Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Lawless Years (1959-61)

The Roaring Twenties was an established element in American mythology and had provided the inspiration for numerous movies. It was inevitable that sooner or later American television would recognise the potential of this era. In 1959 the ABC network scored a huge commercial success with the excellent The Untouchables series based on the memoirs of Eliot Ness. But NBC had beaten them to the punch with their series The Lawless Years, based on the memoirs of another real-life Roaring Twenties cop, Barney Ruditsky of the NYPD. The Lawless Years went to air in August 1959. The Untouchables premiered in October 1959 although the pilot (the excellent The Scarface Mob) had screened in April of that year. So it’s probably fair to say that both series were developed independently at more or less the same time.

The formula is very similar to that of The Untouchables, with stories based on real-life incidents and with a semi-documentary style that goes back to movies like The Naked City.

The era of jazz and Prohibition and gangster wars certainly provides plenty of suitable material. The Untouchables dealt with the most famous criminals of the 20s. The Lawless Years tells the stories of slightly less known figures (Ruditsky was a New York cop rather than a Chicago cop) although some big names in the world of gangsters like “Legs” Diamond do make appearances.

The Lawless Years is a very handsomely mounted series. There’s plenty of action. There’s a strong sense of verisimilitude and a gritty hard-edged feel. So why is The Lawless Years now forgotten while The Untouchables is considered one of the classic series of American television?

The first thing that needs to be noted is that The Lawless Years was far from being a flop. It ran for three seasons and 47 episodes from 1959 to 1961. The Untouchables of course was a much bigger hit but The Lawless Years still performed quite creditably.

As to the question of why The Untouchables succeeded more completely in capturing the imagination of American (and global) television viewers there are several answers. The Lawless Years followed the standard format of 1950s TV of half-hour episodes while The Untouchables adopted the more flexible one-hour format which allowed for richer characterisation and better developed plots.

The New York setting is also a slight weakness, given that so many of the more colourful 20s gangsters were Chicago-based. The hero of The Lawless Years being a New York cop  is confined to combatting New York mobsters. The hero of The Untouchables, Eliot Ness, being a US Treasury agent has the opportunity of taking on criminals nationwide (and The Untouchables played fast and loose with historical fact by having Eliot Ness involved in many cases in which his real-life counterpart played no part at all).

There’s also no question that the star of The Lawless Years, James Gregory, while being a fine character actor does not have the charisma or the movie star looks or the youth of Robert Stack. Gregory is excellent but to carry a series you really do need charisma.

The complete series of The Lawless Years is available on DVD. Six episodes are included in Mill Creek’s Best of TV Detectives budget public domain boxed set and they’re the six that I’ve seen.

The Cutie Jaffe story is the story of an ambitious young punk who starts out hijacking a shipment of liquor and thinks he’s hit the big time. The Dutch Schultz Story introduces the sinister Nicolides whose business it is to arrange murders. He will reappear in other episodes. The Silva Story illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this series. It’s an ambitious story about a mobster’s plans to unite every gang in the country, it’s well-crafted and well-executed and it’s enlivened by a fine performance by Martin Landau but as good as it is (and it’s very good) one can’t help thinking how much better it would have been in a one-hour format with the opportunity to explore Silva’s comp[ex motivations in depth.

The Morrison Story deals with a corrupt judge. It’s a bold and audacious story with a savagely cynical edge to it that must have had quite an impact in 1959. The Poison Ivy Story tells the story of doomed hoodlum Harry the Horse and his proteges in 1920s Brooklyn. in some episodes Barney Ruditsky does little more than provide the opening and closing voice-overs but this time he’s right at the centre of the action. And we get to see a glimpse of the real Ruditsky, a very young and very determined cop with a streak of ruthlessness.  

The Lawless Years might not be quite equal of The Untouchables but it’s still a fine series offering its own perspective on the Roaring Twenties. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Campion - Look to the Lady (1989)

The BBC’s Campion series, which went to air from 1989 to 1990, is a bit outside the usual frame of reference for this blog. It is however a wonderful series very much in the tradition of the golden age of British television, a tradition which has now sadly been lost. Campion is notable as being one of the three detective series, along with Granada’s Sherlock Holmes series and the early seasons of the BBC’s Poirot series (before it lost its way), that represented the last great flowering of British television drama. Campion was developed for television by John Hawkesworth who had also been responsible for Granada’s Sherlock Holmes as well as many other superb series including The Gold Robbers.

Campion was based on the novels of Margery Allingham. I have to say that I’m not a great fan of Allingham’s books but the TV series manages to capture everything that is good about them. It’s also visually gorgeous of course.

Much of the success of Campion is due to the casting of Peter Davison as Albert Campion and Brian Glover as his ex-burglar crime-solving colleague, manservant and general factotum Magersfontein Lugg. Davison is a very deceptive actor - his performances seem so effortless it’s easy not to notice just how good he is. He brings a great deal of charm and humour to his performance but at the same time we’re always aware that underneath the good humour and gentle frivolity Campion is a very determined and very formidable detective.

Lugg is a fabulous larger-than-life character. Brian Glover’s performance is equally larger-than-life and excessive and he pushes it almost, but not quite, to the point of parody. Lugg provides plenty of comedy but he’s a shrewd operator and in his own way quite formidable as well.

Production values were very high indeed. The costumes are stunning, there are superb vintage cars (including Campion’s superb Lagonda sports car), beautiful sets and some glorious location shooting. The BBC has always had a reputation for being penny-pinching but in its glory days when it did period dramas it certainly did them well. Production designer Ken Ledsham really excelled himself in Look to the Lady.

Look to the Lady was the first of the four two-part stories comprising the first season. The story concerns a conspiracy to steal a priceless medieval chalice from the ancestral home of the Gyrth family. The chalice is the subject of local legends. In fact there are lots of local legends - of haunted windowless rooms, witchcraft, family curses, haunted woods, mysterious initiation ceremonies. In fact there are all the trappings of classic gothic fiction. The story will also feature gypsies, a killer horse and a monster. Campion in fact describes this adventure as a fairy tale although it is obvious he believes that any monsters he uncovers will (probably) turn out to be all-too-human monsters.

The chalice has attracted a swarm of rather choice characters from the London underworld  including several who have shared accommodation with Lugg in the past in several of His Majesty’s better-known prisons. These cracksmen, thugs and other assorted criminals are sinister enough but the chalice has attracted a plague of even more unsavoury types - sandal-wearing bohemian artist types from Bloomsbury.

Notable faces in the supporting cast include Gordon Jackson as an archaeologist/historian neighbour of the Gyrth family who may well know quite a bit about the history of the chalice. And the Gyrth Chalice has quite a history - and a rather surprising one.

It’s all played fairly tongue-in-cheek, but not irritatingly so. The plot itself is rather weak and the solution probably won’t come as a major surprise. However the execution is so flawless and  it all looks so splendid that one can willingly overlook this minor failing.

Look to the Lady is hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Campion is available on DVD in Region 1 in two rather pricey season sets, or in Region 2 in a much better value complete series set.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Wild Wild West, season one (1965)

The Wild Wild West was one of the most successful American action adventure series of the 1960s. Beginning in September 1965 it ran for four seasons and would have run longer had it not fallen victim to pressure on the networks to reduce the level of violence on television. It’s hard to imagine today that this series could haver been seen as excessively violent!

The basic premise is one of those brilliant ideas that work so well that you wonder why it hadn’t been tried before - a James Bond-style spy thriller set in the Wild West.

Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are US Secret Service agents who battle a variety of foes from their headquarters aboard a special train. Since they take their orders directly from President Grant we can assume it’s set in the 1870s. They are equipped with the kinds of gadgets James Bond would have employed had he been a spy in the 1870s. This series is often credited (rightly) as being one of the major inspirations for the steampunk style of science fiction.

Jim West is your standard square-jawed action hero. Artemus Gordon relies on brains rather than brawn and is a master of disguise (although when disguised he still looks remarkably like Ross Martin). Conrad had been reluctant to audition for the rĂ´le of West believing that he had no chance whatsoever of landing it. Fortunately he decided to give it a go and he makes a fine hero. It’s obvious from his brief introductions to each episode on the DVDs that Conrad remembers The Wild Wild West vividly and with a great deal of fondness. Ross Martin complements him perfectly. Conrad is proud of the fact that he did most of his own stunts, leading Ross Martin to remark (much to Conrad’s amusement) that, “Conrad did all his own stunts. I did all my own acting.”

The pilot episode, Night of the Inferno, does an efficient enough job of establishing the characters and the basic premise. It also introduces us to the train that will play such an important part in the series (and give it so much of its flavour). In his audio commentary to this episode Robert Conrad points out that the series was originally intended to be a fairly conventional western. The idea of making it more of a James Bond in the West series was something that gradually developed. There are some gadgets in this episode but it lacks the outrageous elements of the fantastic that would later become so familiar. That was perhaps wise - those elements might have been a bit too strange for viewers unaccustomed to seeing the western and spy genres blended together. Introducing the series as a relatively straightforward western was playing safe and it obviously worked since the series subsequently got the green light.

The show’s initial production history was somewhat troubled with several changes of producer early in the first season (in fact this season had six different producers). Each producer had his own ideas of what the series was going to be. It took quite a while for a completely successful format to be found. It’s interesting to watch the first season in production order rather than the order in which it was broadcast - you can see the very obvious changes made by the various producers. 

The first few episodes were produced by Collier Young and it’s clear that he saw the series as basically a western with just the barest hint of the secret agent genre. Episodes like The Night of the Double-Edged Knife are pretty conventional stuff. Young also decided to give Jim West an English valet, Tennyson, an idea that was immediately dropped when Young departed after just three episodes. Tennyson was a harmless character but not really necessary. The Night of the Fatal Trap is particularly weak - really not much more than a routine western.

The series started to find its feet as soon as Fred Freiberger took over as producer. The Night of the Deadly Bed is a major step in the right direction. It has a full-blown larger-than-life diabolical criminal mastermind and it has a definite hint of steampunk with the fire-breathing killer train. The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth is even better. It introduces possible the most popular of all the villains who populate the series - the diminutive but delightfully crazy Dr Loveless. The use of clockwork (on a very big scale) to trigger a bomb is a nice steampunk touch.

The Night of Sudden Death has tigers, crocodiles, a circus and an African chief and has the right touch of outrageousness. The Night of a Thousand Eyes has Jim and Artemus battling pirates on the Mississippi River and it has the kind of wonderful larger-than-life villain that Freiberger insisted that each episode should have in order to present his heroes with worthy adversaries.

The Night That Terror Stalked the Town is absolutely classic cult TV. You just can’t do better in the cult stakes than evil midget mad scientists. Plus a whole town of creepy wax dummies. And very steampunk-ish gadgetry in the mad scientist laboratory. 

Even more in the steampunk vein is The Night of the Glowing Corpse, in which West has to foil the attempted theft of radioactive franconium from the French government. We know that this episode takes place in 1870 since France is at war with Prussia but has not yet been defeated. The nature of radioactivity was in reality not understood until the 1890s. Radioactivity is not the only steampunk element here - Artemus has invented a primitive aqualung (and a couple of other cool tricks as well), and a French scientist has invented a delightful early version of a Geiger counter. The more steampunk the series got the better it became.

Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil the first season of The Wild Wild West proves that American television in the 60s could produce a series that could match the best British series of that era such as The Avengers for originality, style and quirkiness (if perhaps not quite achieving the same degree of wittiness). The Wild Wild West is clever and it’s enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Mystery and Imagination - Uncle Silas (1968)

The British gothic horror anthology television series Mystery and Imagination ran from 1966 to 1970. Each episode was based on a classic work of gothic fiction. The early episodes were made by ABC, which after merging with Rediffusion became Thames Television. Thames Television produced the final six episodes. The first of the Thames episodes was Uncle Silas, based on J. Sheridan le Fanu’s 1864 novel. Uncle Silas went to air in November 1968.

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (1814-1873) wrote both “sensation novels” and gothic horror and his importance in the history of both genres can hardly be overstated. His vampire novella Carmilla has been adapted for film and television countless times (in fact it was adapted for this very series but is one of the many lost episodes). Uncle Silas can in fact be considered to belong to both genres. It might not be supernatural horror but it’s certainly gothic. 

This television adaptation goes for total gothic overload. The gothic atmosphere is taken almost to the point of parody. This is combined with an extraordinary and delirious excessiveness and the result is one of the most outrageous pieces of television you are ever likely to see.

Maud Ruthyn (Lucy Fleming) is the daughter of the respectable and in his own rather gruff way essentially kindly Austin Ruthyn. As Maud is now approaching adulthood her father feels it may be time to raise a very uncomfortable subject with her - her notorious Uncle Silas, her father’s brother. As Austin explains Silas has lived as a virtual recluse for many years, his life blighted by rumours and suspicions. 

As a young man Silas Ruthyn had incurred very heavy debts, the result of riotous living. These debts were conveniently cancelled out by the fortuitous death of the money lender to whom he owed them. The money lender died, apparently by his own hand, in a locked room with all the doors and windows sealed from the inside (this story is a very early example of the locked-room mystery genre) so a verdict of suicide was officially accepted. The circumstances in fact indicated that suicide was the only possible explanation.

In spite of this there were persistent rumours that Silas had murdered the money lender. The rumours made it impossible for Silas to take his rightful place in society and he withdrew into seclusion. This seclusion gave rise to both eccentricity and drug addiction.

On the death of her father his will is found to include a very alarming clause - Silas is appointed Maud’s guardian and she will have to live in his grand but semi-ruined and somewhat forbidding (and naturally incredibly gothic) house.

Silas’s isolation has meant that his children have received little education and few instructions in the social graces. His daughter Millicent is good-natured in a rather rustic sort of way but his son Dudley (Dudley Sutton) is much more worrying. He not only has a reputation for drunkenness, debauchery and gambling he is also an uneducated lout. Worse still, he is determined to marry Maud. Maud clearly is in a very difficult position and her future looks rather bleak.

Production designer Stan Woodward has really excelled himself in creating the gothic mood and director Alan Cooke approaches his subject with enthusiasm. He throws in a lot of very effective low-angle shots and the occasional Dutch angle and generally shows considerable skill in enhancing the feel of weirdness and subtle brooding menace.

The music (by James Stevens) adds yet another layer of outrageousness. The icing on the cake is the over-the-top acting, especially from Robert Eddison as Silas and Dudley Sutton as his loutish son.

All of this however pales into insignificance compared to Patience Collier’s absolutely incredible ands indescribable performance as Maud’s bizarre and terrifying elderly French governess Madame de la Rougierre.

The performances are in general remarkably effective. Robert Eddison veers between self-pitying resentment, deviousness and ingratiating meekness and he makes Silas more than a mere monster. Or at least he conveys this impression - whether Silas really is a monster or not remains to be seen.

Lucy Fleming is particularly good. Maud is a very feminine well brought up young lady keen to be a dutiful daughter and abide by her late father’s wishes but at the same time she’s quite strong-willed and determined and at times even verging on feisty. It’s a fine complex performance and although she avoids the excesses of the other cast members she’s never overshadowed by them.

There’s plenty of delicious melodrama here (and I happen to love melodrama), some bravura acting, fine directing and superb sets, a locked-room mystery and as much gothic atmosphere as anyone could possibly desire. And it all works. 

Network in the UK have released the six Thames TV episodes plus the two surviving ABC episodes of Mystery and Imagination in a fine Region 2 DVD boxed set. Of the other Thames TV episodes The Suicide Club and Frankenstein are very much worth seeing. Dracula and Sweeney Todd are less successful but they still have some interest. The boxed set is certainly a very worthwhile buy for fans of gothic horror. The loss of almost all the ABC episodes (no less than sixteen out of the eighteen are lost episodes) is an incalculable loss.

Uncle Silas is tremendous fun. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Cool and Lam (TV pilot, 1958)

Erle Stanley Gardner is most famous as the author of the hugely popular Perry Mason mysteries, which were of course the basis for the equally successful TV series. Under the pseudonym A. A. Fair he also wrote the Cool and Lam series of novels about a mismatched pair of private eyes. 

With the Perry Mason TV series proving to be an immediate success when it launched in 1957 it was hardly surprising that thought was given to the possibility of a Cool and Lam TV series. In fact a pilot episode was made, although sadly that’s as far as it got. The good news is the pilot survives and it can be found online.

Jacques Tourneur, a superb director who helmed some of the greatest movies in the film noir cycle, was hired to direct. A TV series didn’t give him the same scope as a movie but he did a more than competent job and the pilot is certainly nicely paced.

Bertha Cool runs a detective agency. She is middle-aged, loud and overweight, incredibly penny-pinching and her ethics are flexible (and that’s being generous). Her partner Donald Lam is a weedy little lawyer whose ethics are only marginally less dubious than Bertha’s. The trick in adapting these books for television was to make these two rather shady characters likeable and amusing without being irritating. Both leads in the pilot, Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool and Billy Pearson as Donald Lam, generally succeed in doing this. No, I’d never heard of them either, and the relative obscurity of it stars may have counted against the show.

The other trick was to maintain a fairly lighthearted tone without succumbing to the temptation to play things purely for laughs. Cool and Lam does this quite well also. The plot is decent and with a fine director like Tourneur in charge it’s a solid and entertaining little mystery. The half-hour (which most TV series at the time adhered to) is a slight problem - Gardner’s plots were delightfully fiendish and would have been easier to adapt in an hour-long format but that’s a minor quibble.

Cool and Lam certainly had potential. Television executives however are not renowned by wanting to take risks and the shady ethics of two very non-glamorous private eyes may have been seen as too much of a gamble. The pilot though is worth a watch.