be spooky and this story milks the idea for all it’s worth.
The dreams keep taking him to an old mansion (which is either half-ruined or in perfect condition or not there at all depending on the dream) which of course adds a slightly gothic touch.
Denholm Elliott does a fine job as a man who hasn’t the faintest idea if he’s dreaming or awake. The whole cast is good but the standout performance comes from Lucy Gutteridge who plays Norman’s sexy secretary Lolly. She gets to play five different versions of Lolly each with a different sexy image. It’s a fine comic performance and she and Elliott play off each other delightfully.
Sasdy comes up with plenty of subtly unsettling images and a couple of genuine chills. He strikes the perfect balance between the black humour and the out-and-out horror. An excellent episode.
Growing Pains is an evil child story. After losing their own child Terence and his wife Laurie Morton adopt another, a boy named James. Terence is a scientist who thinks he’s going to save the world and Laurie has her charitable committees she’s convinced are going to save the world. They think of themselves as deeply caring people and they love the idea of humanity in the abstract but they’re clueless when dealing with actual people. They seem to like the idea of having a child as long as it doesn’t take up too much of their valuable time. Saving the world is pretty much a full-time job.
Young James is clearly odd in a rather disturbing way and he clearly does not like his new parents. Strange and very upsetting things start to happen and Laurie is convinced that James is responsible.
This episode has some funny moments but unfortunately I have an awful feeling they weren’t meant to be funny. The moments that are meant to be creepy and/or scary either fall flat or they’re laughably inept. Director Francis Megahy just doesn’t know how to do scares or suspense.
The acting is problematic. Matthew Blakstad’s performance as young James is odd but since the character is apparently supposed to be enigmatic it’s possibly appropriate although it’s also very uneven in tone. Terence and Laurie are supposed to be so self-absorbed that they hardly even noticed they had a son and Gary Bond and Barbara Kellerman manage that quite well but then when events come to a crisis and they should show some emotion they don’t pull it off, and Barbara Kellerman gives the impression that she had no idea what was expected of her. So Growing Pains really doesn’t work at all.
Charlie Boy is quite good. When his Uncle Jack dies Graeme gets his art collection as his share of the estate. It includes a Central African fetish statue which Graeme and his wife name Charlie Boy. In a moment of frustration Graeme sticks a knife in a photo. And the people in the photo start dying. After four deaths it seems pretty clear that Charlie Boy is to blame. There is a possible solution but it proves to be more difficult than one might expect.
It’s a good example of how to do effective horror without the need for expensive makeup or special effects. It’s also a story that doesn’t require excessive amounts of gore (although this one does definitely have some gore). It’s the idea that creates the terror.
Leigh Lawson is quite good as Graeme, a man who finds he has unwittingly unleashed an appalling horror. Marius Goring is fun as antiquities dealer Heinz who may be the only one able to stop the slaughter.
The Silent Scream is notable for starring Peter Cushing. Chuck Spillers (Brian Cox) has just been released from prison). Prison visitor Martin Blueck (Peter Cushing) had offered to help him after his release and the old man does offer him a job feeding his animals. Blueck runs a pet shop but he has quite a menagerie of wild animals as well. He claims to be devising a more humane method of confining animals without the use of cages or bars. In fact he is training them to accept confinement by means of fear. And he would like to extend his experiments to humans.
Chuck is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and the first thing he tries to do it to rob Blueck’s safe. Big mistake. Now Chuck is going to be trained. Chuck’s wife Annie (Elaine Donnelly) heads off to the pet shop to investigate when Chuck fails to return home but getting Chuck out of the mess he’s in may prove to be both tricky and dangerous.
Apart from being a very effective horror piece The Silent Scream offers some quite acute psychological insights into the nature of fear. The ending is predictable but in fact it’s not the ending at all. There’s another, much cleverer and nastier, twist still to come. The Silent Scream really is great stuff.
So after viewing six of the thirteen episodes I’m very very impressed with this series. One dud episode but the others range from good to superb. I’ll be posting on the remainder of the episodes once I get a chance to watch them so stay tuned.
Saturday, 25 May 2019
Quincy’s girlfriend Lee (Lynette Mettey) disappears fairly early on. I think that’s a pity. Her presence served to make Quincy a bit more sympathetic and human and added a much-needed lighter touch to a series that often takes itself much too seriously.
Much more signifiant is Dr Asten’s personality change. Dr Asten is Quincy’s immediate boss at the Coroner’s Office. In the first season he was a somewhat contemptible figure, a typical careerist who was more worried about not rocking the boat than actually finding the truth. He was a bit of a weasel and a bit of a moral coward. In this second season he becomes a much more complex and nuanced figure, a man genuinely struggling with the difficult task of watching the budget, dealing with political pressures and ensuring that the job of properly investigating suspicious deaths gets done properly. He has mysteriously grown a backbone and is on occasions prepared to back Quincy even when it might entail risk to his own position. I think this change is a welcome one. The new version of Dr Asten is quite an interesting character.
The other supporting characters remain substantially unchanged. Sam Fujiyama is still the loyal but long-suffering assistant to Quincy. Lieutenant Monahan is still bad-tempered, overworked and constantly exasperated by Quincy. Danny is still the faithful friend who just wishes Quincy wouldn’t park his car, with Coroner’s Office prominenty displayed on the door, outside his bar.
The biggest problems are Quincy himself, and Jack Klugman’s performances. When Quincy is doggedly following a chain of tenuous forensic clues his abrasiveness and obsessiveness can be quite enjoyable, but when he dons his social crusader’s cap he can become irritating and even obnoxious. And Jack Klugman’s acting is not exactly subtle. A little bit of Jack Klugman tends to go a long way.
Quincy is attending a convention of forensic pathologists in a resort hotel when the guests start to succumb to a mysterious illness in Snake Eyes. Quincy’s main concern is that whatever the illness is it could be infectious but the hotel management are more concerned about a panic among their guests. It’s a good episode with the focus firmly on forensics.
Even better is ...The Thigh Bone's Connected to the Knee Bone... in which Quincy has one bone with which to work. From that bone he intends to identify the victim, discover how he died and who killed him. This is Quincy M.E. at its best with Quincy doggedly following a tenuous trail of evidence.
The Two Sides of Truth sees Quincy pitted against his old mentor, a brilliant man but Quincy suspects that he’s sold out. Not a particularly good episode.
Hit and Run at Danny's concerns a hit-run case and a body pulled from a car that ended up in the sea. The identity of the victim is kind of complicated. And Danny could lose his liquor licence as an indirect result, which strains his friendship with Quincy. A fairly decent episode.
Has Anybody Here Seen Quincy? is a Quincy M.E. episode without Quincy and not surprisingly it doesn’t work at all.
A Good Smack in the Mouth is another misfire. Quincy suspects that a child has been abused. Quincy goes into full-on social crusader mode and it all gets very preachy and very contrived and very tedious. This series is always at its best when the focus remains on forensic pathology and unfortunately there’s virtually none of that in this episode.
The Hot Dog Murder makes four lousy episodes in a row. The ingenious murder method isn’t ingenious at all and it’s revealed right from the start. In fact everything is obvious right from the start. Quincy not only gets preachy but indulges in some ethically very dubious practices. A failed episode.
Usually it’s Quincy trying to convince Lieutenant Monahan that a case is worthy pursuing but in Sullied Be Thy Name the shoe is on the other foot. A priest is found in a hooker’s bed, dead of a heart attack. Since the priest is an old friend of his Monahan is keen to clear his name. Quincy is faced with a lack of evidence but presses on regardless. This episode has a genuinely clever plot and lots of good forensics stuff. A very fine episode.
Valleyview is a sanitarium and there seem to Quincy to be just too many unexplained deaths of patients there. When a nurse dies suddenly as well Quincy is convinced his suspicions were justified. A good mystery plot here with some effective misdirection. Very good stuff.
Unfortunately it all starts falling apart again with the final episode of the season, Let Me Light the Way. Quincy is determined to bring a serial rapist to justice. The story is not necessarily bad but the treatment is heavy-handed and manipulative and Quincy’s crusading zeal becomes embarrassing and very irritating. It’s all rather unconvincing and contrived.
I’m afraid that Quincy M.E. is a series about which I have increasingly mixed feelings. There are some very good episodes here but alas there are just as many clunkers.
And when this series is bad it’s very very bad. The tendency to preachiness is something that afflicts most American television of this era to some extent. In Quincy M.E. that tendency gets out of hand rather too often.
My biggest issue with this series is that Quincy as a character rubs me up the wrong way. I find it hard to be too sympathetic towards him since he alienates people in unnecessary ways, even people who are actually well disposed towards him.
Although it’s by no means all bad I would definitely recommend renting a few episodes first before risking a purchase.
Friday, 17 May 2019
Freefall to Terror features a spectacular impossible crime. Billy Calm (Dick Haymes) is an old friend of McMillan’s. He’s a very successful and very ruthless businessman and his methods have become steadily more ruthless. And he’s accumulated a lot of enemies. It comes as a surprise when Billy commits suicide by throwing himself out of his 17th floor office window. When Commissioner McMillan and Billy’s private secretary Maggie Miller (Barbara Feldon) burst into Billy’s office after hearing him threaten to kill himself they find the office empty. The window has been smashed. Obviously Billy has either hurled himself out of the window or he’s been pushed. The puzzler is that there is no body. No-one on the ground saw a body exit through the window. No body landed on the pavement. So is Billy dead or not?
When that question gets answered it just makes things even more puzzling and even more impossible.
The problem with locked-room and impossible crime mysteries is that the solutions do often turn out to be either excessively far-fetched and improbably contrived or wildly implausible. In this case, while the setup seems bizarre the solution is quite simple and elegant and it’s perfectly plausible.
Now there’s a murder to be investigated but not everyone wants that to happen. There are people who need to be told things and there are other people who don’t want them told. The trouble with spies is that you just can’t trust them, even when they’re on your side. In fact especially when they’re on your side. And even when a spy isn’t lying he’s likely to tell the truth in a misleading way, merely by habit.
There’s a very cool, and very complicated, dying clue in this tale.
A bonus is the carnival background to much of the action. There’s a nice scene involving peril on a ferris wheel and knife-throwing plays a important rôle as well. So there’s plenty of fun here.
This is a very complex plot with roots going back decades and with double-crosses that might go back just as far.
So two interesting Edward D. Hoch adaptations, and now for the final two episodes in this season.
Reunion in Terror is a reunion of a college football team in which Mac had played. It seems that the members of that team have suddenly started dying violently. In fact it appears that someone might be intending to kill the whole team.
But why? It’s unlikely that the murderer could be an outsider - it surely has to be a member of the team. Who else could have a motive? But what kind of motive would explain the slaughter of a whole football team?
It also seems possible that the members of the team are not being killed randomly but according to a pattern.
On the plus side Michael Ansara, one of my favourite character actors of this era, is also in the guest cast but unfortunately he’s not given enough to do.
The plot is OK with some reasonably decent misdirection.
Overall this is not one of my favourite episodes. It’s not terrible but it’s not overly interesting.
Cross & Double Cross makes use of one of the most tired and overused of all plot devices, the double. That’s bad enough, but McMillan and Wife has already used this idea in season two and with Rock Hudson playing identical dual rôles.
Commissioner McMillan has to assume the identity of his exact double, a charming hoodlum, in order to infiltrate a gold smuggling racket. Rhonda Fleming, a competent actress in her heyday, plays an ageing femme fatale who seems to be the key to the racket. McMillan gets to jump out of an aeroplane a couple of times but enough that doesn’t generate sufficient excitement to save this one.
There’s nothing wrong with Hudson’s performances in his dual rôles, it’s just that the basic idea has been done way too often and there’s nothing here to add any worthwhile original twists to the idea.
Season three really is all over the place. The first four episodes are all very good and very enjoyable but then it ends with two real turkeys. If you’re a fan of the series then the four good episodes are enough to justify picking up the season three set.
Thursday, 9 May 2019
This series gave Charles Bronson his first starring role. Bronson plays photographer Mike Kovac. Of course a series about a photographer going around taking photos wouldn’t be all that exciting. Obviously he has to get mixed up in crimes and other dangerous activities. But at the same time photography has to be a key element on those crime stories. Man with a Camera manages to do these things fairly well and it makes an interesting variation on the usual private eye series. Kovac spends so much time unravelling crimes that he might as well be a private eye.
Bronson already has his screen persona pretty well set. He’s a tough guy with a rather forbidding manner but there’s also a surprising degree of rough charm. Bronson could adapt this persona for playing heroes or villains. In this case he is obviously very much a hero.
The Episode Guide
Second Avenue Assassin reunites Mike Kovac with an old friend, but the reunion does not go smoothly. Joey Savoyan is a boxer and within the next few days he’s going to get his shot at the title but he’s earning himself an unsavoury reputation. In fact there’s something sinister going on at Joey’s training camp and only a photographer can hope to uncover the truth. Not a bad way to start the series. It establishes that Kovac is very tough, very stubborn, rather impulsive and completely honest.
In The Warning Mike is manipulated into photographing a murder. And then the police manipulate him into being bait for a trap, something that makes him very unhappy. A solid enough story.
Closeup on Violence is quite clever. Kovac is taking pictures at a fire only he’s more interested in the spectators than the fire. He takes a picture of a very striking girl (she’s very striking because she’s played by Angie Dickinson) and then his camera gets stolen. It’s something to do with that girl, and with a bunch of young hoods only there’s no obvious connection between these cheap punks and such a classy young woman. The makeshift composite photo idea is cute. A very good episode.
In Turntable Mike gets mixed up in a battle between a crooked gambling house operator and a crusading politician. It all hinges on some very innocuous photos Mike took, and the far from innocuous composite photos someone else made from them. Another solid episode.
In Double Negative a murdered woman is still alive and Mike has the photo to prove it and to save a man from being convicted for her murder. Photos can be faked but Mike took the picture himself so he knows it’s genuine. And yet something doesn’t add up. A pretty good story.
Another Barrier is presumably an attempt to do something slightly different. It’s a non-crime story in which photography plays only a very peripheral part. I prefer the crime/photography oriented episodes but this is an OK story about a test pilot.
Two Strings of Pearls sees Kovac taking photographs at a garden party. The hostess is a charming young lady with whom Kovac had had a romantic entanglement but she claims that she’s never seen him before in her life. There’s some kind of con going on but Kovac just can’t see how it can possibly be worked. It doesn’t make sense. A very clever little story and very well executed.
Six Faces of Satan is a silly hysterical story about mob violence. A terrible episode Excruciatingly bad and embarrassing.
In Lady on the Loose Mike has an almost-romance with an heiress who is running away from, well she’s running away from being an heiress mostly. The romance angle doesn’t really convince and the episode has not much else to offer.
The Last Portrait demonstrates that maybe the camera can’t lie but it can certainly kill. In this case a camera is used to assassinate an Arab leader and Mike is caught in the middle and the only person who can help out of the mess is a faded movie star. A good episode.
The Face of Murder is the face of a convicted killer about to be executed. Everyone says that Bray is one of those rare criminals who is absolute evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Mike Kovac isn’t so sure but he wants Bray’s picture anyway. Bray has been a loser his whole life but he’s prepared to try one more throw of the dice, which could get a bunch of other people killed, including Mike Kovac. A fairly good episode even if it tries to get a bit philosophical at the end.
In The Big Squeeze Mike gets on the wrong side of big-time gangsters by trying to help out the widow of Johnny Rico, a small-time hood who’s just had an unfortunate encounter with a guy with a machine-gun. Mike ends up with some photos that are dynamite but they’re more likely to get him killed than make him famous. The girl could get him out of this spot but she’s too busy with her own agenda of revenge. The pressure is on everybody - everybody is squeezing everybody else. A pretty decent episode to end the season.
This is a clever inventive series that deserved to be a bigger success. Bronson already shows glimpses of the qualities that would eventually make him a huge star.
The first half of the first season is particularly stronger with some very clever plots. Overall Man with a Camera is a fine series and is highly recommended.
Wednesday, 1 May 2019
The Simon Templar of Leslie Charteris’s stories is unique among fictional action-adventure heroes in the extent to which he evolves over time, and the extent to which his evolution is logical and plausible. Superficially the Saint of the later adventures is still a young man but if you look at his behaviour and his outlook on life he clearly matures.
William Vivian Butler in his marvellous book on gentleman rogue action-adventure heroes identifies no less than five distinct phases through which the Saint passes.
The most intriguing is what Butler calls the Mark V Saint who made his appearance in 1949 in Saint Errant. He is clearly a very different man from the Simon Templar of the early tales but he’s also clearly a logical evolution of the young Templar. He is now older, wiser and a tiny bit sadder, and somewhat lonely. The early Saint had a collection of pals who functioned as his assistants/accomplices/partners-in-crime/disciples/followers or whatever you might like to calk them. They don’t all appear in every story but you can be sure that at least one will up up in every story. And the young Simon Templar has Patricia Holm, the Great Love of his Life, his perfect woman. All these supporting characters disappeared during the course of the 40s and by the time Saint Errant appeared the Saint was entirely alone, and remained alone.
The character in the TV series is based entirely on the Mark V Saint. Now while I would dearly have loved to see a series based on the Mark II Saint of the early 30s it could only have been done as a period piece. There were very sound reasons for choosing the Mark V Saint. What’s really cool, if you’re a fan of the books, is that the TV series captures the tone of the later Saint stories remarkably well. The TV Simon Templar has friends, but no close friends. He has women, but he doesn’t have the one woman who mattered to him. There is the subtle touch of melancholy that you find in the 1950s Saint stories and there is the slight sense of less and loneliness. Roger Moore captures these qualities in the character surprisingly well.
Judith retains the Montreal setting of the original story, the first in the collection. Montreal’s richest citizen, Burt Northwade, is about to become even richer by selling an important new invention to a major car maker. There does however seem to be some dispute about whether the invention is actually Burt Northwade’s to sell. Morally it seems that the invention should belong to his brother Frank, who was actually responsible for the invention. Frank’s daughter Judith certainly thinks so and she’s planning a spot of larceny to put things right.
Judith is just the sort of woman Simon Templar likes. She’s young and beautiful and she’s criminally inclined (she is played by Julie Christie, just a couple of years away from major cinematic stardom). No self-respecting buccaneer could resist volunteering to carry out the burglary for her. Of course it’s going to turn out to be far less simple than Simon imagines. It’s a neat little story with a rather nice twist at the end.
While the story has had to be expanded a little the essentials are pretty much unchanged. And it’s one of the TV episodes that shows the Saint quite unequivocally carrying out a crime, even if it’s ultimately for a good cause. The tone of the episode matches that of Charteris’s story pretty well - lighthearted and witty. A very good episode.
Iris is an actress in a play that is about to open. The only reason the play is going to open at all is that Iris’s husband Rick has put up the money for it. Rick, being a successful gangster, has plenty of money. Rick does however have a problem. He is being blackmailed by Simon Templar. This is news to Simon Templar. Not only is he not the blackmailer, blackmail is something of which he very strongly disapproves. He is determined to find out who the real blackmailer is.
Iris was not one of the better stories in the Saint Errant collection and it isn’t one of the stronger episodes of the TV series. It’s OK, but not great.
The first obvious change from the Lida short story is that the scene of the action has been moved from the Quarterdeck Club in Miami to Captain Kidd’s Club in The Bahamas. The second change is that the Saint’s long-time lady love, Patricia Holm, has disappeared from the story. The adaptation also adds some action, obviously essential for TV.
Joan Wingate is worried that her sister Lida Verity is in trouble and asks Simon Templar to help her. Unfortunately it’s too late. Lida Verity is found dead, of a gunshot wound. The universal assumption that it must have been suicide does not satisfy the Saint. Lida had a very wealthy husband. Any gambling debts incurred at the club would have been of little consequence to her. He is convinced the answer can be found at Captain Kidd’s Club.
The sequence of events has been changed a little and some extra characters added. One of them is played by the always entertaining Aubrey Morris, this time playing a more sinister character than usual. The original story has had to be expanded quite a bit but this is done very successfully. The vital plot elements are still those of Charteris’s short story and they still work. A very fine episode.
Charteris’s story Jeannine takes place in New Orleans but Terry Nation’s teleplay moves the action to Paris. A glamorous but apparently murderous female head of state, Madam Chen, owns a very very valuable pearl necklace. The police assume that the Saint will try to steal it. The Saint is most interested to find out that Madam Chen’s PR lady is none other than Judith, a beautiful but extremely larcenous young lady he has encountered before, but now she calls herself Jeannine. He assumes that Jeannine is going to try to steal the pearls and he’s right but in fact it seems like every second person in Paris is trying to steal that necklace.
The twist ending which Leslie Charteris pulled off so adroitly in the short story is still there in the TV adaptation and it still works but it’s not done with Charteris’s skill. The subplot involving the opposition to Madam Chen is entirely Terry Nation’s invention but it does provide an echo of Simon Templar’s motivation in the original story. It’s still a very good thoroughly enjoyable episode.
Teresa is set in Mexico, as was the original short story. Like most of the stories in Saint Errant Teresa was a fairly brief and deceptively simple short story with a clever sting in the tail. A woman, Teresa, is searching for her husband who disappeared a couple of years earlier. For TV the story had to be expanded very considerably with scriptwriter John Kruse adding a backstory in which the husband has carried out a failed assassination attempt on the President of Mexico. He’s also added a fun circus background. The extra material is effective and entertaining.
Eventually right at the end we get to the core of Charteris’s story, with Teresa and Simon Templar finding the bandit El Rojo who holds the key to the mystery.
The episode works extremely well and it’s a fine example of the successful and almost seamless integration of library footage (the circus scenes) with new material. There are a couple of dodgy process shots but for me that adds to the fun.
Luella is a tale of blackmail. The action is moved from Los Angeles in the original story to London. Big-time American banker Bill Harvey and Simon are old friends. While Bill’s wife is in Paris he decides to sample the London night-life and gets himself set up by blackmailing gang. Luella (played by the luscious Sue Lloyd) is the bait in the trap. Worse is to come when Bill’s wife finds out about his little misadventure. Somehow Simon has to come up with a scheme to get Bill off the hook, and put the blackmailers out of business.
While a tongue-in-cheek flavour is fairly standard in this series this episode is rather startling and unusual in that it’s played as out-and-out farce (and with occasional forays into slapstick). It works more successfully than one might have expected although I’m glad it was an experiment that wasn’t tried too often.
As was the case with Lida Patricia Holm is eliminated from the story in the TV adaptation. Since she played an important part in the story the plot had to be altered so that Bill Harvey’s wife Doris becomes the Saint’s accomplice in his plan to checkmate the blackmailers.
David Hedison, who later the same year (1964) would achieve major TV stardom in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, guest stars as Bill Harvey and displays a totally unexpected enthusiasm for farce.
These are all fairly brief short stories which rely on having one really effective twist at the end. Leslie Charteris happened to be rather good at providing such twists. All six stories had to be expanded for television, in some cases dramatically expanded, and in general the additional material is entertaining even if it sometimes slows the pacing a little.
The more I see of this series the more I grow to like it, and the more I find myself appreciating Roger Moore’s performance. These six episodes range from fairly good to extremely good.