Saturday 23 April 2016

Thriller - Pigeons from Hell (1961)

Pigeons from Hell was first screened in 1961 as episode 36 from the first season of NBC’s anthology series Thriller which ran from 1960 to 1962. It’s widely considered to be one of the best, if not the very best, episode of the entire series.

It helps that it happens to be based on one of the best short stories of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the creator of Conan the Barbarian.

Two young men, brothers in fact, take shelter in an isolated decaying southern mansion after their car breaks down. The most sinister thing about the mansion, curiously, is the presence of the pigeons. Something seems rather wrong about the birds. 

The two brothers, Timothy (Brandon de Wilde) and Johnny (David Whorf) settle down for the night but one of them will not live until morning. When Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton) arrives the surviving brother, Timothy, has a strange tale to tell. Johnny tried to kill him, but Johnny was already dead. This is just the beginning of a night of terror.

There are several things that make this episode notable. The flat lighting for which television in 1961 was renowned is nowhere in evidence here. Lionel Lindon’s superb cinematography is moody and atmospheric with an extraordinarily bold use of shadows.

It also pushes the edge of the envelope as far as gore is concerned. By later standards it’s mild and it’s certainly not gratuitous or excessive but in 1961 it was pretty startling.

Director John Newland had an interesting career in television. He’s best remembered as the host of the paranormal anthology series One Step Beyond (1959-61) and he directed no less than 96 episodes of that series. Pigeons from Hell may well be the best thing he ever did.

Which brings us back to those pigeons. Making pigeons sinister and frightening isn’t easy but Newland manages the trick very effectively. There are moments that anticipate some of the most famous scenes in Hitchcock’s The Birds and while I’m not going to claim that Newland was in the same league as Hitchcock there are scenes in Pigeons from Hell that can quite legitimately be compared to Hitchcock’s film. There are also some definite thematic links to Psycho.

Newland makes masterful use of the setting. There’s a wonderful decaying staircase in the mansion. We know, and the characters know, that as long as they remain on the ground floor they’re safe. Whenever they climb that staircase they’re in danger. But they can’t solve the mystery unless they do climb that staircase. It’s almost like a bridge from the everyday world to a nightmare world and Newland exploits it to the full.

The pacing is leisurely, but deliberately so. We get one big scare early on and after that the atmosphere of menace and evil builds slowly towards further big scares that we know are certainly coming.

It’s interesting to compare this episode to the much-admired episode of The Twilight Zone I wrote about recently - The Invaders. Both episodes show that by the early 60s television was certainly coming of age. Both are ambitious and take risks stylistically. The Invaders was written by Richard Matheson. Pigeons from Hell was based on a Robert E. Howard story. These are two writers who understood the mechanism of terror very well indeed, and understood that the less obvious terrors are the most frightening.

Brandon de Wilde was only 19 at the time but gives a fine performance, ably supported by Crahan Denton. Both actors are willing to go a little over-the-top when it’s necessary.

Pigeons from Hell lives up to its reputation as one of the finest moments of the Thriller series. Great television.

Saturday 16 April 2016

The A-Team, season 1 (1983)

With its over-the-top but very cartoonish violence and its general air of mayhem and craziness The A-Team became one of the legendary cult TV series of the 80s. It ran on NBC from 1983 to 1987.

Mercenaries had figured in several great cult movies of the late 60s and 70s such as Dark of the Sun and The Wild Geese so it was perhaps only a matter of time before they featured in an action adventure TV series. The A-Team is a US Special Forces unit that had served in Vietnam but one of their more spectacular missions went badly wrong. Actually the mission was a success but the officer who ordered the mission got himself killed so the team had no proof that their mission was authorised, and as a result they found themselves facing a court-martial. They escaped from custody before the court-martial could be convened and now they make their living as commandos-for-hire.

The A-Team comprises Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), mechanical wizard Sergeant B. A. Baracus (Mr T), smooth-talking con-man Lieutenant Templeton "Face" Peck (played by Tim Dunigan in the pilot and by Dirk Benedict in the series) and insane (literally insane) pilot “Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz). 

Their nemesis is military policeman Colonel Lynch (William Lucking) who is obsessed with tracking them down and forcing them to face that court-martial.

The pilot episode, Mexican Slayride, gives us much of the background. Nobody is really sure the A-Team even exists but feisty girl reporter Amy Allen (Melinda Culea) believes that they do. And she just happens to need a team of commandos. Fellow reporter Al Massey (William Windom) has been kidnapped by a gang of Mexican bandits. Amy is determined to free him. Massey had discovered something big, something that was more than just a simple gang of bandits.

The A-Team is willing to help her although they do expect to receive a token payment - of $150,000. Transportation to Mexico won’t be a problem. They will just “borrow” a Gulfstream executive jet. The big problem will be persuading B. A. Baracus to board the jet. He is terrified of flying and their usual method is to forcibly drug him and then strap him down to his seat (he needs to be strapped down so he won’t kill them when he regains consciousness). Getting the other equipment they will need involves conning the Mexican Film Commission into thinking they’re big time Hollywood film-makers and they need a few simple props for their movie - just little things like a crop-dusting aircraft, some armour plate and perhaps an artillery piece or two. 

Mexican Slayride is a non-stop roller coaster ride of craziness and mayhem involving the expenditure of thousands of rounds of ammunition and countless explosions and wrecked vehicles. It establishes one of the this show’s trademarks - despite all the shooting and all the stuff getting blown up nobody ever seems to get seriously hurt. There’s an immense amount of violence but no blood. 

This first season covers many of the favourite obsessions of its time period. In Children of Jamestown it’s a religious cult. In Pros and Cons it’s the ever-popular Evil Redneck Cops in the Deep South and in A Small and Deadly War it’s corrupt cops (although the series goes to extraordinary lengths to assure us over and over again but it’s just a Few Bad Apples). 

Breaking someone out of captivity is a trope that the series did tend to over-use just a little (although having said that I have to admit that The A-Team usually does this with style) so A Small and Deadly War is all the more refreshing for avoiding that particular concept.

Black Day at Bad Rock (a nod to the 1950s Spencer Tracy movie Bad Day at Black Rock) covers another obsession of the day - biker gangs. B. A. has been shot up in an operation and the team stops at a small California town to get medical help for him but the doctor thinks it’s a bit strange that his friends claim it was a hunting accident - what kind of game do you hunt with a .50 cal machine-gun? She calls the cops and Hannibal and Face get themselves arrested just as a biker gang is about to descend upon the town. Much mayhem naturally ensues.

The Rabbit Who Ate Las Vegas sees the A-Team up against gambling racketeers. A brilliant mathematician has invented a fool-proof method for beating the odds at the gambling tables and not surprisingly the gambling bosses take a very dim view of this. The A-Team have to rescue the mathematician.

The Out-of-Towners is basically another retelling of The Seven Samurai with frightened storekeepers in Manhattan employing the A-Team to protect them against the oppression of extortion racketeers. West Coast Turnaround sees the team helping out a farmer who can’t get his produce to market. Not much of a story this time and this is definitely a lesser episode. 

A mission in Guatemala goes badly wrong for the A-Team in Holiday in the Hills. Murdock manages to get them out but their aircraft crashes. Maybe stealing an aircraft that was due for repair was not such a great idea? They crash in South Carolina only to find themselves hunted by hillbillies. Murdock has a plan for getting them out. He’s seen the movie Flight of the Phoenix and he figures that if survivors of a plane crash in a movie can build a new one out of the wreckage then they should be able to do the same thing.

In One More Time we’re back to the breaking out of captivity thing again although this time instead of having to worry about being pursued by the US Government they’re working for the government. Which can be even worse. Till Death Do Us Part looks like being yet another retread of the same basic trope but there’s end up being more to the story. And the helicopter chase is pretty cool. 

The first season of The A-Team works because it starts out being an outlandish cartoonish adventure romp series and that’s what it remains. The temptation to take itself even moderately seriously is valiantly resisted. It’s unashamedly and defiantly silly.

The acting is perfect. OK, maybe Dwight Schultz pushes the crazy thing a bit too hard at times but he manages to be genuinely amusing. Dirk Benedict is delightfully smooth and charming. Mr T is superb. B. A. Baracus is a big scary intimidating guy and he’s plenty tough when he needs to be but underneath he’s a big softie. Mr T gets this across without ever crossing the line into over-sentimentality. George Peppard chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on. This is very different to his earlier TV hit Banacek although Peppard's trademark self-confidence is equally apparent in both series. All the characters are caricatures but they’re meant to be. They’re cartoon characters and all the cast members understand this and play it accordingly.

The stunts are nothing if not spectacular. They must have wrecked hundreds of cars and other assorted vehicles making this series. No episode is complete without its full complement of explosions and cars flying through the air. The stunts, like everything else, are deliberately exaggerated and cartoonish and that’s why they work.

The A-Team is a roller-coaster ride of non-stop mayhem all done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Terrific fun and as long as you don’t take it the slightest bit seriously it’s highly recommended.

Sunday 10 April 2016

The Twilight Zone - The Invaders (1961)

I’m not the most enthusiastic fan of The Twilight Zone but I do have fond memories of some of the episodes written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. I’m particularly fond of Matheson’s episodes so I figured I’d revisit some of his more memorable contributions.

First cab off the rank will be The Invaders, episode 15 of season 2. It’s generally considered to be one of the best Twilight Zone episodes ever. We’ll see how well it stands up.

The story takes place in an isolated farmhouse where a woman, played by Agnes Moorehead, lives alone. She hears some strange noises and upon investigating discovers a flying saucer on her roof. A very small flying saucer. With two very small crew members. They might be robots or they might be aliens. Either way they’re about six inches high. Somehow this episode has to make such an absurd situation terrifying. And it succeeds. These two small crew members are well armed. Against creatures their own size their weapons would be devastating. Even against a woman so much huger than themselves they can still be pretty nasty.

Adding to the terror is of course the impossibility of communication. She has no idea what these creatures want. All she is sure of is that they seem pretty hostile. Of course she, in her fear and confusion, has done things that might seem pretty hostile to them. In any case it now seems to be a fight for survival, with the odds very uncertain.

There is of course a plot twist, a very famous plot twist, but rest assured I do not intend to reveal it.

This was a remarkably bold piece of television for 1961. There is only one cast member, and she has no dialogue at all. The entire story has to be told visually, and everything we learn about Agnes Moorehead’s character and her emotional reactions we have to learn without the benefit of dialogue. Fortunately, thanks to a powerhouse performance by Moorehead, a great script by Matheson and inspired work by director Douglas Heyes, it all works superbly.

Playing the entire episode without dialogue was no doubt made easier for Moorehead by the fact that she had studied mime under Marcel Marceau.

The look of this episode is just as bold as the concept. It has a feel more typical of film noir or gothic horror than science fiction, all shadows and very dimly lit. Much of the action is shot so as to appear to be taking place by candlelight. In 1961 flat lighting was the norm in television, partly because broadcast quality in those days was rather poor. It was a brave television director of photography who attempted moody atmospheric lighting and most were terrified of shadows because of the risk that viewers would end up seeing nothing but darkness. George T. Clemens was clearly not afraid to take such risks and his daring pays off.

The flying saucer is in fact the spacecraft model used in the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. The tiny aliens/robots were designed by Douglas Heyes and built, strangely enough, by the make-up department. They were, obviously, puppets and they were worked by Douglas Heyes himself.

It all looks splendid today on Blu-Ray and the Blu-Ray presentation includes no less than four audio commentary tracks! It’s a half-hour episode so expecting the viewer to spend a further two hours listening to four commentaries might seem rather optimistic but this is (quite rightly) regarded as one of the all-time great television science fiction episodes so such an expectation is probably justified. The Invaders really is good enough to make such an effort worthwhile.

This episode not only stands up remarkably well it also remains as boldly unconventional and quirky (both in content and style) as it was in 1961. For all my reservations about The Twilight Zone I have to say that The Invaders is superb television.

Monday 4 April 2016

Zodiac (1974)

Zodiac was one of several attempts by British television in the late 60s and early 70s to come up with a formula that would successfully add the paranormal or the supernatural to a mystery or action adventure series. ITC had some success with a ghostly private detective in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in 1969. Baffled was an Anglo-American attempt that got no further than a pilot episode in 1973 although it actually had considerable potential. Zodiac, which lasted just six episodes in 1974, was Thames Television’s foray into this sub-genre.

Detective-Inspector Gradley (Anton Rodgers) teams up with astrologer Esther Jones (Anouska Hempel) in this series which seems to have aimed mostly for gentle comedy.

Anton Rodgers was better known for situation comedies like Fresh Fields. He was certainly adept at light comedy although he makes a somewhat unlikely policeman. On the other hand Gradley is supposed to be an unconventional policeman. He was all set to be an idle young man living on a fortune he’d inherited until he discovered the rather disturbing terms of his grandfather’s  will - he only gets the fortune as long as he remains a serving police officer. As a result he has a slightly casual and even haphazard approach to the job. He doesn’t really think he’s all that suited to being a police officer but he doesn’t have much choice and he’s the sort of chap who accepts such things philosophically. That all works well enough although he’s still perhaps just a little too gentle and effete and aristocratic and laidback.

Anouska Hempel has the advantage of looking the way you might expect a 1970s astrologer to look, or perhaps she really looks more like a model who might dabble in astrology. 

The first episode, Death of a Crab, introduces the two lead characters. Gradley is investigating the murder of a man found in the bath of a penthouse flat only it wasn’t his fault and how he came to be there is as much a mystery as his death. Esther Jones is a suspect. Gradley is pretty sceptical when he discovers she’s an astrologer although his scepticism soon starts to fade. 

The most difficult problem for this type of series is to get the tone right. It can’t be too jokey and there’s a danger in overdoing the whimsy but on the other hand you don’t want to take things too seriously. Initial impressions suggest that Zodiac doesn’t take itself quite seriously enough. There are other problems. Unless you’re aiming for pure comedy there’s not much point in introducing paranormal elements unless there’s at least some spookiness or some definite sense of the uncanny. There isn’t quite enough of either of these elements in the first episode.

Also if you’re going to have a crime-solving team of a policeman and an astrologer you need to convince the viewer that the policeman really could not solve these cases without the astrologer. I’m not sure that Zodiac entirely succeeds in doing this. The astrology stuff doesn’t seem to be quite central enough to the plot of Death of a Crab.

Zodiac was created by Roger Marshall, one of the best TV writers in the business. This was a change of pace for him which was presumably what attracted him to the idea. Marshall was known for writing clever and witty scripts for series like The Avengers and Zodiac demonstrates a certain amount of exactly the same sort of wit. Marshall had also created the superb Public Eye series and the sympathy and humanity with which he imbued that series is also in evidence in Zodiac.

The good news is that the chemistry between the two leads works surprisingly well and they both handle the witty banter with assurance. 

This is fundamentally a good-natured series. Gradley is an unlikely cop but he’s a nice fellow and while Esther has a few hippie tendencies she’s a pretty nice person as well.

Episode two, The Cool Aquarian, is more interesting and a considerable improvement. It relies a good deal on coincidence but then when you’re dealing with astrology maybe the reliance on coincidence could have been quite intentional. A hard-driving businessman receives a ransom demand after a young woman is kidnapped. Which is very strange since he’s never even heard of the young lady concerned. In this episode the series starts to come together quite nicely. The paranormal/psychic/astrological elements play an important plot function but without dominating too much - good old-fashioned psychology and logical deduction help as well. The banter between the two leads seems more relaxed and more natural and the sparks start to fly between them in a very pleasing way.

Roger Marshall wrote the first two episodes himself. The third episode, The Strength of Gemini, was penned by Philip Broadley - Marshall was obviously determined to get hold the best possible writers for this series. In this episode a scoundrel is making use of Esther’s astrological skills her his own purposes although exactly how sinister those purposes might be is not clear at first. Either way Esther is outraged and Gradley has to admit that there might be something there that he should look into. It is a clever scam and it’s a good story, helped along by a delightfully oily guest starring turn by Norman Eshley.

Episode four, Saturn's Rewards, was written by Pat Hoddinott and is even better. An MP witnesses a murder but has his own reasons for not wanting to call the police. He will discover that this murder strikes a lot closer to home than he expected while Esther absolutely refuses to believe that a friend’s new boyfriend is not a Scorpio. He has to be a Scorpio. She just won’t give up on this, which turns out to be just as well. This is another episode that neatly combines astrological clues with ordinary police work and it has some neat twists.

Sting Sting Scorpio (written by Roger Marshall) opens with the murder of Madame Lavengro, an elderly astrologer in Brighton. At least Esther is convinced it’s murder although it appeared to be a heart attack. Esther has the bright idea of taking over Madame Lavengro’s shop in the hope of finding a clue although Gradley warns her that playing amateur detective can have consequences. Esther believes she’s uncovered a vital lead when she does a tarot reading for a maid in a leading Brighton hotel. A hotel in which a series of robberies has taken place. it’s another episode that succeeds quite well in integrating the occult and detective story elements.

The Horns of the Moon, written by Peter Yeldham, goes further than any of the other episodes in the direction of pure comedy and with guest appearances by capable comic talents such as Peter Jones, Graham Crowden and Michelle Dotrice it works splendidly. A retired general who runs a merchant bank ends up in the deep freeze. Gradley is sure he has the murderer pegged and Esther is equally convinced that he’s wrong. Although played for comedy the mystery plot is serviceable enough with at least one nice twist. The astrological angle is a little weaker in this episode but it’s still there and still plays a reasonably important part. This is a particularly delightful episode.

I mentioned coincidence earlier. Strange coincidences just keep on turning up in these stories. They’re a feature of just about every episode. Roger Marshall was far too experienced as a writer and producer to allow such basic writing mistakes to keep cropping up. The more I watch of this series the more convinced I am that this is an absolutely deliberate technique intended to give the show a subtly spooky feel and since the series deals with astrology I think it’s probably a quite justifiable technique. It’s a neat way of emphasising that slightly odd things happen around Esther Jones.

Zodiac is a series that has to accepted on its own terms. It’s not a conventional cop show but while there’s a good deal of humour and romance it’s not out-and-out romantic comedy or a full-blooded spoof either. It’s not a supernatural adventure series in the style of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) - the paranormal elements are not allowed to dominate too much and in fact they could almost be explained away by coincidence and by Esther’s shrewdness at judging people. Zodiac juggles these different elements with surprising success. With good writing, two charming leads, witty dialogue and a slightly whimsical premise Zodiac ends up being slightly dotty but rather endearing and it’s all so remarkably good-natured it’s hard to dislike this series. Highly recommended.