Friday 27 November 2020

The Human Jungle, season one (1963)

The Human Jungle is an intriguing drama series made by Britain’s ABC Television which ran for two seasons in 1963 and 1964. It follows the case histories of psychiatrist Dr Roger Corder (Herbert Lom). Psychiatry was a popular subject for movies from the 40s to the 60s but those movies almost invariably dealt with crazy and/or evil psychiatrists. Making a TV series about a skilful and dedicated psychiatrist was an ambitious idea and rather risky. It could easily have been dull or preachy or excessively contrived.

Herbert Lom is one of my all-time favourite actors and this was a rare opportunity for him to play a serious rôle as an entirely sympathetic character. Most of his serious rôles were as villains, cads, losers or otherwise sinister creepy characters.

The obvious temptations for such a series would have been to focus on stories related in some way to crime (in other words to make it a series about a psychiatrist crime-solver) and to focus on patients with severe and spectacular mental illnesses. Some of the stories do deal with such matters. Some deal with more everyday problems, but in an interesting way.

There are stories that involve the possibility of crime, either a crime that has been committed or might be about to be committed. Because it’s not actually a crime series you can’t be sure that there really is a crime, which makes things more interesting.The slightly unconventional nature of the series make it intriguingly unpredictable.

A series about a psychiatrist could hardly ignore the subject of sex, and in 1963 that meant having to walk on eggshells. The Human Jungle does confront this subject occasionally, and on the whole does so reasonably well.

It was an expensive and rather ambitious series. It was shot on film with hopes of making some inroads into the U.S. market and it was in fact syndicated in America.

Critics mostly disliked it, finding the stories to be somewhat unlikely and contrived. To some extent this is accurate but then the series was intended as entertainment and some melodrama had to be added. Had Dr Corder just stayed in his consulting rooms talking to patients the results would have been deadly dull so it was necessary to have him out and about getting involved in the lives of his patients. This is a bit unrealistic and melodramatic (and may be one of the reasons actual psychiatrists seemed to dislike the series) but it makes for much better television drama.

To some extent the series was always going to have to be somewhat contrived if they were to have some happy endings. The Human Jungle is not afraid to have some downbeat endings but they didn’t want to do this too often. No-one is going to want to watch a TV program about a psychiatrist if all of his patients end up killing themselves, in prison or on Skid Row.

Whatever critics may have thought of it the series gradually built a strong following with the viewing public over the course of its first season. In commercial terms it was a definite success and a second season was commissioned.

The other regular cast members are Michael Johnson as Corder’s young assistant Dr Jimmy Davis and Sally Smith as Corder’s teenaged daughter Jennifer (Dr Corder is a widower). Jennifer is fiery and she and her father squabble at times but on the whole their relationship is affectionate. She’s just a normal teenager.

Mary Yeomans appears in most episodes as Dr Corder’s secretary and Mary Steele appears in half a dozen episodes as therapist Jane Harris but most of the stories revolve around Dr Corder, Dr Davis and Jennifer Corder.

Network have released the complete series (two seasons) on DVD and it looks great.

Episode Guide

In the opening episode, The Vacant Chair, Dr Corder has been hired by a large industrial conglomerate to help them choose a new managing director for one of their key companies. The two candidates for the job represent wildly different approaches to management. Basil Phillips is a hard-driving autocrat with no apparent scruples. Geoffrey Hunter is a conciliator and a team player. Dr Corder interviews the two men’s families and colleagues and finds himself in a hair-raising world of backstabbing, deceit and all-round chicanery. Dr Corder’s daughter goes on a date with Geoffrey Hunter’s son, and gets rude awakening herself. At the same time Dr Corder is trying to deal with a difficult case involving a withdrawn and possibly suicidal young boy. There’s not much plot to speak of. The focus is entirely on personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Those interpersonal dynamics are rather entertaining. And the reasons for Dr Corder’s recommendation is interesting. Not a bad start to the series.

The Flip Side Man is pop singer Danny Pace (played by real-life pop singer Jess Conrad whose performance is actually pretty good) and his problem is that he’s being followed about by his double. This double of course exists only in his mind, but why? Corder is certainly worried by this case. Apart from seeing his double Danny is nervous and irritable. And he does not want to talk to a psychiatrist. There’s some suspense at the end as matters reach a crisis. A good episode.

In Run with the Devil a man wants Dr Corder’s help because he’s worried that it might be possible for a man to do something wrong without knowing it. Which immediately worries the doctor. The man is deeply religious and appears to have lost the use of his right arm although there’s nothing physically wrong with it. It’s the man’s wife that Dr Corder is worried about. It’s obvious that the man is troubled by guilt but also by issues with sex. This being 1963 the series has to tread carefully when it comes to sex but it makes its point clearly enough. It also manages to avoid being too anxious to leap to judgments. A good episode.

Thin Ice involves rising 14-year-old ice skating star Verity Clarke. After a very minor accident in which she sustained no permanent injury she can no longer skate and Roger Corder has to find out why. He has to find the psychological block that has destroyed her confidence. Perhaps she just can’t handle the pressure but that doesn’t quite seem to fit. There are no crimes in this story, or at least not in the usual sense. Quite a decent story.

The Lost Hours is a kind of detective story. There’s no crime but there is a mystery that has to be solved.  Dr Corder has to do some detecting, even going so far as to shadow a patient. It begins when Julia Gray freaks out at a party and accuses her husband Henry of seeing another woman. She then tries to kill herself. It turns out that she is obsessed by this idea. It’s clear the poor woman is suffering from a delusion. Or is she? It all hinges on those lost hours in her husband’s life. Dr Corder is not sure if she should be treating the wife or the husband. A very clever story.

A Friend of the Sergeant Major is over-the-top melodrama. It takes place in a British army base in Germany. Sergeant Major Bennett (a career soldier with a fine record but with an interesting past) is put on a charge for smashing up a bar. He has only six weeks to go before retirement and now faces the prospect of a dishonourable discharge. Dr Corder is brought in as an expert witness as the defence relies on proving that Bennett’s commanding officer is a paranoiac. Corder starts to suspect that he is being used by the army in a cynical public relations exercise. In fact there’s much more to the story which takes some surprising (and outrageous) twists. It’s an interesting case study of two flawed men. There’s a fine performance by Alfred Burke as the Sergeant Major. 

We also get some of Dr Corder’s backstory. He had been a British Army psychiatrist during the Second World War. When it comes to matters of army discipline and the ethics of the psychiatric profession I’m sure it’s all ludicrously unrealistic but it is original and entertaining.

In 14 Ghosts the wife of a High Court judge is arrested for shoplifting. She obviously doesn’t need to steal a scarf worth a few shillings. Dr Davis happens to be friends with the woman’s son-in-law and suggests that Dr Corder could help. Corder finds it’s a complicated family drama and as in The Lost Hours it’s by no means certain which member of the family has the real problem. A good episode.

Fine Feathers deals with a young couple living way beyond their means. The wife, Penny, has not only landed herself hopelessly in debt but in trouble with the police. Dr Corder has to find out why Penny feels compelled to present a front of genteel high living, and why she is so riddled with guilt and shame. A pretty good story of someone who has constructed a false identity for herself.

The Wall presents Dr Corder with six patients for the price of one. Young Jan Zapotski is arrested for throwing bottles at a window but the police can’t do anything - he was on his own property throwing bottles at his ow window. Dr Corder has to find out why. This means he has to find out what is going on with Jan’s wife Rita and with Jan’s parents and with Rita’s parents, all of whom live in the same house. This is a clash of cultures. The Zapotskis are Polish Jews and they want to live the way they did in the old country while Jan and Rita just want to be an ordinary English married couple. They’re all really nice people and they all want what is best for each other but Rita is going slowly crazy and Jan is going noisily crazy. This story features some actual psychiatric stuff - word association, dream interpretation, group therapy sessions, etc. It’s also a rather light-hearted episode, at times almost farcical. It’s a good change of pace and it’s amusing and entertaining.

A Woman with Scars presents Dr Corder with a patient who is every psychiatrist’s nightmare - a woman who makes a false allegation against him. She’s an MP’s wife and she really is out to get him. Dr Corder’s problem is that obviously he wants to defend himself but he is more worried about her mental state. His unwillingness to take the gloves off in a court case could cost him his career. A tricky story to deal with since it involves sex but a good episode that tries to be nuanced.

is wildly far-fetched but it is clever. It involves a burglar who only burgles houses with gables, and is obsessed with clocks. Especially clocks that don’t work. By now we’re discovering that Dr Corder is extraordinarily stubborn when he thinks a matter of professional ethics is involved, even if this means risking trouble with the police. A good episode.

The Two Edged Sword presents us with two different stories. The stories are unconnected but as both stories develop it gradually becomes apparent that there are a couple of very important common themes. There’s a married woman who wants to put her baby up for adoption, and another married woman who is afraid of something but she’s not quite sure what it is. In this episode for the first time we see Dr Corder using hypnosis. A fine episode which deals with differing kinds of anxieties and does so quite sensitively.

Over and Out involves a mystery that has to be solved. An experimental aircraft crashes on a test flight. At this stage there’s no certainty as to whether it was a mechanical failure or pilot error. The pilot survived but is delirious and has no memory of the crash. The aircraft company hires Dr Corder. They very much hope he will prove that the pilot was suffering from some kind of mental problem which caused the accident - If he doesn’t then the company may have to cancel the test program and may lose a huge contract. There’s evidence that might point to the pilot’s having deliberately crashed the aircraft but the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. As Dr Corder discovers new facts the whole affair becomes even murkier. The ending is melodramatic but very tense and the viewer has no idea what the actual solution to the puzzle is going to be. A very goos season finale episode.

Final Thoughts

The Human Jungle sometimes stretches credibility just a little but on the whole it’s fine human drama and very entertaining. It’s melodramatic, but in a good way, and Herbert Lom is terrific. Sally Smith adds a much-needed touch of lightness as his exuberant but devoted daughter Jennifer. Highly recommended.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Perry Mason - The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (TV episode, 1959)

I’m pushing ahead with my project of reviewing Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and the comparing them to the television adaptations from the 1957-66 TV series. In this instance it’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop. The novel dates from 1936 while the TV version went to air in 1959 as part of the second season of the Perry Mason series.

The story concerns a rich old man who has been trying to find his grand-daughter. Having found her he’s absolutely delighted and decides to change his will to leave everything to her. The problem is that a certain bishop from Australia has also found his grand-daughter. And they’re two different young women.

The bishop and the grand-daughter he’s found, a certain Carol Delaney, consult Perry Mason. Della Street is somewhat suspicious of the bishop. He stutters, and as she explains to Perry, bishops don’t stutter.

The old man is murdered. Carol Delaney is charged with the murder.

When adapting a novel for a one-hour television episode some changes always have to be made. The plot has to be streamlined in order to be accommodated to a single hour of television. There’s no real way of avoiding this. In this case however the changes really have been sweeping. It might be more accurate to describe this as a teleplay inspired by the novel rather than an actual adaptation.

Vaguely inspired rather than inspired by the novel might be even more accurate. Almost every element in the original story has been altered and the result bears no resemblance whatsoever to Gardner’s novel. As I said, major changes are often unavoidable, but in this case all the most interesting elements of the novel are eliminated and what remains is a pretty routine story. The interesting legal points which are at the heart of the novel are also, sadly, eliminated.

The conclusion I’m slowly coming to is that the episodes that are adaptations of the novels are generally speaking much less satisfactory than the episodes that are original stories. Gardner’s plots are intricate and carefully constructed. Once you start making wholesale changes the chances that the changes will be improvements are very slim. There are a few of the adaptations that work very well, but as a general rule they’re a bit of a disappointment. The problem is that the novels are just so good.

It’s also worth pointing out that in this case they courtroom scenes dominate the episode. In the book they’re very important but they’re just part of the overall structure. Most of the really interesting parts of the novel do not take place in the courtroom. Perhaps in the TV episodes there was just a little bit too much emphasis on the courtroom scenes.

There is one thing to be grateful for. Vaughn Taylor, who plays the bishop, makes no attempt to do an Australian accent. American (and English) actors always make a frightful hash of Australian accents.

On the whole the TV version of The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is reasonably OK but if you watch it immediately after reading the novel you’ll be disappointed.

My review of the source novel can be found at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Thursday 12 November 2020

The Six Million Dollar Man TV movie pilot (1973)

The Six Million Dollar Man was one of those television series that imprints itself on the minds of an entire generation. It actually began as three TV movies, aired in 1973. There are interesting differences between the three movies and between the movies and the subsequent hugely successful TV series.

The first of the three movies was titled The Six Million Dollar Man (and was later re-edited as a two-part episode of the series under the title The Moon and the Desert). It was based on the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin.

This first movie has a pretty serious science fiction movie tone. It’s also, in its initial stages at least, a bit slow-moving. It does however provide a very detailed backstory for the series (although some of that backstory was in fact changed for the series).

Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is a former astronaut and is now a NASA test pilot. In the book he’s a US Air Force colonel but in this initial movie he’s a civilian. A test flight of a new experimental rocket aircraft goes horribly wrong, the aircraft crashes and Austin sustains horrendous injuries. He loses an eye, an arm and both legs. After suffering such injuries he has no wish to live and tries to commit suicide but is prevented from doing so by devoted nurse Jean Manners (Barbara Anderson). You might think that these two are going to end up falling in love, and of course you’d be right.

Top-level spook Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) has been waiting for something like this to happen. He works for one of those shadowy CIA-type agencies (in this case it’s called the OSO) and he has hatched a brilliant plan - to create a super-agent to carry out covert operations that would be beyond the capabilities of a normal human being. What he needs is the human raw material and the horribly mangled Steve Austin seems ideal. Spencer happens to know that Steve Austin’s friend Dr Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam) has been working on ideas for creating a human-machine hybrid - a cyborg.

Steve Austin is not at all happy about being a cyborg, and he’s even less happy about having to work for the OSO. He’s a guy who seems quite prone to self-pity but he does have a point. He joined NASA as a civilian. He didn’t volunteer to work as a spy for the OSO and he has been manipulated. And the manipulation has only just started. As he finds out when he gets his first OSO assignment, to rescue an Arab kidnapped by terrorists.

If you’ve only seen the TV series you’re going to be a bit surprised by the cynicism of this TV movie, and by its dark and brooding tone. While there are some action scenes at the end for the most part it’s much more interested in the psychological effects of being turned into a cyborg. And the psychological effects of being manipulated by intelligence agencies with dubious ethics. This was 1973, a time when Americans were starting to view their own intelligence agencies with a fair amount of suspicion. Even network TV was starting to become cynical.

Lee Majors unfortunately doesn’t quite have the acting chops to fully explore Steve Austin’s emotional state.

It’s Darren McGavin who is the standout performer here. He plays Spencer as a thoroughly amoral slimeball but you can’t help enjoying every second of his performance.

On the whole, despite its slowness, it’s a fairly intelligent fairly serious science fiction/spy film. Of course what’s really interesting about it is that it indicates that the original concept was very very different from what the TV series ended up being. Had they stuck to this original concept the series might have been more interesting, but would undoubtedly have been a lot less successful.

It’s still worth watching and the very fact that it’s so wildly different from the series makes it intriguing.

Universal included all three TV movies in their DVD release of the first season of the series.

Friday 6 November 2020

Columbo - Try and Catch Me (1977)

Try and Catch Me was the first episode of the seventh season of Columbo. It went to air on NBC in November 1977. And it’s a great way to kick off the season.

As usual we know the identity of the murderer right from the start. Abigail Mitchell (Ruth Gordon) is a very rich and very successful mystery writer. The only person she ever really cared about was her niece. She’s fairly sure that her niece was murdered by her husband Edmund. There was a boating accident, the body was never found and while the police were perhaps not entirely satisfied it was accepted as a case of accidental death. But Abigail wasn’t satisfied and she intends to get revenge, and she intends to get away with it. Since she’s planned thirty-two very successful fictional murders she’s confident that she can outsmart any police detective.

Her plan is, as you might expect, rather complicated. The complicated bit is setting up her alibi. She also has to bait the trap, which she does by letting Edmund know that she’s going to make him her heir. Give that Abigail is very old that means he stands to inherit a very great deal of money fairly soon. All she has to do is persuade him to walk into her safe (it’s actually a vault rather than a safe).

Another standard part of the Columbo formula is that we get to see the important clues even before Lieutenant Columbo does. Some of the clues are very straightforward. Some are quite fiendish in their obscurity and deviousness. This is a mystery that hinges on a dying clue, and this is a rather extravagant example of that particular trope.

In most episodes Columbo has a pretty fair idea very early on as to the identity of the murderer and how it was done. His problem is to prove it. This one is interesting because he doesn’t figure out the dying clue until the very end. Or perhaps he does - with Columbo you can never be sure. Considering that he apparently has no actual evidence he seems very confident of getting his murderer so perhaps he actually had figured it out and was simply leading her up the garden path, which is the sort of thing he was quite capable of doing.

This series always worked best when Columbo had to engage in a battle of wits with a truly formidable adversary and Abigail Mitchell is pretty formidable. Even more to the point the series was at its absolute best when Peter Falk had a charismatic guest star. Rich Gordon was always a strange actress but she was undeniably fascinating and she and Falk make a sparkling combination.

Abigail is almost a sympathetic murderer (and Columbo did feature somewhat sympathetic killers from time to time) but there are a couple of things that count against that. For one thing, her chosen murder method was exceptionally cruel. For another, we can’t be absolutely certain that Edmund really did kill Abigail’s niece. One of the really clever things about this story is that his guilt is very strongly implied but we are never given cast-iron evidence. Abigail believes he was guilty, Columbo thinks he was probably guilty, but that’s not a sufficient justification for setting yourself up as judge, jury and executioner. This very slight doubt makes things more interesting because it highlights the crucial contrast between Abigail and Columbo - it’s not enough for Columbo to be certain in his own mind of a suspect’s guilt. He has to be able to prove it.

There's also a subplot involving Abigail's secretary Veronica. The subplot doesn't really go anywhere but it adds a bit of spice and uncertainty. In fact the writers are to be commended by not taking it in the obvious and much too cliché direction.

In this story we also get to see Columbo’s dog, who hadn’t put in an appearance for quite a while.

This was director James Frawley's first Columbo. He directed two more season seven episodes plus three episodes of the later revived series.

There’s the very clever dying clue, there’s the wonderful verbal sparring between Columbo and Abigail, there’s an interesting murder method. It all adds up to a superior episode. Very highly recommended.