Wednesday 26 August 2020

Perry Mason season 2 part one (1958-59)

By the time the second season of the Perry Mason TV series began its run in 1958 the series was already a major hit and well on its way to being a television classic.

Most season one episodes were based on Erle Stanley Gardner novels but in season two there a lot of original teleplays.

Perry Mason not only established the hour-long television drama format (and made superb use of its possibilities) it also raised the bar when it come to production values and general slickness. There were other very good American television crime dramas in the 50s but Perry Mason looked a lot more polished. It’s very professionally made and the professionalism shows.

If there’s a weakness in this series it involves the D.A., Hamilton Burger, and Lieutenant Tragg. It’s actually an unavoidable weakness. Every week we see poor old Tragg very pleased with himself after making an arrest only to have his case collapse in court, and every week we see Burger defeated in court by Perry. Which gives the viewer the impression that they’re both a bit on the incompetent side. But it’s also obvious that Mason doesn’t think they’re incompetent at all. He may think they’re inclined to be overzealous but clearly he considers both men to be very good at their jobs. There’s not much that could have been done about this. It’s an obvious advantage in a TV series (or a series of novels for that matter) for the prosecuting counsel and the arresting police officer to be regular characters appearing in every story, but they always have to lose. We just have to imagine that when Perry Mason is not defending they probably win pretty often.

It’s also necessary for dramatic purposes to have the courtroom confrontations between Mason and Burger seem tense and even acrimonious so every so often a scene has to be thrown in to show that they actually have considerable mutual professional respect and are on very friendly terms. Interestingly enough in the books the relationship between them actually is rather strained.

Perry Mason has been released on DVD in half-season sets, which in the case of season two means fifteen episodes in each set. This reviews covers the first half-season.

The Episodes

The Case of the Corresponding Corpse is an original teleplay. George Hartley Beaumont is supposed to be dead but he isn’t and that fact has been discovered by a sleazy insurance investigator. It leads to blackmail and murder. A good episode.

The Case of the Lucky Loser is based on a 1957 Erle Stanley Gardner novel. Amateur archaeologist Lawrence Balfour (Bruce Bennett) is off to the Sierra Madres. His wife Harriet kisses him goodbye and heads off home. Except that he isn’t going to the Sierra Madres and she isn’t going home. He follows her, she meets a man named George Egan and Lawrence Balfour shoots Egan. But Lawrence Balfour isn’t charged with the murder of Egan. His nephew Led Balfour is charged with killing Egan in a hit-run driving incident.

This is an interesting one because we know the explanation for all these events. That explanation is relatively straightforward. But this is a Perry Mason story based on an Erle Stanley Gardner novel so we need to remind ourselves that anything that seems to be straightforward almost certainly isn’t. And this case turns out to be a long long way from straightforward. There are finish plot twists, fascinating points of law and surprise items of evidence. When we finally think we’re starting to see what it all means we discover that there are even more plot twists to come. An excellent episode.

In The Case of the Pint-Sized Client a 14-year-old boy asks Perry for some legal advice. It seems he’s found something and wants to know if he can legally keep it, but he’s not prepared to say what it is he’s found. The answer becomes obvious when the boy’s grandfather is charged with armed robbery and murder. The boy had found the proceeds of a robbery in an abandoned house, and the police found the money hidden in the house in which the boy and his grandfather live. The big problem is that one of the employees of the finance company that was robbed has made a positive ID of the old man, even though all the robbers wore masks.

The Case of the Sardonic Sergeant is a tale of money to burn, or rather money that should have been burnt. When American forces on Corregidor in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 they burnt several million dollars worth of currency to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Sixteen years later some of that money has started to turn up. It appears likely that someone in the finance and accounting section at a large military base is passing these bills. And Major Lessing, the Finance Officer, has been murdered. Or so it appears, although there is the matter of the suicide note. Master-Sergeant Dexter is accused of the murder and Lessing’s widow persuades Perry Mason to defend him at the court-martial.

What happened on the night that Major Lessing died is important, but maybe not as important as finding out exactly what happened on Corregidor in 1942. Maybe this one stretches plausibility a little but it’s clever and very entertaining.

In The Case of the Married Moonlighter a young man named Danny who works nights in a diner to put food on the table for his family is charged with murder. He certainly has a motive - a guy went in to the diner ostentatiously flashing a huge bankroll and Danny could sure use that money, especially give that his wife wants to divorce his because he can’t provide for her and the kids. Perry as usual bends the rules quite a bit, there are some nice red herrings and it’s all pretty satisfactory.

The Case of the Jilted Jockey is obviously a racetrack story and they can be rather fun. Jockey Tic Barton has had some bad breaks and a year ago he had a serious fall. But now things are looking up. He’s riding a great horse in a major race and a win will cement his comeback. The owners have confidence in him, the trainer has confidence in him, plus he has a wonderful wife. Then his wonderful wife drops a bombshell. She wants him to throw the race, for $10,000. If he doesn’t she’ll divorce him. He suspects the offer originates with a smooth-talking gambler named Johnny Starr. What he doesn’t know is that his wife intends to run off with Starr anyway.

Tic’s problems are only just getting started. Pretty soon he’s wanted for murder. It’s a typical Perry Mason setup - Perry’s client has not merely a motive but a genuine desire to commit murder but what happens if you’re going to commit a murder and someone beats you to it? And there are several other very good suspects. This is a story in which timing is important - there are in fact several events the timings of which are crucial but that doesn’t become apparent until close to the end. Perry has no idea of the identity of the actual killer until very very late in the day but when he does figure it out he zeroes in on the guilty party with devastating efficiency. Throughout the trials scenes Perry does some very nifty cross-examining, leaving the witnesses and poor old Hamilton Burger equally bewildered. It’s classic Perry Mason.

The Case of the Purple Woman involves an art collector, an art dealer, the art dealer’s wife, his secretary and a painter. It also involves a painting. The Purple Woman is a painting by a famous 19th century artist but it’s an obvious forgery. The puzzle is how the collector, a bit of an expert in this artist’s work, could have been taken in by a clumsy forgery. It’s an important puzzle because it’s the key to a murder. A solid episode notable for the ending which sees Perry and Hamilton Burger being very chummy, showing that their fierce courtroom rivalries are simply all part of the job.

The Case of the Fancy Figures starts with a case of embezzlement. Martin Ellis is serving a prison term for the embezzlement from the firm of Hyett, Brewster and Hyett. Now evidence has come to light that proves his innocence and the the guilty party was Charles Brewster, a partner in the firm and the son-in-law of the firm’s founder Jonathan Hyett. Brewster is arrested, recessed on bail and then murdered. Martin Ellis’s guilt in this instance seems obvious. Of course the truth is much more complicated.

The clever bit in this story is the revelation of the real murderer, which has Paul Drake kicking himself. It’s an average Perry Mason episode, which means it’s still pretty good.

The Case of the Perjured Parrot is based on one of Gardner’s early Perry Mason novels. It happens to be an excellent novel and I posted a very brief review here a long while ago. This case takes Perry into small town America where a woman has been accused of murder. At the coroner’s inquest the District Attorney (not Hamilton Burger but a local) produces his star witness, a parrot. The parrot was an eyewitness. Perry tells the coroner he doesn’t mind the parrot being introduced as a witness but he does insist on being allowed to cross-examine the bird. Of course a parrot can't commit perjury. Or can he?

While the parrot naturally provides some amusing moments there’s a typical and reasonably effective Perry Mason plot here as well, which centres on the question of identity but not in the way we’re led to believe it will. Not quite as good as the book but there’s still plenty here to enjoy.

The dream that gets shattered in The Case of the Shattered Dream is a diamond, the Pundit Dream. It belongs to the girlfriend of a diamond merchant and prize sleazebag. He needs the diamond to pay off gambling debts. At the heart of the plot is an elaborate con. But this guy is as dishonest in his relationships with women as he is with money, in spite of which women seem to adore him. Perry does his usual magic in the courtroom. The plot works satisfactorily. It’s not one of the best episodes but it’s very solid and very enjoyable.

There are many possible motives for murder. Including goldfish, as we will discover in The Case of the Glittering Goldfish. Actually in this case it’s not so much goldfish per se, but a miracle cure for sick goldfish. It cures an ailment that is very common and invariably fatal so the treatment is something that everybody who keeps fish is going to want. Which means there’s likely to be a tidy sum of money in it. Enough to provide a motive for murder. The complication is that lots of people had lots of other motives for wanting Jack Huxley dead.

This is one episode that can definitely be said to play fair with the viewer - the clue that leads Perry to the solution is out there in plain sight and it really does lead to only one possible conclusion. If, like me, you manage to miss it you’ll kick yourself. A very neat and enjoyable episode.

The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll begins in a nicely convoluted way. A young woman, Mildred Crest, picks up a hitch-hiker, another young woman named Fern Driscoll. The car crashes and one of the women is killed. But which one? And why is a private detective named Davis trying to retrieve certain letters which he believes are in Miss Driscoll’s possession? It seems that both these young women were on the run. And then there’s the  corpse, killed by an ice-pick. The woman who isn’t dead is facing a murder charge but luckily she has legal representation - Perry Mason has accepted a retainer from her, to the amount of thirty-eight cents.

Mason’s client is actually facing quite a few charges, including possibly another murder charge. Of course Mason is confident she’s innocent on all counts but D.A. Hamilton Burger has pretty strong evidence pointing in her direction on every one of those charges.

This one has a surprise ending that might seem to come out of nowhere but in fact the vital clues that lead Mason to the solution are there, you just have to be watching attentively to spot their significance. So it’s once again an episode that can fairly be described as fair-play. And it’s another very very good episode.

Final Thoughts

The first half of the second season is every bit as strong as the first season, which means it’s very very good indeed. It sticks to a rigid formula but the scripts and the performances  are terrific. This is superbly crafted television.

And the DVD transfers cannot be faulted. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Star Trek Operation - Annihilate! (1967)

Operation - Annihilate! is the last of the twenty-nine episodes of the original Star Trek series. It was originally broadcast in April 1967. It was written by Steven W. Carabatsos.

I watched the whole of the first season a while back but for some unaccountable reason I overlooked this episode, an oversight which I am now correcting.

Mass insanity has been wiping out Federation colonies, spreading from one star system to another over the course of many years. Now it appears that it has reached the planet Deneva.

Captain Kirk has a personal stake in this - he has family on Deneva.

A team from the Enterprise beams to the planet’s surface where they are attacked by the obviously insane inhabitants. They do discover the cause of the problem - a plague of strange single-celled organisms, like dinner plate-sized amoeba. What they don’t know is how to destroy the creatures. If they cannot destroy these creatures then the mass insanity will spread to other planets, which means KIrk may have to take very drastic steps indeed to ensure that the organisms never leave the planet. Drastic steps, like nuking the entire planet and its one million inhabitants.

To make matters worse Spock has been infected. The good news is, they now know how it works. The infestation of this alien life form causes unbearable pain which results in madness. The bad news is, they have no idea how to treat the infestation without killing the patient. Being a Vulcan Spock can endure the pain, for a while at least. How long can Kirk wait before resorting to the nuclear option, which will mean Spock will have to be killed as well. And there’s a complication arising from that personal stake mentioned earlier.

This is obviously a paranoia episode, with the threat being more frightening because it’s mindless and irrational. Paranoia had been a major ingredient of much of American pop culture in the 50s but it was mostly anti-communist paranoia. This episode represents a much more 1960s type of paranoia - the fear of the whole of society being driven mad by inexplicable forces. This actually makes Operation - Annihilate! more in tune with modern sensibilities, with people responding in fear to things that cannot be seen (such as viruses).

The feel of the Deneva colony is interesting - bright airy with ultra-modernist buildings but rather sterile. And, with all the inhabitants cowering inside and the public space deserted, it’s spooky but in a subtle sort of way. The episode makes good use of the modernist architecture which can look friendly and cheerful with plenty of people around but with no people at all it looks a bit stark and inhuman. A bit like the universe perhaps, which doesn’t seem too terrifying if we imagine it teeming with life but seems absolutely horrifying if we imagine it as devoid of life.

The basic plot was already old by 1967. It’s reasonably well executed but it works mostly because of the acting by the three leads. Leonard Nimoy does a fine job of convincing us that he’s just barely managing to hold agonising pain at bay. William Shatner does just as well, conveying Kirk’s horror at the decisions he may have to make and his exasperation at his powerlessness to find a way out with commendable subtlety. Yes, William Shatner could be subtle when he wanted to be. DeForest Kelley is good as well, portraying Dr McCoy’s appalled horror when he makes what could be a very very costly error.

There are some overly contrived elements, including the old chestnut of the ludicrously simple solution to an apparently insoluble problem.

Star Trek has often been mocked for its aliens that look just like humans with funny eyebrows but in this episode it offers us a creepily alien alien - a life form so alien that any kind of mutual comprehension is impossible. This is an alien that just destroys because it’s in its nature to destroy. Aliens that have some agenda don’t seem as scary as aliens that will destroy us without even being aware of it (again, a bit like viruses).

The fact that the aliens remain enigmatic is both a strength and a weakness of this story, but on the whole it’s a strength. Trying to explain the motivations of aliens inevitably makes them seem less alien because the motivations usually end up sounding human - the desire for empire, greed, the struggle for survival as a species, political domination, etc. In the case of the aliens in Operation - Annihilate! it’s not even certain that these aliens are capable of wanting anything. It’s hinted that they’re all part of a single organism but does that organism possess intelligence? Or consciousness? That question is left nicely ambiguous. What is certain is that these aliens cannot be reasoned with or negotiated with. As with viruses it’s not even possible to say for sure that they are alive in a sense that we can comprehend. They may be more like biological machines. 

Perhaps they’re a kind of virus, but a virus that infects societies rather than individual creatures.

One thing this episode does do effectively is to convey the sense that the universe is likely to be a very strange place, and a hostile place - but hostile in ways that we may never understand. So a hackneyed idea is made more interesting and disturbing than we might expect.

The special effects may seem a bit crude but I don’t know how else the aliens could have been rendered. The only other option would have been not showing the aliens at all - having them be invisible like viruses. The disadvantage of that would have been to make them seem like a disease which would have made them a more familiar threat, and thus less effectively weird. On the whole I think the choices that were made in terms of showing the aliens were probably the correct ones.

The major weakness is that the personal element in the story, involving Kirk’s family on Deneva, is not developed at all and ends up being an unnecessary distraction. There are also one or two plot holes concerning the method by which the aliens travel from planet to planet.

I’m always inclined to prefer stories with genuinely weird aliens. This is an underrated episode which plays to the strengths of the series by focusing on the responses to the threat by the three main characters. Overall this one is pretty good, and an effective season finale. 

Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Sweeney season 3 (1976)

The Sweeney returned for a third season in late 1976. The series has revolutionised the British cop show and was now at the peak of its popularity and about to spawn two feature films. It blended action, toughness and humour in a way that has never since been quite equalled. It can be brutal and it can be dark but it never quite crosses the line into nihilism. Things go wrong, cases go unsolved, people get hurt, but there’s no point in wallowing in self-pity over it. When things do go wrong Regan and Carter get drunk and then the next day they’re back on the job because life goes on and the job still has to be done. And there’s still plenty of booze to be drunk and plenty of skirt to chase so why complain?

The Sweeney’s brutally realistic approach to the police shocked many people the time but audiences found it to be invigorating. Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter were cops who seemed believable. They weren’t wholly admirable people but then if you’re a Boy Scout you’re not going to last very long in the Flying Squad, a squad tasked with investigating serious robberies (which generally meant violent robberies) and other crimes of violence. The criminals they deal with are usually pretty vicious.

The Flying Squad was at this time being rocked by corruption scandals and police corruption is a recurring theme. If you want to catch big-time criminals you have to spend a lot of time with those same criminals. You have to drink with them. You have to get to know them. You have to get to know which ones are prepared to act as informers. The people you have to use as informers can be serious low-lifes and thugs. It’s the only way to get the job done but the possibility of being corrupted is ever-present. This kind of honesty was also pretty startling at the time, but again audiences liked it because the series was honest about it.

In the world of The Sweeney there are good cops and bad cops. The bad cops are worse than the criminals, but fortunately there are good cops as well. Regan and Carter are good cops. They bend the rules, sometimes they bend them a great deal, sometimes their methods are questionable, but fundamentally they’re honest. And they get the job done. If they have to bend a few rules and break a few heads, well that’s the way it is.

The Sweeney steadfastly refuses to idealise the police but it certainly isn’t anti-police. It just accepts reality. As Graham Greene once put it, human nature isn’t black and white, it’s black and grey.

The Sweeney also manages to be incredibly stylish without being glamorous. The world of The Sweeney is seedy and sometimes sleazy, and often grimy. The people that Regan and Carter deal with can be heroic, they can be cowardly, they can be petty and vindictive, they can be kind and generous, they can be winners and they can be losers. But they all have an intensity and an immediacy to them. They feel like real people. The fact that this series is not afraid to make characters larger-than-life or absurd or eccentric makes those characters seem more believable. People really can be pretty strange. The situations can be bizarre but real life can be bizarre. This is life on the streets, for good or bad.

The fact that the series was shot almost entirely on location gives it a vibrancy that is a million miles away from the artificial world of the traditional shot-in-the-studio shot-on-video feel of previous British TV cop shows. The pursuit of realism can be a dead end if it’s done the wrong way, but The Sweeney does it the right way.

Episode Guide

Selected Target starts the season in style. Colly Kibber, a big time villain just released from prison, is believed to be planning a big job. A very big job. First he has some some business to attend to with his former cell-mate, Titus Oates. He thinks Oates informed on him. Kibber then gives his wife her marching orders. He has a replacement for her already lined up. Or rather, two replacements, both call girls. Scotland Yard has a mammoth surveillance operation in place to foil Kibber’s plans and this is what worries Regan. He doesn’t like such mammoth operations. He’s not exactly a team player. Which story has all the trademarks of this series - plenty of violence, a bit of sleaze, crisp dialogue and a script that combines deviousness with cynicism. Excellent episode.

In from the Cold involves not just cold-blooded criminals, but very cold criminals (you’ll have to watch this one to know what I mean). Regan spots a villain named Billy Medhurst in a fish and chip shop. Medhurst was involved in a robbery a couple of years earlier in which a policeman was shot and crippled. Now he’s got Medhurst in custody but can he keep him under lock and key? And what is Medhurst’s shady lawyer up to? Not to mention Billy’s wife. It all hinges on steaks. A lot of them. A typical episode but a very good one with the usual mix of humour and violence.

Visiting Fireman throws pretty much everything at Jack Regan. It starts with a known villain being arrested for a robbery but the villain has an alibi and it’s Regan who supplies the alibi. Which causes Jack all sorts of problems, with maybe even his career being on the line. Then Turkish policeman Captain Shebbeq arrives and wants Regan’s help on an investigation he’s conducting into long-distance lorry hijackings in Turkey. Regan and Shebbeq are old mates so you won't be surprised to hear that Shebbeq’s main interests in life are football, booze and birds. There’s a lot more to the truck hijackings than meets the eye, things that ordinary policeman shouldn’t get mixed up in. They could get killed or they could see their career go down the gurgler. This episode really does have everything. It even has Regan and Carter doing a song-and-dance routine. There’s also Helga, the very cute German barmaid at the Turkish Club. This episode is totally over-the-top but enjoyably so.

Tomorrow Man deals with cyber-crime, 1976-style. The Flying Squad think computer whizz-kid Tony Gray (John Hurt), just out of prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter after killing a woman in a traffic accident, is up to something big. They have no idea what it is since they don’t know anything about computers. Regan however finds a charming young lady named Dr Smart (yes really) from the Home Office who does understand such things. Gray’s plan is a good one and he always seems to be a step ahead of Regan and Carter who are meanwhile busily engaged in trying to figure out how to get Dr Smart into bed.

In Taste of Fear a couple of army deserters commit a particularly violent robbery. Catching them should be easy but it isn’t and DI Regan has another problem - a new sergeant on the Flying Squad, named Hargreaves. Regan has serious doubts that the man can be relied on, but he can’t be quite certain whether he’s going to have to get rid of him or not. If he does it will be the end of Hargreaves’ career. Sometimes Jack Regan hates his job.

Bad Apple presents the Squad with an unpleasant case, investigating possible corruption in a divisional CID. Regan goes undercover at the Blue Parrot club which disbelieved top be making payoffs. Haskins and Carter sift through the paperwork, looking for anomalies in prosecutions that could be pointers to the culprits. A good episode.

May helped Regan keep his sanity when his wife left him so he owes her and now May’s son has got himself into a spot of bother with the law. An elderly moneylender has been badly beaten and a witness puts young Davey at the spot and the police find five hundred quid hidden beneath the seat of his motorcycle. And then Davey does a runner so now he’s really in trouble and May wants Jack to get him out of it. It turns out that Davey has managed to get himself into some truly spectacular trouble and not just with the law. A very good episode.

In Sweet Smell of Succession when gang boss Joe Castle goes to his eternal reward there’s a fine collection of villains ready to take over his firm, but they’re all too greedy to coöperate and the wild card is Castle’s son Steven (Hywel Bennett). Steven seems too soft to survive in such a world but what he lacks in muscle he makes up for in low cunning. Joe Castle’s mistress Arleen (Sue Lloyd) is another wild card. She has what could be the key to Steven’s scheme. Another very good episode.

In Down to You, Brother a middle-aged retired villain has a message for Regan, but what exactly is the message? It appears to be related to a big job that was pulled six years earlier but Regan starts to suspect that the message was something quite different. One thing coppers and villains have in common is that their careers play havoc with their personal lives. Especially when a daughter is involved. A clever little story.

In Pay Off George Carter gets involved with a woman named Shirley. Shirley’s feller Eddie disappeared a year earlier and she thinks he’s dead. She persuades George to look into it.  Eddie was a very small-time villain but he may have been involved in an armed robbery which turned into an embarrassing fiasco for the Flying Squad. George’s emotional involvement causes a lot of problems for both himself and the Squad. You really don’t have much chance of having a personal life when you’re on the Squad, a lesson George is about to learn. Another very good episode.

Cowboys are riding the range in Loving Arms. Well, not cowboys, but cowboy guns. Six-shooters, just like in the Old West. They’re not real, but they can shoot and they’re more dangerous than real guns. Regan stumbles across the case when a shopkeeper, an old soldier, swears blind that the Colt .45 he was held up with was real. And sooner or later someone is likely to get killed. It’s the sort of slightly offbeat story that made this series so appealing. Good stuff.

Lady Luck is the name of the episode and Jack thinks that that fickle lady has decided to smile on him. He gets some very good information from an unexpected source - an attractive middle-class housewife. Marcia Edmunds in her forties but well preserved and rather attractive which is just as well since she doesn’t want to be paid in money for the information. She wants to be paid in sex. There are two problems however. Had Jack known who she was he would have declined her kind offer. And the information hinges on an unbreakable alibi that Jack will have to break. The alibi angle is handled very well as is the very awkward situation that Jack is faced with. Much of it depends on how long it would take for Marcia’s souffle to rise. An excellent episode.

On the Run is a manhunt story which really ramps up the violence level. And the politically incorrectness level as well. A violent psychopath named Cook is sprung from custody by  his former cell-mate Pindar. Pindar is shacked up with his Rich ageing boyfriend who is besotted with him. As the net closes on Cook he becomes increasingly murderous. A violent story that keeps getting more violent but still a fine episode with which to close the third season.

Final Thoughts

This series was riding high in 1976 and it’s easy to see why. The third season has all the ingredients that made The Sweeney the most memorable cop show of its era (and possibly the best British cop show ever). The series then took a break while the two spin-off movies, the not-so-great Sweeney! and the much better Sweeney 2) were shot before returning for the fourth and final season in 1978.

The third season of The Sweeney is highly recommended.

Monday 3 August 2020

Harry O season one (1974)

I’ve spoken about the genesis of Harry O in my review of the two pilot episodes.

The first season falls into two distinct phases, the San Diego phase (which is superb and quirky) and the Los Angeles phase (which is more conventional but still very good).

In the first thirteen episodes of the first season Harry Orwell is based in San Diego. In mid-season the series was radically revamped.

One of the things I like about Harry Orwell as David Janssen plays him is that he’s not overly likeable. In an odd way that makes him very likeable. He’s not unpleasant but he can be very direct, occasionally in a slightly hurtful way, he can be irritable and he doesn’t go out of the way to ingratiate himself with people. So when Harry does do something considerate it’s likely to be genuine.

This was not the first private eye series to use San Diego as a setting. There was also a 1960 series called Coronado 9. It was not a commercial success but it was quite interesting and really not that bad at all. But San Diego seemed to be the kids of death for TV private eyes. Coronado 9 was a flop and the network demanded that Harry O be relocated to Los Angeles, which was a much more conventional and therefore safe setting. I think it’s rather a pity. San Diego seems like the kind of town that provides an ideal setting for a private eye series.

Harry O - the San Diego episodes

In the first thirteen episodes of the first season Harry Orwell is based in San Diego. In mid-season the series was radically revamped.

The San Diego episodes are similar in feel to the first pilot. They’re slightly darker and slightly more cynical than most private eye series of that era. Harry is grumpy and taciturn and his back troubles him a lot. Underneath he’s a nice guy but he’d hate for anyone to find that out. The stories are sometimes mildly quirky but mostly it’s Harry himself who gives the series its mildly offbeat tone. There’s also the fact that he mostly gets around by bus, with is decidedly unusual for a TV private eye. He has a car, an old British Austin-Healey sports car, but it’s hardly ever running.

A private eye has to have a contact in the police force and Harry’s contact is Lieutenant Manny Quinlan (played by Henry Darrow). Manny thinks Harry is sentimental and quixotic and exasperating. In spite of this there’s an uneasy but real friendship between the two men. It’s pretty typical of the relationships between fictional private eyes and fictional cops but Darrow and Janssen are sufficiently good actors to make it convincing.

The first episode of the Harry O series is Gertrude. It’s written by series creator Howard Rodman and it’s everything that the second pilot isn’t. Gertrude is quirky and the structure is kinda loose and the tone is whimsical with an edge of weirdness. David Janssen who had given a solid but very straightforward performance in Smile Jenny, You're Dead gives a delightfully off-kilter performance in Gertrude. Harry Orwell is bad-tempered and kind-hearted, he’s cynical but sentimental, he’s conscientious and indifferent to his work. He has a bullet in his back and he’s in constant pain but somehow he manages to regard the world with wry amusement. He is immoral but he respects Gertrude’s strict morality.

He doesn’t even know why he took this case, except that Gertrude sounded on the ’phone like an interesting eccentric and her story made no sense so it seemed like it might be interesting. Gertrude’s brother Harold has gone AWOL from the Navy but the Navy seems very very upset about it, which suggests that there’s something about the case that the Navy is keeping to itself. The only concrete clue is Harold’s left shoe. And as Harry explains in his voiceover narration, a clue is also anything that doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to and that visit from the Shore Patrol certainly didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.

David Janssen in Harry O season one
In this episode a lot depends on the weird chemistry between David Janssen and guest star Julie Sommars (who plays Gertrude). Gertrude could easily have been merely a crazy person but there’s something about her that makes it plausible that Harry feels compelled to pay it absolutely straight with her. This is a great opening episode.

The Admiral's Lady is the wife of a retired U.S. Navy admiral and she was out on her yacht alone and is now missing presumed drowned. The admiral won’t believe that she could be dead and he hires Harry to find her. What Harry finds is another dead woman and some dirty little secrets regarding quite a few respectable wealthy married women.

There’s also the admiral to deal with. He’s a stubborn cantankerous old devil but he’s a fundamentally decent sort and Harry takes a liking to him. Harry is not sure what the truth is about the admiral’s wife but he has a fair idea the admiral’s not going to take it well.

It’s a straightforward but solid private eye plot made much more interesting by the fact that it’s about characters who are flawed and complicated but they’re people who are doing their best and they feel real. A good episode.

In Guardian at the Gates Harry gets the most obnoxious client who could possibly be imagined. Paul Sawyer is an architect and supposedly a genius. Someone has tried to poison his dog. The suspicion is that next time they might go after Sawyer himself. Who would want to kill Paul Sawyer? Every single human being who has ever met him. It seems like it’s going to be a thankless job for Harry but on the other hand Sawyer does have a pretty blonde daughter (played by Linda Evans). The plot is OK but it’s the character interactions involving the miserable old curmudgeon Sawyer, the daughter (who’s a bit weird and a bit all over the place) and Harry that make things interesting. Harry finds out what genius really means and he’s pretty happy not to be a genius. It’s a good episode.

Mortal Sin presents Harry with a tricky problem. He has this friend who’s a Catholic priest. A man confessed to murder, to the priest. The priest cannot break the Seal of the Confessional. But what about Harry? He can try to find the murderer but he’s not going to get much help from his friend the priest. The idea of the priest being unable to reveal the identity of a murderer because of his vows is not original but originality is not that important. What matters is how well the idea is handled. Here it’s handled pretty well and the main focus is Harry’s search for the killer starting out with virtually nothing to go on. It’s a pretty successful episode.

Coinage of the Realm has Harry looking for a guy called Yorkfield. Yorkfield has never been of any use to anyone in his life but now he can be of a lot of use to his daughter who needs a kidney transplant. Only problem is that a couple of hitmen are also looking for Yorkfield. In this episode Harry does the curmudgeon with a heart of gold thing but David Janssen makes it believable and does it without any phoney sentimentality. Harry’s entrance to Yorkfield’s apartment, with a fire-axe, is a nice very Harry O touch. A very good episode.

In Eyewitness Harry is hired to find out if a black kid is guilty of murder or if he’s been set up as a patsy by a rather nasty ghetto pimp. It would help if Harry could find an eyewitness. There is no eyewitness, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Not a bad episode.

In Shadows at Noon Harry is committed to a mental hospital. It was his idea. He’s trying to find out about a girl named Marilyn who turned up at his house with a story about wrongly committed to the hospital. Harry discovers that getting out of a mental hospital is a whole lot harder than getting in. And he discovers that there’s a lot more to Marilyn's story. There might even be murder. It’s a very good episode with a kid of bitter-sweet feel to it.

Ballinger's Choice has Harry hired by Margaret Ballinger women her husband Philip goes missing. It sounds to Harry like there’s another woman but Margaret is sure it’s not that. Philip turns up again but several people have turned up dead. There’s a series of nasty little emotional entanglements behind all this. There’s some pretty decent misdirection in this tale, and an interesting clue (a character reacting slightly oddly to a certain situation). There’s a chase at the end but this is Harry O so it’s not your regular car chase, it’s a boat chase. A good episode about human frailties.

Second Sight presents Harry with an apparently paranormal case. A psychiatrist tries to hire Harry as a bodyguard but the psychiatric then vanishes. A blind author with an uncanny ability to predict murders before they happen tells police where the body can be found. People involved with this author seem to either disappear or get murdered quite often. This not surprisingly makes the police rather suspicious of her and there’s also the vexed question of the nature of her blindness. It’s quite a clever if convoluted mystery plot. A good episode.

There’s nothing Harry hates more than bodyguard work and he doesn't like it any better when it’s a bodyguard job for the police which is what he’s landed with in Material Witness. He has to protect a doctor who witnessed a gangland execution and she hates cops and she’s determined to be difficult. It’s an OK plot but as always it’s David Janssen’s performance that makes it something special. A good episode.

Forty Reasons to Kill is a two-parter. A hippie gets beaten to death and a large amount of cocaine is found on the body. Lieutenant Quinlan figures, reasonably enough, that dead hippies with drugs on them are probably drug dealers. Harry knew the hippie and doesn’t agree. The investigation takes him to Vadera County. As anyone who has ever watched American television knows all American small towns are incredibly dangerous places (much more dangerous than big cities) and small town sheriffs are always corrupt psychopaths. The dead hippie was trying to buy some land from fabulously wealthy rancher Glenna Nielson. Glenna is beautiful, possibly unstable, probably dangerous. She’s the sort of woman a smart private eye keeps at arm’s length so naturally Harry falls for her. And as happens to most city folk who are unwise enough to visit small towns Harry finds himself in the local jail, charged with first degree murder. Lots of clichés in this episode and it’s all a bit routine but it’s well executed and there are some fun supporting performances from Broderick Crawford and Craig Stevens.

Accounts Balanced is a story in which we know who the bad guy is, and then again we don’t. Maybe nobody does. It starts when Harry’s ex-girlfriend hires him to check up on her husband. It seems like just another case of a husband having an affair, except for a couple of niggling little details. Another pretty solid episode.

The Last Heir is a country house murder mystery but it also owes a large debt to a certain very famous Agatha Christie story. In this case the country house is built on top of a gold mine in the middle of the desert but the principle is the same. Letty inherited the whole of her father’s fortune. Her family (two sisters and a brother plus a great-nephew and his wife) are entirely dependent upon her for money and once a year they have to travel to her house to collect their allowances and be humiliated. Letty thinks her family are trying to kill her. Her family thinks she is trying to kill them. One of them has hired Harry as protection so this time there are seven people at the annual family gathering.

In true classic murder mystery style all the cars are sabotaged and since there’s no phone they are completely cut off until the next delivery truck arrive in a week’s time. And then the corpses start to pile up. It’s a clever and devious little tale and keeps us in doubt right up to the end. Great stuff.

Harry O - the Los Angeles episodes

Midway through season one the series received a complete makeover with Harry moving to Los Angeles. The entire supporting cast was dumped and replaced by new characters.

A lot of the wonderfully quirky features of the San Diego episodes were eliminated. Harry no longer catches buses. His Austin-Healey sports car now runs most of the time. He no longer has his boat that looked like it was going to take a lifetime to restore to seaworthy condition.

On the other hand there’s still Harry himself, shuffling about in what often seems like an absent-minded haze, being cantankerous and about as unglamorous as a private eye can be. And a major plus is one of the new regular characters, Lieutenant Trench (Anthony Zerbe), a cop who looks decidedly unfriendly but is actually rather amiable. He’s a most engaging and eccentric character. He likes to give the impression that he hates private eyes and considers Harry to be one of the crosses he has to bear but it’s clear that he likes Harry and has great respect for the value of his instincts. He’s the perfect foil for Harry and their repartee is a highlight of the L.A. episodes.

There’s also his sergeant, Roberts, who hardly ever speaks. And there’s Betsy, Harry’s slightly ditzy airline stewardess neighbour who takes Harry’s ’phone calls. So while some of the surface quirkiness of the series has disappeared some of that quirkiness has crept back in in the form of slightly eccentric supporting players.

In fact the overall impression given by the L.A.episodes is that the producers were trying to placate the network by making the series seem more conventional while what they were actually doing was to make its quirkiness a bit more subtle.

For the Love of Money opens with Harry having just relocated to L.A. and now he’s been hired by a secretary who wants to return $25,000 worth of bonds she stole from her boss. But her boss says half a million is missing, and the bonds belong to his clients and they’re not insured. This episode introduces Lieutenant Trench and sets up his odd relationship with Harry.

Disappointingly Harry seems to have given up catching buses. On the other hand his personality is pretty much unchanged which is pleasing since that’s the show’s major asset. It’s a reasonably solid episode.

In The Confetti People a client, Jack Dawes, tells Harry he’s just shot and killed his artist brother Arthur. Problem is there’s no body. There seems to have been no crime but something strange is certainly going on. That artist brother seems to make a habit of getting murdered. Jack may be a little on the crazy side. And everybody involved in the case is probably lying, for an assortment of reasons. There’s something odd about some of Arthur’s paintings as well. It’s a very decent episode with plenty of amusing verbal exchanges between Harry and Lieutenant Trench.

It’s pretty much a given that any private eye series is going to include an episode centred around jazz musicians. An episode like Sound of Trumpets. Harry fishes an old black trumpet player named Art Sully out of the water. Everyone assumes Art was drunk and fell in, but he didn’t fall. Art thinks someone is trying to kill him. Everyone assumes that Art is drunk and crazy. He’s certainly drunk but maybe he isn’t crazy. Everybody has tried to help Art but they can’t but Harry is going to try anyway. In this episode Harry is back to riding buses! It’s not a bad episode, not startlingly original but it’s well executed.

In Silent Kill Harry is trying to prove that his client, a deaf-mute, is not guilty of arson. Arson that resulted in three deaths. It’s a fairly routine story and it doesn’t do anything interesting with the deaf-mute angle.

Double Jeopardy starts with a girl riding a horse on the beach. Somebody shoots her, right in front of Harry. Harry doesn’t see the actual shooting but he sees a guy making off down the beach on horseback. The guy, an aspiring actor named Todd (Kurt Russell), is the obvious suspect but the evidence is circumstantial. That's not good enough for the dead girl’s father, a former gangster. He wants his own justice. Harry will have to work fast to give Todd a chance. Harry has to come up with some clever detecting in this one but luckily he gets some help from his ditzy airline stewardess neighbour Sue (Farrah Fawcett). It’s a good episode.

Lester is an odd young man and he’s Harry’s client and he’s a suspect in a series of sex murders. Harry uncovers some evidence that could point to Lester as the criminal, but not necessarily. It’s a reasonable enough plot but the real interest here is provided by the interactions between Harry and Lester, and they’re enough to make this an intriguing episode.

In Elegy for a Cop a police officer is trying to save his junkie niece from herself and it costs him his life. Harry Orwell wants this killer really badly for very strong personal reasons (which I’m not going to mention since it’s a bit spoilerish. This episode, and it’s a good one, serves as a kind of epilogue to the San Diego era of Harry O.

Street Games has Harry trying to save a young drug addict who witnessed a murder. The girl, Nancy, is played by Maureen McCormick. Yes, Marcia Brady as a junkie. It’s a routine story but well executed. It sums up a lot of the differences between the San Diego and the LA episodes - had this one been done as an early-season San Diego episode it would certainly have been a lot darker and a lot better.

Final Thoughts

The San Diego episodes count as some of the best private eye TV ever. The LA episodes are more conventional and not as dark but on the plus side the chemistry between David Janssen and Anthony Zerbe as Lieutenant Trench provides some real zest and some real sparkle. Overall despite the mid-season change of pace season one of Harry O is good enough to be considered in the very top rank of private eye TV series. Very highly recommended.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (2016 mini-series)

This is a bit off-topic for this blog but I thought it might be of vague interest. It is at least about cult television.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is a 12-episode 2016 anime mini-series with lots of mayhem and a definite steampunk vibe.

The setting is Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate (which lasted from 1600 to 1868) but this is obviously an alternate universe. Japan has been overrun by the Kabane who are basically blood-drinking murderous zombies. If you’re bitten by a Kabane you become a Kabane. The Kabane are mindless zombies but they’re almost unkillable. There are a lot of them and unlike some zombies they can move pretty quickly.

The population has taken shelter in fortified railway stations dotted across the countryside, kept in touch with each other and with the shogun’s capital by armoured trains.

Ikoma is a young engineer was has been working on a secret weapon, a super-rifle, to defeat the Kabane. Unfortunately just as the weapon is ready for him to test it his station is overrun and Ikoma is bitten. He has three choices - he can become a mindless Kabane,  he can kill himself or he can wait until the shogun’s soldiers discover he has been bitten in which case they will kill him. 

But in fact Ikoma has a third choice. It’s a long shot but it just might work. The Kabane are the product of a kind of virus. If he can stop the virus from entering his brain he may have a chance. The long shot comes off, in a way. He is not a Kabane. But he is also no longer human. He is both, and neither. He is a Kabaneri. What this will really mean for him is something he is yet to discover, and that essentially is the core of this series. 

The survivors of Ikoma’s station have taken refuge on one of the armoured trains. To reach safety they will have to run the gauntlet of the Kababe. Ikoma can help them to survive, but of course they don’t want his help. They believe he is a Kabane. 

Ikoma has two main allies, both cute teenage girls. 

Ayame is a kind of princess, the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the country. Her social position makes her the commander of the train. Fortunately she’s wise and resourceful but taking charge of hundreds of terrified people who are ready to lash out at any perceived danger will be a challenge.

His other ally is Mumei. She’s a typical teenage girl apart from her superhuman strength and fighting ability the source of which is at first a mystery but of course we will soon find out she is a Kabaneri as well.

The salvation of everybody is in the hands of Ikoma and Mumei and it’s just as well they’re on the side of good. Except for one small detail. They do from time to time have an overwhelming urge to gorge themselves on human blood. 

So this is both a zombie and a type of vampire tale.

The technology is 19th century although the trains seem just a little advanced for the Tokugawa shogunate period (which ended in 1868). They seem early 20th century. And there are one or two other items that are moderately high-tech for the 19th century. But this is steampunk so a few minor anachronisms are no big deal. In fact they make steampunk fun.

The characters have some complexity. Ikoma and Mumei find that being half-human and half-Kabane is complicated, and gets more complicated. If you’re only half-human, are you really human at all? Is there any way you can have anything even approaching a normal life? Mumei has other problems to deal with, which makes the future an even more worrying prospect for her. Mumei has a dark side, and a tragic side. She’s a young girl facing challenges and conflicting loyalties that very few people would be able to deal with.

Ayame has been thrust into a leadership position for which she is too young and inexperienced. She is out of her depth. Her great strength is that she realises this. She makes mistakes but she accepts that leaders make mistakes. She is willing take responsibility for decisions she makes. Her incredibly strong sense of duty allows her to keep going when things go wrong.

The samurai Kurusu has the strengths and weaknesses of his caste. He is arrogant, stubborn and inflexible but he’s insanely brave and utterly loyal to Ayame. He hates admitting to mistakes but he has enough strength of character to do so.

Then there’s Biba, the Liberator. Mumei calls his Brother but their relationship is much more complicated. Biba is either a great Hero or a Great Villain, or perhaps he’s both.

Ayame and her followers on the armoured train face other problems aside from the terrifying hordes of Kabane. There are power plays going on at the Shogun’s court, and outside it. It’s not just humans against Kabane, but (as so often) humans against humans as well). When you have people you’re going to have factions and you’re going to have individuals lusting for power, even in a country overrun by zombies.

Both Ikoma and Mumei clearly have some kind of destiny toward which their lives are moving regardless of whether they want that destiny or not. Whether their destinies are to be tragic or hopeful - well you’ll have to watch the series to find that out.

The characters in this series have to make difficult choices, choices with momentous consequences for themselves and others. There are prices to be paid for everything, and that can include paying the ultimate price. There are questions of duty and honour, and of course there is love. All of these things may be worth fighting for or even dying for.

There’s an enomous amount of violence and gore and there is some brief nudity - this is not an anime for kids.

Although made in 2016 this series has very much the look and feel of classic anime. And it has the blend of action, ideas and emotional content that you expect from classic anime.

If you’re an anime fan and/or a steampunk fan Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is pretty satisfying entertainment. Highly recommended.