The Naked City. The Naked City was a police procedural with a documentary feel. The TV series does owe something to the movie structurally and thematically. The TV series is also much much better than the movie.
The Naked City was a bad movie but a very influential one. Naked City was a good TV series and a very influential one. Naked City started out in 1958 with the half-hour format that was still more or less standard at that time. It did not do particularly well and was actually cancelled. It was then re-engineered and relaunched in 1960. The change to hour-long episodes was crucial. This is a series that takes a leisurely approach to is subject matter. It’s a world away from the frenetic excitement and urgency of a series like M Squad (made at almost exactly the same time). Naked City is a character-driven police procedural series. It takes the time to let us get to know the characters.
Naked City is also notable for featuring a substantial amount of location shooting. One thing it does share with M Squad is a gritty realistic feel. This is a serious attempt to show us life on the streets of New York - the sleaze as well as the glamour.
There’s also an emphasis on what today we would call adult themes. This is not cops and robbers with the cops being straightforward good guys and the robbers being straightforward bad guys. This is a show that deals with complicated people who are sometimes neither heroes not villains.
It should be emphasised that this was not all that startling in 1950s American television. American cop shows like the aforementioned M Squad and Dragnet (this is the 50s Dragnet I’m talking about, not the woefully inferior revamped 1967 version) could be surprisingly hard-hitting and intelligent. Both cop shows and private eye shows (such as Johnny Staccato and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) of that vintage were still heavily influenced by the dark-themed crime movies of the 40s and early 50s that we now label as film noir. There was a lot more to 1950s American television than Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The difference with Naked City was mostly one of degree - it used the hour-long format to delve more deeply into the private lives of not just the cops but also the criminals and the victims and the innocent bystanders.
A Death of Princes demonstrates the willingness of this series to tackle dark themes of a type that would have been likely to provoke extremely hostile responses from the police at that time. It deals not just with a corrupt cop, but a corrupt out-of-control killer cop.
The hero of the series, Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke), sees his partner Detective Peter Bane (Eli Wallach) gun down an unarmed suspect. The problem is that while he can bring departmental charges against Bane there’s no way he can make them stick. He knows that, and his boss Lieutenant Mike Parker (Horace McMahon) knows it too. The only thing to do is to keep an eye on Bane. Sooner or later he’ll make a wrong move.
Flint doesn’t have long to wait. Bane is mixed up in an an extraordinarily complex conspiracy. It’s the sort of thing that only an incredibly arrogant man could think he could get away with.
Debt of Honor begins with a very high stakes card game, which is interrupted by three punks with masks and guns. One of the card players gets shot dead. One of the other card players is Nick Mori (Steve Cochran). The punks might have had second thoughts about their plan to rob these high rollers if they had known that Mori was a gangster.
To make things more interesting Nick isn’t actually a gangster as such. Not quite. He clearly has Mob connections. He movies in those circles. He’s no Boy Scout. But he isn’t an actual gangster and he’s really not a bad guy. He has no idea what to do with this wife he has suddenly acquired but one thing is certain. He doesn’t want to make her unhappy. He doesn’t want to hurt her. She’s an embarrassment to him but she is his wife.
Steve Cochran was a fine actor who never achieved real stardom but appeared in several bona fide film noir classics in the 50s including Private Hell 36 and the superb Highway 301.
The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half is a heist story and a delightfully complicated one. The police have no idea that the heist is being planned. All they have is some events that don’t make sense. A museum security guard shot but all that is stolen is a replica of a valuable diamond, and it was clearly marked a being a replica and being worthless. And there’s a wealthy Greek who wife’s valuable bracelet appears to have been stolen but it wasn’t stolen. There are other little things but they make even less sense. Detective Adam Flint doesn’t like it. He has this feeling that there is a connection, if only he could see it. Some nice twists in this one. Very entertaining.
Murder Is a Face I Know is about Nick Ross, an immigrant who is the American Dream personified. A hard worker, a loving husband, a devoted father, a solid citizen. The kind of man you’d be proud to know. Except for one minor detail. He’s also a contract killer for the Mob. His son Joey (Keir Dullea) is not surprisingly having trouble accepting all this. The police are having troubles of their own with the case, with Ross refusing to say anything at all. A good episode.
Button in the Haystack presents Adam with a real headache. A man was murdered in a service station and thee is very strong, almost overwhelming, evidence against the guy who runs the service station, an ex-con named Brewer. But Adam thinks he’s innocent. To prove it he has to find Brewer’s gun and that turns out to be an almost impossible task. This story is enlivened by a bit of humour and it works very well.
Shoes for Vinnie Winford is the story of a rich little boy who grows up to inherit his father’s vast business empire. Only Vinnie Winford never does grow up. He now has immense wealth and power but he’s still a little boy. A spoilt over-indulged little boy. A little boy with severe mommy issues. A little boy with a violent temper. Although he owns a huge business empire the one business that really matters to him is his dance hall, a sleazy business to be sure but it’s the only thing he has ever actually built up by his own efforts. And it’s the dance hall that will get him into trouble. One of his hostesses has disappeared. Vinnie has taken steps to make it seem like Judy Hill never existed but Adam Flint believes the story that Judy’s friend Ruby tells him. Nailing Vinnie will however be quite a challenge.
The best thing and the worst thing about this episode is Dennis Hopper’s performance as Vinnie. It’s certainly memorable. It may be the hammiest performance in the history of American acting. It’s like Hopper is channeling James Dean in Rebel Without a Clause (which also deals with the 50s fear that bad mothering was the cause of all social ills) but Hopper is even more ludicrously over-the-top than Dean. If you happen to get a kick out of unbelievably excessive Method acting you’ll find Hopper’s turn in this episode to be bizarrely fascinating.
New York to L.A. starts off with lots of frustrating inaction. Detective Flint and Lieutenant Busti are in L.A. to take custody of two punks accused of armed robbery and murder but the extradition hearing looks like it’s going to drag on forever. Then suddenly all hell breaks loose. This is one of those episodes that taps into 1950s obsessions with child-rearing and psychology. The two punks were raised in an orphanage and the script goes perilously close to casting a couple of vicious hoodlums as victims although it’s not clear what they are victims of. This sort of thing can be a bit cringe-inducing. Despite some exciting action scenes this one is a bit of a failure.
Vengeance Is a Wheel deals with a gang that has staged a series of daring waterfront warehouse robberies. A night watchman is killed during one of the robberies. He was an Italian and his family decide that they will not coöperate with the police. They will deal with the matter themselves. It is to be a vendetta. Not just a vendetta as a figure of speech but the genuine article, just like in the old country. This is awkward for Adam as he knows and likes the murdered man’s family. Ethnic violence was a fairly daring theme for television to tackle in 1960. The Untouchables had tried hinting that maybe there were Italians involved in organised crime in the days of Prohibition and that had unleashed a storm of protest. Vengeance Is a Wheel is a fine episode.
But this is fairly typical of Naked City’s willingness to deal with serious subject matter in a grown-up way. Naked City has a good deal of the gritty flavour of the classic American crime B-movies of the 40s and 50s and there’s certainly a film noir tinge to a number of episodes. What makes Naked City so good is that it has that seriousness of intent and that slightly dark and troubled atmosphere but without the nihilism that we see in so many more recent series. This is very much grown-up television that is prepared to face sometimes unpleasant realities but it doesn’t wallow needlessly in misery or sleaze. In fact the tone of this series is close to perfect.
It also has a wonderful style, very much influenced by film noir but with a kind of tough urban visual poetry to it.
This brief sampling of the second season is enough to make it clear that Naked City is one of the great American cop shows. Very highly recommended.
Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Tuesday, 20 November 2018
The Time Tunnel (2002 pilot episode)
Quite a few changes were made to the original series concept, some of the changes being positive and some being disastrous. Most of the changes were predictable. In 2002 you could not possibly have two male heroes, so Dr Tony Newman becomes female scientist Dr Toni Newman.
Another predictable change is that the reboot takes itself very very seriously. All races of fun have been banished.
The acting is a major problem. If the series takes itself very seriously these actors take themselves even more seriously. They have that amazing ability that modern actors have to be both intense and dull at the same time. The biggest problem is Andrea Roth as Dr Toni Newman. She’s so irritating that her performance on its own would have been enough to persuade me not to watch any further episodes. And she’s by no means the least obnoxious of the characters. In fact within ten minutes I decided that I hated all these people and wanted them all to die.
In actual fact I preferred the approach of Irwin Allen’s original series, in which no matter how hard you tried you could not change history - somehow any attempt to do so would always end in failure.
Doug Phillips (David Conrad) is an ex-Marine who works for some security outfit. Now he finds himself forcibly recruited by the government for a mysterious mission. For some reason the fact that he’s a bit of an expert of the 1944 Battle of Huertgen Forest is important. He discovers that whether he likes it or not he’s now part of a team that is going to travel back to 1944 through the time tunnel to try to repair the damage done by an interloper from the year 1546.
It’s now that one of the worst features of the reboot becomes apparent. The time travellers are going to disguise themselves as 1944 American soldiers. The problem is that two members of the team are female. It’s been made clear that the number one priority is not to change anything or interact with anyone unnecessarily. It’s vital not to attract attention. Having two women dressed up as soldiers is obviously going to make it absolutely impossible to blend in. Trying to shoehorn political correctness into the world of 1944 effectively destroys any semblance of believability.
Sapphire and Steel - trying to prevent any tampering with the established timeline. The difference is that Sapphire and Steel dealt with the subject in a much more intelligent and much more interesting manner and with some actual subtlety.
There is one single solitary attempt at humour and it’s feeble and it’s out of place.
Visually it’s very disappointing. It looks like a bad video game. The special effects look more modern than those in the 1966 series but that doesn’t mean they look better. In fact the effects are very unimaginative and uninteresting. The time tunnel complex is boring and looks cheap and shoddy compared to that in the Irwin Allen series. There’s no real sense of style. Whatever else you may say of Irwin Allen his series always had style.
This is a reboot that was doomed from the start. A series needs characters that the audience can care about. Nobody is going to care about these walking clichés. A science fiction series needs to have some kind of visual signature. This pilot looks like a TV car commercial. There is an idea here with some potential but time travel is a concept has been pretty much done to death.
The one good thing about the 2002 version of The Time Tunnel is that it’s included as an extra in the Irwin Allen Time Tunnel DVD boxed set so I didn’t have to pay money for it. And it is an extra that I guess is worthwhile if only because it makes Irwin Allen’s 1966 series look so much better. It’s one of several interesting extras in this DVD set, the other notable one being the 1976 pilot Time Travelers which was an earlier attempt (by Irwin Allen) at a reboot. And a much more successful attempt than the 2002 effort.
Tuesday, 13 November 2018
McMillan and Wife, season 3 (1973), part one
The format is still the same, which each season comprising a handful of feature-length episodes.
It still relies a good deal on the superb chemistry between Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James. Mrs McMillan is still managing to get herself quite innocently mixed up with just about every major crime in San Francisco. And somehow Stewart McMillan, the Police Commissioner, is still managing to find excuses to take personal charge of investigations in a way that no actual police commissioner ever would. The fact that these two elements in the formula stretch credibility to breaking point is no problem at all. McMillan and Wife does not pretend even for a moment to be a realistic cop series. It’s a series that follows the conventions of the puzzle-plot mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction in which the detective hero is always conveniently on the spot whenever a murder occurs, and always seems by an uncanny coincidence to have some link to either the victim or the killer. It was a type of fiction that actively rejected realism, and McMillan and Wife rejects realism in an exceptionally thorough way.
It’s also a series that to some extent traces its ancestry back to the 1934 hit movie The Thin Man, which established the husband-and-wife crime-solving team as guaranteed box-office gold.
The season opener is Death of a Monster... Birth of a Legend and it takes Commissioner McMillan and his wife Sally to Scotland for a vacation. They’ll be staying in the McMillan castle, owned by the laird who happens to be McMillan’s uncle. And while it might seem very strange that Sergeant Enright should suddenly show up at the castle that’s exactly what happens.
The very first thing that happens after the Commissioner and his wife arrive is that the old laird shoots himself. In fact McMilan doesn’t even get to see his uncle alive. It’s obviously suicide.
There's a certain “it was a dark and stormy night” ambience to this story. The family solicitor tells ghost stories, in this case about a ghost who would have a very good reason to be ill-disposed to the Laird McMillan.
If you’re going to have dark and stormy nights and ghosts and castles you might as well go for broke and have all the gothic trimmings including secret passageways. Which is exactly what we get.
Apart from the gothic angle this is also an attempt at a locked-room mystery and while there’s an obvious explanation that explanation is not necessarily the correct one.
Now at this point you might be thinking that this is all a little bit far-fetched if not silly. If you are thinking that you should just stop. This is McMillan and Wife and McMillan and Wife was never intended to be taken very seriously. It’s lightweight and it’s meant to be lightweight. The idea is to have a mystery, a few thrills, a few laughs and some romantic moments. Some episodes do contain fairly decent mystery plots but they’re still essentially supposed to be harmless fun.
I should also point out that there’s still a lot more silliness to come. There’s still the matter of the monster.
There’s an obvious motive in the old laird’s unwillingness to sell the castle (a hotel consortium wants to buy it) but that motive could point to more than one suspect. And there are other plausible motives.
The solution is far-fetched but it’s clever enough and it is fairly clued and it is just about plausible.
Death of a Monster... Birth of a Legend offers plenty of fun.
The second episode is The Devil You Say and it continues the gothic theme, and also the outrageousness, of the first episode. This time Sally’s life is in danger from devil-worshippers. She gets a call from Dr Comsack at the children’s hospital where she does volunteer work with deaf kids. It’s not quite clear if it’s Sally who’s in danger or Dr Comsack. Mildred might be in danger as well, after witnessing a murder that didn’t happen. There’s also the matter of the film of the Satanic ritual that someone sent Sally. The same person also sent her some other curious items. Those items are obviously significant, but significant of what? If that’s not enough craziness for you there’s Dr Comsack’s totally insane and creepy wife and there’s Professor Zagmeyer who is an expert in hypnotism, reincarnation and Satanism.
So this episode has pretty much the entire quota of the lunacy that was so characteristic of the 70s.
And once again it always seems to be a dark and stormy night. The masks are however a very effective sinister touch. This one overall is even nuttier than the previous episode. The plot hangs together well enough. You don’t have to believe all the crazy stuff, as long as you’re willing to believe that the characters themselves do believe every word of it.
Back in the early 1970s Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers were immensely popular and I think it’s possible to discern a definite Dennis Wheatley influence in this episode. That’s OK by me since I happen to love Wheatley’s occult thrillers.
The Devil You Say is highly enjoyable nonsense.
These two episodes get season three off to a most entertaining start. I’ll be reviewing the other four episodes in the season in the near future.
You might also be interested in my reviews of McMillan and Wife season one and season two.
Tuesday, 6 November 2018
Special Branch, season 2 (1970)
Special Branch had a difficult job. They had to respect the rights of citizens in a free country while protecting those citizens from very real threats, and while dealing with interference by politicians and bureaucrats.
The Special Branch officers in the TV series have a very uneasy relationship indeed with the Security Service, in the person of Charles Moxon (Morris Perry), a man who raises cynicism, ruthlessness and deception to new heights.
The first season (which I reviewed here) was successful enough to justify a second season.
The third and fourth seasons which followed were effectively a brand new series which had its merits but personally I think the first two seasons are more interesting and more subtle. Plus those first two seas\ons have Derren Nesbitt who is an absolute joy as the sartorially outrageous but actually rather serious-minded Chief Inspector Jordan. The chemistry between Nesbitt and Fulton Mackay (who plays Jordan’s boss Chief Superintendent Inman) is superb.
The second season, like the first, is pleasingly varied. It’s not all action stuff. Some cases are dangerous and exciting, some are frustrating, some are breathtaking exercises in governmental cynicism and incompetence.
While it’s poles apart stylistically from the violence and paranoia of a series like Callan Special Branch does have some similarities when it comes to tone. Espionage and counter-espionage are vicious grubby games whichever side is playing them. In Special Branch, as in Callan, both sides are as bad as each other. There is no room for good guys.
There is a kind of long-running story arc in the first two seasons, involving Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant). Christine Morris is a KGB officer and a dedicated and intelligent Soviet spy. Somehow she and Jordan just seem to keep encountering each other and there’s clearly a very strong sexual and emotional attraction on both sides. If you’re a Special Branch officer it’s obviously not very good for your career prospects to have a special lady friend who’s a captain in the KGB. Jordan does everything he can to avoid getting involved, but their paths just keep crossing. Christine Morris appears in half a dozen episodes and it’s obvious that she’s going to cause continuing complications for Jordan.
There’s definite character development in the case of Christine Morris, and the relationship between Christine and Jordan certainly develops.
By the standards of television of its era Special Branch was very heavily character-driven, morally complex and ambiguous and remarkably intelligent.
The Episode Guide
The first episode of season 2, Inside, sees Chief Inspector Jordan in prison. He is working undercover hoping to extract some information from a convicted spy. He needs to find out the name of the spy’s controller but this spy is as psychologically tough as they come.
Dinner Date takes Chief Inspector Jordan and Detective Constable Morrissey to Frankfurt. A British national has escaped from East Germany and their job is to bring him back to Britain. A relatively simple job, but it turns out to be anything but simple, especially when Jordan has a rather close and somewhat romantic encounter with a glamorous female KGB agent.
Miss International presents Jordan with what should be a rather pleasant assignment - keeping watch over a beauty contest, or more specifically keeping watch over a girl from a Middle Eastern country who is one of the contestants. The girl is the daughter of the most powerful man in that particular country. Threats have been against the daughter, apparently from conservative religious groups. That might seem plausible enough but it soon becomes evident that there is much more to it than that. Some shady politics is involved so it’s no surprise that Moxon takes a hand in the case and Chief Superintendent Inman and Chief Inspector Jordan find themselves having to dance to Moxon’s tune. The episode is typical of the cynical approach of this series, focusing on byzantine political scheming at high levels with Special Branch officers being not much more than pawns.
An examination of the bronze just makes things more puzzling. Warrant for a Phoenix is a good episode with some effective misdirection.
The Pleasure of Your Company is the sort of spy thriller the British always do so well. No action but plenty of suspense, some very nasty twists and an atmosphere of betrayal and duplicity. The new CIA station chief in London is causing headaches for everyone, including the CIA. Chief Inspector Jordan is caught in the middle, but even more embarrassingly he’s once again thrown together with glamorous (and extremely amorous) KGB agent Christine Morris. He had an affair with her in the past, which was not on the whole a very good career move. Now he has to find a way to keep out of her bed whilst also following his orders which almost seem to be forcing him into her arms.
George Markstein’s script is delightfully clever and devious. A superb episode.
Not to Be Trusted deals with a British scientist who is under suspicion. There is reason to believe that the Russians will make an attempt to recruit him as an agent. The question is whether Dr Clifford is likely to react favourably to such an approach. His chaotic personal life, his drinking and his affair with a young Swedish girl with dubious political leanings are further causes for concern.
Borderline Case is one of the weaker episodes. A revolutionary group is stirring up trouble on the docks and the Special Branch officer, Detective Sergeant Sherman, keeping an eye on the ringleader gets a bit too personally involved. It’s all a bit contrived and it’s let down by an overly obvious performance by Davyd Harries as Sherman.
Love from Doris concerns a pen pal racket aimed at servicemen, a matter that raises some serious security worries. Some of the lonely servicemen have revealed a bit too much in the way of professional secrets.
In Error of Judgement Special Branch are investigating a radical environmental group but it’s strictly routine. The Guardians seem very earnest but pretty harmless. On the other hand Moxon seems very interested indeed in this organisation and if the Security Service is interested there may be more to it. There may be a lot more to it. By a very curious coincidence Chief Inspector Jordan has a minor traffic accident and the other driver involved just happens to be a member of the inner circle of the Guardians. An excellent episode with Jordan having a mixture of good luck and bad luck.
Reported Missing is a tale of two defectors. Both have chosen an inconvenient time, the visit of the Russian Ballet to London. The British Government wants the visit to go smoothly but a Russian ballerina has absconded and the press is going ballistic and Chief Superintendent Inman and Chief Inspector Jordan have enough on their plate without a second defector to worry about. And there’s another problem - there are defectors and there are defectors. Some have legitimate claims to political asylum, others not so much. Having a strong case helps, but being young and pretty helps even more. Knowing how to manipulate the media is even more useful. Even Moxon has to admit that it’s a grubby business. Another fine episode.
Fool's Mate provides Jordan with a lesson in chess and other more serious games. Once again his opponent is Christine Morris. This time it’s even less clear which side she’s on. The problem is that this is a game that Chief Inspector Jordan cannot decline to play. He discovers that participation is compulsory. An excellent episode.
Special Branch, in its original 1969-1970 incarnation, is one of the most intelligent and provocative series of its time. It still stands up today as a series characterised by subtlety and ambiguity. It manages to combine all this with very high entertainment value.
Certainly one of the great British TV drama series. Very highly recommended.
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