Monday 27 October 2014

Federal Men (1950-55)

The classic Hollywood B-movie was virtually dead by the 1950s. One of the great B-movie staples had always been the B crime movie, and its place was largely taken by TV cop shows and private eye shows. One of the more successful of these TV series was Federal Men, also known as Treasury Men in Action, which ran from 1950-1955.

This series was clearly influenced by the documentary-style crime movies that had started appearing at the tail end of the 40s, movies like The Naked City (1948). It follows the adventures of a team of Treasury agents as they hunt down tax evaders and counterfeiters. Treasury agents had of course already featured in crime movies like Anthony Mann’s classic T-Men.

In the episodes I’ve watched over the last few days a certain film noir influence is also apparent, with several stories focussing on fundamentally decent guys who get caught up in crime more or less against their will. The Case of the Chartered Chiseler for example features a classic noir loser who made one dumb mistake and as a result gets dragged deeper and deeper into a noir nightmare. The Case of the Man Outside involves a prisoner who is desperately trying to steer clear of a prison racket. He’s serving a long sentence but now he’s almost eligible for parole, if he can stay out of trouble for the next few weeks. This turns out to be an almost impossible challenge. The Case of the Iron Curtain is yet another story in which an innocent man is unwittingly lured into crime.

The series was claimed to be based on actual cases.

While the photography was in the typically flat style of television the cheap sets and generally gritty atmosphere gives the series a feel not dissimilar to the average crime B-movie. An entertaining series and fairly typical of the realistic style that American TV was striving for in its early 50s cop shows.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Callan - The Monochrome Years (1967-69)

Network DVD’s Callan - The Monochrome Years boxed set includes all twelve surviving black-and-white episodes from the first two seasons originally broadcast in 1967 and 1969. 

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original version which served as the pilot episode of the Callan TV series. 

There are some interesting differences between this pilot and the series proper. The relationship between Callan and his disreputable and evil-smelling burglar pal Lonely hasn’t yet been fleshed out. The strange affection that Callan has for Lonely is not yet in evidence, and we have no hints of the backstory that explains the unlikely friendship between a government assassin and a burglar. 

The other big difference us that Toby Meres is played by Peter Bowles, of all people! Now I’m a big fan of Peter Bowles, but this is unexpected casting indeed. And it doesn’t really work. Partly this is because you can’t help comparing this to Anthony Valentine’s superb and chilling performance in the series proper. The Bowles version of Meres is neither sinister nor frightening, nor does he have the surface charm that hides the viper underneath.

Edward Woodward though has already nailed the character of Callan pretty effectively. And the cynicism and pessimism, and the total lack of glamour, the seediness, all these ingredients are present. The story itself works quite well, although the later movie version is probably superior overall.

The picture and sound quality are pretty dodgy, but it’s a miracle this very first appearance of Callan has survived at all.

Watching the very early episodes of Callan it’s interesting to note the differences compared to the more familiar third and fourth seasons. I’ve seen all the third and fourth season episodes several times, but I’d never seen the black-and-white episodes at all. 

Both the pilot episode and the first episode of the series proper make extensive use of voiceover narration by Edward Woodward. Dropping that practice in later seasons was definitely a good idea - it’s overused and not really necessary. By season two the series has settled down into the format that would become more familiar in seasons three and four.

The relationship between Hunter and Callan in season one is interesting - more personal and much more bitter. I can’t imagine Callan speaking to the William Squires version of Hunter the way he speaks to the original version. 

Even this early on the Callan-Toby Meres relationship is fun. In a single episode so much has already been established. Not just their intense dislike for one another, but the reasons for it. I love the fact that as much as they hate each other’s guts, they still have great respect for each other’s professionalism. They both know that in their line of work you can’t allow personal feelings to influence the way you do your job. You might hate the guy you have to work with, but you might also have to rely on him to save your life.

It’s also interesting finding out more about Callan’s early history with the Section. Most of it could be inferred in later seasons, but it does make some of his bitterness more comprehensible.

The Good Ones Are All Dead was the first true episode after the original Armchair Theatre drama, and it’s very typically Callan - loads of moral ambiguity and cynicism. It has a rather sympathetic Nazi war criminal, and a rather unsympathetic and quite fanatical Israeli agent hunting him. At the same time the horrors of the Nazi’s crimes are not minimised. Callan’s ambivalence about the morality of his job, even when the target is someone who is clearly guilty of terrible crimes, is already becoming nicely complex and tortured.

Quite a few of these early episodes do not have pure Cold War themes. Death of a Friend deals with French OAS terrorists. The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw deals with a British brigadier who has unwisely becomes embroiled in Middle Eastern politics. This episode fills in quite a bit of Callan’s personal backstory, the brigadier in question having been Callan’s CO in Malaya.

There were several different Hunters (as the head of the shadowy Section is named) in the first two seasons and they seem to get themselves mixed up in the action to a degree that the Hunter of seasons three and four would have disapproved of. One of these Hunters, in the extremely good episode Heir Apparent, is a British spy in East Germany. Before he can take over as Hunter Callan and Meres will have to get him out of East Germany alive, an undertaking that turns out to be considerably more difficult than they’d anticipated.

Without taking anything away from the performance of Patrick Mower (a very fine actor) as Cross in season three and the early part of season four there’s no question that Toby Meres as portrayed by Anthony Valentine was the ideal foil for Edward Woodward’s Callan. The menace wrapped in public school charm of Meres is one of the high points of television espionage.

Had Callan been made a few years later it would undoubtedly have been shot on film with a lot more location footage. We can therefore be thankful it was made when it was, with all the brooding claustrophobia that was so much easier to capture in a studio. 

Callan remains the greatest of all television spy series and viewing these black-and-white episodes, unseen for decades, further enhances the reputation of the series. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Tales of Frankenstein (1958 TV pilot)

Tales of Frankenstein was the 1958 pilot episode for a proposed television series which was to be a collaboration between Columbia and Hammer Films. The immense success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents had resulted in a great deal of interest on the part of TV networks in the possibility of other anthology series, an interest that would bear fruit in such series as Thriller and The Twilight Zone. Tales of Frankenstein would have been slightly different - a true gothic horror anthology series.

Given that Hammer were riding high after scoring a major with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and that this success had established that there was a definite audience for gothic horror, the television series seemed like a very good idea. In fact it was a very good idea, but unfortunately everything went wrong.

The plan was for 26 episodes, 13 to be made by Columbia in the US and 13 by Hammer in England. The pilot episode was to be made in the US, and that’s where the trouble started. Columbia had bought the TV rights to the old Universal horror films and had had considerable success with them. They naturally wanted the TV series to be done in the Universal style. This was both puzzling and exasperating for Hammer, who just as naturally had assumed that the series would be in the Hammer horror style. After all, why involve Hammer at all if you weren’t going to make use of their expertise in making their own distinctive and much more modern style of gothic horror? 

Even worse, Hammer’s Michael Carreras discovered that Columbia weren’t interested in the script ideas Hammer had developed for the series. The only real input that Hammer had to the pilot episode was the choice of star. Hammer wanted Anton Diffring to play Baron Frankenstein, a logical choice since they were about to launch him as a gothic horror star in their upcoming (and extremely good) movie The Man Who Cheated Death. Diffring got the starring role in the TV pilot.

Columbia had a script written by Henry Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore. They had gained plenty of in the genre writing for the pulp magazines in the 30s. Their script was based on a story by Curt Siodmak. Siodmak was a fine writer so there should have been no problem. Unfortunately Siodmak was also hired to direct the pilot. Curt Siodmak was proof that being a good writer does not automatically make someone a good director.

Michael Carreras had by this time given up in despair and returned to England, sending out Anthony Hinds to keep an eye on things in the US. Hinds had no more success than Carreras had had in getting Hammer’s viewpoint across and soon he too gave up and returned home. 

Nobody at Hammer Films was the slightest bit happy with the pilot once they saw it. It was most definitely not at all what they had had in mind.

So was the pilot as bad as Hammer thought? The answer to that is a qualified no. Given that Columbia wanted something that looked like the old Universal horror movies the results were by no means terrible. And the ABC network was quite impressed by the pilot and were very interested in buying the series. Sadly it was not to be. Relations between Columbia and Hammer having more or less broken down completely the project was shelved.

The pilot episode was pretty much a stock-standard Frankenstein story but as an introduction to the series that was not necessarily a bad thing. Once the series had established itself there would have been plenty of opportunities to do slightly more original stories.

The attempt to copy the Universal style worked fairly well. The gothic atmosphere is captured quite effectively. The horror is rather low-key but that at least meant there would be no censorship hassles with the network.

It also needs to be said that capturing the distinctive Hammer horror style in black-and-white would have presented quite a challenge.

Diffring is a reasonably good Baron Frankenstein although his characteristic rather distant acting style meant that the character lacked the subtlety of Peter Cushing’s interpretation, and it has to be said that Diffring’s Frankensein probably had less potential for development than Cushing’s.

The whole affair was not a complete loss for Hammer. Many of the ideas they had come up with for the series were later utilised in their Frankenstein movies. In fact the experience of trying to come up with variations on the story may well have convinced them  that making movie sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein was a more promising idea than a TV series.

Image Entertainment have released the pilot episode on DVD. The problem they faced was that even at a budget price purchasers might be disappointed that all they were getting was a single half-hour episode of a TV series. Their solution was to load the DVDs with extras. There’s a very good commentary track, there are brief interviews with Michael Carreras and Peter Cushing, there’s an extended radio interview with Boris Karloff and another with Glenn Strange (who played the monster in the later Universal movies). There are also lots of trailers for various Frankenstein movies. Given the very reasonable asking price the DVD is not bad value. Tales of Frankenstein itself is in reasonable condition for a 1950s TV episode.

Tales of Frankenstein was a lost opportunity but the pilot episode is not without interest, and not without entertainment value. It’s definitely worth a look.

Monday 6 October 2014

Hazell, season one (1978)

Hazell was a British private eye TV series made by Thames TV. It ran for two seasons in 1978 and 1979. It’s a slightly unusual series with a flavour all its own.

Hazell was based on a series of novels by Gordon Williams and Terry Venables (better known as a footballer and football team manager).

James Hazell is a young cockney cop turned private eye. Some years earlier it had all turned sour for Hazell and for a few years he had crawled inside a bottle and stayed there. Now he’s cleaned himself up and has a career as a private detective. Not quite a thriving career. He has a flashy car (a Triumph Stag) and a flashy wardrobe but whether he can keep up the payments on the car is another matter.

The setup makes it sound like it’s going to belong squarely to the gritty realism school school of crime series with a hefty dose of cynicism. In fact it’s nothing like that at all. Hazell is a likeable guy and although he looks at life with a certain amount if scepticism he’s by no means cynical. He’s actually a bit of a soft touch. He’s no shrinking violet but he’s definitely not a stereotypical tough guy. He doesn’t like shooters and he’d rather talk his way out of trouble than use his fists. This is in fact a remarkably non-violent crime series, especially for Britain in the 70s (that being the era of The Sweeney).

The most popular and long-running private eye series on British television in that era was Public Eye, which ran from 1965 to 1975. Hazell shares the unconventional non-heroic tone of that series but without its shabbiness and seediness. James Hazell doesn’t have much in common with the chronically down-at-heel Frank Marker, but he does have the same ability to deal with life’s disappointments without surrendering to despair or cheap cynicism.

There are plenty of amusing moments and there’s some very witty dialogue but the series is never played as comedy. It has its dark moments but it isn’t interested in wallowing in misery. It walks a fine line between such extremes. It can perhaps best be described as quirky. James Hazell regards the world with tolerant amusement. That’s the chief charm of the series - it adopts Hazell’s attitude towards life. Hazell just wants to earn a living, keep out of trouble and get as much enjoyment as he can out of life with the minimum of aggravation. Of course life, and his chosen field of employment, conspire to keep getting him into trouble.

The bane of his life is Detective-Inspector Minty, known inevitably as Choc Minty. Minty is a dour Scotsman and he disapproves rather strongly of Hazell. Again the series avoids obvious clichés - Minty might be humourless and disapproving but he’s an honest cop and he’s fair-minded enough to admit it when Hazell turns out to be right about something. And Hazell knows that while Minty would happily run him in if he crossed the wrong line he is not the kind of cop who would ever frame somebody.

The casting of Nicholas Ball was inspired. He is perhaps just a couple of years too young but aside from that he is perfect. He plays the role with a very sure touch, never over-doing things.

The series has a good deal of fun playing with the conventions of film noir and of the 1940s American private eye movie. Each episode features film noir voice-over narration by the lead actor. Hazell is to some extent modeled on famous film private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and to a considerable extent he has modeled himself on such characters. On the other hand the characters and setting are vehemently British. This gives the series much of its distinctive flavour. If you can imagine a cockney Philip Marlowe in the slightly flashy slightly seedy atmosphere of London pubs and dog tracks and betting shops then you’ve imagined James Hazell.

Hazell had a reasonably generous budget, enough to allow for quite a bit of location shooting and to give the series a feeling of quality and class.

Hazell and the Weekend Man is a typical episode. It involves a case that seems unlikely to go anywhere but slowly Hazell realises that something odd is definitely going on. He thinks he knows what it is, but it’s something his client is going to be quite unhappy about it. And Hazell isn’t sure he should tell the client. Maybe it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie? But sometimes that just isn’t possible.

Hazell Works for Nothing sees Hazell taking on a case that promises no money and potentially a very great deal of aggravation, and it will almost certainly get him into Inspector Minty’s bad books. Hazell really doesn’t want anything to do with this case but his mum insisted that he take it, which doesn’t leave him much choice.

There are quite a few episodes in which Hazell slowly comes to realise that the client is manipulating him. That’s an obvious link with the private eye movies of the 40s. It’s the sort of thing that as always happening to Philip Marlowe. It’s a plot device that lends itself to tragic consequences and downbeat endings but this series tends to use it for the purpose of wry amusement and gentle irony.

Network DVD have released both seasons in a single boxed set.

Hazell is stylish, slightly offbeat and always entertaining. Very highly recommended.