Saturday, 4 April 2020

Orson Welles Great Mysteries (1973), volume 1

Orson Welles Great Mysteries is another of the mystery/horror anthology series that enjoyed such a vogue from the mid-50s right through to the end of the 70s. This one was made by Anglia Television in Britain in 1973  and was shot in colour. It’s somewhat in the style of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with an emphasis on human weakness and evil rather than the supernatural (although there are occasional suggestions of the supernatural).

The only contribution that Welles actually makes to the series is his brief into and outs, which almost certainly would have been done in a single day. But Welles did earn his money - his amused cynicism does add to the atmosphere.

Even by the standards of half-hour television drama these stories are rather simple, with just one little sting in the tail. Sometimes the payoff isn’t quite as satisfactory as one might have hoped, and too often it’s too easy to see the payoff coming.

In some ways the lack of ambition is a plus. The stories are for the most part just amusing and ironic little vignettes but they manage to be generally entertaining. Many have period settings and despite obviously limited budgets they do capture at least some of the feel of mystery tales of a bygone era, although the 1970s haircuts sported by the men do make the suspension of disbelief that much more difficult to sustain. It also has to be said that the historical episodes do suffer from a few anachronisms in terms of social mores and from an occasional tendency to present caricatured views of social attitudes of the past. These are of course a problem with every television series or movie with a period setting but they seem a bit more noticeable in this one.

The better episodes are however quite good.

There are quite a few stories by acknowledged masters, writers of the calibre of Wilkie Collins, Balzac, Charles Dickens, W.W. Jacobs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and also some lesser-known but interesting writers (including some writers who have fallen entirely into obscurity).

This was  time when British television was starting to up the ante as far as violence was concerned, and to a lesser extent becoming a bit more daring in regard to sexual content. Orson Welles Great Mysteries is however very subdued in its treatment of such matters. The violence is mostly offscreen. The general approach is low-key. Compared to Brian Clemens’ Thriller anthology series, which began to air at around the same time, it seems rather genteel. This is however part of its charm. It’s content to be subtle and to rely on suggestion.

There’s quite an array of acting talent on view in this series including quite a few who were already major stars (such as Susannah York and Bond girl Jane Seymour). And there are plenty of cult movie stars, like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. And some good directors, like Peter Sasdy.

For some bizarre reason Network have decided to release only thirteen of the twenty-six episodes in a two-disc DVD set. Whether the other thirteen ever see the light of day remains to be seen. The transfers are reasonably good.

Episode Guide
In A Terribly Strange Bed (based on a famous story by Wilkie Collins) a well-to-do young man wins a great deal of money in a very disreputable gambling house in Paris sometime in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately he celebrates a little too enthusiastically with the result the he is in absolutely no condition to make his way safely back to his hotel. Luckily there is a proud old soldier, a veteran of Austerlitz and Borodino, who arranges a bed for him for the night. But will the young man make it through this night? Not a bad episode but there’s not much of a payoff.

Compliments of the Season is set in London in 1930. A little girl, the daughter of an American millionaire and an English lady of quality, loses her rag doll. It’s a very disreputable rag doll but it’s the little girl’s most treasured possession. An American derelict is lucky enough to find the doll. Will he be lucky enough to live long enough to claim the reward? Amusing enough but with no real substance.

The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs has been filmed many times. A soldier brings a monkey’s paw back from India. It has the ability to grant three wishes. The problem with wishes is that sometimes they come true. This is a good version of a classic tale.

The Ingenious Reporter is set in the pre-World War 2 period. A brash young American reporter who sees a brutal murder in a French village as a chance to get the story of a lifetime. He gets more than he bargained for. There’s such a thing as being too clever. Not a bad episode, if a little predictable.

Captain Rogers is about a man with a past. Mr Mullet is a prosperous innkeeper and he’s rather alarmed when a fellow named Cawser shows up on his doorstep. You see Mr Mullet was once the notorious pirate Captain Rogers and Cawser was one of his officers. Captain Rogers amassed a vast fortune from his piratical adventures and Cawser wants half of it. If he doesn’t get it he’ll have a quiet word to the local magistrate and Mr Mullet will face the prospect of being hanged for piracy. It’s a ticklish problem. Great performances by Donald Pleasence as Cawser, Joseph O’Conor as Mullet and Willoughby Goddard as the local squire and magistrate. The first really excellent episode so far.

For Sale - Silence has a contemporary setting. A wealthy businessman is being blackmailed. This story actually manages to come up with a new twist to the blackmail game. A very neat little episode.

La Grande Breteche is based on story by Balzac. A handsome dashing young Spaniard is a prisoner-of-war of the French during the Napoleonic Wars. As was the custom at the time, being a gentleman of breeding and an officer and having given his word not to escape, he is housed comfortably in an inn and allowed to come and go freely. Nearby in the house known as La Breteche lives the Count Gerard De Merret (Peter Cushing) with his wife. The Countess (played by Susannah York) is much younger than her husband, she is very beautiful and she has a romantic and passionate nature. You can see where such a situation could lead. In fact it leads to a horrifying conclusion. An excellent episode with a very nasty sting in the tail.

An Affair of Honour by F. Britten Austin. When a soldier commits treason it can of course be dealt with by a court-martial, but sometimes that is not the most desirable way to handle the matter. It is better to leave it as an affair of honour. In this case there was however a twist. A reasonably decent story.

In the Confessional is based on a story by Alice Scanlan Reach, a now very obscure writer who in the 1960s penned a series of clerical detective stories featuring kindly Irish Catholic priest in an American parish. In this tale Father Crumlish hears a disturbing confession, and an amiable drunk named Old Harry hears it too. There are all kinds of sins. The twist ending is fairly effective. A reasonably good episode.

The Furnished Room (based on a story by O. Henry) is unusual in that we’re offered, in the intro by Orson Welles, a hint of the possibility of the supernatural. Whether anything supernatural actually occurs is something I’m not going to tell you. A young man is tramping from one furnished room to another in New York, looking for his girlfriend. This story relies very heavily on trying, with limited success, to achieve an atmosphere of subtle ambiguous unease. Unfortunately it’s also a story that doesn’t amount to very much. One of the lesser episodes.

Trial for Murder is the one old-fashioned ghost story in the series (and it’s based on a very famous story by Charles Dickens). A juror in a murder trial sees the ghost of the murder victim, or perhaps it’s an hallucination. The accused sees visions as well. For me this one falls rather flat. Perhaps there’s such a thing as trying to be too subtle.

The Leather Funnel (based on a story by Conan Doyle) is one of the better episodes. The funnel in question is very old, a kind of bizarre family heirloom. It has an interesting if terrible history, as young Stephen Barrow is about to find out. Stephen n is about to marry the beautiful Veronique d’Aubray (Jane Seymour) but before that happens her uncle (plated by Christopher Lee) is determined that the young man should know the secret of the funnel. This episode has both a contemporary and an historical setting and it has a nicely ambiguous plot. Good stuff.

Final Thoughts

If you enjoy the Alfred Hitchcock Presents style of television mystery then Orson Welles Great Mysteries is worth grabbing. Recommended.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Ramar of the Jungle (1952-54) - Horrors of India

Jungle adventures were a big thing on American television in the 1950s. It was a genre that soldiered on into the 1960s. By the 70s such shows were starting to be seen as too politically incorrect (the term political correctness exploded in popularity in the 90s but the concept certainly existed by the end of the 60s. The jungle adventure series became just too risky. But it was a genre that had a good run. Ramar of the Jungle was a syndicated series that ran from 1952 to 1954 and it was typical of the breed. 52 episodes were made, in four batches of thirteen.

Mostly the series takes place in Africa but the second batch of episodes was set in India.

Tom Reynolds (Jon Hall) is a doctor who spends his life treating the sick in the jungles of Africa and India. He is aided by the young Professor Howard Ogden (Ray Montgomery). Reynolds has become known as Ramar which we are told means White Medicine Man. In India they get some help from their faithful servant Zahir (who is actually pretty brave and resourceful).

With a series like this you have to keep in mind they were never intended as sophisticated entertainment. These jungle adventure shows were aimed at younger viewers, the same sort of audience that watched lightweight westerns like The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley. They had to be reasonably exciting but without being really scary and the violence had to be kept strictly within bounds. The good guys had to triumph and they had to do so without doing anything underhand. Within those constraints Ramar of the Jungle does a fairly decent job.

One of the great attractions of these jungle adventure series was that if you were prepared to rely very heavily on stock footage (and the producers always were willing to do so) they could be made very cheaply and still have that exotic feel to them. And given that TV was in black-and-white in those days and also given the fairly low quality of TV reception the stock footage didn’t stand out the way it would in later television eras. Ramar of the Jungle actually makes quite effective use of stock footage. Surprisingly the stock footage features actual Indian wildlife rather than just random jungle animals.

Adult viewers would undoubtedly figure out very quickly that such shortcuts were being employed but the target audience of kids probably would not have noticed.

The acting is adequate for the kind of series this is.

Of course the political incorrectness level is off the scale. By the early 50s India was an independent nation but the series still has very much the atmosphere of the Raj, although with the Americans taking the place of the British. The political incorrectness is undoubtedly mostly unconscious and probably without any malice. There’s simply an assumption that the natives are inherently superstitious and inclined to follow murderous cults. I suspect the writers were actually trying to be respectful towards the locals. The maharajah is a decent man and quite enlightened. Zahir is a good chap whose bravery is never in doubt. Indian women are treated very respectfully by the writers. There’s a Sikh policeman who turns out to be honest, courageous and very competent.

There’s just that assumption that the natives need the White Ramar to save them all the time. To a large extent the series is simply basing itself on well-established templates for jungle adventure stories going back to the 19th century and it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to update the templates to reflect Indian independence. But I really don’t think there was any actual intention to demean the Indians. By the standards of the early 50s it may indeed have had perfectly good intentions.

Alpha Video have released the majority of episodes on DVD. The DVD I’m reviewing at the moment includes four episodes from the second batch and is subtitled Horrors of India. The transfers are what you expect for an early 50s TV series. They’re rough but watchable.

Episode Guide

The first of the four episodes on this disc is Mark of Shaitan. Reynolds and Ogden have just arrived in India to do some medical research and some doctoring in the territory of an enlightened maharajah. They encounter Max Kruger who is convinced that Reynolds is really searching for the lost treasure of the followers of Shaitan. He is quite paranoid on the subject.

Ogden is attacked and left with a strange marking, which seemingly cannot be removed, that is apparently the mark of Shaitan. When a man receives that mark he is doomed. When the mark fades, he will die. Ogden doesn’t believe such superstitions but he does get sick. Reynolds suspects he knows what is really going on. But can he save his friend? And is there really a treasure?

If you’re going to have your hero in India then at some stage he’s going to have to encounter the Thugs and the cult of Kali and that’s what happens in The Hidden Treasure. In reality of course there’s a lot more to the worship of Kali than Thuggee but in popular culture Kali-worshippers tend to be murderous and evil. The treatment of the subject in this episode therefore comes as quite a surprise. There are certainly dirty deeds afoot but this story avoids that automatic assumption that Kali’s worshippers are evil. It starts with a dying man and a hunt for a talisman. It’s not a bad episode.

In Bride of the Idol the followers of an evil god have kidnapped a girl named Najia. They intend to make her the bride of their god. What happens to the bride after the wedding is not stated but we can rest assured it won’t be good for poor Najia. Can Tom Reynolds save her? He’s certainly going to try. Indian actress Sujata (as Najia) adds a touch of glamour to this story. The plan devised by the White Ramar is clever enough. It’s all quite entertaining.

The Crocodile God of Kaa pits Reynolds and Ogden against another murderous cult, this time the worshippers of a crocodile god. They’re pretty unpleasant, practising human sacrifice. Their priests are reputed to have the strength of five ordinary men. This turns out to be true and Reynolds has to find out how they manage this. It cannot be magic so it must have a scientific explanation. He has to find the answer to save the locals who keep getting sacrificed to the crocodile god. A reasonably OK episode.

Final Thoughts

The Indian setting of these episodes makes a change from the more usual African settings. Ramar of the Jungle is undemanding fun if you love the jungle adventure genre, and if do do love that genre it’s worth a look.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Regan and the Deal of the Century (The Sweeney novel)

Like so many TV series of its era The Sweeney spawned a series of TV tie-in novels. Regan and the Deal of the Century was the third of The Sweeney novels and was written by Ian Kennedy Martin, the creator of the TV series. Nine novels were published, three of them by Kennedy Martin, and they were original stories rather than novelisations of TV episodes.

So the first surprise is just how different it is to the series. The series was very much a buddy series, with Detective Inspector Jack Regan of Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad and his sergeant George Carter being the buddies. There is some slight tension between the two men. Regan doesn’t just bend the rules. He beats them senseless and then puts the boot in. Carter isn’t always happy about this, and he lets Regan know. Despite this the two men are firm friends. Carter is scarcely even mentioned in this novel, but when he is mentioned it’s obvious that Regan doesn’t like him all that much. The novel appeared in 1976. The series aired between 1974 and 1978. It would be fascinating to know if the novel represents Kennedy Martin’s original concept for the series, and whether that concept involved a much tighter focus on Regan, or whether Kennedy Martin simply decided to try something slightly different with his three spin-off novels.

The second surprise is that the novel takes place almost entirely in the south of France. Taking Regan out of his familiar London milieu changes the tone dramatically.

This is essentially a political thriller rather than a cop story, but since Regan is a cop to his boot-heels he naturally tries to approach it as a police case. His job is to catch villains. That’s pretty much what gives the novel its flavour - Regan is very much a fish out of water in the world of international intrigue.

The novel starts with the assassination of an Arab oil sheikh in London, to which Regan just happens to be an almost-witness (he saw the killer leaving the building and is the only man who can identify that killer). This is obviously a job for Britain’s secret police, Special Branch. So why has Regan been assigned to the case? Whatever the reason Regan is not happy about it.

Regan finds himself working with a Bahreini cop named Hijaz. He doesn’t entirely trust Hijaz, but Regan is also more than half convinced that everything Special Branch has told him is a pack of lies as well.

It appears that the assassin’s next target will be another oil sheikh, a man named Almadi.

This brings Regan into intimate contact with Almadi’s entourage, specifically Almadi’s girls. Almadi likes to be surrounded by beautiful women. Beautiful is perhaps not an adequate word. These girls are technically prostitutes but they are so stingy gorgeous that it takes Regan’s breath away and they are very very high class and very very expensive. For the price of one night with such a girl you could buy yourself a very decent car. Not a used car. A new one. If fact a night with one of these girls would cost Jack Regan most of a year’s salary. Naturally Jack falls for one of the girls, an exquisite English rose named Jo. It’s not just lust (as it usually is for Jack with women). He thinks she’s the most perfect female who ever walked the Earth. But she belongs to Sheikh Almadi. Which doesn’t stop her from hopping into Jack’s bed. This is likely to get Jack into a world of hurt.

As for the case, Regan is more and inclined to think that there’s a whole lot more going on here that he hasn’t been told about. There’s the matter of the deal with the French government. What the deal might involve he has absolutely no idea.

This is pretty much the Jack Regan of the TV series, but maybe even more pessimistic and more cynical and definitely more given to depression. He drinks too much. But he drinks too much in the TV series as well. He chases women he shouldn’t chase. He argues with his superiors and clashes with just about everybody. He doesn’t have any actual dislike of Arabs, or of the French. Jack just doesn’t have the knack of keeping his mouth shut and following orders and coöperating with other place officers. The one mystery is perhaps Jo’s attraction to him. This is a girl who has billionaires eating out of her hand. Maybe she just has a thing for alcoholic self-pitying broken-down policemen with no future. Maybe they just drive her wild with desire.

Reagan is very much an anti-hero but despite his egregious character flaws we can’t help liking him, even if we sometimes despise him just a little as well and even if we’re often horrified by him. He does his best as a cop, and usually gets results. As a man he does his best also, with much less successful results. But he is what he is, and he doesn’t know any other way to live. He doesn’t really know how to do anything but be a cop so it’s lucky he’s a good one.

There’s some politics in this novel but the political aspects are not always quite what you’re expecting. It won’t do to jump to conclusions about who the bad guys are. And in this world it’s questionable whether there are any good guys.

It’s perhaps a little disappointing that Regan's fascinatingly ambivalent relationships with both Carter and with his immediate superior DCI Haskins, which are highlights of the series, play no part in the novel. But Regan’s very uneasy relationships with authority in general certainly do play a major rôle.

Apart from the very distinctive character of Regan the novel doesn’t bear much resemblance to the TV series but it’s a decent political thriller. Regan and the Deal of the Century is worth a look and it is interesting for fans of the series to see Jack Regan in an unfamiliar environment. Recommended.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Mission: Impossible season 3

The third season of Mission: Impossible adheres rigidly to the formula established in the first two seasons. We still know absolutely nothing about any of the members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). We know nothing of their histories, nothing of their personal lives, nothing of their likes and dislikes or their hopes and fears. And that of course is exactly how series creator/producer Bruce Geller wanted it. He intended it to be an absolutely and totally plot-driven series and he stuck to his guns.

Of course an approach like that requires exceptional good scripts. They had that in the first two seasons. And it seems that the standard was maintained pretty well in season three. The plots remain impressively complex. They’re usually rather far-fetched but somehow they usually remain at least vaguely plausible. The plots are often so byzantine and so crazily elaborate that you feel sure they’re going to collapse under their own weight but, amazingly, they rarely do.

Since this series is so plot-driven it doesn’t really offer great opportunities for the actors. Or at least it doesn’t offer them obvious opportunities. The fact that these characters are spies means that they’re constantly playing different rôles - spies being essentially actors. That does offer at least some of the cast members the chance to do slightly different things in different episodes when they’re playing different undercover rôles. It’s mostly Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and Cinnamon Cater (Barbara Bain) who get these opportunities. Graves and Landau tend to ham it up, which they do in a fairly entertaining manner. Bain takes things a bit more seriously and does a decent job of playing a spy playing different women in each mission. Barney (Greg Morris) and Willy (Peter Lupus) mostly don’t get to do flamboyant undercover rôles.

In this season the IMF is as ruthless as ever, with many of their missions being effectively assassinations (with someone else manipulated to do the killing so the IMF’s hands remain apparently clean). And they go about cheerfully overthrowing foreign governments and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in quite hair-raisingly brazen fashion. In the late 60s audiences accepted this as perfectly normal.

Generally speaking there are two approaches to spy fiction or spy TV. There’s the gritty realistic cynical school (the novels of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carre, TV series like Callan and The Sandbaggers) and there’s the high adventure tongue-in-cheek slightly campy school that plays it all for fun (the Bond movies, TV series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers). What makes Mission: Impossible interesting is that it has the ludicrous and outrageous plots of the high adventure all-played-for-fun but it takes itself very seriously. It’s never overtly tongue-in-cheek and there’s not the slightest hint of deliberate camp. In fact it takes itself so seriously that occasionally one wonders if that is itself a kind of elaborate joke.

I can’t recall a single instance of a character in Mission: Impossible cracking a joke. The humourlessness of this series is clearly deliberate (it’s obvious that Bruce Geller had very strong ideas about the nature of the series and he seems to have mostly managed to get his way).

I think the humourlessness is connected with the almost total absence of emotion, and the insistence on revealing absolutely nothing about the personalities of the characters. It’s interesting that even in an episode like The Exchange (in which Cinnamon is captured) we do see some expressions of emotion but whereas in most series the writers of such an episode would take the opportunity to fill in just a little of the character’s backstory this doesn’t happen here. There is no mention of Cinnamon’s next of kin or of any family members who would need to be informed if she didn't get out alive. The other IMF members are clearly upset about Cinnamon’s capture. Jim Phelps seems to be particularly upset. Does this suggest a possible romantic history between Jim and Cinnamon? It might to some people but the episode makes sure that we learn nothing that might confirm such a theory. He might be upset because he loved her but he might just be upset because she’s a close work colleague. After watching the episode we have no idea. This extraordinary determination to give the characters no apparent personal lives gives Mission: Impossible a slightly weird vibe but it does add to the show’s unique atmosphere.

There are plenty of things that make Mission: Impossible an intriguing series but it had one other asset that for me was the jewel in the crown so to speak. It had Cinnamon Carter. To me she was the ultimate 1960s lady spy. There were others who were more effective action heroines, Emma Peel for example. But Emma Peel was a comic strip character. That’s not a criticism. That was the type of series that The Avengers was, it was witty sophisticated comic book fantasy. Cinnamon Carter on the other hand was a thoroughly plausible lady spy. She did what lady spies do - she used sex as a weapon. Of all the female secret agents in pop culture I don’t think there is a single one more dangerous than Cinnamon Carter. If you found that Cinnamon Carter was trying to entice you into a honey trap then you might as well just accept your doom.

The Episode Guide

The Heir Apparent is typically convoluted and far-fetched. Cinnamon has to pose as an elderly princess, long believed to be dead, who is the heir to the throne of some small European principality. The suspense comes from the series of tests and cross-examinations that Cinnamon will have to go through and the fact that one slip-up means disaster. Barbara Bain gets to show off her acting chops in this very good episode.

The Execution is the sort of outrageously elaborate deception that was one of Mission: Impossible’s trademarks. In this case a mobster has first to be persuaded to kill Jim Phelps. The IMF team then kidnap the hitman, a very very tough cookie indeed, and try to convince him that he is actually on Death Row and about to be executed. The idea of course is to break the hitman and get him to squeal. The deception has to be absolutely perfect. Lots of tension in this episode. Excellent stuff.

The Cardinal is yet another unbelievably complicated plan on the part of the IMF. A certain Cardinal is the key to restoring democracy in an eastern European country. He’s been replaced by a perfect double. Now the IMF is going to do its own double acts with the Cardinal, in fact with multiple cardinals. You can’t help thinking that no-one in their right mind would actually attempt such an absurdly over-complex scheme but it makes for a classic Mission: Impossible episode.

The Elixir really pushes things into the realms of the fantastic. Riva Santel is the widow of the former president of a Latin American country and she has plans to seize power. The IMF plan to stop her is really bizarre - they’re going to convince her that Cinnamon has the secret to eternal youth. If there’s one thing that obsess Riva Santel  more than power it is her own fading beauty. So it’s a fairly ludicrous plot but somehow with this series it’s the most far-fetched plots that seem to work best.

The Bargain is an example of a Mission: Impossible episode that is too clever for its own good. The IMF scheme is one that stretches credibility a bit too far - the final twist relies too much on a particular character reacting in a certain way which when you think about it is not a reasonable assumption. Of course all Mission: Impossible plots stretch credibility - that’s more or less the point of the show. But the other problem with this one is that either it was overly confusing or I’m just not as smart as I thought I was because there were times when it lost me completely.

On the plus side it’s a good example of the breathtaking ruthlessness of the Impossible Mission Force, and it has some good moment. I like the lengthy almost completely dialogue-free scenes with Barney, Willy and Cinnamon - very atmospheric.

The Freeze is particularly outrageous. Armed robber Raymond Barret is about to be released from prison but he’s serving a short sentence for a different crime and under a different name. When he’s released he’ll be able to pick up the ten million dollars that was stolen quite legally. So the IMF set up one of their elaborate con tricks, persuading Barret that he’s dying and then persuading him to agree to be put in cryogenic suspension for a few years until a cure is found for the non-existent disease the he thinks he’s got. This is one of those episodes in which one can’t help feeling that the IMF’s plan is ingenious but possibly immoral and almost certainly illegal.

It’s an unusual episode also for the science fictional look that is a simply wonderful example of what people in the 60s thought the future would look like. It was a much cooler future than the one we actually ended up with. So it’s an interesting and fairly clever episode.

In The Exchange Cinnamon is captured on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. There is no way to break her out. The only way to get her back is by exchanging her with one of the other side’s spies currently imprisoned in the West. That’s not really a problem. Such exchanges were a routine occurrence during the Cold War, and both sides played by the rules. But the problem for Cinnamon is that she’s not an agent for a legitimate intelligence agency. The IMF is a totally secret completely illegal black ops unit and the U.S. Government’s policy on the issue is made clear in the taped message that Jim Phelps receives in every episode - if any of them are captured the U.S. Government will deny everything. Since the IMF officially does not exist it cannot negotiate an exchange. So Jim Phelps has to convince the Reds that Cinnamon is a freelancer and that a consortium of Swiss businessmen wants to negotiate the exchange, and that he can somehow get hold of top Soviet spy Rudolf Kurtz.

I find this a fascinating episode because it’s honest enough to make it quite clear that the IMF is technically a totally illegal organisation, but without ever quite coming out and saying it. And it’s a very effective and very suspenseful episode as well.

The Mind of Stefan Miklos is a great example of an IMF plan so incredibly over-complicated and so heavily reliant on a whole series of very dubious assumptions that if one tiny detail went wrong the entire scheme would self-destruct. The chances of such a plan working in real life would be nil. But that’s what’s so great about Mission: Impossible - the more far-fetched the story the more fun it is watching it all come together. In this case the IMF have to convince a top eastern bloc spymaster, Stefan Miklos, that information supplied by a double agent is genuine. The plan revolves around the fact that Miklos is not only a genius he is scrupulously logical and unemotional, he has a photographic memory and a mind that never misses even the tiniest detail. Jim Phelps intends to use all these strengths against him. Paul Playdon’s plot is outlandishly byzantine but it works.

The Test Case is a medical experiment conducted in a country behind the Iron Curtain. A Dr Beck has discovered what could be the ultimate bioweapon. It is necessary to destroy the microbe but it is also necessary to destroy Dr Beck. This will be done by convincing the security chief Captain Onli that Beck has sold out. The convincing will be done by Cinnamon, posing as a glamorous German journalist. It’s all very complicated and you have to pay attention or you’ll end up hopelessly confused, as I was. Not that it really matters - with this series you just trust that somehow it all makes sense.

In The System the prosecution case against a mobster named Victor has collapsed. The only way to get a conviction is to persuade the mobster’s close associate, Johnny Costa, to testify against him. That’s quite out of the question. Victor and Costa are close friends and true one another implicitly. But Phelps has come up with an outrageously involved plan to persuade Costa to betray Victor. As so often the script is very clever but relies on the victim reacting in a particular way when in fact he could react in any number of ways. But that’s all part of the fun in Mission: Impossible. And it is a particularly clever and devious scheme. Plus it gives Cinnamon a chance to do her sexy femme fatale bit that she does so well. A very enjoyable episode.

The Glass Cage is a maximum security cell in an escape-proof prison in some unnamed dictatorship. The prisoner in the cel is a resistance leader. The IMF have to get him out. The problem is that the prison really is escape-proof. The solution is a devious game of bluff and counter-bluff to cast doubt on whether the prisoner has escaped or not and whether he is who he is supposed to be. It’s typical Mission: Impossible stuff with some cool high-tech sets. Cinnamon Carter gets to play an icy evil security chief and she approaches her rôle with gusto. It’s all good stuff.

Doomsday concerns industrialist Carl Vandaam who is trying to save his collapsing business empire by getting into the business of selling atomic bombs. He has to be stopped. As usual the IMF sets out to stop him in an incredibly elaborate manner, and to set him up so he won’t ever do anything like that again. The suspense comes from having Barney trapped inside the fortress-like Vandaam headquarters after stealing the weapon’s plutonium. You might think Cinnamon playing the part of a nuclear physicist would be a bit of a stretch but the amazing thing about Barbara Bain is that she is able to get away with playing so many versions of Cinnamon. Quite a good episode.

Live Bait is an episode in which the IMF has to rescue an American agent held by the counter-espionage agency of an eastern bloc nation in order to protect a double agent. They also have to discredit or destroy Colonel Kellerman, a dangerously able member of that counter-espionage agency. It’s a basic idea that the series had used over and over again and this is one of the less inspired examples. The IMF’s scheme also lacks the wonderful baroque touches that you get in a good Mission: Impossible episode. It’s also an episode in which the IMF’s methods are much more morally questionable than those of the supposed bad guys. Its only saving grace is the wonderful performance by Anthony Zerbe as Kellerman. A very disappointing episode.

The Bunker is a two-parter. An enemy country is developing a new missile. A brilliant scientist is being forced to work on the project by the secret police. The IMF has to get him and his wife out of the country. The twist is that another unfriendly country has sent an assassin to kill the scientist so this time the IMF have two enemies to deal with. And instead of Rollin Hand doing the master of disguise bit this time it’s Cinnamon who does it. My favourite thing about this episode is the way they do the language of the country - everything is just written in English but if you substitute Ks for Cs and add a few umlauts you have a kömpletely könvïncing föreïgn längüage! It’s basically a stock-standard Mission: Impossible episode with a couple of minor variations but it works. And the little flying saucer drone is a nice touch.

Nitro takes place in a small Middle Eastern kingdom in which a plot is afoot to provoke war with a neighbouring country by blowing up the king. The man hired to carry out the bombing always uses nitro-glycerine even though it’s dangerous. In fact he uses nitro because it’s dangerous. Which will be fun for Rollin when he has to impersonate him. Barney gets to do some computer geek stuff with cool late 1960s computers and Cinnamon gets to be glamorous and do an outrageous French accent as a journalist. Typical Mission: Impossible stuff with a plot that goes perilously close to being too complicated but it’s nicely executed.

In Nicole Jim and Rollin are in the usual unnamed central European country trying to get hold of a list of agents. Barbara Bain does not appear in this episode but if you’re worrying that it will therefore be short on glamour you needn’t concern yourself. Barbara Bain was a very glamorous woman but with Joan Collins as the guest star this episode has glamour to burn. Nicole is a departure from the usual Mission: Impossible formula. The emphasis is not on the plot but on the relationship between Jim Phelps and a spy named Nicole, played by Collins. This is in fact an episode that deviates from the established formula in almost every respect. Given that this was late in the third season it was not a bad idea to keep viewers on their toes by throwing in something unexpected. And thanks largely to a fine performance from Joan Collins it’s a very good episode.

The Contender is a two-parter and it’s unusual in being a Barney-centric story. His job in this mission is really easy. All he has to do is win the world boxing championship. He gets some help from an ex-fighter. The idea is to break a fight-fixing racket. This is a typical episode in the sense that the plan is to get the bad guys to do the dirty work. I personally don’t think this one has quite enough plot for a two-parter and it doesn’t have the over-the-top elements that made this series so much fun. Of course I prefer the international intrigue episodes to the organised crime episodes for the very reason that they offer more scope for outrageousness. This one is just a bit flat.

This episode is also unusual in the we get some backstory on one of the main characters. We learn that Barney was in the Navy.  That’s all we learn but it’s more specific information than we’ve ever been given about any of the recurring characters.

The Vault is routine but competent. A Latin American finance minister has embezzled a fortune from his country and is trying to frame the president. The IMF has to stop him. Barbara Bain gets to do her generic sultry middle European accent that always makes her sound dead sexy. Rollin gets to disguise himself, Barney does some safe-cracking.

Some of the very best episodes were the ones in which Cinnamon was used as a honey trap, episodes like Illusion. The IMF has to destroy the reputations of two secret police chiefs of a certain East European country. The plan is to get one of them obsessed with Cinnamon and literally drive him insane with lust. Cinnamon is certainly the right girl for the job. The fun part of this episode is that the East European country concerned actually seems exactly like Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Which of course gives Barbara Bain the opportunity to channel Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (and her performance has obvious similarities to Liza Minnelli’s later performance in Cabaret). She gets to turn the sexual heat up pretty high. I’m sure Miss Bain would have been delighted to dial it up even higher, but this was a family show. She still gets to sizzle, and to sing and dance (and I believe she really does her own singing). It’s a very good episode anyway but the night club scenes make it a must-watch.

In The Interrogator the man behind a nefarious plot against world peace has been captured by a nation unfriendly to the US. The IMF has to get hold of this man and find out what his plan is. To do this they will have to play some nasty little games with his mind. This was an idea that the series returned to again and again - the IMF breaking someone’s resistance by making him believe something was happening to him that really wasn’t happening. It was an idea that mostly worked and it works this time although you have to wonder how many more times they’re going to be able to pull it off successfully.

Final Thoughts

This series was still at its peak during its third season with its trademark approach of outrageous plots executed absolutely straight, resisting all temptations to adopt the tongue-in-cheek approach used by so many other spy series. Highly recommended.

Friday, 6 March 2020

The Green Hornet (1966-67)

They say timing is everything and that turned out to be true, in a sadly ironic way, for the ill-fated television series The Green Hornet. When Batman proved to be gigantic success for ABC in 1966 the network naturally wanted more of the same. So The Green Hornet was rushed into production. It premiered in September 1966. Audiences saw it as a blander and duller version of Batman and they weren’t interested. Only twenty-six episodes were made.

Newspaper publisher Britt Reid (Van Williams) has a secret life as the Green Hornet, a notorious masked criminal who is actually waging an implacable war against crime. Apart from his assistant Kato (played by martial arts legend Bruce Lee) and his secretary the only person who knows the truth is the District Attorney.

The comparisons to Batman were inevitable. Both series are about mild-mannered, even slightly timid, fabulously wealthy men who are actually masked crime-fighters. The true identities of these daring crime-fighters are unknown to the public. Both Batman and the Green Hornet have faithful assistants who also wear masks. Both drive custom cars loaded with gadgets. Both have secret headquarters with cunningly concealed entrances. Both take on major villains the police are unable to touch. It was just not ever going to be possible to avoid comparisons been the two.

In fact, despite all those superficial similarities, the two series are radically different. Batman is famous (or infamous) for its high camp extremely jokey approach. The Green Hornet takes a much more realistic approach. The villains in The Green Hornet are not comic-strip villains wearing outrageous costumes. They’re straightforward gangsters and hoodlums and murderers. The Green Hornet and his assistant Kato do not wear tights. The Green Hornet looks more like a 1940s detective, complete with a very 1940s hat. Kato wears his chauffeur’s uniform, with the addition of a mask. Unlike the Boy Wonder Kato is no boy and he does not see the Green Hornet as as father figure or a big brother figure. The Green Hornet is his boss. Kato is a loyal and extremely useful assistant but he is more of a professional. Everybody considers Batman to be a hero. The Green Hornet is generally considered to be a criminal. Only the District Attorney knows that he is actually a crime-fighter.

The visual style is very very different. In place of the garish colours of the Batman series The Green Hornet makes use of a very subdued colour palette. The feel is very film noir with perhaps a very subtle hint of gothic. The visual style is very 1940s. The Green Hornet’s car, the Black Beauty, is big and black and menacing.

The tone is much more serious and even slightly dark. This is a hero who fights criminals who are ruthless murderers.

The Green Hornet is not by any means completely realistic. Overall the flavour is very much that of 1940s serials, such as the original Green Hornet serials (and interestingly enough it’s not unlike the flavour of the original Batman serials of the 40s).

The acting is much more naturalistic than you’ll find in Batman. Van Williams as Britt Reid/the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato play their rôles absolutely straight. Some of the villains are slightly exaggerated but in a melodrama stye (such as you find in 1930s/1940s serials) rather than an over-the-top comic-strip high camp style,

Had The Green Hornet been made a couple of years earlier or a couple of years later it might have had a good chance of being treated on its own merits and of being reasonably successful. But appearing in 1966 it was going to be seen as an unsatisfactory Batman clone and as such it was doomed. It’s unfortunate because The Green Hornet has a unique flavour and it is in fact vastly superior to Batman.

Episode Guide

In a very economical manner The Silent Gun fills us in on the setup and the characters, and it sets the tone for the series. A murder has been committed and the weapon used is a gun that is totally silent and has no muzzle flash. Such a gun obviously has the potential to be horrifyingly dangerous in the wrong hands. The Green Hornet has to find it destroy it but some rather nasty gangsters are after that gun as well. It’s a solid series opener.

In Give 'Em Enough Rope Reid’s newspaper The Daily Sentinel has rashly accused a crooked businessman of faking an injury to get an insurance pay-out. Even more rashly The Sentinel published the accusation without proof and now they’re getting sued. The Green Hornet will have to find the proof and with luck also help to get a dangerous criminal off the streets. A reasonably decent episode.

Programmed for Death is the first episode to introduce some slightly outlandish elements. A Daily Sentinel reporter is murdered. The murder weapon is a leopard. There’s a mad scientist type manufacturing fake diamonds. Even why those elements it’s still much much more reality-based than Batman. It’s a pretty cool episode.

Crime Wave concerns a series of daring robberies for which the Green Hornet is framed. Also mixed up in the affair is a computer genius who tells Britt Reid that he can predict the Green Hornet’s next crime, not knowing that Reid is actually the Green Hornet. An OK episode that doesn’t quite manage to make full advantage of a promising idea.

The Frog Is a Deadly Weapon starts with a body fished out of the harbour. Britt Reid believes there’s a connection to a dead gangster, a dead gangster in whom he has a personal interest. It’s not a dazzlingly original idea but it’s executed reasonably well.

Eat, Drink, and Be Dead pits the Green Hornet against a bootlegging gang. The Black Beauty is really the star of this episode, showing off its almost indestructible qualities and its awesome firepower. It’s not too bad and there’s plenty of action.

Brainwashing and mind control techniques developed by an unfortunate scientist are the key ingredients in the two-parter Beautiful Dreamer. Peter Eden's exclusive health club offers more than just health. It’s a front for a clever criminal operation, and Eden has no cripples about getting rid of people who threaten his profitable sideline. He also has some very effective means for doing so which he intends to use against the Green Hornet. A good episode and it has a couple of terrific Bruce Lee moments in it.

In The Ray Is for Killing an art exhibition at Britt Reid’s home is the target for thieves using an ingenious weapon - a laser beam. Another fun episode.

In The Preying Mantis a protection racket is operating in Chinatown and tong involvement is suspected. But are the tongs the good guys or the bad guys? And Kato gets a personal grudge to settle. A great episode for Bruce Lee fans.

In The Hunters and the Hunted big game hunters from the Explorers Club are hunting human prey - racketeers. But maybe it’s not as simple as that and in any case since the Green Hornet is next on their hit list he’s going to have to do something. This is a good example of the distinctive tone of this series - fairly gritty stories of crime and gangsters but with a few outlandish touches to liven things up. Good episode.

The Secret of the Sally Bell is more of a hardboiled crime story, with both a big-time drug dealer and the Green Hornet trying to find a stash of drugs hidden aboard the salvaged freighter Sally Bell. Not a bad episode.

In Freeway to Death the Green Hornet is trying to expose an insurance racket in the construction industry. Ace Sentinel reporter Mike Axford tries to play a lone hand and it might cost him his life. A decent episode.

A firebug has to be stopped in The Hornet and the Firefly and Mike Axford thinks the best way is the Sentinel to hire ex-cop Ben Wade who supposedly knows everything there is to know about arson. What’s actually going on in this episode is perhaps a bit too obvious.

In Seek, Stalk, and Destroy a tank is stolen, and as you might exit the District Attorney is not very happy about the idea of someone driving around the city in a tank. Britt has reason to suspect the theft is connected with the case of a man currently on Death Row, a man Britt believes to be innocent. A fairly good episode.

There’s a fake Green Hornet on the loose in the two-parter Corpse of the Year and he’s carrying out a terror campaign against the Daily Sentinel. But maybe it isn’t that simple. A pretty good newspaper/crime drama story and another example of how this series really was very very different from Batman. There’s quite a high body count in this one and a certain amount of grittiness. There’s also a reasonably solid mystery plot with some good misdirection. A very good episode.

In Ace in the Hole two rival gangsters have joined forces and the Green Hornet forces his way into the deal as well. With, of course, the intention of double-crossing both gangsters and bringing them to justice. But as usual Mike Axford blunders his way into the middle of things. A good episode with some fine Bruce Lee fight scenes.

Bad Bet on a 459-Silent is another hardboiled episode. The Green Hornet is on the trail of some crooked cops but in the process he gets shot. Of course he can’t go to a doctor or a hospital - every doctor and hospital in the city is being watched by the cops. His solution to this dilemma is quite clever. A pretty good episode.

Trouble for Prince Charming sees the Green Hornet trying to avoid an international incident and also trying to ensure that the course of true love runs smoothly. The Price of Kahara is about to marry an American girl. Somebody wants to get rid of the prince and they’re prepared to use the girl to achieve that end. A good episode and there’s a great Bruce Lee moment at the end.

Alias the Scarf is not a typical episode. There are no gangsters and it has the atmosphere of a horror movie rather than a hardboiled crime tale. It even takes place mostly in fog! The local wax museum’s new star attraction is the Green Hornet, displacing the previous main attraction, The Scarf. The Scarf was a notorious serial killer but nothing has been heard of him for years so he’s obviously dead. Except that he is now stalking the streets of the city once again. The key to the mystery could be a stripper named Vina with whom The Scarf had an odd relationship. The mystery in this one is easy enough to figure out. The atmosphere is fun though and John Carradine is good as well.

Britt Reid is facing a murder rap in Hornet, Save Thyself. Since he was holding the fatal gun at the time it was fired and there were a dozen witnesses things look grim. The solution is quite clever and there’s some excitement in the scenes at the cleaning plant. A very good episode.

Invasion from Outer Space represents a change of pace for the series. Perhaps it was an attempt to give The Green Hornet a bit more Batman-like outrageousness. This episode even starts uncharacteristically, with the camera focusing in on Miss Case’s legs (and since she’s wearing a very short skirt there’s plenty of leg to focus on). It’s odd that the series really didn’t give Wende Wagner much of a chance to display her potential for glamour. Then we get an alien invasion, and more glamour. The alien chief’s sidekick is extremely dangerous but she’s also a very definite babe. This is all very atypical for this series. And once the secret of the aliens is revealed the Batman resemblances are increased.

And we get a villain named Dr Mabuse. Dr Mabuse was the super-villain in a series of movies dating back to 1922 but the series had been revived in Germany in the early 60s with Fritz Lang’s brilliant The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse which had been followed by several sequels (such as Dr Mabuse vs Scotland Yard). The Dr Mabuse films achieved considerable international success. It’s fun to see them referenced here and the villain in this episode really is in the grand Mabuse tradition. It's over-the-top but enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

The Green Hornet was an unlucky series at the time and it’s misfortunes have continued to the present day with complex rights issues preventing an official DVD release. Some episodes were released on VHS years ago and there are grey market DVD sets available.

Comparing The Green Hornet to the Batman TV series is a mistake. It’s much closer in feel to the original Green Hornet serials of the 40s with a masked crime-fighter battling racketeers. There are gadgets but they just add a bit of spice, they’re not the focus. These are mostly hardboiled crime stories with just a touch of outrageous adventure. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Cannon season 2 (1972-73)

Season two of Cannon went to air on CBS in late 1972 and it’s the formula as before. I reviewed the first season of Cannon not too long ago. As private eye series of that era go Cannon definitely belongs in the second rank. It’s not in the same league as Mannix, The Rockford Files or Harry O but it’s still decent if very conventional entertainment. And William Conrad in the title rôle is a delight.

It’s interesting to compare Cannon with Mannix. Both are conventional private eye series employing a pretty similar formula, with an up-market P.I. investigating cases that mostly avoid getting into overtly grim or sleazy territory and both series put a certain emphasis on glamour (Cannon is a connoisseur of fine food and good living). They’re both private eyes who depart from the all-too-common cliché of the private eye as a maverick outsider. Interestingly both Mannix and Cannon have car phones at a time when such things were rare and expensive, another indication that we’re dealing with successful up-market private detectives. Both series have likeable charismatic leads.

So why is Mannix a great P.I. series while Cannon is a merely good series? The main differences are that overall Mannix has better scripts, faster pacing and more energy. Mannix tries that little bit harder, and it pays off.

Cannon’s problem is that the scripts in general are serviceable but they’re nothing special.

Cannon was a Quinn Martin production so you know it’s going to be well-made and it’s going to be polished. It gave the producer yet another solid hit. It also transformed William Conrad into a major star.

As in the first season Cannon himself is the only recurring character. That’s something you can only get away with if your star has charisma to burn, which William Conrad most certainly has.

Once again Cannon spends very little time in L.A. with an extraordinary number of stories having rural settings. Cannon is not a P.I. who would seem at home on the mean streets of a big city. Even when he’s in L.A. he’s mostly moving in the world of the reasonably prosperous middle class, but of course he is a high-priced private detective so that makes sense. Cannon is a series that is happy to confront corruption but it prefers to keep its distance from the really seamy side of life. Which is OK, because in the 70s movies and TV started to get a bit too obsessed with the whole mean streets thing.

As with the first season the DVD release is a bit disappointing. The image quality is not exactly pristine.

Episode Guide

Bad Cats and Sudden Death is typical Cannon. Cannon is hired by an old pal, Deputy DA Mike Arnold, who is charged with murdering his wife. It seems that the murder may be connected to a stolen car racket. The plot is adequate and while it’s nothing special it’s pretty enjoyable.

In Sky Above, Death Below a young woman persuades Cannon that the accidental death of her union boss father was murder. Unfortunately there’s no evidence, except for a very slim possibility that there was a witness. It’s a fairly routine plot but it has a good action climax with Cannon, the girl and the witness besieged in a mountaintop Indian ruin by four armed hoods. Reasonably entertaining and its features a very energetic Frank Cannon!

Bitter Legion concerns Vietnam vets being recruited for daring armed robberies. Cannon stumbles across this whilst looking for a Corporal Rowan. Rowan’s Vietnamese wife hired Cannon when her husband vanished. This one ends with a pretty spectacular shootout, with automatic weapons. Look out for Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees in a supporting rôle. A moderately good episode.

In That Was No Lady Cannon is hired to protect a female attorney who’s been getting dead threats. And since one of her assistants just got blown up when his car exploded it’s reasonable to assume the threats are serious. The attorney is defending a couple of small-time crooks accused of stealing a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of negotiable bonds, a job that seems to Cannon to be well out of their league. It’s an interesting episode since we see Cannon breaking the case by doing the kind of methodical routine investigative work that actual private detectives spent most of their professional lives doing. And it still manages to have some excitement and it’s an entertaining episode.

Stakeout seems like a straightforward case. A bar owner is tired of getting robbed so she hires Cannon to stake the place out. Sure enough some punk tries to rob the place and Cannon is ready for him. Then things get difficult. The punk’s girl accomplice has a rich ex-cop dad who owns a big security firm and he’s determined to keep his little girl’s name out of it, by fair means or foul. Cannon doesn’t like crooked ex-cops and he’s not prepared to play ball. A reasonably entertaining episode, with Cannon being extremely stubborn and bloody-minded.

The Predators takes Cannon way out west where a rancher is facing criminal charges after an unidentified man is killed by a coyote getter. And what are coyote getters? They’re booby traps for killing coyotes. They explode and send out a shower of cyanide pellets. They’re deadly to coyotes, and obviously deadly for anything unlucky enough to step on them. Including people. Ranchers are supposed to post warning signs but this one didn’t so she’s facing prosecution. She hires Cannon to get her off the hook. Of course the case actually involves a lot more than just a very unfortunate accident.

It’s a solid if not exactly wildly original episode but it's done pretty well and it gets bonus points for the bizarre murder method.

A Long Way Down involves drugs being stolen from a hospital. A black doctor has been framed for the thefts and Cannon’s job is to prove him innocent to save the hospital from a great deal of trouble. It’s a well-organised racket run by a ruthless gang. An average episode.

The Rip Off is both interestingly original and routine. It starts well, with Cannon being employed by an insurance company to investigate a series of robberies of freight cars. They key to the robberies is the use of the very latest 1972-vintage computer technology. We’re not talking primitive punch card machines here. We’re talking about data stored on cassette tapes. Cutting edge stuff in 1972. Unfortunately the episode then becomes routine stuff with a custody dispute (involving the mastermind behind the robberies) leading to kidnapping. The computer stuff is fun though and it’s a pretty good episode.

Child of Fear takes Canon to the Lucas Ranch. Mrs Lucas’s husband has been missing for several days. The ranch is patrolled by a private army but it’s not clear exactly what it is that they’re guarding or why they’re doing it so aggressively or why Mrs Lucas seems so uncomfortable with their presence. It’s also not clear why these private guards seem so hostile towards Cannon. An average episode, entertaining enough without being anything special.

In The Shadow Man a property developer falls off a cliff but when his wife comes back with help there’s no body to be found. And the man was carrying $350,000 in negotiable securities with him at the time. The wife hires Cannon to find her husband. The awkward aspect of the case is that the wife is a prime suspect. Cannon is not quite convinced of her innocence but he’s not convinced of her guilt either. A fairly solid episode.

In Hear No Evil ex-con Dale Corey is getting some serious pressure from a group of shady businessmen. Dale had served time for illegally planting listening devices. It’s all to do with blackmail but Cannon has to figure out exactly who is blackmailing whom and why. A pretty decent episode with some effective twists.

In The Endangered Species Bill Coates is accused of shooting his own son. The evidence is circumstantial and he has a hot shot lawyer. And he has his old friend Frank Cannon working to find out what really happened. The viewer already knows what happened but we don’t know why. And it’s the why that matters if Cannon is to crack the case. A decent episode.

Nobody Beats the House is a gambling story and of course gamblers like Toby Hauser always think they can beat the house. Now Toby can’t pay and he’s going to get killed for it unless Cannon can get him out of the mess. And maybe Cannon can beat the house. A routine episode but quite watchable.

In Hard Rock Roller Coaster Cannon is hired by wealthy art dealer Raymond Thurston to solve the puzzle of the man who wandered onto his estate. The man had been badly beaten and has lost his memory completely. Thurston’s eccentric niece has adopted the man (she has a thing for birds with broken wings). The only thing the man can remember is the lyrics to a T. Rex song, Baby Boomerang. Cannon isn’t sure that the story adds up, or at least he’s not sure what it adds up to. There’s also a very clever lizard and a girl folk singer named Ariel. It’s a pretty good episode.

The Dead Samaritan gets its title from a good deed gone wrong. An accountant named Bell goes to the aid of a young woman who is being assaulted. He slugs the guy who promptly drops dead from a heart attack so now Bell is facing a murder rap and he hires Cannon to find the young woman. There were several witnesses but their stories don’t quite fit with Bell’s and Bell is not telling the truth about a number of things but there are lots of things that don’t quite add up and Cannon suspects there’s something much more complicated going on here. A good story.

Death of a Stone Seahorse involves the murder of a marine biologist. His girlfriend didn’t do it but because of her personal history she’s an obvious suspect. There are plenty of nasty little dramas connected with this particular marine biology institute and Cannon finds himself with a difficult client. Cannon gets a great line in this episode towards the end, but I won’t ruin it by telling you what it is. A serviceable episode.

Moving Target has a promising setup. Phillip Trask has written the autobiography of a tycoon but the book is a total fake. Then he decides to write another book exposing his own fake. His collaborator in the fraud drops dead on national television and now Trask is scared he’s going to be next so he hires Cannon. Cannon sets Trask up in a safe house but it’s a moving safe house - a motorhome. So there are some original touches in this one and it has a nicely worked-out plot. A very good episode.

In Murder for Murder a young woman, high on drugs, falls from a balcony to her death. Her father is convinced that two brothers, healthy industrialists, were responsible for her death and he wants revenge. Cannon has to uncover the truth before the father does something stupid. A routine episode.

To Ride a Tiger is also fairly routine. An ex-con is running a halfway house for other ex-cons, he gets accused of murdering a cop and then his lawyer disappears. Cannon is hired by the ex-con’s girlfriend to find the missing lawyer and to do that he’ll have to find the cop killer.

In Prisoners Cannon is hired by doting parents whose idiot son has managed to get himself a ten year prison sentence in Turkey for drugs. A young man has contacted the father, suggesting there may be a way to get the son out. It sounds complicated and of course it’s actually even more complicated than it seems. The central idea isn’t original but it’s used in a fairly interesting way. A solid episode.

The Seventh Grave starts promisingly. A small town newspaper owner hires Frank to gather evidence in a case involving a string of brutal rape-murders. The newspaperman is convinced that a wealthy local businessman is guilty. For the first half of the story we’re really not sure of the identity of the actual killer given that there are three men whose behaviour is decidedly suspect. Unfortunately as things get clearer they get less interesting. It’s still an OK episode.

In Catch Me If You Can Cannon is hired to catch a serial killer - by the serial killer himself. He claims he wants to be caught. Cannon has to consider that he might be on the killer’s list - he only kills successful people. The killer also desperately wants to meet the psychiatrist who’s been profiling him (an amazingly flaky psychiatrist who might well be almost as big a threat to society as the killer). There’s a very good performance by Anthony Zerbe as the killer. Otherwise it plays out pretty much as you’d expect although it’s competently done.

Press Pass to the Slammer is pretty much standard Cannon fare - several not very original ideas combined together reasonably well. There’s the reluctant witness (to what appestats to be a Mob slaying), there’s the crushing reporter prepared to go to prison for contempt of court rather than reveal her source, there’s a criminal underground railway operation. It’s passable enough entertainment.

In Deadly Heritage a woman hires Cannon to find a young man, the illegitimate son of her deceased husband. She has an urgent reason for wanting to find the young man and it might have been better had she told Cannon the reason. It’s a reasonably OK episode.

Final Thoughts

Season two confirms my impressions of season one, that Cannon is watchable enough if you’re in the mood for undemanding entertainment. It helps a great deal if you like William Conrad. Worth a rental.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

M Squad season one (1957)

M Squad was an American cop series starring Lee Marvin which ran on NBC from 1957 to 1960. It was a solid ratings success. It was made by Marvin’s production company, Latimer Productions, in conjunction with Revue Studios. Marvin had had good supporting rôles in feature films such as The Big Heat but it was M Squad that proved he had the charisma for starring rôles.

M Squad can be thought of as the anti-Dragnet. They were the two best police series of the 50s but they took diametrically opposed approaches to the subject matter. Dragnet invented and defined the TV police procedural. Jack Webb, creator of Dragnet, was obsessed not just with depicting realistic police procedures but also with ordinariness. These were just regular cops doing their day-to-day jobs. The emphasis was on plot and on structure. M Squad by contrast was in the larger-than-life maverick cop mould. The emphasis was on style and action. The film noir influence was considerable. There was nothing ordinary about Lieutenant Frank Ballinger, the character played by Lee Marvin. This was the cop as hero. It would be impossible, and futile, to try to decide which was the better series. Both achieved what they set out to do, and did so very impressively indeed.

While Dragnet doesn’t avoid the seamy side of life M Squad dives head-first into it. M Squad is decidedly hardboiled. Being a cop like Frank Ballinger is not for the faint-hearted. It’s dangerous and you have to deal with a lot of sleazeballs. You have to be tougher than the bad guys. That’s no problem for Ballinger, and it’s no problem for Marvin - he radiates simmering aggression and he’s like a pressure cooker about to blow. It’s not that he lacks sensitivity, but unlikely other sensitive TV cops the sensitivity feels real. When you’re as tough as Frank Ballinger you don’t have to worry about showing your sensitive side. If someone doesn’t like it you can always slug them.

Dragnet and M Squad were also fine examples of the production line technique of American 50s television. An episode could be cranked out in a couple of days but it would still be great television. In those days a season could be anywhere from 30 to 39 episodes so even though M Squad ran for just three seasons no less than 117 episodes were made.

M Squad also benefits from some pretty cool jazz sounds on its soundtrack.

There’s a bit of an exploitation movie vibe to this series. It’s lurid and violent and sometimes sleazy and while it’s careful always to take the side of law and order and decency you also get the feeling that, like exploitation films, it’s revelling in the lurid and the sleazy.

It’s set in Chicago which for some reason didn’t get used as a setting for crime movies and television shows all that often so it provides a great opportunity to get some glimpses of that city in the late 50s.

Timeless Media Group have released all 117 episodes in their Social Edition DVD set (which includes a disc of extras as well) but the quality is extremely variable. The source material came from all over the place. Given this show’s overall vibe it doesn’t matter - if some episodes are extra-grainy or a bit muddy you can just think of it as extra noir flavouring!

Selective Episode Guide

The Alibi Witness is a neat little story. Wally Gardner is an ex-con and a total loser so it’s no surprise when he gets fingered for a robbery with violence, which becomes a homicide when the storekeeper dies. Gardner claims to have an alibi, of sorts. A guy who saw him on the street a long way from the murder scene. Finding this alibi witness promises to be next to impossible but Ballinger decides to try anyway. He figures if a guy is facing a murder rap he should be given a chance even if he probably will turn out to be guilty. The witness proves to be incredibly hard to find and the reason for this provides a nice little twist at the end. An excellent episode.

Ballinger goes undercover as a hired guy in The Specialists, trying to get the dope on a very slick trio of professional criminals. Unfortunately it seems that they’re just too well organised - they don’t appear to make mistakes. But of course it only takes one tiny mistake. A good episode.

In Family Portrait Ballinger’s partner is killed trying to gather evidence against crime boss Sam Hinder. Ballinger is now determined to nail Hinder. He needs to find one weakness and he thinks he’s found it in Hinder’s daughter but the daughter has some surprises of her own up her sleeve. An excellent nicely plotted episode.

Having to act as bodyguard to a killer like Tommy Hatch is not a job that appeals to Ballinger but in The Palace Guard that’s what he has to do. Of course while they’re protecting him the police are also looking for the evidence to put him away for good. Tommy’s wife and sister-in-law make things much more complicated. Whit Bissell is terrific as Tommy, a guy who combines arrogance, cunning, rashness and cowardice in roughly equal quantities. A good episode.

The Slow Trap is a story of robbery, infidelity and murder. Bonded messenger Eddie Lucas is robbed and the evidence suggests he arranged the robbery himself but it’s not clear how he could have contacted his accomplices. The messenger’s wife thinks another woman is behind it and Frank thinks she just might be right about that. But does that prove Eddie’s guilt or his innocence? Frank doesn’t know for sure but he does think the answer might be found at the Heracles Health Club. A good episode with some nice plot twists.

The Cover Up is a messy case that threatens to get uncomfortably close to the District Attorney. At the centre of it is possibly corruption or it might just be a particularly tangled romantic triangle. A pretty decent episode.

Blue Indigo has Frank hunting a psycho who has strangled three women. He always plays a song to them before he kills them. Always the same song, Blue Indigo. It’s not much of a clue but if Frank is lucky it might be enough. A reasonable episode.

The Long Ride starts in class M Squad style, with three murders in the first sixty seconds. A convicted murderer escapes from custody not once, but twice. And then we get a great suspense-on-a-train story, always a bonus. Terrific stuff.

The Shakedown is one of those cases in which, as Ballinger ruefully admits, nobody wins. It starts with an extortion attempt against a dry cleaning chain. It’s gritty hardboiled stuff. A very good episode.

Dolly’s Bar is a blackmail story with a decent twist. A gossip columnist is found dead in the apartment of rising theatrical star Kathy Bane. It looks bad for her since he was known to indulge in blackmail. Kathy and Frank Ballinger used to have a bit of a thing going. A very good episode.

In Lover's Lane Killing a rich young woman arrives home frantic with terror after the young man she’d been out with is shot to death by a robber. The curious thing, the thing that the police don’t like, is the matter of the impending marriage. An impending marriage to the wrong person. An OK episode although there aren’t enough suspects to make it much of a mystery.

The Frightened Wife is somewhat predictable but wth a couple of interesting twists. A man has disappeared. It could be a missing persons or a murder case. It seems to be solved when the wife confesses, but she has a very strange reason for confessing. Fairly entertaining.

Frank goes undercover to trap a nasty second-rate hoodlum in The Black Mermaid. There’s practically no limit to the number of things that can go wrong on that sort of operation, and all of them go wrong this time. Plenty of tension and excitement in this episode.

The Man in Hiding is about a bank robber and an exclusive boys’ boarding school. There doesn’t seem like there could be any link between those two things but Frank Ballinger has a hunch. A good episode in which Ballinger does some real detecting.

The Chicago Bluebeard is a man suspected of preying on women at lonely hearts’ clubs. Ballinger has to go undercover as a lonely heart and he’s not entirely comfortable doing it. A pretty good episode.

Hideout is an exciting siege episode. A couple of bank robbers are holed up in a suburban house and they’ve taken a woman and her child hostage. Frank manages to get into the house but his gun is just out of reach. Good stuff.

Shot in the Dark concerns a sniper who shoots women. He shoots from long range but only ever wounds them and not seriously, which means he has to be a pretty good shot. It makes a kind of sense until he shoots a man and kills him. That doesn’t add up and Frank has to find out why. A good episode.

The Twenty-Six Girl is a girl who runs a gambling game, but she doesn’t seem to have any connection with a routine missing persons case. A married couple has disappeared but the wife’s sister is unusually worried. So is Frank. He thinks the couple may have been murdered. Lots of false leads to confuse things in this excellent episode.

Charles Bronson guest stars as boxer Eddie Loder in The Fight. His opponent died after his last fight but the autopsy showed he was killed by a blood clot which was not caused by Eddie’s punches. But now it seems that somebody wants Eddie dead. A very good episode.

Guilty Alibi is a straightforward hit-and-run case, except that it isn’t. Witnesses saw the man driving the car hit the girl and he admits to the offence, but two of the witnesses had a vague impression that the driver was a woman. If that’s so then the case could connect up with a murder case. A good well-constructed plot expertly executed.

The Healer deals with a disturbed young woman planning to murder her father but the real villain is a quack therapist. And Frank hates quacks. The trouble is that it’s incredibly difficult to get a conviction against such people but Frank has a plan. Of course he also has to stop the girl from committing murder. A good episode.

In Day of Terror Frank’s friends the Grevilles have adopted a child but now the biological mother wants it back. Everything about the adoption was shonky and Frank has to find a way to nail some very unpleasant people without Helen Greville losing her adopted baby. An OK episode.

The $20 Plates are the last plates made by legendary counterfeiter Doc Pierce before his death. And now notes made from those plates are circulating in Chicago. Frank is working with a Treasury Department Social Agent and he has one clue - a child’s colouring book. The way the notes are being passed suggests an amateur, or a professional trying to look like an amateur. A very good episode.

The Case of the Double Face is a straightforward armed robbery case with one slight problem. It doesn’t make any sense. The robberies are small-time stuff but the suspect has no need of the money. The evidence against him is overwhelming but it still doesn’t make sense. The solution is far-fetched but it’s still an enjoyable episode. And the laundry evidence is very cool.

The System is a system for winning at craps. There is no such system and that’s what worries Frank. He thinks this system might involve guns. He’s trying to shut down a floating crap game which is hard enough but with a guy running around with a gun it’s even worse. And Frank doesn’t even know how to find the game. A very good episode.

The Woman from Paris of the title has just arrived in Chicago and she’s just been murdered. There seems to be a connection with a rich Chicago society couple but what the connection might be is a mystery. Perhaps there’s something in the murdered woman’s past. A good episode.

In Accusation the suicide of a sick old man looks suspicious. And the old man had a very pretty and much younger wife. And a good-looking young male chauffeur. The inference that the wife and the chauffeur killed the old man is obvious, but is it true? Another solid episode.

Final Thoughts

Even without Lee Marvin M Squad would have been a fine cop series. It has clever scripts and it has a nicely gritty feel to it. With Lee Marvin it’s one of the great American TV cop shows. Very highly recommended.