Saturday 23 September 2017

The Twilight Zone - two Charles Beaumont episodes

I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone but I do have fond memories of some of the episodes written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the Charles Beaumont episodes.

First up is Static, the twentieth episode of the second season. This was one of six episodes shot on videotape as a cost-cutting measure (The Twilight Zone had turned out to be a very expensive series to make and CBS were getting a little anxious about the budgets). As might have been anticipated the results were very poor and these episodes looked cheap and somewhat tawdry compared to those shot on film. Since the cost savings were minimal anyway the experiment was quickly abandoned.

Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) is a crusty bachelor who lives in a boarding house. Ed doesn’t have much time for the modern world and he hates television which is unfortunate because all the other boarders watch TV incessantly. Ed thinks television is moronic and he thinks that people who watch TV are moronic and he broadcasts these opinions rather freely. Finally Ed snaps and heads off to the basement to look for his old radio - a huge and very impressive 1930s console model. He brings the radio up to his room and he’s pleasantly surprised to find that it still works. And the programs are wonderful. Who wants to watch TV when you can listen to Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra live on the radio?

The other boarders are quick to point out that this isn’t possible - Tommy Dorsey has been dead for years. Ed insists that it really is Tommy Dorsey live and further insists that he will prove it if they come up to his room to listen. When they get there there’s nothing on the radio but static. It seems that no-one but Ed can hear these programs.

It’s not a very promising premise and sadly it plays out in a very predictable fashion. This was no an original Beaumont script - he adapted it from a story by Oceo Ritch, which might explain why it’s well below his usual standard. Fine performances by Dean Jagger, and by Robert Emhardt as Ed’s friend Professor Ackerkman and Carmen Matthews as Ed’s old girlfriend Vinnie, are the main saving graces here.

Static takes place almost entirely in a couple of rooms in the boarding house. This was obviously very convenient for shooting on videotape but it does have the unfortunate effect of making this episode look even cheaper.

As Buzz Kulik, who directed Static, admits in the accompanying interview on the Blu-Ray disc, the trouble is that it just doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

Moving on the episode 21 of season two, The Prime Mover, we find ourselves in more authentically Twilight Zone territory. Ace (Dane Clark) and his pal Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) eke out a living in a crummy diner. Ace is one of the world’s most enthusiastic, and most unlucky, gamblers. Ace just never wins. Not ever. Then one day, quite by accident, he discovers that Jimbo has a rather unusual power. He can move things just by thinking about them. He can move any kind of object. It has never occurred to Jimbo that his telekinetic powers might be useful. Ace can see a very good use for them straight away. Jimbo could use his powers to move things like dice. Or roulette wheels. Ace, with a bit of help from Jimbo, can now transform himself from a gambler who never wins into a gambler who never loses. Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out quite the way Ace hopes.

The Prime Mover was originally written by George Clayton Johnson. Charles Beaumont rewrote the script and sold it to the producers on the understanding that Johnson would get a screen credit but because of an oversight Johnson did not get the credit.

After seeing the first few minutes of this episode you know how the story is going to unfold and there are no surprises. It’s a typical Twilight Zone morality play. It’s much more interesting as a character study. Both Ace and Jimbo are fairly interesting personalities and Ace in particular has a certain amount of real depth. Superb performances by the very underrated Dane Clark and by Buddy Ebsen are The Prime Mover’s greatest strengths. It’s not an especially memorable episode but it’s OK.

So one rather poor episode and one that’s not too bad. Anthology series are of course inherently uneven so you expect a few disappointments. What these two stories do suggest that Beaumont was a better writer when he stuck to entirely original material.

Friday 15 September 2017

McMillan and Wife season 2 (1972-73)

McMillan and Wife was one of the big successes among the various mystery series that screened under the umbrella of The NBC Mystery Movie. The second season of seven feature-length episodes went to air in late 1972 and early 1973. The season one cast remained intact, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as the two leads and John Schuck as Detective-Sergeant Enright and Nancy Walker as the McMillans’ maid Mildred.

McMillan and Wife was the television equivalent of the “cozy” detective fiction sub-genre, with no graphic violence or sex and done in a slightly playful manner but with an emphasis on good old-fashioned well-constructed mystery plots.

The season opener, Night of the Wizard, starts in typical McMillan and Wife style with Police Commissioner McMillan (Hudson) pursuing a suspect through the streets of San Francisco. The fact that a Police Commissioner would be incredibly unlikely to be doing such a thing is in fact a sort of running gag. In this instance the chase is rather inspired and quite witty.

Night of the Wizard is by McMillan and Wife standards a semi-serious episode. A woman is terrified when her dead husband appears to her at a séance and accuses her of his murder. The accusation is all the more disturbing since the woman, Evie Kendall, had in fact been charged with the murder but was acquitted.

There are lots of fun Old Dark House elements in this one.

In Blues for Sally M. an attempt is made to murder a composer/pianist. But why does he have a signed photograph of Mrs McMillan in his apartment? Unfortunately this episode suffers from a fatal flaw which makes the solution obvious right from the start. Keir Dullea gives a good performance as the obnoxious self-pitying composer.

Cop of the Year marks two big moments in Sergeant Enright’s life - he gets to collect the Cop of the Year award and he shoots his ex-wife. At least he seems to have shot his ex-wife, it seems like an open-and-shut case, but he denies it. And Commissioner MacMillan believes him. All he has to do now is to prove that Enright didn’t do it despite the overwhelming evidence.

Enright’s ex-wife, Monica, isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly the ideal wife. In fact she was selfish, narcissistic and vicious, so Enright had plenty of motive. This is an episode with a classic film noir setup. It’s based on an Edward D. Hoch short story, Hoch being a noted exponent of the impossible crime story. Robert Michael Lewis emphasis the puzzle aspect by shooting the murder scene from directly overhead.

The mystery here is not whodunit (which is pretty obvious from the beginning), but howdunit. And on the whole it’s a very good locked-room mystery.

Terror Times Two makes use of one of the most hackneyed ideas in television history, the idea of the double. A gangster has found a man who is Commissioner McMillan’s exact double. Rock Hudson does a pretty decent job playing the dual roles but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s an unimaginative idea and the script just doesn’t manage to add any interesting or original twists.

No Hearts, No Flowers is another story which involves one of the hoariest ideas in crime fiction, in which the detective’s wife is the potential victim of a psycho. Sally has her purse snatched. This has unexpected consequences as it becomes apparent that Sally has a stalker. The twist ending might perhaps stretch credibility a bit but this is a detective story, not a documentary. It’s supposed to be entertainment, not reality, and it does entertain. There’s also a car chase. There’s no point in setting a cop show in San Francisco if you don’t have some car chases. It’s a city that seems to have been designed specifically as a venue for car chases.

In The Fine Art of Staying Alive Sally McMillan is once again in danger. Commissioner McMillan has to choose between saving Sally or saving a priceless Rembrandt. This one perhaps doesn’t have quite enough plot to sustain the feature-length running time and the crucial clues are just a bit too convoluted and obscure to be believable. It’s still fairly enjoyable.

Two Dollars on Trouble to Win takes McMillan and Sally to the racetrack. Sally’s Uncle Cyrus (well he’s not really an uncle but rather an old friend) has a horse that’s a sure thing to win a big race. Cyrus is a cantankerous old cheapskate but for some reason Sally thinks he’s wonderful. Cyrus has a bad heart and a series of accidents threatens to make that heart problem critical, or even fatal. Could it be a diabolically clever plot to murder the old boy by indirect means?

McMillan and Wife suffers a little from plots that are, with a few exceptions, rather on the conventional side.

The second season is also pretty uneven. Night of the Wizard and Cop of the Year are the standouts and they're very good indeed. Blues for Sally M. is a fine idea let down by one serious flaw. Terror Times Two is the only episode that could be described as a real dud.

The major strength of McMillan and Wife lies in the two leads. Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James make a convincing married couple. They have the right romantic, and sexual, chemistry. They’re extremely likeable and John Schuck is equally likeable as Enright.

This is definitely crime on the cozy side but it’s thoroughly harmless light entertainment. Not as good as its NBC Mystery Movie stablemates Columbo and Banacek but if you don’t take it too seriously it’s enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Escape Into Night (1972)

Escape Into Night is a 1972 children’s fantasy/horror TV mini-series from Britain’s ITV. It has an interesting premise and it’s quite atmospheric, and decidedly spooky.

It was scripted by Ruth Boswell from a novel by Catherine Storr.

Escape Into Night was shot in colour but only a black-and-white version has survived. Since there’s a definite touch of horror to the series that’s perhaps not entirely a disadvantage. The very studio-bound feel also adds to the stifling and menacing atmosphere.

Marianne is a young girl who has a riding accident. She’s not badly hurt but she is confined to bed for several weeks. She amuses herself by drawing a picture of a house. When she goes to sleep she finds herself in the house in her dream. When she wakes up she draws a boy in the window of the house. Next time she sleeps she’s back in the house, and there’s a boy there, in the upstairs room she drew him. He’s ill and can’t walk. 

Her doctor has arranged for a teacher, Miss Chesterfield, to call regularly so Marianne won’t fall behind with her schoolbook. Oddly enough one of Miss Chesterfield’s other pupils is a boy named Mark, who can’t walk. Even more oddly, the boy in the dream who can’t walk is named Mark and he has a teacher called Miss Chesterfield.

When Marianne adds other details to her drawing they appear in the house in her dream. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique, Marianne draws some stones with eyes. They appear in the dream as well, and they don’t seem to be any too friendly. In fact Marianne and Mark, in her dream, start to feel that they should make plans to escape from the house. This won’t be easy, given that Mark cannot walk at all.

Are Marianne and Mark somehow sharing a dream? Is it really just a dream? Are the two children in actual danger? Is something supernatural or paranormal going on? Why is it that the only drawings that seem to affect the dreams are those done on a particular sketch pad using a particular pencil, a pencil belonging to an art set that had belonged to Marianne’s grandmother. And why is it that every time Marianne sleeps she finds herself back in the same dream?

One of the themes of the series seems to be the way children experience guilt about apparently trivial incidents. Marianne’s annoyance with Mark caused her to draw the stones with eyes and now those stones seem to have a malevolent intent towards Mark. Marianne  of course had no intention of hurting Mark. It was just one of those bursts of childish anger but children can easily be persuaded that they have caused harm to those around them and can end up thinking they are responsible for all kinds of harm. Mark becomes very ill so there is also the issue of how children deal with death and with loss.

Marianne’s father is an engineer and he is out of the country most of the time so Marianne is left without a father figure. Perhaps the dream has something to do with that?

Children of course also don’t always differentiate very well between fantasy and reality.

Marianne is still too young to take a romantic interest in boys but she is approaching the age at which boys will start to become rather interesting. Her odd friendship with Mark is completely innocent but it is a step towards learning to deal with that frightening phenomenon known as the opposite sex. Marianne at times seems to have an almost motherly feeling for the helpless Mark. Independence versus dependency, and the natural human need to want someone who needs us, are other issues that are addressed.

The series was presumably aimed mostly at girls but there’s enough subtle horror to appeal to boys as well, or to adults.

In a program like this the casting of the lead actress is crucial, especially in the case of a child actress. Marianne has to be a fairly ordinary sort of girl and like any normal girl approaching puberty she can be exasperating but somehow the actress has to avoid making her irritating to the viewer, or excessively precocious. At the same time she has to be lively enough, likeable enough and clever enough for girlish viewers to identify with. Young Vikki Chambers does a superb job.

These were innocent days, when a girl would have on her bookshelf a book like The Young Girl’s Guide to Housekeeping. These were also the days when kids still learnt Latin at school.

Given the subject matter, dreams, the big worry was that they’d make a mess of the ending but in fact it works quite well.

The special effects are about what you'd expect from a fairly low-budget children's production but the writing, acting and atmosphere and enough to carry it off pretty effectively.

Network’s DVD release is on a single disc. It’s barebones but the transfer is quite good given the not entirely satisfactory nature of the surviving source material.

Escape Into Night is an intriguing mix of childhood drama, fantasy and gothic horror and it makes thoroughly entertaining viewing. Highly recommended.