Dragnet, still possibly the best cop show ever.
In the late 60s Webb came up with a slight but very clever variation on the same theme. It would be again a series about totally ordinary cops just doing their jobs, dealing with everything from the most trivial to the most serious crimes. The difference was that this time the two cops would be uniformed officers and they’d be in a patrol car. This series was Adam-12 and it was not only a hit, running from 1968 to 1975, it was in its own way just as iconic as Dragnet.
The idea of a series dealing with uniformed cops was pretty radical in 1968. And the series goes to great lengths to emphasise that the work of uniformed officers is totally different from the work of detectives. Uniformed cops deal with immediate issues, not ongoing investigations. In one episode the two cops are called to an apartment and find a man who appears to have been murdered. Their job is to call it in and keep the crime scene undisturbed until the detectives arrive. Then their job ends. In cases like this the uniformed cops may never know the results of the investigation. It’s a very different perspective on police work compared to almost every other cop show and adopting such a realistic approach was an incredibly bold move. Would viewers accept plot lines that would never be resolved? Would they accept loose ends just left floating? It was a gamble but in fact viewers loved the realism of the show.
The two protagonists are Pete Malloy (Martin Milner), an experienced officer who is about to quit the job after seeing his partner killed, and Jim Reed (Kent McCord), a young and very keen probationer. Malloy is horrified by the idea of being saddled with a rookie as partner and is now even more determined to resign but once they’re out there on the street Malloy realises that Reed has the makings of an excellent cop but he’s going to need someone with plenty of experience to keep him alive until he learns enough to temper his enthusiasm with judgment.
The half-hour format with each episode dealing with multiple crimes (or incidents) was quite daring as well. It means that there is very little in the way of actual plot lines. Mostly we’re just seeing brief vignettes of routine police work. Occasionally Malloy and Reed will get a call and try to sort out a problem only to be called to the same address shortly afterwards to sort out the exact same problem all over again. In some cases (especially domestic disputes and disputes between neighbours) even after multiple calls the problem will still be unresolved and we know and the officers know that these are problems that just don’t have an answer. Malloy has long since learnt not to worry too much about this. It’s just something a cop has to get used to. Reed is still finding it hard to accept.
When there’s a call for Adam-12 (this being the identifying number of the car assigned to Malloy and Reed) they can find themselves faced with anything from a minor traffic violation to murder. From time to time they get shot at. Sometimes they never find out why someone wanted to shoot at them.
Adam-12 began production at a time when crime seemed to be spiralling out of control in the U.S. and it was becoming a major political issue. Drugs were devastating communities. The foundations of society appeared to be decidedly unstable. Adam-12 does not ignore this social malaise completely but it chooses not to focus too much on it (in season one at least). This was probably wise. Whenever American (or British for that matter) cop shows tried to be socially aware and tried to confront those social tensions head-on the results were usually dire. And whenever cop shows tried to deal with “youth culture” the results were invariably cringe-inducing). Adam-12 deals with hippies and similar horrors on occasion but manages not to be too embarrassing about it.
Martin Milner’s performance as Pete Malloy is just what the series requires. He gives the impression that he’s watched lots of old episodes of Dragnet and he’s got the Jack Webb laconic style down pat. And he makes it work just as effectively as Webb did. It’s not that Joe Friday or Pete Malloy are uncaring. But they’re professionals. They know that if you get emotionally involved even slightly then you can’t do your job properly. And if you can’t do your job properly you’re not helping anybody. Malloy hopes to teach this lesson to Jim Reed. It’s a lesson every cop has to learn. Reed is taking a while to accept this. He’s finding it hard to close down his emotional responses on the job. Kent McCord gives a terrific performance that perfectly complements Milner’s.
Adam-12 seems to be easily obtainable on DVD in all regions.
Adam-12 succeeds splendidly in doing exactly what it gets out to do - showing us ordinary cops at work. And it makes it enthralling viewing. Highly recommended.
Thursday, 27 June 2019
Monday, 17 June 2019
Perry Mason, season one part 2 (1958)
Perry Mason was such a popular and iconic series that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was extraordinarily radical for a 1950s American network TV series. After all the message of Perry Mason is that one should never ever under any circumstances trust the police. The criminal justice system is stacked against the little guy, the police and the District Attorney hold all the cards and they will use those advantages against an accused person. You cannot expect fair treatment from the police. It’s not in their nature to play fair. If you are innocent you have everything to fear from the police. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a very good and very expensive lawyer like Perry Mason then you have a chance of getting justice. If you can’t afford a hotshot lawyer then you can forget about justice.
These things are not explicitly stated in the series but they are still made very very clear. The TV series unfortunately somewhat softens the message of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels but it doesn’t soften that message completely. It’s still a pretty uncompromising condemnation of the American criminal justice system.
Here are my thoughts on a few episodes I’ve viewed recently.
The Case of the Substitute Face is a maritime murder mystery, a sub-genre of which I’m excessively fond. Perry and Della are returning to California on a British passenger liner when a passenger asks for his help. She believes her husband Carl Houser has embezzled a large sum of money from his employer, a Los Angeles bank. He certainly has an immense sum of money on him but things start to get puzzling when it turns out that no money has been stolen from the bank. And then Houser is apparently lost overboard, in circumstances that suggest murder rather than an accident or suicide.
link to my review.
The Case of the Deadly Double is one of the minority of episodes not based on an Erle Stanley Gardner story. It is however a story dealing with psychiatry, and I’m inordinately fond of psychiatric murder mysteries and thrillers of the 40s and 50s. The more outrageously silly the psychiatric content the more I enjoy such stories. This one deals with what would later be known as multiple personality disorder which is especially fun since it’s a condition that was probably pretty much created by psychiatry.
In this case businessman David Reed is trying to gain sole custody of his son on the grounds that the boy’s mother is an unfit mother. It’s hard to believe that prim and proper housewife Helen Reed (Constance Ford) could be anything less than a perfect mother but unfortunately Helen Reed is also Joyce Martell, and Joyce Martell is a drunk and a floozy and pretty much a textbook example of an unfit mother. Perry Mason gets involved when Helen has a nightmare in which her husband is murdered. It’s obviously more than just a nightmare. Her brother finds himself arrested for murder. The trial becomes a kind of psychiatric circus and it’s all incredibly silly and great fun.
The Case of the Empty Tin (scripted by Seeleg Lester) bears virtually no resemblance whatever to Erle Stanley Gardner’s novel, apart from the fact that there’s a China connection in both. There’s an empty tin in the TV version but it’s not the same tin as in the novel, it doesn’t have the same significance, it’s not found in the same place, it wasn’t placed in that position by the same person. In fact this empty tin was simply shoehorned into the plot to justify the use of the title. All the characters are different, their relationships are different, the criminal’s motives are different, the crimes are different and Perry Mason is retained by a different client for very different purposes compared to the novel. You expect movie and TV adaptations to differ somewhat from their source material but offhand I can’t think of many cases in which the changes have been as drastic as this. In short it’s an entirely different story.
review of the novel.
The Case of the Daring Decoy is set against a background of vicious corporate in-fighting. Daniel Conway (H.M. Wynant) is struggling against his bitter rival Warner Griffith to maintain control of the Cal-Texas corporation. Conway receives a telephone call from an unknown woman who claims to have information that will be of immense assistance to him. All her has to do is to meet her in a hotel room. What he finds in the hotel room is a corpse. It appears that he has walked into a trap. Now Perry Mason has to try to get him out of that trap. A good episode.
The Case of the Sulky Girl involves 23-year-old Frances Celane who has inherited a great deal of money which unfortunately is tied up in a trust administered by her uncle. Frances wants Perry Mason to have the trust overturned. Before that can happen murder occurs. Rarely has District Attorney Hamilton Burger had such an easy case to prosecute. The evidence is absolutely clear-cut and unshakeable. Or at least it gives the superficial appearance of being clear-cut, but superficial appearances can be misleading.
This is an episode in which the court-room scenes dominate and Perry demonstrates his knack for legal pyrotechnics. It’s almost cruel watching him set up the D.A. - when Mason explodes his mine poor old Burger just doesn’t know what hit him. An excellent episode. It was based on one of the very early Perry Mason novels, my review of which can be found here.
I read Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Rolling Bones the day before watching the TV episode based on that novel. Which I now realise was a big mistake. The most amazing thing about television and movie writers is that they keep thinking they can improve on the plots of people like Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner. Of course they can’t and they always fail embarrassingly when they try. This is one of the most cleverly plotted of all the Perry Mason novels but the TV episode eliminates all of the really interesting plot ideas. It’s also one of the most interesting of the novels for its passionate denunciation of unethical and illegal conduct by the District Attorney’s office. This also gets eliminated from the TV episode. A superb novel (here's my review) gets adapted into a mediocre TV episode.
The Case of the Long-Legged Models could be sub-titled a Story of Three Guns. The trouble with these three guns is that they’re all identical. Even the owner can’t tell them apart. Yes, they’re all owned by the same man. He has a habit of lending these guns to people. And one of the guns was used to commit a murder. The police can certainly determine which gun fired the fatal shot but no-one seems to know which gun was where, and in whose possession, at the time of the murder. Unless that can be determined there is no way to identify the killer. And Perry Mason unwittingly makes things worse by doing a bit of gun-switching himself. This is great television.
You can be sure of more Perry Mason posts in the not too distant future.
Sunday, 9 June 2019
Gideon’s Way (1965-66)
It was an ITC series so production values were quite high and it features a lot more location shooting than you expect in a mid-60s British cop show. The London locations are a definite highlight. It shared the same production team as The Saint - producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman and script supervisor Harry W. Junkin. It was shot at Elstree Studios in tandem with The Saint.
Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric.
An interesting feature is that while most cop shows have an Inspector or a Chief Inspector as the protagonist, natural enough since these are the officers who are going to be the ones conducting the actual investigations of crime, Gideon’s Way focuses on a very senior officer. A Commander is very unlikely to have any intimate involvement in investigations so this series has to fudge things a bit by finding ways to get George Gideon out on the streets. The experiment does succeed pretty well though, with Gideon mostly making command decisions that influence the course of investigations while the hands-on stuff is mostly left to Chief Inspector David Keen (Alexander Davion).
In John Creasey’s Gideon novels Gideon’s marriage is not exactly on the rocks but it’s far from being a perfect marriage and neither Gideon nor his wife could really be described as happy. The TV series makes the Gideon family pretty much the perfect happy family. I think it was a positive change - personally I get a bit tired of tortured heroes whose personal lives are a train wreck.
Unfortunately the series gets off to a rocky start. State Visit deals with terrorism but it’s a bit too inclined to be sympathetic to the terrorist. The ‘V’ Men taps into 1960s hysteria about neo-nazi conspiracies and an imminent fascist takeover of Britain. Worse than that it’s an utterly predictable story. And then we get The Firebug, another story that tries too hard to portray a villain as a victim. And it’s also very contrived.
The fourth episode, The Big Fix, is a more straightforward crime story but again with too much emphasis on criminals as victims, plus it’s a fairly unexciting story.
To Catch a Tiger is great stuff. A death-bed confession by a nurse suggests that a man may have murdered his wife. Gideon is determined to get this murderer but the odds seem hopelessly stacked in the murderer’s favour. There’s no hard evidence and there seems to be no way to prove the case. But Gideon hates admitting defeat.
Big Fish Little Fish is a Dickensian tale of child thieves but it’s the Fagin behind them that Gideon wants. Melodramatic but enjoyable. The White Rat pits Gideon’s team against a ruthless but dangerously unbalanced crime boss. The ending is a fine suspense set-piece.
How To Retire Without Really Working is about a very pleasant middle-aged couple who happen to be very successful thieves. Now it’s time to retire but that requires a lot of money. If only they could pull off one big job they’d be set. The twist in this episode is that they’re so nice that Gideon really doesn’t want to catch them.
The Tin God concerns a prison breakout. For Benny Benson it’s a chance to even the score with the person he believes betrayed him to the police - his own wife. And his wife knows that promises of police protection won’t do her any good. Benny will get her sooner or later, unless he is recaptured. A fine episode with a great performance from Derren Nesbitt as Benny.
The Alibi Man is an interesting tale of loyalty with some elements that are very surprising and very daring for 1965. A racing driver has been cheating his business partner and the ensuing confrontation ends in murder. The racing driver has an alibi but Gideon and David Keen are not entirely convinced by it. They’re not entirely convinced by any of the apparent circumstances but their suspicions do not amount to proof. A very good episode.
A Perfect Crime is the title but the perfect crime involved is like most perfect crimes. It’s very imperfect. It’s a brilliant and daring jewel robbery except that a girl is killed in the course of the theft. And the two thieves don’t trust each other. There’s good police procedural stuff in this episode but as usual in this series it’s the criminals’ own folly that brings them undone. A good episode.
The Millionaire's Daughter is a kidnapping story and to be honest the plot is fairly routine. But the execution is good and we get to see an early Donald Sutherland performance as a psycho. An average episode.
Morna is a 19-year-old girl found murdered. She was the perfect English Rose, an angel come down to dwell among mortals. Everyone loved her. No-one could possibly have wanted to harm her. At least that’s the story everyone is telling. But if all the is true there’s one problem - somebody most definitely did want to harm her. Maybe Morna wasn’t quite so perfect after all. This story is told largely through flashbacks which gives us the chance to see Morna through the eyes of various possible suspects. A good episode.
Despite that very bad start Gideon’s Way is a top-notch police drama with some clever scripts and by mid-60s British TV standards very high production values. John Gregson gives a very sympathetic performance but he doesn’t let us forget that while Gideon is a sensitive civilised man he’s also a cop, he takes his profession seriously and he doesn’t flinch from tough decisions.
Alexander Davion as Chief Inspector David Keen is also excellent. He’s smooth and sophisticated, a bit of a college boy type, with a seeming air of carefree irresponsibility but underneath he’s a non-nonsense cop who gets the job done.
Gideon’s Way is the product of an era in which cop shows were starting to move towards greater realism and greater emphasis on detailed police procedural stuff but before the unfortunate trend towards making everything dark and edgy and cynical. It gets the balance right, whereas from the early 70s on British cop shows veered too far in the direction of violence and nihilism. Gideon’s Way is a grown-up police drama that doesn’t insist on wallowing in the gutter. Highly recommended.
Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric. I’ve reviewed the first of the novels, Gideon’s Day, at Vintage Pop Fictions.
Sunday, 2 June 2019
Hammer House of Horror (1980), part one
But they weren’t ready to give up and die just yet and they hadn’t run out of ideas. In fact they came up with an extremely good idea - a horror anthology TV series. Hammer House of Horror went to air in 1980 and was quite well received by both critics and audiences. It really was a very sound idea. ITC (with whom they partnered for Hammer House of Horror) had had immense success with the Thriller anthology series in the mid-70s. Thriller concentrated on psychological rather than supernatural horror. There was no point in merely doing a retread of Thriller so it made sense for Hammer House of Horror to specialise in out-and-out supernatural horror. And Hammer had always been good at getting surprisingly high production values from very tight budgets, so again TV production seemed like the answer to their problems.
One of the many problems Hammer had faced in the 70s is that for commercial reasons it was necessary to keep upping the ante as far as violence, gore, sex and nudity were concerned. Hammer were OK with this up to a point, but only up to a point. As it became increasingly difficult for them to make feature films the move to television production made a lot of sense. They could keep the gore and nudity at very moderate levels whilst still being, by television standards, reasonably daring. Hammer House of Horror has occasional nudity and occasional gore but mostly it relies on the writing, the directing and the acting. All of which are of fairly high standard.
Witching Time kicks off the series and is, very obviously, a witchcraft story. Composer David Winter lives at remote Woodstock Farm and he is not dealing with things very well (he suspects his wife is having an affair and he’s right). After a severe thunderstorm he finds a woman in the barn. She claims that her name is Lucinda Jessup and she was born at Woodstock Farm. In the year 1627. She escaped from the witch-hunters, and ended up in 1980.
Lucinda decides that David now belongs to her, which means she will have to find a way to get his strumpet of a wife out of the way. It’s the beginning of a nightmare for both David and Mary.
It’s not a dazzlingly original idea but it’s done reasonably well. The budget for the TV series was limited which meant that period settings were pretty much out of the question. In this case the idea that one of the characters is from the 17th century and that the events in the present day are intimately connected with events three centuries before means that at least you get some period flavour. And it certainly has as much gothic atmosphere as you can get in a modern setting.
Whether it’s a real or imagined horror the bigger question is whether it’s going to destroy David and Mary.
The cast is excellent. Jon Finch, whose star had burnt very brightly very briefly in the 70s, gives a pretty effective portrayal of a man living through a nightmare. Prunella Gee is very good as Mary, managing to make her fairly sympathetic in spite of the fact that we know she is unfaithful to her husband. Patricia Quinn, quite correctly, chews the scenery in a major way.
Witching Time is an effective series opener.
The Thirteenth Reunion moves the series in black comedy territory. Ruth Cairns is an ambitious reporter who longs for a chance to get away from writing for the Women’s Page. An assignment to check out a new weight loss program provides her with her opportunity. It’s a fat farm that uses humiliation as an incentive but Ruth soon discovers that there’s something much weirder going on. It’s certainly odd that there seems to be a connection between a weight loss clinic and a form of funeral directors. What the connection is will seem obvious to the viewer but there’s an unexpected and very nasty twist in store at the end.
This one was directed by Peter Sasdy who did several movies for Hammer. Sasdy was a fine director and does an excellent job here. Considering the subject matter there’s surprising little gore and there’s no nudity at all, in contrast to Witching Time. This is another quite successful attempt to achieve a genuinely creepy gothic atmosphere in a contemporary setting. There’s plenty of humour and it’s very black indeed. The Thirteenth Reunion is creepy but highly entertaining.
Rude Awakening is another Peter Sasdy-directed episode and once again it’s a black comedy. Norm Shenley (Denholm Elliott) is a middle-aged real estate agent who has a nightmare and then wakes up. Or does he wake up? Does he have a series of dreams? Do any of them correspond to reality? Are they just dreams or is he going insane? Dreams always have the potential to be spooky and this story milks the idea for all it’s worth.
The dreams keep taking him to an old mansion (which is either half-ruined or in perfect condition or not there at all depending on the dream) which of course adds a slightly gothic touch.
Denholm Elliott does a fine job as a man who hasn’t the faintest idea if he’s dreaming or awake. The whole cast is good but the standout performance comes from Lucy Gutteridge who plays Norman’s sexy secretary Lolly. She gets to play five different versions of Lolly each with a different sexy image. It’s a fine comic performance and she and Elliott play off each other delightfully.
Sasdy comes up with plenty of subtly unsettling images and a couple of genuine chills. He strikes the perfect balance between the black humour and the out-and-out horror. An excellent episode.
Growing Pains is an evil child story. After losing their own child Terence and his wife Laurie Morton adopt another, a boy named James. Terence is a scientist who thinks he’s going to save the world and Laurie has her charitable committees she’s convinced are going to save the world. They think of themselves as deeply caring people and they love the idea of humanity in the abstract but they’re clueless when dealing with actual people. They seem to like the idea of having a child as long as it doesn’t take up too much of their valuable time. Saving the world is pretty much a full-time job.
Young James is clearly odd in a rather disturbing way and he clearly does not like his new parents. Strange and very upsetting things start to happen and Laurie is convinced that James is responsible.
This episode has some funny moments but unfortunately I have an awful feeling they weren’t meant to be funny. The moments that are meant to be creepy and/or scary either fall flat or they’re laughably inept. Director Francis Megahy just doesn’t know how to do scares or suspense.
The acting is problematic. Matthew Blakstad’s performance as young James is odd but since the character is apparently supposed to be enigmatic it’s possibly appropriate although it’s also very uneven in tone. Terence and Laurie are supposed to be so self-absorbed that they hardly even noticed they had a son and Gary Bond and Barbara Kellerman manage that quite well but then when events come to a crisis and they should show some emotion they don’t pull it off, and Barbara Kellerman gives the impression that she had no idea what was expected of her. So Growing Pains really doesn’t work at all.
Charlie Boy is quite good. When his Uncle Jack dies Graeme gets his art collection as his share of the estate. It includes a Central African fetish statue which Graeme and his wife name Charlie Boy. In a moment of frustration Graeme sticks a knife in a photo. And the people in the photo start dying. After four deaths it seems pretty clear that Charlie Boy is to blame. There is a possible solution but it proves to be more difficult than one might expect.
It’s a good example of how to do effective horror without the need for expensive makeup or special effects. It’s also a story that doesn’t require excessive amounts of gore (although this one does definitely have some gore). It’s the idea that creates the terror.
Leigh Lawson is quite good as Graeme, a man who finds he has unwittingly unleashed an appalling horror. Marius Goring is fun as antiquities dealer Heinz who may be the only one able to stop the slaughter.
The Silent Scream is notable for starring Peter Cushing. Chuck Spillers (Brian Cox) has just been released from prison). Prison visitor Martin Blueck (Peter Cushing) had offered to help him after his release and the old man does offer him a job feeding his animals. Blueck runs a pet shop but he has quite a menagerie of wild animals as well. He claims to be devising a more humane method of confining animals without the use of cages or bars. In fact he is training them to accept confinement by means of fear. And he would like to extend his experiments to humans.
Chuck is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and the first thing he tries to do it to rob Blueck’s safe. Big mistake. Now Chuck is going to be trained. Chuck’s wife Annie (Elaine Donnelly) heads off to the pet shop to investigate when Chuck fails to return home but getting Chuck out of the mess he’s in may prove to be both tricky and dangerous.
Apart from being a very effective horror piece The Silent Scream offers some quite acute psychological insights into the nature of fear. The ending is predictable but in fact it’s not the ending at all. There’s another, much cleverer and nastier, twist still to come. The Silent Scream really is great stuff.
So after viewing six of the thirteen episodes I’m very very impressed with this series. One dud episode but the others range from good to superb. I’ll be posting on the remainder of the episodes once I get a chance to watch them so stay tuned.
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