Tuesday 25 March 2014

Checkmate (1960-62)

Checkmate was a US series that ran on the CBS network from 1960 to 1962. It was created by Eric Ambler, one of my favourite writers of thrillers and crime/espionage fiction and that in itself is sufficient reason for me to want to give this one a look.

There are a couple of episodes of Checkmate included in one of the Mill Creek boxed sets that I have. Sound and picture quality is, as you’d expect from Mill Creek, deplorable. On the other hand the set includes 150 assorted episodes of crime shows and works out at around 12 cents an episode so it’s unreasonable to complain too much.

And one of the two episodes, The Human Touch, guest stars Peter Lorre so that was another major point in its favour straight away.

I enjoyed these two episodes enough to pick up the Best of Checkmate boxed set.

The series centres on the cases undertaken by a very slick up-market firm of private investigators known as Checkmate Inc. The firm basically consists of two private eyes played by Anthony George and an absurdly young Doug McClure along with a psychologist/general-purpose scientific advisor played by Sebastian Cabot (who was quite a fixture on American TV at that time).

The firm is very selective in the cases it takes on. They don’t deal with routine investigations like divorce work. The case has to be challenging enough to get them interested and their reputation is such that they can afford to pick and choose their cases. They also tend to specialise in cases where there is a threat of a crime being committed, rather than cases where the crime has already taken place.

While 1950s crime series were pretty much stuck with the very restrictive half-hour format that was standard at that time Checkmate benefits considerably from the more generous one-hour format which is probably one of the series the scripts are a little bit more adventurous.

The scripts are definitely of above average quality and the stories are well thought-out and managing to avoid the more obvious clich├ęs of the genre. Some episodes, such as Laugh Till I Die, take hackneyed themes but give them a new twist. Others, like The Paper Killer which deals with a comic book writer whose most famous fictional hero is apparently trying to kill him, are genuinely original and inventive. Hot Wind in a Cold Town is even better, with an atmosphere of brooding menace and more than a touch of the bizarre.

The series obviously had a certain amount of prestige judging by the galaxy of very big name guest stars who appear.

Don Corey (Anthony George) is the boss while Jed Sills (Doug McClure) provides the muscle and Dr Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot) provides the brains and the scientific knowledge. Corey has the polish needed when dealing with the sorts of clients the company attracts, clients who are usually wealthy and prominent citizens.  

While other private eye series at the time focused on the seedy side of city life or on the glamorous world of night-clubs and jazz bars the operatives of Checkmate Inc move in the world of high society and celebrities, a world that of course has its own darker side. 

All three leads are very good although Sebastian Cabot does tend to steal most of the scenes in which he appears. The three main characters with their differing areas of expertise provide the balance such a series requires, and all three actors (and McClure and Cabot in particular) have a certain charisma, another essential ingredient for a successful series.

The series ran for two seasons but in the early 60s a season was a lot longer than it is today and a total of no less than seventy episodes were made. Checkmate impressed critics at the time with its intelligence and class and it still impresses today.

The Best of Checkmate boxed set was issued by Timeless Media Group and includes twelve episodes. Picture quality isn’t stellar but it’s quite acceptable and for the fairly modest price the set offers good value. The entire series is also available on DVD although with a significantly stiffer price tag. Still it’s an interesting and original enough program that it’s probably worth investing in the complete series sets.

Checkmate is stylish crime television. Highly recommended.

Friday 21 March 2014

The Four Just Men (1959)

The Four Just Men was an ITC series made by Sapphire Films for British TV in 1959. It was inspired by Edgar Wallace’s mega-bestselling books featuring the Four Just Men.

Four men who had served together during the war in commando-style operations meet up again a decade and a half later to create an informal international organisation to fight for justice in areas where the police and the law have failed. Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a British MP, Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is a Paris-based American journalist and Rico Poccari (Vittorio de Sica) is the owner of an exclusive hotel in Rome.

Each episode focuses on the activities of one of the four stars. In common with so many British TV series of its era the cast has a transatlantic feel with two Americans and one Briton, although the addition of an Italian is unusual.

It’s an idea with potential, but it doesn’t quite come off. This is partly because of the half-hour format, which sometimes makes the cases seem a bit trivial, certainly too trivial for such an organisation to take an interest in.

Another problem is that Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men were not private detectives or mere amateur crime-fighters - they were more like vigilantes. Their TV counterparts do at times seem like little more than glorified private detectives. The TV version also lacks some of the edginess of Wallace’s. It might be unkind but it would not be entirely inaccurate to call the Four Just Men of the TV series the Four Bleeding Hearts. They seem afraid to get their hands dirty and the stories are somewhat sentimental and predictable. There’s no sense of moral ambiguity. These are men who seem to view the world in terms of conventional moral platitudes. 

The writing is a little weak also - there’s a reluctance to take risks. The tone of the series is unbearably earnest and self-satisfied, reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Hollywood “social problem” movies of that era. The audience cannot be trusted to form their own conclusions - they have to be bludgeoned into accepting the writers’ conclusions. The writing is manipulative. It’s like being lectured to.

The writing has other blemishes. In The Judge, one of the episodes featuring Richard Conte, we discover that all small-town people are dumb, vicious, small-minded hypocrites and every official in every small town is corrupt. Big city people on the other hand are all honest and fearless crusaders for social justice. In Village of Shame we discover that every single person in France was in the Resistance during the war. Both are irritating examples of lazy writing.

Episodes like Dead Man’s Switch are examples of this series at its absolute worst - nauseatingly self-righteous and manipulative to a degree that becomes positively offensive. This is an episode that illustrates the contempt that politically motivated writers so often have for their audience. It treats the viewer like a small child being lectured by Nanny.

On the plus side the series does feature two of my favourite actors, Jack Hawkins and Richard Conte. They both do their best despite the scripts but unfortunately it shows Conte at his worst, smug and irritatingly self-righteous.. Dan Dailey is OK, but Vittorio de Sica is a bit cringe-inducingly earnest.

By the standards of 1959 this was a rather expensive series, which may have been the factor that sealed its fate after a single season. It ruined Sapphire Films, although on the evidence of this series that might not have been a bad thing.

The money spent on the series doesn’t really show - it still has the very studio-bound feel we associate with TV of the 50s and 60s.

On the whole this series is a major disappointment. This is not just bad television; it is truly awful television. It proves that even in television’s golden age there were still some prize turkeys. Network DVD have done quite a nice job with the DVD release though.

Sunday 16 March 2014

It Takes a Thief (1968-70), season 1

It Takes a Thief was a spy series that ran from 1968 to 1970 on the American ABC network. It follows what was by then a well-established formula for such series that had been lain down by series such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible.

All three seasons have been released on DVD but at this stage it’s the first season I’m concerned with, for the very good reason that it’s the only one I’ve bought so far.

Alexander Mundy (Robert Wagner) is a very successful cat burglar. At least he was very successful until he got caught and found himself facing a very long spell in prison. Not a very pleasant prospect, especially for a thief who had developed a very definite taste for the finer things in life. Then Mundy receives an offer he can’t refuse. He can get out of prison, but only on the condition that in future he does his thieving for the US government. One of the major intelligence agencies has decided that such a skillful thief would make a very useful spy. 

Being a spy doesn’t especially appeal to Mundy but it sure beats sitting in a prison cell. 

Noah Bain (Malachi Throne) is the intelligence chief who recruited Mundy and now acts as his controller. Mundy is not the easiest of agents to control, but then Noah Bain is not the easiest of bosses to work for.

The premise of the series means that it is even more rigidly bound to a formula than most spy series. Since Mundy’s only secret agent skill is his ability to steal things every episode has to be built around that one skill. In every episode Mundy has to break into, or talk his way into, some very well-protected building of some sort and steal something, or occasionally plant something.

By this time television producers in the US (and to a large extent Britain as well) had arrived at the conclusion that the best way to disguise the fact that all the plots were very similar was to send the hero to exotic locations which would with any luck make the same basic plots seem reasonably fresh. Obviously no television series boasted budgets big enough to fly the cast and crew to actual exotic locations, so the exotic atmosphere was achieved by the judicious use of stock footage, the right kind of set dressing, and supporting players who could assume foreign accents (not always very convincing but convincing enough). Since most of the adventures would take place in mythical countries there was no need to worry too much about making costumes and accents accurate as long as they looked suitably foreign.

It Takes a Thief follows this formula to the letter. While it’s certainly not a ground-breaking show it’s executed with considerable style and was successful enough to last for three seasons.

In common with so many television series of its era the formula received a minor makeover for the third season, with the departure of Malachi Throne and the introduction of a new hero. The new hero was Alexander Mundy’s father Alistair, played by no less a personage than Fred Astaire. The idea was that Alistair would take over the lead role in occasional episodes. Astaire eventually appeared in five episodes. But as I’ve only seen the first season I’ll leave discussion of the later series to another time.

The absolutely crucial ingredient for a series of this type is the right hero played by the right actor and Robert Wagner fills the bill admirably. In some ways Alexander Mundy is an American version of The Saint - a sophisticated playboy type who hasn’t always been on the right side of the law but is now one of the good guys. And Wagner’s acting style is not wildly dissimilar to Roger Moore’s - it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek and very smooth and with plenty of charisma. Wagner can’t quite match Moore in the charisma department but he’s more than adequate.

The most interesting aspect of the series is the relationship between Mundy and his boss Noah Bain. They don’t particularly like one another but there’s a grudging respect. Wagner and Malachi Throne handle this relationship extremely well, playing off one another very neatly.

Alexander Mundy being something of a playboy it goes without saying that he will have a succession of glamorous female guest stars on whom to exercise his charms. Wagner does this quite adroitly and without becoming irritating.

It Takes a Thief is a triumph of style over substance, but the style is impressive enough and the first season is highly entertaining action adventure television.

It Takes a Thief has been released on DVD in Regions 1, 2 and 4. In Region 1 you can buy the first season on its own (and it can be found at a fairly reasonable price), otherwise you have to buy the complete series package which is a little on the expensive side. In Region 4 you can buy the three seasons individually but all they’re all very pricey.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75)

In 1972 Darren McGavin had appeared in a TV movie called The Night Stalker. He played Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak, who found himself investigating a series of bizarre crimes which he came to believe had supernatural causes. The Night Stalker was followed in 1973 by a second TV movie, The Night Strangler, featuring the same character. The success of the movies led ABC to follow them up with a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which ran during the 1974–1975 season.

Although it only lasted a single season the series soon gained a cult following, a following it retains to this day. The series is seen as being an influence on the supernatural/paranormal science fiction series that would become so popular in the 90s, series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more particularly, The X-Files.

The idea of a TV series dealing with people who encounter strange inexplicable events and then find themselves drawn into a web of paranoia and conspiracy wasn’t entirely new. The little-known and very underrated 1965 British TV series Undermind had already explored similar territory, territory British television would revisit in the late 70s with the equally underrated series The Omega Factor. It was however undoubtedly the continued popularity of Kolchak: The Night Stalker in syndication that provided most of the inspiration for series like The X-Files.

While the other series mentioned often offered science fictional explanations for the bizarre events with which they dealt Kolchak: The Night Stalker is more inclined to go for supernatural explanations. It does however have the basic template that made all these series work - one man who has uncovered terrifying truths that no-one in authority wants to acknowledge, a man who must then wage a lone campaign against the evil.

This series’ biggest strength is unquestionably Darren McGavin. Casting him as a shabby, down-at-heel, slightly seedy, but very feisty reporter who insists on sticking his nose in where it isn’t wanted was the kind of casting that simply couldn’t fail. And it didn’t. McGavin has a great time and even when the scripts aren’t quite up to par his sheer enthusiasm is enough to carry the stories.

The series’ biggest weakness is the somewhat uneven quality of the scripts. Some of the stories really haven’t been given quite enough thought and at times things are in danger of becoming merely silly. The Werewolf is a good example. A monster running loose on an ocean liner is a promising setup but werewolf stories are difficult to pull off successfully without very good and very expensive make-up effects and the series did not have the necessary budget. It’s hampered further by a tired script that has little to offer in the way of imagination. The Spanish Moss Murders is another episode let down by crude make-up effects. 

Firefall, The Devil’s Platform and Bad Medicine are episodes that show this series at its best, with some genuinely original ideas that provide some real chills. Doppelgangers, politicians relying on black magic to further their careers and an ancient American Indian medicine man trying to accumulate a treasure to work off a tribal curse - these are clever ideas and they’re exploited effectively. The Energy Eater is another excellent episode drawing on American Indian legends. Horror in the Heights is a reasonably good story, this time drawing on Hindu legends.

While the series has plenty of humour, with McGavin given the opportunity of demonstrating his adroitness with wise-cracks, the stories themselves are taken fairly seriously. Some stories might have worked better with a more overtly tongue-in-cheek approach, but in 1974 no-one was quite sure how to approach a series of this type.

The paranoia element is also not exploited to the full. Kolchak is constantly frustrated by his inability to convince anyone of the truth of the things he has seen but we don’t have the sense that he’s actually being menaced or that he’s in any real danger. Undermind had already demonstrated that this type of series works more effectively when we feel that the lead character or characters are facing real peril as a result of the knowledge they’ve uncovered. The X-Files would of course exploit this angle very fully and to good effect but Kolchak misses the boat a little in this respect. We don’t even feel that he’s in any serious danger of losing his job, much less his life.

On the plus side the series does offer plenty of variety. It’s not just a succession of vampire, werewolf and ghost stories. Some of the ideas still seem remarkably fresh and original. Limited budgets and not entirely convincing special effects were always a problem for television series dealing with supernatural and science fiction themes in that era but this series at its best gets around the problem by the time-honoured method of not letting us see the monsters too closely or too often, relying instead on atmosphere and suggestion. The Energy Eater episode is an excellent example of this, with the terror being built up very effectively by showing us the results of the monster’s malevolence rather than showing us the monster itself.

On the whole, despite occasional misfires, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a great deal of fun. The good episodes outnumber the bad ones by a healthy margin and McGavin is delightful. Highly recommended.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Chocky (1984)

I’ve just finished watching Thames Television’s 1984 adaptation of John Wyndham’s Chocky. This was Wyndham’s final science fiction novel.

The TV adaptation was pitched as a children’s series but it’s one of those rare children’s series that is perfectly watchable by adults. Apart from the fact that the central character is a 12-year-old boy it doesn’t have much of a children’s TV feel.

The premise of both the novel and the series is that Matthew, a 12-year-old boy, suddenly appears to have an imaginary friend named Chocky. Only this imaginary friend may not be imaginary at all. His parents become increasingly worried, especially when a psychiatrist tells them that in his opinion Chocky is most certainly real.

The interest of the story is that it’s a kind of science fictional twist on the demonic possession idea, but the real twist is that Chocky really appears to be rather benign. Perhaps even benevolent. Having your son possessed by an alien entity, even an apparently benevolent one, is of course still rather disturbing.

The series benefits from some fine acting. James Hazeldine is particularly good as Matthew’s father. His performance is nicely restrained. He’s clearly worried about his son but he’s also determined not to make the mistake of over-reacting. Carol Drinkwater is also good as Matthew’s mother.

Andrew Ellams as Matthew is just right. Matthew is pretty ordinary, apart from the alien possession thing of course. But basically he’s an ordinary kid, not at all precocious, and really pretty likeable. Much of the time he was having to do scenes involving interacting with a being that the character could see, but he as an actor could not, Chocky being represented by a special effect added later. That kind of acting is challenging for an experienced actor but Ellams handles it effortlessly.

John Wyndham was probably, of all the great science fiction writers, the most quintessentially English. And also perhaps the most understated. Even in his disaster novels it was his subtle and low-key style that contributed to the impact of his stories. The TV series captures the same sort of feel. Very ordinary English people suddenly confronting something totally inexplicable and terrifying, but dealing with it with quiet courage and resolution. Chocky is the most low-key of all Wyndham’s novels but Thames succeeded in turning it into a rather entertaining series. Recommended.

The series was successful enough to spawn two sequels, neither of which I've seen and both of which have a rather poor reputation.

The original series is available on Region 2 DVD on its own and in a boxed set that includes the two sequel series.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Supernatural (1977)

Supernatural was a 1977 BBC TV series devised by Robert Muller, who wrote the bulk of the scripts. It lasted for only one season, of eight episodes, and then vanished into obscurity. After having watched a few episodes I can readily understand why it vanished into obscurity.

The idea was quite a good one. An exclusive society, the Club of the Damned, demands an unusual qualification for membership. Prospective members must tell a tale of the supernatural. If the story succeeds in chilling the nerves of the existing membership then the would-be member is admitted. If the story fails to satisfy even one member then not only is membership refused - the prospective member forfeits his life.

Muller’s stated intention was to revive the classic gothic tale, relying on atmosphere and ideas rather than blood and gore. He also chose to use period settings rather than to employ the dubious and difficult technique of trying to tell gothic stories in a contemporary setting. Laudable intentions indeed. There are however a few problems.

By 1977 British television series were starting to break out of the studio-bound shackles of the early years of British television. Supernatural is however very studio-bound indeed. The stories often take place in exotic locales. The usual method of dealing with this in 1960s British television was to use some stock footage to set the location and then film everything else in the studio. Supernatural uses a different technique. It uses paintings and camera tricks to evoke its exotic settings. It’s an interesting technique that at times works surprisingly well. The fact remains that the series does remain very studio-bound and by the standards of 1977 looks a little old-fashioned. Visually the series could have been filmed a decade earlier.

The limitations of studio shooting could be turned into an asset by an imaginative director and a gothic series might well have benefited from the kind of claustrophobic feel that a good director could achieve in a studio. Supernatural unfortunately often looks merely cheap.

The series certainly had some fine acting talent at its disposal, but even this could at times be a problem, as we shall see.

The first episode, Ghost of Venice, deals with ageing Shakespearian actor Adrian Gall (played by Robert Hardy). He is obsessed with the idea that during a very successful season in Venice some years earlier something was stolen from him. Something very valuable indeed. Oddly enough his wife can remember nothing of any robbery having taken place at the time. Nor can the Prefect of Police in Venice, a kindly man and an old friend of Gall’s.

In fact something really was stolen from Gall, but it was not material goods. The difficulty with this script is that the nature of the stolen goods is revealed rather too early, which has the effect of making subsequent events less ambiguous and more predictable than they should be. The other key plot point is also revealed too early. As a result this episode doesn’t quite manage to deliver the punch it needed. Robert Hardy was a fine character actor but his performance is allowed to become rather too hammy.

Having said that, Ghost of Venice is still an interesting and original idea even if the execution is not all it might have been.

The Mr Nightingale episode has far bigger problems. Again it’s potentially a good idea. Jeremy Brett plays the title character, a rather shy and obviously virginal Englishman lodging with a German family in Hamburg. It’s a doppelganger tale, a staple of gothic fiction. Like Ghost of Venice this episode also attempts to bring the gothic tale up to date by adding sex to the mix. Unfortunately this episode’s desperate attempt to create an atmosphere of sexual repression is somewhat overdone.

Jeremy Brett’s performance can only be described as grotesque. Grotesque, but not in a good way. Brett was always inclined to resort to sceney-chewing and was always at his best when this tendency was kept under a certain amount of control. In this case however he goes completely over the top, and unfortunately he also goes completely off the rails. Lesley-Anne Down also overacts and the combination is not a happy one. The script is all over the place and Brett’s wayward performance makes the episode seem more ridiculous than chilling.

Despite my disappointment with the first two episodes I determined to give this series another chance, and Night of the Marionettes certainly marks a distinct improvement. It’s a genuinely good idea and this time Muller makes the most it. It is 1882. Howard Lawrence is a scholar who has devoted his career to a study of the lives of Shelley and Byron. He is particularly obsessed by the summer the two poets spent at the Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva. It was there that Byron, Shelley, Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley) and Dr John Polidori competed in telling ghost stories, as a result of which the 19-year-old Mary Shelley began a novel, the novel being of course Frankenstein.

Howard Lawrence and his wife and his daughter (significantly named Mary) have lodged at a small inn in Switzerland. Lawrence convinces himself that Shelley and his wife stayed at this same inn before travelling on to the Villa Diodati. There are rarely if ever any guests at this inn but the innkeeper makes a living by running a marionette theatre. A very extraordinary marionette theatre. Lawrence and his daughter will witness some very strange events in connection with this theatre, events that will give Lawrence the answer to the literary puzzles that have long obsessed him, but he will pay a high price for the knowledge he gains.

The performances in the marionette theatre, with its sets remarkably reminiscent of German Expressionist films of the 1920s, are effectively creepy and this episode goes on to deliver some genuine chills. Vladek Sheydal is superb as the sinister innkeeper while Pauline Moran is excellent as Mary. 

Viktoria (the only episode not written by Muller) has some reasonably good ideas but self-destructs due to its obsession with trying to view Victorian sexuality through the prism of late 1970s feminist wishful thinking. Lady Sybil suffers also from Muller's determination to impose Freudian silliness on the past. On the other hand Dorabella is an effective and atmospheric vampire tale.

Supernatural was an intriguing idea but so far I have to say that it's extremely uneven. It’s a series that’s not entirely without interest but viewers are advised not to set their expectations too high. The BFI's recent UK DVD release offers decent transfers.