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.

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