Friday 29 March 2024

Thriller - Late Date (1961 episode)

Late Date is episode 27 of the first season of the 1960-62 Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV anthology series. It first went to air in April 1961. I love all the American anthology series of that era. Thriller is uneven, but that’s part of the appeal an an anthology series - you never know whether you’re going to get a clunker or an absolute gem of an episode.

Thriller started out very much in the mould of the very popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, focusing on twisted crime stories with nasty stings in the tail. Initially audiences were a little underwhelmed by Thriller but as the series began to focus on supernatural horror audience enthusiasm started to build. There’s a noticeable and dramatic difference between the crime episodes and the supernatural horror episodes. Most fans prefer the horror stories and it’s arguable that the crime episodes are a little underrated.

Late Date is very much a crime story. It’s a suspense thriller story with a bit of a Hitchcock vibe and some definite film noir flavouring. It’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story so you expect some darkness.

It opens with a woman’s dead body on a bed, and a distraught man on the stairs. The man is Jim Weeks (Edward Platt) and the woman was his wife. His much younger brother Larry (Larry Pennell) assures him that the woman had it coming to her, and that everything will be OK. Larry has a plan to get his brother off the hook.

It’s a very elaborate plan. Maybe too elaborate for a plan that will have to be improvised. Right from the start everything that could go wrong does go wrong. In fact so many things go wrong that the story veers in the direction of black comedy, and black comedy in the Hitchcock manner. But it never quite becomes a black comedy. The emphasis remains on the suspense.

And there’s plenty of nail-biting suspense. Larry is quick-thinking and resourceful but he’s always just a millimetre ahead of disaster.

Of course there’s going to be a sting in the tail.

There’s some fascinating moral ambiguity here. We know Jim is a murderer but we see everything from Larry’s point of view and we like Larry and we admire his resourcefulness. We also admire his loyalty to his brother. We really want Larry’s scheme to work. We feel he deserves to get away with it - he’s tried so hard and he’s been through so much.

I haven’t read the original Cornell Woolrich story but Donald S. Sanford’s script feels very Woolrichian (within the limitations of what you could get away with on network television in 1961).

Herschel Daugherty directs with plenty of style and energy. Daugherty and cinematography Ray Rennahan achieve a very film noir atmosphere and a surprisingly cinematic look. Lots of shadows. This is a story that really benefits from being shot in black-and-white. There are some beautifully composed shots. This episode was made by people who cared about what they were doing.

Jody Fair is very good as Jim’s stepdaughter Helen. Edward Platt is fine. However this episode belongs to Larry Pennell and he’s excellent and very sympathetic and very human.

I love the inexorability of fate in this tale. You can see the things that are going to go wrong before they happen and that adds to the tension. As soon as you see Larry take the spare tyre out of the boot of his car (so there’ll be room for the body) you just know he’s going to get a flat tyre. The audience knows it, but Larry doesn’t know it. And there’s nothing he could do about it anyway.

Late Date is definitely worth seeing. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed lots of other episodes of Thriller - here, here, here and here.

Saturday 16 March 2024

The Outer Limits - three season 2 episodes

I love horror/thriller/science fiction anthology TV series and The Outer Limits which aired on the American ABC network from 1963 to 1965 is one of my favourites. It certainly plays fast and loose with science but it was consistently inventive and original. It was created by Leslie Stevens.

I’m just starting to delve in the second (and final) season so I thought I’d review a couple of episodes.

Producer Joseph Stefano (who also wrote many of the scripts) had been the main guiding force but left the series after the first season. There was a slight change of emphasis in the second season, with fewer monsters.

Some of the stories were crazy but they were almost always at least interesting.

We do have to confront the special effects issue. This series has gained a reputation for the extreme cheesiness of many of the special effects. And yes, they are cheesy. Often very much so. The problem wasn’t really the technology of the time. The problem was that The Outer Limits was trying to do ambitious science fiction stories on a 1963 TV budget. It couldn’t be done. They went ahead and did it anyway. Younger viewers today may have real problems getting past the cheesy effects. You just have to accept them and concentrate on the stories.

The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy was written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin. It aired in October 1964. It concerns the first manned mission to Mars. It ends disastrously, with Mission Control hearing the screams of the astronauts before contact is lost.

The second mission is supposed to be better prepared. They have a super-computer at Mission Control. And the four astronauts are under strict instructions never to get out of sight of one another. They also have a bazooka that fires nuclear-tipped projectiles.

Predictably the first thing that happens is that one of them does get out of sight of the others and he is never seen again.

The audience knows from the start what’s going on. The sandy plain where they landed isn’t a plain, it’s a sand sea. And there are sand shark monsters lurking in that sea. The astronauts take a long while to figure this out. In the meantime another member of the crew vanishes.

Mission Control is really annoyed. They’re inclined to blame the spacecraft commander, Major Merritt (Adam West, yes Batman). They want the mission completed. They want the bad guys destroyed. They want to open up Mars for colonisation.

It becomes a test of survival, with a race-against-time factor.

This episode reflects ideas about Mars that would soon become untenable when unmanned space probes reached the Red Planet. The assumption here is that Mars has a breathable atmosphere. This was presumably so the actors wouldn’t have to wear helmets the whole time. The low gravity on Mars is ignored.

It has to be admitted that the sand sharks are incredibly cheesy.

The main interest of the story is the tough decisions that may have to be made by Mission Control and by Major Merritt, and the price that may have to be paid for the conquest of space. It’s not a bad story.

Wolf 359

Wolf 359 was written by Richard Landau and Seeleg Lester and directed by Laslo Benedek. It first went to air in November 1964. This one is really wild.

Jonathan Meridith heads a research project out in the desert. He and his team have created a miniature replica of a planet eight light-years away. It’s like a computer model except it’s real. The replica planet has a diameter of a few feet. Time is speeded up several millionfold on the miniature planet. Dr Meridith wants to watch the process of evolution on a distant planet take place before his very eyes in his laboratory. He has a special viewer gizmo that magnifies things a millionfold.

The problem is that something really is going on on that tiny world. Meridith has seen something very weird through that viewer. What he sees loses a bit of its impact because the special effect comes across as a bit too goofy.

The science is of course totally nonsensical and there’s lots of loopy technobabble but it has to be said that it’s a clever and original idea.

I, Robot

I, Robot was written Robert C. Dennis, based on Eando Binder’s robot stories published in the Amazing Stories pulp in the late 30s and early 40s. It was directed by Leon Benson. It first went to air in November 1964.

An eccentric scientist has built an almost-human robot. He has named it Adam. Adam appears to have the ability to think for himself. He also appears to have some capacity for emotion.

The scientist is now dead and the robot is blamed. Cynical but smart newspaper reporter Judson Ellis (Leonard Nimoy) smells a story. Trial lawyer Thurman Cutler (Howard da Silva) is coaxed out of retirement to handle the case. The robot is tried for murder. The events that led up to the scientist’s death unfold in a series of flashbacks.

There is some attempt to grapple with the problems posed by artificial intelligences. Adam appears to be capable of thinking but is he really? He appears to have emotions but are these merely simulated emotions - is he simply copying human behaviour without understanding it?

There’s a bit of speechifying at the end but mercifully it doesn’t get political.

The robot does have that classic Tin Man look but he doesn’t look any sillier than robots from big-budget movies of the time. It’s a reasonably successful episode.

Final Thoughts

These three episodes are typical of the series in combining incredibly cheesy special effects with reasonably good writing. They’re all worth a look. Wolf 359 is the best, with the coolness of its ideas.

Thursday 22 February 2024

The Twilight Zone - The After Hours

Of the many and varied horror, science fiction and mystery anthology series that were such a feature of American television in the late 50s and early 60s The Twilight Zone is probably the one with the most glowing reputation. I have always had slightly mixed feelings about this series. There are many episodes that I love unreservedly and at its best it had a unique atmosphere that was profoundly unsettling rather than overtly scary.

On the other hand it could at times be a bit sentimental, and rather preachy. It’s the episodes written by Rod Serling with which I mostly have issues. Serling was definitely prone to sentimentalism and he could be very preachy. At his worst the preachiness could be clumsy. He did write some great episodes, but he wrote quite a few that I find difficult to enjoy.

Having said all that, my all-time favourite episode was in fact written by Rod Serling - The After Hours.

This is episode 34 of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It originally went to air on June 10, 1960. It was directed by Douglas Heyes (arguably The Twilight Zone’s ace director).

It’s a tricky episode to discuss, because I really don’t want to spoil any of the twists.

It starts innocently enough. Marsha White (Anne Francis) has gone to a department store to buy a gift for her mother. She’s looking for a gold thimble. She is advised to go to the ninth floor. Which she does. That’s something that will later be disturbing and perplexing for both Marsha and the store staff.

She finds the thimble but later finds, to her intense disappointment, that it is damaged. Naturally she complains and for some reason which she cannot fathom this causes great consternation to the staff. Then she has a shock. She is advised to lie down and rest. She has a sleep and when she wakes up things start to get really strange.

Marsha finds herself in a very frightening situation and it’s the kind of situation which would lend itself to a horror plot. But there’s no actual horror here. No gore. No bloodshed. No violence. No monsters. Nothing except a gradually increasing atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation. To the extent that it is horror, it is very subtle existential horror.

This is more akin to the literary genre of weird fiction than to horror. The temptation would have been there to give the story a horror story ending but Serling cleverly resists this temptation. This is The Twilight Zone and Serling here achieves exactly the feel that he had in mind when he created the series.

One of the great strengths of this episode is that this time Serling has no real axe to grind. He’s simply trying to make us feel uneasy. And he succeeds admirably.

Douglas Heyes as usual does a fine job as director. The visuals are impressive and a bit creepy. There aren’t any special effects as such. Everything is achieved through fine directing and good production design. 

And some very special props.

Anne Francis is excellent, playing Marsha as a woman who is bewildered and disoriented rather than hysterical. The supporting cast is very good, but this episode belongs to Anne Francis. There are some lovely nuances to her performance. You don’t fully appreciate just how good her acting is until you get to the end of the story, and then you realise what her performance has been leading up to. And according to director Douglas Heyes most of the really clever touches were her own ideas. Anne Francis was a very fine actress but I don’t think she was ever better than this.

The After Hours is a great example of what is now a lost art - short-form television drama. The half-hour television episode or standalone television drama was a very distinctive form and while it has its weaknesses it had very considerable strengths as well. It required discipline, focus and economy. Information that the viewer required (information about what sort of people the characters are, what kind of place it is that forms the setting of the story) had to be conveyed with extreme economy. 

Which meant that the sets, the set dressing, the lighting, the costumes and the makeup had to be carefully thought out because most of that vital information was going to be conveyed through an immediate visual impression. There just wasn’t time for detailed explanations. 

And the actors and actresses had to give the viewer an instantaneous impression of the characters they played, with no time for them to tell their life stories.

In The After Hours Serling and Douglas Heyes give us a master-class in this lost art. There’s not a single wasted shot, or a single unnecessary line of dialogue.

The After Hours is beautifully shot, and by 1960 television standards it’s visually very very impressive.

I’ve seen The After Hours at least three times now and I think I like it even more with each viewing. Very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed some other Twilight Zone episodes here and also here.

Thursday 25 January 2024

The Avengers - Stay Tuned

Stay Tuned is another Tara King episode of The Avengers, and this one is a corker. It was written by Tony Williamson and directed by Don Chaffey and first aired in February 1969.

Steed is getting ready to leave for three weeks holiday. As he’s about to walk out the door Tara arrives and she’s decidedly puzzled. Steed has already had his three-week holiday. Steed assumes that she’s playing a joke on him, until she advises him to check his suitcase. It’s full of dirty laundry and souvenirs he bought on his vacation. She also shows him today’s newspaper, whereupon Steed realises he has lost three weeks of his life.

He must have been somewhere during those three weeks but he has no idea where. He doesn’t remember a thing.

He also tries to crash Tara’s car, but he doesn’t know why.

The forensics people check his car. It has been in France and Italy, and it has recently been sideswiped by another vehicle.
 
And then Steed finds himself once again getting ready to set off on that very same holiday. Losing his memory is bad enough but he seems to be condemned to keep living the same events over and over again.

To solve the problem he will have to figure out why Tara lied to him. She would never lie to him. It doesn’t make sense.

Even when we start to realise at least some of what is going there’s still plenty of suspense and weirdness. Steed of course fears that he is going mad, and it has to be admitted that the evidence tends to point that way. Tara on the other hand refuses to believe that Steed has gone mad. One way or another she’s going to find the solution to the puzzle, or at least help Steed to do so.

A nice touch is Tara’s very genuine concern for Steed, which is clearly more than just professional concern.

Mother doesn’t appear in the early part of this episode. He’s on leave, so Father has taken over. Father is of course a woman, and both Father and Father’s flat add further surreal touches. And Mother will put in an appearance later - he has an important part to play in the plot.

Both Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson are in fine acting form. Roger Delgado provides a menacing and sinister presence. 

And it’s always a treat to see Howard Marion-Crawford. He plays Collins, an agent assigned by Father to keep an eye on Steed.

And we get a good fight scene between Linda Thorson and Kate O’Mara. Honestly, what more could you want?

The bizarre psychiatrist’s office set, the mysterious room in the house in Fitzherbert Street and the man following Steed and Steed’s totally unaccountable failure to spot this man even when he’s only a few feet away from him add further bizarre disturbing touches.

The set design is top-notch. There’s a wonderful atmosphere - there’s something very wrong and unsettling about everything but Steed just can’t put the pieces together.

Stay Tuned is yet another Tara King episode that compares more than favourably the best Emma Peel episodes. Highly recommended.