Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents The Desperate People (1963)

The Desperate People is the earliest of the many serials written by Francis Durbridge for the BBC to have survived (although a couple of episodes of one earlier serial, The World of Tim Fraser, also survive. It was made in 1963 and was one of the serials screened under the umbrella title Francis Durbridge Presents.

The Desperate People has a typical Durbridge beginning. A perfectly ordinary chap suddenly encounters an unexpected event that propels him into a world of mystery and murder. In this case the ordinary chap is photographer Larry Martin (Denis Quilley). His brother Phil, serving in the British Army in Germany, arrives to spend his leave in London. Firstly though Phil  has to dash off briefly to Dublin in connection with a car accident that claimed the life of a fellow soldier.

Phil never does go to Ireland. Instead he goes off to a hotel somewhere in England and then sudden death intervenes. It is a clear case of suicide, but Larry refuses to accept the verdict of the coroner’s court. This again is a typical Durbridge device - a man is sure that murder has taken place but he can’t prove it and the police don’t believe him and he ends up doing some investigating on his own.

Larry soon discovers some very curious things. Everything that seemed clear-cut about the case now turns out to have been a series of deceptions. There are photographs that suddenly turn up and just as suddenly vanish, there’s the mystery of a book of poetry read incessantly by a man who has never in his whole life been known to read poetry, there’s a mysterious key that everyone wants, there are accidents that are almost certainly no accidents, and there are more murders. 

Detective Inspector Hyde is investigating the case and he also has his suspicions that there’s more here than meets the eye. Larry co-operates with him, up to a point, although it’s obvious he’d like to solve the case and it’s also obvious that Inspector Hyde has mixed feelings about amateurs trying to play detective. Larry also gets assistance from his faithful secretary Ruth (Renny Lister). 

As the story progresses Larry finds that there are even more things that he didn’t know about his brother.

Durbridge was never much interested in ingenious murder methods. What matters is not the how, but the who and the why. And it is the why that is most important. In The Desperate People there aren’t many suspects to choose from but we can’t guess the murderer’s identity until we figure out exactly what kind of crime (and what kind of criminal) is actually behind it all. The murder (or murders) is incidental to the real crime. 

Denis Quilley is a pretty good hero, full of steely determination if not always showing the soundest judgment. Hugh Cross makes a fine police inspector, businesslike and a man who gives very little away.

Plus you get Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister) as a heavy!

Francis Durbridge was a great television mystery writer whose scripts were enjoyably tangled and yet perfectly plausible.

It’s typical early 60s British television, mostly shot on videotape with a bit of location shooting. Production values are reasonable by BBC standards (in other words they're really rather basic). 

Considering that it dates from 1963 this serial is still in reasonably good condition. Picture quality is variable but generally quite acceptable (no 1963 British television show shot on videotape is going to look spectacular). 

The slightly later A Game of Murder (from 1966) and the much later (1975) The Doll are other Francis Durbridge Presents serials that are well worth catching. 

The Desperate People is one of four Durbridge serials included in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. A set well worth getting.

The Desperate People is fine entertainment. HIghly recommended.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Smiley’s People (BBC TV, 1982)

The BBC had a success  with their 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They followed this up with a sequel, Smiley’s People, three years later, with Alec Guinness reprising his role as British master-spy George Smiley.

It should be explained that the novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People form part of le Carré’s celebrated Karla trilogy. The BBC chose not to adapt the second installment, The Honourable Schoolboy. This was understandable. The nature of this novel would have required a very expensive project and was probably beyond the scope of a television production. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Honourable Schoolboy before reading Smiley’s People. On the other hand it is absolutely essential to have read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before Smiley’s People and it’s equally essential to have watched the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before watching Smiley’s People. If you don’t you won’t have any understanding of Smiley’s motivations, or the motivations of any of the other characters for that matter. 

I’ll keep this review a bit vague in plot terms so as to avoid revealing any spoilers either for this series or for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley’s People deals with George Smiley after his final retirement from the Circus (a thinly disguised version of MI6). Smiley might be on the scrap heap but the Circus itself is in even worse shape. Since his retirement ill-advised political interference has pretty much destroyed the Circus’s capabilities as an espionage agency. Morale is at rock bottom. And now the Circus is faced with a problem that could become a scandal sufficient to destroy it. 

An ex-agent is murdered. He had been one of Smiley’s agents and now the Circus needs Smiley to sort out the mess and if possible to cover up the whole incident. Unfortunately they’ve picked the wrong man to organise a cover-up. Smiley intends to find out why his ex-agent was murdered and he intends to follow the trail as far as it goes. It goes a long way and Smiley has a suspicion that ultimately it will lead him to Karla. Karla is his Soviet counterpart, the most feared and most ruthless of all Soviet spy-masters, and the duel between Smiley and Karla goes back more than a quarter of a century.

This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book. This is probably not altogether surprising since le Carré co-wrote the script.

This is a six-part mini-series. It’s not a very long novel but the plotting is intricate enough that the mini-series has no problems holding the viewer’s interest.

George Smiley really should be a fat man but apart from that one tiny quibble it has to be said that Alec Guinness is magnificent in the role. He was nearly 70 at the time but that’s roughly the age that Smiley would have been. Guinness of course was no action hero but Smiley is not supposed to be an action hero. He’s a spy-master not a spy - he’s the man who pulls the strings while his puppets handle any rough stuff that has to be done. In this story Smiley finds himself having to go back into the field, something for which he is too old, but that’s the whole point - only the chance to strike at Karla could have persuaded him to do so and only the depth of his obsession could have driven him on. So Guinness’s age is really no problem at all.

The superb supporting cast includes some real favourites of mine. There’s Michael Gough as the crafty and possibly duplicitous Mikhel, there’s Vladek Sheybal as the sleazy but oddly charismatic Otto Leipzig and as a bonus for cult movie fans there’s Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt in a small part as well. Dudley Sutton is an amazingly creepy Karla  henchman. There are also a number of familiar faces from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - notably Patrick Stewart, Anthony Bate and Bernard Hepton (the latter giving an extremely memorable performance).

The one blemish, and it’s a matter of personal taste, is that I thought the scenes in The Blue Diamond were unnecessarily distasteful. Yes I know the night club is actually a brothel but that could be made perfectly clear without rubbing the viewer’s nose in depravity. This was at the time becoming an all too common feature of British television, a wallowing in sleaze in the mistaken belief that this made television more grown-up when in fact it made merely more adolescent. It’s only one scene though so it’s a minor blemish.

Smiley’s People was a co-production with Paramount so the BBC had a fair amount of money to play with. There’s a lot of location shooting and the production captures the jaded, sordid and cynical atmosphere of the novel extremely well.

Smiley’s People is, like its source novel, a rather cerebral spy thriller. There’s virtually no action with the focus instead being on the suspense and on the painstaking methods used by Smiley in both his investigation and his subsequent operation. A treat for fans of gritty realistic spy tales. Highly recommended.

This mini-series seems to be available on DVD just about everywhere and I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release. The only extra on the DVD features John le Carré and others reminiscing about Alec Guinness.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Flashing Blade (Le chevalier Tempête, 1967)

Le chevalier Tempête was a 1967 French historical adventure TV serial. It was dubbed into English by the BBC and screened, with some success, as The Flashing Blade.

It is set in 1630, during the Thirty Years War. The French garrison of Casal has been besieged by a large Spanish army. The garrison is hopelessly outnumbered, food and ammunition are running very short, the surviving soldiers are exhausted and on the verge of demoralisation. Only the steely determination, and the harsh discipline, of the French commanding officer, Thoiras, has allowed the French to hold out this long but the end is certainly approaching.

There is a buzz of excitement when a French officer penetrates the Spanish lines (leaving mayhem behind him) and makes it into the fortress of Casal. Perhaps he is a messenger bringing news that a relieving force is on its way. Alas it turns out that it is merely the young, hot-headed and totally undisciplined Chevalier Recci (Robert Etcheverry) who has decided it would be a fine adventure to join in the heroic defence of Casal. He was is a little taken aback when Thoiras does not seem to be terribly delighted by his grand gesture.

Within hours of his arrival the impetuous young chevalier has taken it into his head to start waging his own one-man war against the Spanish. He leads a daring sortie and returns to Casal with a wagon loaded with food and ammunition. Unfortunately he neglected to ask Thoiras for permission to conduct his raid and instead of being congratulated he faces a court-martial and is condemned to death. There is however one way in which he can escape execution - by undertaking an almost impossible and breathtakingly dangerous secret mission. He must escape from the fortress, slip through the Spanish lines, traverse two hundred miles of Spanish-occupied territory, make contact with a series of French agents and finally reach the commander of the main French army and persuade him to send a force to the relief of Casal. In the unlikely event that Recci succeeds in this bold venture Casal might be saved. 

This serial is therefore not just an historical adventure but a kind of spy thriller as well, with Recci having to hide his identity while carrying out his secret mission deep behind enemy lines, accompanied by his faithful valet.

That mission turns out to be even more difficult than he’d anticipated. There’s a Spanish officer who has discovered Recci’s secret and he’s on his trail, and he has the remorselessness of a hunting dog.

There is of course time for some romance. At one point Recci manages to get himself captured by bandits. The bandits have also captured the Duke of Sospel and the duke’s proud, imperious but extremely courageous daughter Isabelle (Geneviève Casile). The dashing young chevalier and the young noblewoman do not hit it off at first but they slowly come to develop a certain mutual respect, and a certain mutual affection that we have reason to suspect will blossom into romance.

Of course it’s always difficult to judge the acting in a dubbed movie or TV series but the performances are certainly energetic. Robert Etcheverry certainly looks the part as the hero. 

One of the more pleasing surprises to this series is that the BBC really did a fine job with the English dubbing. The voice actors (who sadly don’t get any onscreen credits) are well cast and they approach their task with real zest. 

The Chevalier Recci is a fine storybook hero, headstrong to the point of foolhardiness but outrageously brave and with an old-fashioned sense of honour. He is impetuous without coming across merely as a young idiot. Isabelle de Sospel is, for a 1967 TV series, a delightfully old-fashioned heroine. She is accustomed to being obeyed without question and to being treated with a very high degree of obsequiousness. Her courage and her usefulness in a crisis come from her arrogance. She simply refuses to admit the possibility that anyone would dare to place an obstacle in her way. She’s a far cry from the average action adventure series heroine of that era, but she demands our respect. 

The most entertaining character is Mazarin, at this time an Italian diplomat in the service of the Pope although he would of course go on to gain a cardinal’s hat and be chief minister of France for many years. In this series Mazarin’s ambition, cunning and complete lack of scruples provide a good many moments of light comedy we also sense that despite his foppish and slightly foolish exterior he is a man whom it would be very foolish to underrate.

There's a fine villain in the person of the scheming and perfidious Don Alonzo (Mario Pilar) and he has an even more ruthless henchman, the evil Don Ricardo (Franck Estange). The Spanish are of course very much the villains. Don Alonzo might be unscrupulous but it has to be admitted that he is also a very brave man.

While this was intended as a kids’ adventure series it has a slightly more adult feel when compared to British TV adventure series like The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It’s very much in the style of the classic French adventure novels of Dumas such as The Three Musketeers.

One odd aspect of the British version is that every time they tried to transmit the final episode they encountered such severe technical problems that the broadcasts had to be abandoned. As a result the final episode on the DVD release is the original French version with English sub-titles. This is interesting because it does give us a better chance to judge the quality of the acting. The final episode is a kind of epilogue - the main story actually concludes at the end of episode eleven.

By the standards of children’s television this is a fairly lavish production with some fine location shooting and some excellent action sequences. The siege scenes are impressive and there’s a pretty impressive full-scale battle scene.

Mention must be made of the rollicking theme song for the English-dubbed version.

Network’s DVD release offers reasonably good transfers without any extras.

If you’re a fan of adventure tales in the spirit of The Three Musketeers then this series will be right up your alley. It really is great action-filled fun with a strong romantic sub-plot and a nice leavening of humour. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Avengers Cybernauts trilogy

The Cybernauts, written by Philip Levene, was a very popular and highly acclaimed episode from the 1965 black-and-white season of The Avengers. The idea obviously had further potential and Levene wrote a sequel for the 1967 colour season, The Return of the Cybernauts. Nine years later Brian Clemens penned a further sequel, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? for The New Avengers. I thought it might be quite fun to take a fresh look at all three of the Cybernaut adventures.

The Cybernauts has a rather complex plot involving attempts to secure some kind of electronics contract but the real story is centred on a scientific genius, Dr Armstrong (Michael Gough), who has a grudge against the government and now plans to make all government obsolete, by means of an incredibly compact super computer and a race cybernetic servants. In the hands of a full-blown mad scientist these cybernetic servants could be used as high tech unstoppable assassins and Dr Armstrong is very definitely well on the way to full-blown mad scientist status.

Michael Gough is always a delight to watch and he’s in fine form. Rather than just chewing the scenery Gough makes him very sincere and very idealistic and really very sympathetic, his evil being the sort of misguided and deluded evil that idealism so often leads to. The guest cast also includes an entertaining turn by Bert Kwouk as a Japanese electronics mogul.

The cybernauts look creepy and menacing even though the costumes are obviously very simple and very cheap. In fact the whole episode is a fine demonstration of the principle that a modest amount of money well spent will always produce better results than a lot of money ill spent.

A major plus is the cybernaut vs cybernaut fight.

This episode seems to be very highly regarded indeed by most aficionados of the series but while I did enjoy it I don’t see it as one of the great episodes. It’s all very well executed but it’s let down by the meandering and rather incoherent script.

The Return of the Cybernauts on the other hand has a rather poor reputation among hardcore fans. I seem to be very much in a minority here but I actually thought it was somewhat better than The Cybernauts.

The plot is a standard revenge story but this time Philip Levene comes up with a taut and very witty script. The urbane Paul Beresford (Peter Cushing) has become very friendly with both Steed and Mrs Peel but what they don’t know is that he is the brother of the inventor of the cybernauts, Dr Armstrong, and he wants revenge. He doesn’t just want to kill Steed and Mrs Peel, he wants them to suffer as much as possible. He could probably come up with a method of doing this himself but he is determined to make his revenge suitably high tech so he kidnaps scientists and forces them to devise the most fiendish torture possible.

A major bonus is that the minor characters all serve a purpose and all have actual personalities. Each one of the four kidnapped scientists has a different response to the difficult situation in which they find themselves, reflecting their own character flaws and their own strengths. Levene really put some effort into this teleplay.

Another clever and amusing touch is that Steed is clearly jealous of Paul’s attentions to Mrs Peel, and she is aware of his jealousy. It makes for some sparkling dialogue moments, and it makes Paul a more interesting villain.

Peter Cushing was a fine actor but he was always especially good playing a mad scientist. In this case Levene’s script gives the character enough depth and Cushing really sinks his teeth into the part.

He is almost overshadowed by Fulton McKay’s deliciously twisted performance as one of the kidnapped scientists who turns out to be just as evil in his own way as the chief villain.

Mention must also be made of Aimi MacDonald as the gloriously ditzy secretary Rosie. This is an episode in which every single character pulls his or her weight.

If there’s a fault to this episode it is perhaps that the cybernauts themselves are not quite as central to the story as one might have wished but this is a minor quibble. I really loved The Return of the Cybernauts

Now we turn to The New Avengers, and to the final installment of the cybernaut saga, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? This time Brian Clemens is the scriptwriter. The New Avengers did have a different feel compared to its predecessor, but then The Avengers had reinvented itself just as radically on several previous occasions. It’s the nature of the transformation that puts some people off. By the mid-70s British television had changed, and not for the better. In order to be commercially viable The New Avengers had to do conform to the new era which meant a lot more action and a lot more violence. The challenge was to incorporate these unfortunate requirements whilst still retaining at least some of the flavour of the original. In my view the first season of The New Avengers manages to do this with reasonable success.

Initially it seems that The Last of the Cybernauts...?? has little connection to its predecessors. A double agent has been uncovered and when Steed, Gambit and Purdey move in to make the arrest the traitor, Kane, dies in a fiery car smash.

Except that Kane didn’t quite die. He lives, but he is less than half a man, confined to a wheelchair and hiding horrible facial injuries behind a mask. All this has nothing to do with cybernauts, except that by various devious means Kane has been able to find the secret storehouse where Dr Armstrong had concealed a small army of cybernauts. Kane has also  found a man, one of Dr Armstrong’s assistants, who knows how to operate the cybernauts. Kane intends to use the cybernauts to take his revenge on Steed, Gambit and Purdey.

While the connections between the various plot elements seems tenuous at first the plot gyrations are necessary. Gambit and Purdey played no part in the previous cybernaut adventures but somehow the villain has to be given a reason for having a grudge against them as well as against Steed and somehow this has to be connected with the cybernauts. Clemens ends up tying these disparate elements together quite successfully.

The Last of the Cybernauts...?? still has some authentic and characteristic Avengers flavour. Kane is a typical Avengers villain, megalomaniacal and insane and inclined to come up with ludicrously but entertainingly complicated means of trying to achieve his objectives. Robert Lang as Kane is masked for the entire episode but he has no trouble persuading us of Kane’s malevolence and very palpable menace. Having multiple masks is a fine idea and makes the performance even more disturbing.

Kane is supplied with a very amusing henchman in the person of the polite but ruthless Malov (Oscar Quitak). 

The action sequences are mostly extremely good. The fight against the cybernaut on the staircase is superb. There’s plenty of humour and it works (the scene in the lab with the lady in the cupboard is particularly amusing) and the banter between Gambit and Purdey is cleverer than usual.

The main set representing Kane’s lair is excellent, conveying very effectively a sense of his obsessive madness.

The ending doesn’t quite come off. It’s too whimsical for a final confrontation with a villain as menacing as Kane.

There’s a great deal to enjoy here. A great villain, plenty of well-executed action, witty dialogue.

I hadn’t seen any of the three episodes for some years and I’m pleased to say that they all turned out to be very much worth seeing again.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Roger Moore tribute double header

In view of the sad passing of Sir Roger Moore I thought it would be fitting to spend the evening watching him at his best. And while I enjoy his Bond movies for me Roger Moore at his best means The Saint and The Persuaders!

The Lawless Lady is episode 20 of the second season of The Saint. It is based on Leslie Charteris’s 1930 novella which is included in the volume Enter the Saint (which I reviewed here a couple of years ago). It went to air in January 1964.

Simon has a chance encounter with London’s most glamorous hostess, the young and beautiful Countess Audrey Morova. Only it wasn’t a chance encounter. Simon deliberately engineered it. It seems he knows a secret about the countess. She is a crook. Now he wants to join her gang of jewel thieves.

Of course we know that the Saint can’t really want to join the ungodly but there he is, robbing someone’s safe.

Dawn Addams is excellent as the countess, a woman motivated as much be a desire for excitement as by greed. Julian Glover is splendidly sinister as her lovelorn but vicious henchman.

Roger Moore as usual doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The interplay between Simon and his would-be nemesis and occasional ally Inspector Claud Eustace Teal (played with style by Ivor Dean) is always a delight. This time Teal really thinks he’s got Simon, but then Claud Eustace always thinks that and he always turns out to be wrong.

This is interesting as one of the episodes which refers at least obliquely to Templar’s criminal past. Nothing is stated outright but it is obvious that the Saint has had considerable experience as a jewel thief. ITC were unwilling to take the risk in the early 60s of having a television series hero who is a criminal but of course the whole point of the character is that he is an ex-crook, albeit one who always had certain moral standards. It was a tricky balancing act but the series pulled it off as successfully as one could expect.

I’ve always been a fan of crime stories set on board ships. Most of this episode takes place on the countess’s yacht. Naturally the entire episode was shot in the studio but the shipboard setting is reasonably convincing.

There’s everything you could want in an episode of The Saint - the background of money and glamour, a beautiful but bad woman who is perhaps not entirely bad and a fairly suspenseful story which puts the Saint in extreme peril.

Moving on now to The Persuaders! and to the episode The Man in the Middle, written by the usually reliable Donald James. It originally went to air in 1971. Brett has been inveigled into helping to catch a British traitor but his problem is that now the British intelligence people thinks he’s the traitor and they want to kill him. And the opposition also think he’s the traitor and for their own reasons they want to kill him as well. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse Brett runs into his cousin Archibald Sinclair Beachum (Terry-Thomas).

The story itself is nothing special but it’s approached with so much zest and flair that its shortcomings can be readily forgiven. Roger Moore and Tony Curtis have a magical acting chemistry while Terry-Thomas (as a very reluctant hero indeed) is in sparkling form. Of course the presence of Tery-Thomas in the cast is a clear indication that we are not to take  this story the slightest bit seriously. Of course we’re actually not expected to take any episode of The Persuaders! seriously - it was all style and wit and unapologetically light-hearted.

It’s all great fun. And that’s possibly the best way to sum up Sir Roger Moore’s career - it was unfailingly great fun for the viewer.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Columbo season 3 (1973)

I’m now working my way through the third season of Columbo. I probably saw them all many years ago but the great thing is it was so long ago I’ve totally forgotten them so now they all seem new to me!

Lovely But Lethal kicks off the season and it’s worth it for Vincent Price’s performance. It’s an engagingly outrageous story centring on a miracle cosmetic formula.

Next up is Any Old Port in a Storm. This is a great episode with Donald Pleasence as a boutique winery owner. I love the clue relating to the sports car. The fencing between Donald Pleasence and Peter Falk is superb. Falk’s great strength as an actor was his ability to play off other actors and the better the guest star the better Falk’s performances were. It has a terrific (and oddly poignant) ending as Columbo shows off his newly acquired knowledge of fine wines. 

Candidate for Crime is also excellent. It’s politics mixes with murder. Great stuff with a clever (if unavailing) attempt at an absolutely unbreakable alibi.

Double Exposure guest stars Robert Culp as an advertising and motivational guru who sets up not one but two unbreakable alibis. The golf course scene as Columbo wears the murderer down by ruining his golf game while simultaneously beginning to tighten the noose is classic Columbo. Usually in a Columbo story the murderer remains fairly cool but in this one it’s fun to watch Robert Culp getting closer and closer to exploding in rage and frustration.

The stuff about subliminal advertising (which had been the subject of some controversy back in the 60s) adds to the fun.

In Publish or Perish a publisher murders a writer about to desert him for another publisher. The writer is played by Mickey Spillane, the real-life author of the MIke Hammer novels. This is another episode where the murderer really start to lose his cool under Columbo’s constant pressure. It’s typical Columbo. It’s a case that seems straightforward except for a couple of very minor details that don’t quite fit.

In Mind Over Mayhem Columbo investigates a murder at a high-tech research institute. The work of the institute includes computer modeling of nuclear war and it also includes robots. The robot in this case looks like a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie (mostly because it is a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie) but since Columbo is a series that   never bothers much with tawdry realism it doesn’t matter and it adds some fun. 

Swan Song features country music legend Johnny Cash as the murderer. It does help if you’re a fan of the Man in Black since you get to hear him singing rather a lot. It also boasts the great Ida Lupino as his wife. She has a hold over her husband and is able to divert most of the money the successful singer makes into building a $5 million tabernacle. He’s less than happy about this, and he’s also less than happy that she also stops him chasing his young female backup singers. As an actor Johnny Cash is a great singer but he does have the right presence for the role.

Columbo has to enlist the help of an air crash investigator to unravel this puzzle. The murder method is far-fetched but it’s fun.

A Friend in Deed has a wonderfully elaborate plot which owes a very great deal indeed to a certain very well-known Hitchcock movie. A series of burglaries is being carried out by a professional and very skillful burglar who has now turned to murder. Of course we know that the burglar didn’t actually commit the murder. The murderer turns to an old friend for help but he finds himself mixed up in a whole lot more trouble that he hadn’t anticipated. To solve the case Columbo will have to match wits with the Police Commissioner himself. It all hinges, as usual, on a couple of puzzling clues. In this case it’s not fingerprints that bother Columbo, it’s the lack of fingerprints. It’s a delightfully far-fetched but very cleverly worked out plot.

Columbo was unusual for a 70s cop show in being so strongly plot-focused, and even more unusual in that so many of the plots work so well. At a time when crime fiction and crime movies were starting to focus to an excessive degree (in my opinion) on psychology, action and sordid realism it was like a throwback to the golden age of crime fiction when a detective story was intended to be entertainment. Entertainment of a somewhat intellectual  kind with its emphasis on puzzle-solving but still entertainment.

Columbo is squarely in the tradition of the detective fiction of the interwar years, the so-called golden age, in that it quite deliberately does not attempt to mirror reality. This is a kind of parallel universe in which rich successful famous people murder each other constantly. A real-life homicide cop would mostly deal with open-and-shut cases in which depressingly ordinary people murder each other for depressingly ordinary reasons, or obscure losers kill other obscure losers for five dollars in loose change. However every case that Lieutenant Columbo investigates deals with very smart people committing complex and ingenious murders for often incredibly esoteric motives. 

This is of course precisely the appeal of golden age detective fiction and it’s precisely the appeal of Columbo. Who wants to watch a TV show about boringly everyday crimes? Viewers want killers who are glamorous and also clever enough to provide Columbo with a real challenge in every episode. A battle of wits is no fun unless the combatants are evenly matched. Of course we know that Columbo will win the battle of wits but that’s no reflection on the intelligence of the murderers. The odds are stacked against murderers - they only have to make one tiny mistake and they’re undone - but the audience wants to feel that Columbo really has to use every ounce of his experience and his skill if he’s going to solve the case.

There’s nothing wrong with cop shows that aim at realism, but there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mystery series like Columbo that ignore reality and concentrate on enjoyable intellectual puzzles that take place in a fantasy world of glamour and glitz. Personally my preference is for the approach taken by Columbo.

The series relied heavily on the quality of the guest stars and on the whole the producers were remarkably successful in finding just the right guest stars.

The third season maintains the very high standard set by the earlier seasons. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

Season 4 saw Mission: Impossible undergo some major shakeups both behind and in front of the camera. The most obvious change is the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. In fact the loss of Landau is no problem at all. Leonard Nimoy takes over, playing exactly the same sort of role (professional magician, master of disguise, etc). And Nimoy is actually more fun than Landau.

The departure of Barbara Bain is however a very big problem. Without Cinnamon Carter to add her glamour the IMF team seems unbalanced. For some odd reason the producers decided not to replace Bain, instead using a series of female guest stars. This was a serious error of judgment. Given that Cinnamon was mostly used as the bait for honey traps (which is exactly the way a female agent would have been used in real life) she was more often than not in even more danger than the other members of the team. In these circumstances it is essential that  the female member of the team should be a regular cast member - we have to get to know her so that we worry when she’s in danger. And the female guest stars just aren’t very impressive (with the glorious exception for the wonderful Anne Francis). Lee Meriwether was brought into the series on a semi-regular basis for a while but she just isn’t a satisfactory substitute for Barbara Bain - she doesn’t have the class or the style and her performances are just a little flat.

In season four I’m again struck by the ruthlessness of the IMF. They don’t actually carry out assassinations but in episode after episode they set people up to be killed by others. They’re basically indirect assassinations. Rather startling for a spy series set during peace time! It’s also amusing if a bit frightening to contrast the psychological traumas suffered by British assassin David Callan in the directly contemporary Callan series to the casual cold-bloodedness of Jim Phelps and his team. Mind you Callan’s boss Hunter is every bit as cold-blooded as Jim Phelps - maybe assassinations really aren’t a big deal if you don’t actually pull the trigger yourself. I must confess that I really don’t know if the producers of Mission: Impossible were actually aware of the fact that this aspect of the series might one day raise eyebrows.

Of course in most spy series enemy spies get killed but usually the victims are actual professional spies and they get killed in gun fights rather than being set up for murder in a premeditated way.

Mission: Impossible is very much a spy series in which there are no moral dilemmas. There are good guys (who are always US allies) and bad guys (who are always anti-US) and it’s all very clear-cut. When the series started in 1966 this was pretty much the norm in American television spy dramas, while British series like Danger Man were already starting to introduce at least some shades of grey. By 1969 when the fourth season of Mission: Impossible was made the British TV spy drama was starting to become much more morally complex (not just Callan but also series like the very underrated Man in a Suitcase). I guess it’s not really a fair comparison since Mission: Impossible never had any pretensions towards realism. That’s why the IMF’s fondness for arranging to have bad guys rubbed out is slightly disturbing.

The opening episode of season four, The Code, is typical Mission: Impossible territory - the IMF must foil an attempted invasion in Latin America and in order to do so they must break an unbreakable code. The coding method is clever and intricate. The IMF team must also totally disrupt the invasion plans which they do in their customary way, spreading disinformation and suspicion. Leonard Nimoy makes a rather spectacular debut, sporting an impressive Fidel Castro-type beard and playing a Che Guevera-type professional revolutionary. Nimoy really has some fun with this part.

Director Stuart Hagmann is almost in danger of going overboard with the crazy tilted camera angles but since this is a spy series (and it’s an episode dealing with revolutionaries) the resulting feeling of disorientation is appropriate and it works. 

The Controllers is a two-part story in which the IMF has to discredit a scientist who has almost perfected a mind-control gas. 

 In The Numbers Game Mr Phelps and his team come up with an extraordinarily elaborate scheme to con a former dictator out of his wealth which is hidden away in a Zurich bank. The dictator had had plans to return to power in his country, plans which the American government is determined to thwart. While the con is so grandiose in conception that it well and truly stretches credibility that’s really a plus rather than a minus - this is Mission: Impossible after all and plausibility is not a major concern.

Fool's Gold deals with a plot to destabilise a friendly nation through the use of counterfeit money. The plot is a bit too reminiscent of other Mission: Impossible episodes. Perhaps the formula was starting to become just a little stale.

Commandante is better, with a few nice twists. There’s a revolutionary movement in a Latin American nation, only there are no less than three revolutionary factions. The US government is backing one faction. The IMF has to secure the release of an imprisoned priest (a member of one of the revolutionary factions) while discrediting and neutralising the other factions and at the same time leaving the way clear for the US-backed faction. The trick with the helicopter is rather cute.

The Double Circle requires the IMF to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula with a typically Mission: Impossible plot involving an elaborate deception to enable the theft of the formula. In this episode they finally solve the problem of filling Cinnamon Carter’s shoes. Anne Francis is absolutely delightful. She is so obviously the perfect replacement for Barbara Bain. The great mystery is why on earth she wasn’t made a permanent cast member. The deception plan in this episode really is intricate and ingenious. This is classic Mission: Impossible.

Neo-Nazis were a favourite theme in 60s action adventure television. Submarine, written by Englishman Donald James, is one of the most deliriously silly but inspired examples of the genre. A former SS officer is about to be released from prison is an Eastern Bloc country. He knows the location of one of those hoards of Nazi gold that were so popular with thriller writers of the time. American intelligence wants that gold so the IMF cooks up an insane plan to kidnap the SS officer and convince him he is aboard a WW2-vintage German submarine on its way to the secret Neo-Nazi headquarters where the gold will be used to re-establish the Third Reich. It’s an absurd idea but it’s executed with panache and imagination, and with a truly wonderful fake submarine set. Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy get to practise their best phony German accents. It’s all fabulous fun.

Robot is one of the many episodes in which a dastardly plot is turned against the plotters, in this case the conspiracy being part of a power struggle in an eastern European country. Paris again gets to do his master of disguise thing but this time not just impersonating a secret policeman but also impersonating a robot! Good silly far-fetched fun with a fine supporting turn from Malachi Throne (well-known to cult television fans from his role as the spymaster in In Takes a Thief).

Mastermind is one of the organised crime stories that became increasingly common as the show’s run continued. The basic plot could have been just a tired old retread but they added a couple of delightfully bizarre elements - ESP and telepathy! So it ends up being very enjoyable.

In The Brothers Jim Phelps and his team have to risk the king of a Middle Eastern country but the difficulty is that they have no idea where he is being held. Their plan is to trick those who are holding the king to produce him. Standard Mission: impossible fare but well executed. This time the female IMF member guest star is Michelle Carey, sadly a very very poor substitute for Barbara Bain.

Time Bomb is one of the few episodes that does have some moral complexity, with an oddly sympathetic and sensitive villain (albeit one who intends to blow a entire city sky-high). It’s also a story in which Phelps’ ruthlessness takes on a slightly cruel tinge.

The Falcon is a three-part story and it has a definite Ruritanian flavour to it. This is the world of The Prisoner of Zenda, and it’s carried off with considerable style. There’s an imprisoned prince, a plot to force a beautiful princess to marry against her will, an eccentric and slightly simple-minded reigning prince and an elaborate conspiracy to seize the throne.

An amusing performance by Noel Harrison as the hapless and child-like Prince Nikolai certainly helps. There’s a nice combination of old-fashioned gadgets (like Prince Nikolai’s beloved clocks and clockwork toys) and the high-tech gadgetry of the world of Mission: Impossible. Leonard Nimoy as Paris gets to do his magician thing. The method by which the scheming General Sabatini is fooled into thinking he still has the imprisoned prince under lock and key is very clever. Even stretched out as it is over three episodes it’s highly entertaining.

Gitano is another Ruritanian kind of episode, with a young king being kidnapped. This is the central Europe of the pre-First World War era, with grand dukes and bandits and gypsies. The plot line is not overly inspired, although I do have a soft spot for these Ruritanian-flavoured stories.

Phantoms sees the IMF attempting to overthrow a Balkan dictator. The outrageous plot has them trying to send him mad by making him see ghosts! Their mission also includes saving the life of an imprisoned dissident poet. I actually found myself sympathising with the dictator - he was a nice old guy! And the dissident poet was an irritating young punk. When I find myself hoping the IMF will fail I guess you could say that for me that episode is a bit of a failure!

Chico has the IMF trying to retrieve two halves of a microfilm before big-time drug dealers can put the two halves together and discover the names of vital narcotics undercover agents. There are two highlights to this episode - Leonard Nimoy doing the worst Australian accent in television history and ace canine undercover agent Chico. Chico is one smart well-trained dog! This is one of several episodes over the years featuring animal IMF agents and they’re always particularly far-fetched but great fun.

Season four maintains the high standards of the previous seasons pretty well. On occasions the formula shows signs of wearing a bit thin but there are some great episodes and most of the stories are still very entertaining with nicely imaginative and satisfyingly far-fetched touches. Mission: Impossible might not bother itself with moral complexities or irritating details like realism but at its best it was glorious entertainment and the fourth season mostly delivers the goods. And there’s the bonus of Leonard Nimoy in top form. What more could you want?