Thursday 25 May 2017

Roger Moore tribute double header

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Columbo season 3 (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 6 May 2017

Special Branch, season 4 (1974)

Special Branch, produced by Britain’s Thames TV, underwent a very drastic revamp for its third season in 1973. In fact it became almost entirely a different series, with an entirely new cast and a whole new look. Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over the production. The new season would abandon the traditional practice of shooting mainly on videotape with only outdoor scenes shot on film. Everything would now be shot on film and there would be more emphasis on action and gritty realism. 

The only thing that the these two later seasons had in common with the first two seasons was the subject matter - the activities of Special Branch, police officers who were part of the Metropolitan Police but who worked in conjunction with the security and intelligence services. 

The lead character was to be Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven, played by George Sewell.

Halfway through the initial season of the new-look series it became obvious that it wasn’t quite working. It looked terrific but it just didn’t generate any real excitement. At which point the producers decoded to bring in a new character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty, played by Patrick Mower. Mower, having played the neurotic but sinister assassin Cross in Callan, had the right tough guy credentials and he had the youth and energy to be a great action hero type. Equally important he was good at playing prickly characters and the combination of George Sewell’s more laid-back style with Mower’s manic energy promised to work well. The slightly antagonistic relationship between Craven and Haggerty would also add some needed edge to the series.

This proved to be a very good decision, the series became quite successful in Britain and a further season was made in 1974 but it wasn’t enough for the US networks. They wanted even more action. There were plans to try to ramp up the action but eventually Euston Films felt that it would be better to drop Special Branch and develop a whole new series. The result was The Sweeney, which (for good and ill) revolutionised British television.

Special Branch is thus a transitional series, and an important one.

While the Euston Films incarnation of Special Branch is entertaining I find it to be a bit uneven. I generally like George Sewell a great deal as an actor but I have to confess that I really don’t care for Craven as a character. He has a bit of a self-righteous side and his sensitivity comes across as smug and at times irritating. He’s the sort of policeman who wants people to like him and understand how sensitive and caring he is. Perhaps he should have been a social worker. Haggerty on the other hand is a great character - he’s like a bomb ready to go off at any moment.

The scripts are mostly good but occasionally veer into an annoying preachiness (a mistake that the writers for The Sweeney would wisely avoid).

In Double Exposure Haggerty goes undercover to investigate a photographer who makes his living by taking embarrassing photographs of important people. Haggerty has to get very close to the photographer and also finds himself getting very close indeed to the photographer’s female assistant. Haggerty is in serious danger of getting just a bit too personally involved. What really puzzles him is that the investigations seems utterly pointless. There seems to be no security angle at all. Strand (Paul Eddington), the smooth,  somewhat sinister and frighteningly ruthless man from the Security Service (MI5) is however determined that the investigation should continue. Strand always has a reason for doing things but in this case that reason is a complete mystery. This episode is typical of the extremely cynical tone that came to dominate this series more and more.

In Catherine the Great Craven has to find a German assassin, the difficulty being that although Special Branch knows he’s in Britain to carry out an assassination they don’t know who the target is. And how did he get into the country? They know he was on board a freighter but he didn’t get off, and yet he did leave the ship. Craven finds himself working with his old sergeant, Bill North, now an Inspector with the CID. It was Craven who had North kicked out of Special Branch, which adds the potential for a certain amount of tension.

The 70s saw British television moving in a much sleazier direction and this episode has plenty of sleaze. It’s made worthwhile by fine performances by Tony Beckley as the cross-dressing assassin and Jacqueline Pearce as a German stripper.

Stand and Deliver is a good example of the problems afflicting this later incarnation of Special Branch. Michael J. Bird’s script has too much clumsy political messaging and too much cheap cynicism. It’s also wildly far-fetched and stretches credibility to breaking point and beyond. Two losers steal a new high-tech anti-tank gun from the British Army and Craven and Haggerty have to get it back. Somehow we’re meant to believe that two guys in an old beat-up truck can just drive out of an army base with the army’s latest super-weapon and the police can’t find them even though they have a description of both the men and the truck and the anti-tank gun is not exactly easy to conceal. An episode that is preachy, obvious and dull. And silly as well.

Something About a Soldier is a very fine episode with a pretty spectacular action set-piece at the end. Garfield Morgan is wonderful as a disgraced British army officer turned mercenary  who is discovered, by a lucky chance, to be back in England and with quite an armoury with him. He’s clearly up to no good but what exactly is he planning?

Rendezvous, written by the reliable Tony Williamson, is very much a spy thriller with some very nice plot twists and as much action as anyone could possibly wish for. Craven has to babysit a Russian defector at a safe house although in this case safe house is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about as safe as being in the middle of a war zone.

Sounds Sinister is a nice little episode about a pirate radio station broadcasting outrageous allegations about various very prominent people. These allegations could cause a crisis of confidence in the government and in the business and financial worlds. The problem is that the allegations are all true. 

Entente Cordiale finds Haggerty in a spot of bother after an arrest doesn’t go quite as smoothly as might have been hoped while Craven has to deal with his French ex-wife who seems to have gotten herself mixed up with the remnants of the OAS. Not one of the better episodes but it's OK.

Date of Birth is a very fine spy thriller story. A vital piece of microfilm is going to be passed to one of six au pair girls in London, but which of the six is the contact for the KGB spy? Craven and Haggerty have to find out, and fast. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The most famous line from The Sweeney, “Get Yer Trousers On You're Nicked,” is actually spoken by Patrick Mower in this episode of Special Branch, a couple of months before the pilot episode of The Sweeney went to air.

Intercept is a neat little story about a corrupt South American dictator, some morally dubious manoeuvrings by the Foreign Office, diamond smuggling, sleazy show-biz types and a mad bomber. 

Alien on the other hand is a bit of a nothing story about the deportation of a German student revolutionary.

Diversion perhaps tries too hard to be cynical, ironic and convoluted. Craven and Haggerty are asked to investigate Strand, who has been drinking heavily and chasing women. Craven soon comes to suspect that Strand is actually up to something devious (after all Strand is almost always up to something devious) The plot throws in hints of blackmail and treason and personal betrayal but somehow it feels just a bit contrived. Trying to humanise Strand is not a good idea - he’s much more interesting when he’s being his usual inhuman self.

The final episode, Downwind of Angels, is a very strong story to takes the series out. A police shooting is always a nightmare. Even if the officer was justified in shooting it’s bad enough but when it’s an innocent bystander who gets shot things get very nasty indeed. Especially when the officer claims to have fired at a man trying to assassinate a visiting dignitary but all the witnesses deny that any such man existed.

The Euston Films version of Special Branch was genuinely ground-breaking at the time and it stands up pretty well. There’s plenty of action but the graphic violence that would become more and more common in British series of this type is not yet in evidence. Craven can be an irritating character but Patrick Mower as Haggerty is great fun to watch. Paul Eddington as Strand takes cynicism to a whole new level and his performance is a delight. Frederick Jaeger is very good as Commander Fletcher. Season four introduced Susan Jameson as Detective Sergeant Mary Holmes, obviously an attempt to add a bit of glamour and a hint of romance (Craven is clearly interested in her). I still prefer the original 1969-70 shot-on-videotape Special Branch but the later version does have a modern action-oriented feel for those who prefer that approach. It’s on DVD from Network (Region 2) and they offer a boxed set that includes all four seasons. The series is also available on DVD in Region 4. Recommended.