Sunday 27 May 2018

Cannon, season one (1971)

Cannon was a pretty successful private eye series which began its run on CBS in 1971. I have only the very haziest recollections of seeing a few episodes many years ago.

So far I’ve only had the chance to watch the first few season one episodes. I may return to this series at a later date.

Cannon’s biggest asset (in more ways than one) was of course its star, William Conrad. Conrad was always an enjoyable actor to watch and the role of Frank Cannon was a perfect fit.

The two-part pilot episode, perhaps surprisingly, tells us very little about Frank Cannon. We know he’s an ex-cop. In fact he had been a Detective-Lieutenant. He’s now a PI and we get the impression he’s been quite successful. He certainly seems to live a comfortable lifestyle. We assume he’s a somewhat upmarket PI.

We find out that he’s a tough guy, but he doesn’t go looking for fights (not fist fights anyway). He’s prepared to play it meek and mild if that seems the wisest course of action. He’s clearly stubborn and honest, and he has plenty of perseverance. In later episodes he becomes more of a conventional tough guy.

The pilot takes him a long way away from his usual stomping grounds (LA). An old army buddy lives in a small town interstate, or at least he did live there until he was murdered. His wife is the prime suspect and she asks for Cannon’s help. Cannon is the sort of guy who will always take on this type of case even if there’s no money in it. He wants to find his old buddy’s killer, and he seems to have a taste for rescuing damsels in distress. He immediately decides, based on zero evidence, that the wife must be innocent.

The town of Galliton used to be a happy place but it’s not like that any more. It’s been taken over by racketeering and the city government and the police have been pretty thoroughly corrupted. And Frank soon discovers that even though he’s only just arrived he’s now the most unpopular guy in town.

It’s a very convoluted plot and its twists and turns can be a little bit challenging to follow but on the whole it’s still a pretty good story.

The first actual season one episode is The Salinas Jackpot. It has cowboys and clowns, and it has psycho killers. It also has Cannon doing a MacGyver. When he finds himself without a gun he simply makes one! It’s very entertaining.

Death Chain is the next episode. It features an excellent performance by William Windom as a banker who reluctantly (but quite courageously) engages Cannon’s services to get him out of a jam. It’s a nicely twisted plot involving blackmail, robbery and an ingenious plan to launder stolen money. A very good episode.

Call Unicorn is a straight by-the-numbers private eye tale with Canon going undercover to investigate a truck hijacking racket. Everything in this story plays out exactly as you know it’s going to right from the start. Very disappointing.

Country Blues is a whole lot better. Country music star Woody Long is killed in a plane crash. There was a large insurance policy on his life and the insurance company engages Frank Cannon to investigate the accident. Cannon is pretty sure it was no accident but proving it will be a challenge. Everybody in his home town either thought Woody was a terrific guy or they don’t want to talk to nosy private detectives. There are people who stood to benefit from Long’s death but Cannon just can’t make any theory add up. The plot has some neat twists and turns, certainly enough to keep the viewer guessing.

There are also some wonderfully colourful characters and they have a bit of depth to them. They have complicated motivations. An extremely good episode.

Scream of Silence concerns a kidnapping gone wrong and a young boy unable to speak due to shock. There’s nothing wildly original here but it’s enjoyable viewing.

Fool's Gold takes Cannon to the small town of Julian. He’s working a case for an insurance company, on the track of $900,000 in stolen money. The people of Julian are none too friendly and it’s painfully obvious they’re hiding something. Julian is a dying town but the townsfolk are convinced that’s all going to change real soon. They have big plans to revive the town. Expensive plans. Now where would the money be coming from to finance such grandiose schemes? This is a decent episode.

Girl in the Electric Coffin involves a rock group, an aristocratic cosmetics tycoon, a missing girl and a dead PI. Since the dead PI was a friend Frank Cannon has a personal interest in this case. Another reasonably solid episode.

Cannon’s friends always seem to be getting themselves into trouble. In Dead Pigeon it’s a cop who has been framed for murder. The cop had been getting close to breaking a case involving na crooked lawyer, maybe too close. Cannon has to work with the cop’s less than sympathetic colleagues and he’s up against an exceptionally ruthless bad guy. A good episode even if the ideas are hardly what you’d call startlingly original.

Death Is a Double-Cross takes place partly on a train, which is promising, but sadly it fails to take full advantage of the setting. It’s still an OK story. Canon is hired to facilitate a reconciliation between a rich tycoon and his daughter. Cases don’t much much simpler than this one but the last guy assigned to the job got killed so maybe it isn’t so simple after all.

In The Nowhere Man Canon is hired to find a bookkeeper who has made off with the payroll of a chemical plant which manufactures fertilisers, only it wasn’t the payroll that the employee stole but something much nastier. That plant manufactures manufactures other things besides fertilisers, things like nerve gas.

Private detectives are often hired to find missing persons. In Flight Plan Cannon is hired not to find someone, but to lose someone.The problem is that if you lose someone too successfully what happens if you suddenly need to find them again? This is one of the more interesting episodes.

Devil's Playground is a bit contrived. Ex-cop Jerry Warton (played by a young Martin Sheen) is convinced that an armed robber killed eight months earlier is still very much alive. He wants Cannon to help him find the guy. Cannon has his doubts and he’s also worried that Jerry is so obsessed that his judgment has become warped. Nonetheless he takes the case, which leads to a climax involving motorcycles, machine-guns and multiple explosions! It has its silly moments but it’s entertaining.

Treasure of San Ignacio has Cannon trying to recover religious relics stolen from a church in Mexico. A fairly routine episode. In Blood on the Vine somebody is trying to kill a boutique wine-maker and it’s a complicated family affair, but to my way of thinking the story just didn’t ring true.

To Kill a Guinea Pig is more interesting. Why are hoodlums taking an interest in a female medical researcher? She’s conducting clinical trials on prisoner volunteers and it seems that one of the volunteers is of great interest to those hoodlums.

The Island Caper is quite a fun story. Once a year a very large amount of money gets transferred from an island bank to the mainland. The transfer is done by aircraft, the aircraft being an amphibian as there’s no airstrip on the island. The bank is feeling just a little nervous this time so they’ve hired Cannon to beef up their security. And Cannon has run into an old friend on the island, an ex-con who used to specialise in exactly these sorts of complex heists. Cannon is sure this guy has gone straight but he sure does seem nervous. This is an episode in which Cannon’s methods are more than usually idiosyncratic.

It’s no surprise that William Conrad is terrific in this series. What is surprising is that he doesn’t play Cannon as a mere tough guy. He really plays up Cannon’s sensitive side. This is a tough guy who is a real softie underneath. I know that sounds rather ominous (sensitive heroes can be remarkably annoying) but it works. Of course if you’re William Conrad you can be sensitive without damaging your tough guy status. He’s also genuinely quite amusing at times.

Cannon might be tough but he’s also very successful and very wealthy. He’s a PI who
is quite comfortable moving in the higher social circles (as well as the lower ones more usually associated with the profession). Conrad carries this off quite convincingly. Cannon is definitely not down-at-heel - he’s rich and he enjoys being rich.

My initial impression of Cannon from these episodes (I’ve now seen the first eighteen of the twenty-four season one episodes) is that it’s a decent enough series of its type. Around this time (late 60s and early to mid 70s) there were several private eye series that can be considered as genuinely ground-breaking, series like Man in a Suitcase and Public Eye (arguably the best private eye series ever made) in Britain and The Rockford Files in the US. Even the first season of Mannix can be regarded as making at least a minor effort to push the boundaries of the genre. Cannon doesn’t do any of these things. It’s content to be a straightforward and really very conventional PI series. On the other hand it’s very competently done and the best episodes (The Salinas Jackpot, Death Chain, Country Blues, No Pockets in a Shroud) are very good.

Conforming to the conventions of the genre isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What matters is that Cannon manages to be pretty consistently entertaining. Recommended.

I don’t think this series is as good as its rough contemporaries Mannix or The Rockford Files but it’s worth a look for private eye fans.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Public Eye (1972-73 season)

The sixth season of Public Eye was broadcast in Britain in 1972 and 1973. Down-at-heel private enquiry agent Frank Marker (Alfred Burke) is still based in Windsor. Business is not exactly booming but he is keeping his head above water, although sometimes only just. He hasn’t established what you would call a wide circle of friends but Marker is a very self-contained sort of guy and that doesn’t bother him. He has at least established a fairly cordial relationship with the local police in the person of Detective Inspector Percy Firbank (Ray Smith) although a friendship between a private detective and a policeman is always a little tricky.

The basic formula of this series did not change very much during its ten-year run. This is a private eye series without any glamour at all. Frank’s cases are mostly pretty routine. He does not usually find himself mixed up in anything as spectacular as murder. He’s more likely to be doing divorce work or trying to find people who don’t want to be found. There are no car chases or shoot-outs. These are character-driven stories. It’s gritty, realistic and often very cynical but with a touch of humour that prevents it from being too bleak.

Frank Marker is a bit on the seedy side and he has long since lost his illusions. His job can be fascinating but it can also be tedious and frustrating and on occasions unpleasant. Sometimes a private enquiry agent has to do things that he isn’t terribly proud of. There are moral dilemmas to be faced but Frank approaches his job philosophically. If people employ a private detective that’s their choice and if his investigation uncovers something that the client would have preferred to have kept dark that’s the risk the client takes. Frank is not a social worker.

It’s the kind of series that could have been terribly dull and earnest but it never is. Consistently strong writing and Alfred Burke’s wonderful performance as Marker makes this one of the most engrossing private eye series ever made.

The season opener is The Bankrupt. Marker’s friend Tom Lewis (Gareth Evans) wants him to get back a large sum of money he lent to Melville Hayden-Peters (Ray Barrett). Peters has declared himself bankrupt but he’s still driving around in a Rolls-Royce and living in the grand manner. Hayden-Peters has obviously been very clever, but has he been clever enough? And it seems that everyone in this story thinks of themselves as being very clever, but perhaps none of them is clever enough?

Frank Marker might not think of himself as a terribly clever man but he’s been around and he’s no fool and he’s gradually fitting all the pieces together. They don’t make a very pretty picture. This is classic Public Eye - cynical and downbeat but with plenty of irony and some nicely biting humour. A superb way to kick off the season.

Girl in Blue is a missing persons case. A successful businessman sees a girl he recognises in a blue movie. The girl is his daughter whom he hasn’t seen for five years. He hires Marker to find her. Marker does try to warn him that sometimes people just don’t want to be found and that the daughter might not be the least bit interested in a reconciliation.

This story is a kind of time capsule - a journey back to the days of incredibly tame “blue” movies viewed in smoky backrooms on 8mm film projectors.

The danger with a series that takes a cynical downbeat view of life (and television doesn’t get much more downbeat than Public Eye) is that it can be overdone, and wallowing in pessimism and cynicism isn’t always healthy and it isn’t always good entertainment. Girl in Blue is one of those Public Eye episodes that does come across as bleakness for the sake of bleakness.

Many a Slip demonstrates one of the disadvantages of being a private enquiry agent. You have to follow the evidence you find, even if you have a feeling you might not like where it leads to. And Marker’s friend Detective Inspector Firbank finds that being a policeman involves the same disadvantage. And it all started with a woman wanting to buy a deep freeze and needing a credit reference. A neat little episode.

Baby-sitting cats is hardly the sort of thing a private enquiry agent usually does but when you can’t pay your phone bill you have to take any job that’s going. In Mrs. Podmore's Cat the cat belongs to a wealthy widow with a notorious fondness for younger men. Looking after Bertie (the cat) is challenge enough but Marker has to deal with a puzzling robbery as well, and a very smooth con man. This is one of the very rare Public Eye episodes with a lighter mood.

The Man Who Said Sorry is an interesting experiment. It’s all dialogue and it’s emotionally overwrought and very very stagey. A man who had employed Frank on a divorce case has decided he wants someone to blame for the mess that his life has become, and he decides that Frank is the man he’s going to blame. Frank however is not the kind of man with whom to play such psychological games. An interesting experiment as I said, but it’s heavy going and it gets a bit tedious.

Horse and Carriage is another oddity. This was a Christmas episode and it was obviously felt that a lighter mood was needed. Harry Longstaff hires Marker to check up on his wife who he suspects of having an affair. In fact Harry is always suspecting his wife of having an affair, and he’s always wring. He’s already hired Frank to check up on her on seven previous occasions. At the same time Longstaff’s wife has become suspicious of his frequent absences from home and she’s got a friend, a bumbling ex-cop, to check up on Harry.

Of course, despite appearances, both husband and wife are entirely innocent but somehow circumstances contrive to make them appear guilty. It’s a sort of bedroom farce but without any actual hanky-panky. Both Frank and the bumbling ex-cop become increasingly confused and exasperated, innocent bystanders get caught up in the craziness and it seems that it will all end in disaster. But it’s Christmas and somehow they all get through it without too much damage. Surprisingly enough it works quite well and it is genuinely amusing.

A Family Affair centres on a will. An elderly gentleman has left a third of his estate to his housekeeper and his two grasping middle-aged sons are outraged. They are determined to challenge the will and Marker is hired by their solicitor to dig up whatever information he can find on the housekeeper. He finds a lot of information and it’s not at all what his clients were hoping for. This episode is Public Eye at its best - not too bleak and cynical, taking a realistic but not entirely unsympathetic view of human foibles and having at least a dash of humour.

The Golden Boy draws Frank into an upper-class family drama. Young Vyvyan Reveldale, who is absolutely super at everything, has suddenly disappeared from Oxford. His ageing and flamboyant former tutor, whose interest in the lad may well extend beyond mere academic interests, wants Marker to find him. The Reveldale family seems curiously uninterested in Vyvyan’s whereabouts although Sir John Reveldale certainly doesn’t want Reggie Aston (the tutor) to know where he is. It’s a potentially tricky situation, and it makes for a particularly good episode.

The Windsor Royal is a rose. Not just any rose though. It’s not quite the ultimate rose but it’s close to it. Two of these incredibly valuable rose bushes have been stolen, and the nursery-owner who developed the Windsor Royal hires Marker to find the culprit. Marker finds that he’s stumbled into a rather involved family drama and that family drama may be the key to the missing roses. A very entertaining episode.

It's a Woman's Privilege is another excellent episode. Frank’s landlady from his Brighton days suddenly shows up. He and Helen Mortimer had become quite close friends. Helen has a problem - she is worried that her 23-year-old son may have become involved in some kind of shady business deal. Frank will find out that accepting a friend as a client can be very awkward, and he also discovers that turning to a policeman for help on a case can be tricky, especially when the policeman in question, Detective Inspector Percy Firbank, is a friend as well. Mixing personal and professional relationships is probably something that a private enquiry agent would be wise to avoid. This is an episode in which Frank gets to do some real heavy-duty sleuthing as he becomes more and more convinced that there’s something shonky going on.

One of the many ways in which Public Eye broke the accepted rules of series television was in not always providing resolutions to a story. Sometimes Marker’s cases just fizzle out, just as in real life many of a private detective’s cases don’t actually lead anywhere. In Home and Away a woman hires Marker to find out if her husband is having an affair. What the client actually wants is however not always clear. It’s obvious that this woman is not happy with her marriage but the reasons for her unhappiness are obscure. And Marker is caught in the middle, not really knowing what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s a very low-key story, nothing really happens, and yet it’s quite a fascinating little character study.

Egg and Cress Sandwiches presents Frank with an odd case. It started with poison pen letters received by a retired general who is also a churchwarden. The letters allege sexual misbehaviour on the part of the vicar. The vicar is a new man and seems to be more interested in socialism than religion and he’s not exactly universally popular in his parish. Frank finds out that the vicar has another secret. A solid enough episode, plus it has Brian Blessed as guest star (as the vicar).

An enquiry agent doesn’t always see people at their best. In fact he often gets to see people at the very worst. Frank thinks he’s pretty hardened but even he’s a little shaken by what he uncovers in The Trouble with Jenny. It all starts with a girl in a hotel trying to gas herself.

Network’s DVD release is what you expect from them. The transfers are very good and the extras are very sparse.

A great series. Highly recommended. I’ve also reviewed the DVD release of the surviving episodes from the first three seasons - Public Eye: The ABC Years.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

three Star Trek episodes from 1968

Three season three Star Trek episodes from 1968.

I have to be a bit careful in talking about The Enterprise Incident. Giving any plot details could give away spoilers so I’m going to be incredibly vague about the actual story.

We get first Kirk and then Spock behaving very uncharacteristically, and then we get an explanation of their behaviour that makes sense and is more than just a convenient plot device. It’s the heart of the episode, which is all about deception. It also offers some insight into their actual characters. They behave very dishonourably but they believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are justified in doing so. It does however tend to make nonsense of the whole idea of the Vulcans as a remarkably honest and honourable race. It is a little worrying that they seem quite unconcerned about their conduct. I’d have thought that these were both men who would dislike having to behave dishonourably, even if they felt that duty compelled them to do so.

In fact the episode makes nonsense of the whole idea of the Federation as the peace-loving virtuous high-minded entity that we’ve been sold on throughout the series. In this story the Federation is clearly in the wrong. Unfortunately D.C. Fontana’s script makes no attempt to explore any of these potentially fascinating aspects in any depth. The assumption seems to be that the Federation are the good guys so therefore whatever they do must be right. This is a missed opportunity but in 1968 the network was probably not going to allow the show to explore those aspects even had the writer wished to do so. And I suspect that Gene Roddenberry would not have been pleased at the idea of the Federation being exposed as hypocrites.

We also get an intriguing view of the Romulans. The Romulan commander (played by Joanne Linville) is also prepared to practise a certain amount of deception although she still comes across as being less immoral than the Federation.

There’s also an angle to this story that you could never get away with today - the Romulan commander is undone by her own female vanity. In fact we see a female commander who, unlike most such characters in later science fiction movies and TV, does not behave at all like a man. It would be enough to get a writer burned at the stake today.

All in all it’s quite an interesting episode even if it pulls its punches a bit.

There’s also a reasonable amount of action and excitement.

Had this story been done in one of the later Star Trek series I suspect it would have been handled much less successfully.

The Paradise Syndrome by contrast is a bit of a disaster even though there are a couple of good ideas. The Enterprise has to deflect an asteroid that is about to destroy an Earth-like planet. Before that can happen Captain Kirk manages to get himself lost on the planet surface and in the process he loses his memory.

It is a very Earth-like planet indeed. Inhabited by people who are not just humanoid but very obviously human. In fact they’re American Indians. They’re not just similar to American Indians, they’re identical to American Indians. Of course in Star Trek we get lots of Earth-like planets populated  by humanoids who really seem pretty human. What’s interesting here is that The Paradise Syndrome tries to explain that curious fact and does so in a reasonably convincing manner, and a manner that offers potential for future story ideas. That’s the most satisfactory thing about this episode.

We also get Captain Kirk falling in love. OK, it’s not the first time that has happened, but this time things go much much further than in any previous episodes. Unfortunately the love story plays out rather predictably.

The supporting characters are totally two-dimensional and behave in utterly predictable ways.

The pacing is leaden and although the story should have plenty of suspense and excitement with its race-against-time element if all falls a bit flat.

The episode’s best assets are the performances of Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Spock and McCoy spar, as usual, but the sparring has some emotional depth to it. Spock has to make some very tough decisions, he’s under real pressure and feeling the pressure, and McCoy is making a real effort to see Spock’s point of view and understand the reasons for those decisions.

The Paradise Syndrome is an exasperating and not very well-executed mixture of good and bad.

And the Children Shall Lead has the reputation of being one of the worst, if not the worst, Star Trek episodes ever. And how well it deserves its reputation.

The Enterprise arrives at the planet Triacus to find that all the members of the scientific team there have killed themselves. I have to say that after watching this episode you’ll probably want to kill yourself as well. Actually it’s only the adults who committed suicide. Their children are still alive and seem extremely happy. In fact they seem pretty pleased that their parents are dead.

Dr McCoy thinks the children are suffering from traumatic shock but it soon becomes evident that they’re possessed by some kind of evil. They try to take over the Enterprise. They do this by paralysing the crew members with their worst secret fears. OK, that’s a reasonably OK idea but it’s very clumsily executed. The fears conjured up are just silly and totally unconvincing. Kirk and Spock have the strength of character to resist and they realise that if they can’t free the children of the evil they’ll have to kill them.

The children are being controlled by an evil alien named Gorgan. He’s perhaps the least scary villain in television history.

The special effects are truly awful. They’re poorly conceived and badly executed.

The acting is dismal. The children, except for the blonde girl, aren’t convincingly evil. The regular cast members don’t distinguish themselves. That is perhaps more the fault of Edward J. Lakso's script than of the actors. Kirk, Spock and Dr McCoy are all put in situations with the potential for interesting explorations of their characters but the script fails to exploit the opportunities and the actors are left floundering.

The script has a couple of almost interesting ideas that aren’t developed. The pacing is leaden and the ending is feeble.

This is about as bad as television science fiction could ever get.

So three episodes, one very good and extremely interesting, one not so good and one terrible. Which sadly tells the story of the third season of Star Trek.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Sweeney! (1977), the movie

It was a fairly common practice in the 70s for successful British TV series to spawn a feature film spin-off. In the case of The Sweeney there were two spin-off movies. Sweeney! was the first and was released in 1977.

Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) are hardcase coppers with Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad. This time they’re involved in an unusual case involving the potential for international intrigue. This is the sort of thing that would normally be dealt with by Special Branch but the script gets around this difficulty by having Regan get involved in an indirect way, doing a favour for a particularly useful informant named Ronnie Brent.

Ronnie’s girlfriend has just died. A verdict of suicide was brought in at the inquest but Ronnie is adamant that Janice would never have killed herself. He asks Regan to look into the case in an informal sort of way.

The case proves to involve corruption at the highest levels, with high-class call girls used as bait, and organised by people to whom mass murder is just routine stuff, just another day at the office.

Ranald Graham’s screenplay is in fact a little overblown. One gets the impression that this movie is trying to be a conspiracy theory political thriller of the sort that enjoyed some popularity in the 70s. It’s not the kind of story one associates with The Sweeney and Im not sure it was a terribly good idea. It’s the kind of story that needs a very big-budget approach. It also has a slightly transatlantic flavour to it which is odd since one of the reasons for The Sweeney’s success was its thoroughly British feel.

The advantage of the feature film format over television is usually obvious - bigger budgets, the opportunity to do more ambitious action scenes, better image quality. In other words a cinematic look. This doesn’t really apply to The Sweeney though. The series was shot on a fairly generous budget, on 35mm film and entirely on location, and with fairly ambitious action scenes, so it already looked cinematic. The movie looks pretty much like the TV series.

This may be the reason for the political thriller plot - if the film was going to end up looking like an extended episode of the TV series then the grandiose plot would provide the necessary cinematic feel.

It might be unfair to say that The Sweeney TV series was an exercise in style over substance. It was a very well-written series. At the same time it has to be said that style was a very important ingredient. That style sharply distinguished it from previous British TV cop shows. It was not just a matter of visual style. It was the whole atmosphere, the mix of seediness, mild sleaze and violence, the approach taken by the two lead actors. Unfortunately a lot of that is lost in the movie. That’s partly due to the plot which casts Jack Regan as the maverick cop who gets suspended and then has to operate as a lone wolf, which means we miss out on a lot of the everyday interaction between Regan and other officers which was such an essential part of the series.

Sweeney! also takes advantage of the opportunity offered in a movie to increase the level of violence and the level of bad language and to add some entirely gratuitous nudity. This actually turns out not to be an advantage after all - it makes the movie seem a bit too much like just another generic action thriller.

The Region 4 DVD release offers both spin-off movies on two discs. The anamorphic transfer for Sweeney! is pretty good. The lack of extras is a problem - viewers unfamiliar with the TV series would doubtless have appreciated a bit of background on the characters and on what was one of the most iconic TV series of all time.

It’s not that this is a bad movie. It’s just that fans of the television series are likely to be disappointed that it bears very little resemblance thematically or stylistically to the series, which is a problem since one assumes that the target audience for the movie would have been, primarily, fans of the TV series. Sweeney! is a 70s paranoia thriller. If you like that sort of thing it’s OK but pretty routine and the plot is rather silly at times.

Sweeney! is definitely a bit of a misfire.