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.