Monday, June 15, 2009

"The Loser" is Robert Culp's Very Winning Teleplay, with Eartha Kitt Garnering an Emmy Nomination for a Performance at the Very Top of Her Form

"The Loser," an episode of the NBC series "I Spy," first airing on October 20, 1965. It was written by series co-star Robert Culp; directed by Mark Rydell; Sheldon Leonard, executive producer, also location unit director; produced by David Friedkin and Martin Fine; Ronald Jacobs, associate producer and production assistant; Ed Hillie, production manager; music and theme by Earle Hagen; Fleet Southcott, director of photography; Fouad Said, Hong Kong production and location director of photography; Bud Molin, film editor; art direction by Kenneth A. Reid; set decoration by Ken Swartz; Stuart Stevenson, prop master; casting by Ruth Burch; script continuity by Michael Preece; Dick Maier, sound editor; Ken Johnson, music editor; Walter Popp, music co-ordinator; titles by Format Films; special effects by Joe Lombardi; Donna McDonough, hair stylist; makeup by Stanley Smith; costumes by Flo Crewell and Harald Johnson; Cam McCullough, sound engineer; recorded by Glen Glenn Sound Company; with appreciation to NBC's Far Eastern News Staff for their cooperation; filmed at DesiLu Studios; A Triple F Production.
The Cast [regulars]: Robert Culp as professional tennis player and agent Kelly Robinson; Bill Cosby as polyglot, translator and fellow agent Alexander Scott, posing as Robinson's personal trainer; [guests, featured or in recurring roles]: Eartha Kitt as Angel; Albert Paulsen as Ramon; Fuji as Mano; Joseph Kim as "General Chu": Mako as Jimmy; Linda Wong as Lilly; Nancy Wong as Barbara; John Levinston as the English policeman; Larry Diran as a heavy; Vince Eder as a guard; Rajnun K. Tsukamoto as Old Man; Hans William Lee as an aide.

"The Loser" opens with professional tennis player and government agent Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp), against the background of the Crown Colony Tennis Club in Hong Kong, on the telephone with his best friend and fellow agent, also a polyglot and translator, Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby), who has been posing as Robinson's personal trainer. "Where'd you disappear to, Scotty?," he asks in his typically lighthearted style, "We've got a tip on another shipment of heroin--two million dollars worth!" But the normally free-wheeling Scott is unusually somber: "I can't go to work right now--I ran into a little trouble," as he has become the captive of members of an international drug cartel.

The scene then switches to a Hong Kong nightclub in which the sultry singer Angel (Eartha Kitt), having imbibed yet another glass of liquor, and puffing anew on her ever-ready cigarette, is performing a very contemporary rendition of Cole Porter's Easy to Love, being clearly a hit with her audience. At the same time, Scott, now a prisoner of the cartel, has been trussed-up and tied face down to the bed in her makeshift dressing room.

Meanwhile, Robinson has solicited of Hong Kong mercenary Jimmy (Mako) in creating a package as decoy, "I just want it to float. This is the most important thing you've ever built for us. If it isn't perfect, there isn't going to be anymore us. It has to be innocent looking; to pass on the street and nobody knows it's there."

Angel is now on break, and clearly in need of another "fix." She comes to her dressing room and views the immobilized Scott nonchalantly, seemingly oblivious to his suffering. "I seem to be having trouble with the laces here. Angel--that's your name; yeah, you're in the movies aren't you?" She merely comments, plaintively, "Almost," and departs for the stage, this time to perform a melancholy, almost detached rendition of a Sarah Vaughn staple, Black Coffee. Soon afterwards, Ramon and his thugs have returned, and proceed to pummel the restrained Scott, hoping to obtain some information on the intercepted shipment of heroin, but of course to no avail. Then, left alone with Angel once more, this time Scott entices her to release him, proffering to her a hallucinogenic pill in his pouch.

Ramon, speaking with his compatriots in the drug trade, including the laconic boss "General Chu" (Joseph Kim), peremptorily states "It goes well," even as he is informed that he is about to be removed from their coterie. "But the American is here," he argues, "There's nothing to be disturbed about. I have everything under control. How can I set my General's mind at ease?" The boss acidly commands that the matter with Scott be disposed of, by any means.

Scott, having escaped with Angel in tow, tries to seek to amuse a guard assigned to an exit: "You remember me from last year--name's "Loser, Honorable Loser," (itself a further reference to the title, and its multiple meanings) in ladies' undergarments, from Philadelphia." But he is apprehended by Ramon's thugs once more, but not before being offered a huge pipe of hallucinogens from the one called Old Man (Rajnun K. Tsukamoto). Meanwhile, Robinson has been apprehended as well, discovered to have concealed himself into a large tin can presumably carrying heroin (evidently one of the ruse packages of the mercenary Jimmy). Now the agents are both trussed-up lying beside each other. Robinson quips, referencing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comic predicaments, "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." Scott laments, "Sorry about that, Ollie." Then, recalling that it was Robinson who had been ordered to come to his aid, retorts, "You can't do anything right, can you?" Still, Scott ingeniously pries loose Robinson's harnesses by way of his teeth.

The sadistic Ramon, whose control over Angel has become a sexual high, ignores her entreaties for yet another "fix," and orders her to "go back and sing some more." While moving quickly to finally squelch the drug cartel, Scott commiserates with Robinson on how the Ramon and Angel relationship has affected him: "The cat's name is Ramon. The whole world's his junkie. And there's a girl, Angel. She doesn't mean anything to me; just a lovely loser, and I come from a long line of losers."

Preparing for the returning thugs, the agents feign to be yet securely fastened. Angel has been left alone with them, in the hope that in permitting their escape the cartel can follow them to the missing shipment of heroin. Of course the agents are aware of this tactic, and create the illusion that they are themselves at odds. Scott emphasizes "I know where it is; he doesn't. Now, you untie us so we can get to it!," he orders her. As if slighted, she remarks: "I don't know what you're so mad about." Knowing that they are being closely followed, the agents move quickly on the busy streets of Hong Kong. Their appointed designation is a brothel house and once there they are playfully offered the companionship of Lilly and Barbara (Linda Wong and Nancy Wong), but Robinson jokes "Would you excuse us? We have to go and powder our noses."

But while the shipment has been successfully intercepted, Scott is unable to simply abandon the hapless Angel. With Robinson keeping Ramon and his thugs at gunpoint, Scott rejoices in delivering to her the freedom he assumes she has long yearned for. He is shocked to learn, instead, that she has no desire to leave her current environment. Ramon jeers: "That's what you came back for? She's free. Go ahead, Angel, have fun. Get yourself a new life!" But she pitifully admits that she can never return to what she had before. "Home? Eight people sleeping in a room and garbage out in the hallway. You call that home?" Nodding toward Ramon, she reveals, "Now, he needs me. I know he knocks me around a bit, but I know where I stand." Turning toward Scott she concludes: "Not like you, some Boy Scout. Listen, you dummy, I get three squares and a place to sleep and no more. So long, hot shot. Sorry I caused you so much trouble." Ramon seizes upon her rejection of Scott's offer: "She doesn't want to be saved. You're the poor loser, my friend." But even a punch to Ramon's jaw--just before the authorities arrive--cannot assuage the heartbroken agent.

Afterwards, at a local pub, Robinson simply asks "Are you alright?" Scott responds by giving the bartender his two gambling chips, commenting, as if what had happened were all a game of Monopoly "Put that for two houses and a hotel, and Marvin Gardens. . . ."

"The Loser" is clearly one of the finest of all episodes in a landmark series that shattered racial barriers and poignantly questioned accepted mores and allegiances. Culp's unpretentious script delves upon the several meanings of "loser," but it is very much a winner, and is capped by a searing performance from Eartha Kitt, caught at the very peak of her trademark sultry form.

Below: Eartha Kitt at the very top of her sultry form, as Angel, the self-denigrated "loser" who also provides the title of co-star Robert Culp's teleplay. In the first scene, having imbibed another cocktail and puffed yet again on her ever-ready cigarette, she delivers an exquisitely melancholy rendition of Cole Porter's "Easy to Love," and later of Sonny Burke's "Black Coffee," popularized by Sarah Vaughn. Her nightclub performances clearly a hit with Hong Kong audiences, she is in fact a victim of heroin addiction, relying on her "fix" from drug kingpin Ramon (Albert Paulsen, in a supremely malevolent characterization of a sadist, whose control also becomes his sexual high), who taunts her for her habit relentlessly. Ms. Kitt, born Eartha Mae Keith, with her surname coming from her nickname "Kitty Charles," was the very embodiment of survival over troubled youth, abnegated by her birth mother to be raised in Harlem and come to fend for herself in early teens, with her sultry singing becoming her passport to survival. After a European journey performing with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, she became celebrated for her Parisian nightclub appearances, and regaled by the legendary actor/writer/director/magician Orson Welles who dubbed her "the most exciting girl in the world." A Bohemian to the core, among her closest friends (but in a wholly Platonic relationship, she always maintained) was the also legendary actor James Dean. She remained an effervescent dissident to her last days, once becoming persona non grata in the United States after her stinging rebuke of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson on her husband's extracted toll of America's youth in the Vietnam War at a White House reception in 1968. Before then, her television appearances were legion, with roles superbly exhibiting her qualities as a sublime temptress, from "Salome," for a 1955 segment of the CBS live anthology "Omnibus," to the second incarnation of "Catwoman" (the first being Julie Newmar) for three episodes, airing 1967-68, of ABC's campy transcription of Bob Kane's "Batman." After her return from exile, from the early 1970's onward, she continued to augment any number of characterizations, perhaps remembered most fondly as the voice of the villainess Yzma--whose acquisitiveness is ever foiled--of the Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove," which was a highlight of the 2000 millennium year. She died on Christmas Day of 2008, having considered herself fortunate to be adopted by the wider public, inasmuch as "the biggest family in the world is my fans."

Below: Multilingual agent Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) finds himself enmeshed as the central focus of a drug cartel in Hong Kong. Invariably he becomes the trussed-up prisoner of Ramon, until, enticed by the prospect of yet another "fix," Angel at least temporarily comes to his aid. But he is captured anew, this time trussed-up alongside his best friend, the professional tennis player and fellow agent Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp), for whom Scott poses as personal trainer. Devoid of racial stereotypes, "I Spy" was a landmark also in depicting an enduring bond between a Caucasian and an African-American. In their most desperate situations, their banter was ever witty and unencumbered. Even in this scene from their bonded states, they were more than metaphorically bonded together. Invoking Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comedies, Robinson jokes: "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." To which Scott retorts: "Sorry about that, Ollie," but then, noting that it was Robinson who was sent to his rescue, remarking "You can't seem to do anything right, can you?" Robert Culp also wrote the teleplay, one of his several writing and/or directing efforts for "I Spy." Culp's distinguished television career was launched by way of assuming the voice of a totalitarian narrator in an adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," for CBS's live drama anthology "Westinghouse Presents 'Studio One'" in 1954. That teleplay featured Culp's superb stentorian intonation, which he has subsequently utilized most memorably in Harlan Ellison's classic "Demon with a Glass Hand" a 1964 episode of the seminal ABC science fiction anthology "The Outer Limits," discussed at length in an earlier post on this site. A prolific actor on stage, screen, and television, his video efforts include his impersonation of Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman in the CBS western series "Trackdown," airing from 1957 through 1959, and more recently in a recurring guest role as Deborah Barone's father in CBS' long-running and subsequently well-syndicated series "Everybody Loves Raymond." Bill Cosby, of course, inaugurated his own landmark series, displaying well his personal talents as actor, writer, director and producer, within the framework of "The Cosby Show," in which he portrayed obstetrician Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, via NBC from 1984 through 1992. That multiple Emmy-winning series, also a ratings triumph throughout its run, capped for Cosby (since granted an honorary doctorate) an extraordinary career as an international spokesperson for child literacy. Cosby's earlier television series, such as "The Bill Cosby Show," airing 1969 through 1971 via NBC, in which Cosby portrayed high school physical education instructor and coach Chet Kincaid, and the 1972 through 1979 CBS animated series "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," and its later incarnation "The New Fat Albert Show" airing on CBS through 1982, all utilized Cosby's own social and personal background, gently dispensing the wisdom he had learned from childhood to new generations of young persons in particular. That wisdom was also in evidence through his several years of affiliation with the PBS learning enterprise of the 1970's, "The Electric Company," in which the talents of Oscar-winning fellow actors Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno were also on display.

Below: Agents Robinson and Scott deliberately make themselves walking targets for members of the drug cartel pursuing them in the busy streets of Hong Kong. Later, they encounter call girls at their appointed meeting-place, a local brothel. But upon thwarting the cartel's efforts, Scott, feeling for the long demoralized Angel, is compelled to free her. In the penultimate scene at bottom, he is stunned to learn that she chooses not to go. "Go home?," she asks, "Eight people sleeping in a room and garbage out in the hallway?" Acknowledging the malevolent Ramon, still triumphant over her ("She's free. Go ahead, Angel, have fun. Get yourself a new life"), she poignantly confesses her acceptance of her fix. Nodding towards Ramon, she comments: "Now, he needs me. I know he knocks me around a bit, but I know where I stand." To the heartbroken Scott she explains: "Listen, dummy. I get three squares and a place to sleep and no more. So long, hot shot. Sorry I caused you so much trouble." For this aching distillation of all the anguish of a self-imagined "loser," turning away from a last chance at dignity, Kitt deservedly received an Emmy nomination in a guest role.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Romance as 'Refreshing as the Rain' Infuses "The Rice Estate"

"The Rice Estate" was written by Montgomery Pittman; directed by Robert Douglas; produced by Howie Horwitz; William T. Orr, executive producer; Rusty Meek, assistant director; photographed under the direction of Robert Hoffman; art direction by Art Loel; Norman Suffern, film editor; music supervision by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter; Joe Inge, music editor; the series song "77 Sunset Strip" by Mack David and Jerry Livingston; set decoration by Mowbray F. Berkeley; make-up supervision by Gordon Bau; Jean Burt Reilly, supervising hair stylist; sound by Ross Owen

The Cast [regulars]: Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as private investigator Stuart Bailey; Roger Smith as private investigator Jeff Spencer; Edward Byrnes as associate [formerly "77 Sunset Strip" parking lot attendant] Gerald Lloyd Kookson III alias "Kookie"; Louis Quinn as inveterate gambler and confidante Roscoe; Jacqueline Beer as "77 Sunset Strip" receptionist Suzanne Fabray;

[Guest Cast]: Peggy McCay as Eunice Rice; Gary Conway as Colton Rice; Montgomery Pittman as Russian; Cecile Rogers as Girl; Charles Hicks as Bobby; Jean Paul King as Will.

On a rain-soaked afternoon in Los Angeles, "77 Sunset Strip" private investigator Stuart Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) has been mysteriously summoned by one Eunice Rice (Peggy McCay), on a distress call to what Bailey later acknowledges to be the only imposing estate in greater Los Angeles. He acknowledges his arrival at the estate's gated entrance, replete with speaker phone. It is the voice of Eunice which responds, and after traveling the long length of driveway, Bailey is met by Eunice herself at the door. She appears unadorned, clearly distant and reclusive, and she greets him sincerely grateful for the inclement weather: "Beautiful day, isn't it? Rain is so refreshing." Her diffidence she explains by way of her recent widowhood: "I've been in mourning since two days ago." She then peremptorily relates the nature of her summons: "I sent for you. I'd like to engage you on credit. But the house and grounds belong to me. The estate might bring perhaps a half million dollars. I read about you in newspapers. You're quite cunning."

She elaborates upon her current situation: "My family was considered good, but they died when I was quite young. Three years ago in New York City I met a prominent industrialist named Carlton Rice, the image of my father. He was fifty-one and I was twenty-five. Then I became a slave; to speak when spoken to. I lived two years in this house without a visitor." Bailey inquires: "If you despised him so, why did you mourn?" Her terse reply is only to admit to the fact that "It was the proper thing to do."

Recently she has been receiving both threatening letters and phone calls. These eerie, disquieting threats have further enveloped both herself and the somber ambiance (Bailey observes that in the otherwise capacious drawing room, the only furniture are two end chairs alongside the burning fireplace) into a seemingly permanent sense of dread. The threatening phone calls she describes as sounding like a voice from beyond the grave, "Don't sell or you'll be sorry!," whereas the menacing letters are made out of cut-outs, yet it has been reported that the only fingerprints on the letters themselves are her own. Of any possible responsible parties behind the threats, she recollects that her late husband's brother had wanted the estate kept for the family, but the only other heir would be young Colton, her stepson, away in college, who "treated me as a sister; our fondness is at a distance," but that Colton was "taken care of in his father's will."

The mutual attraction between Eunice Rice and Stuart Bailey being most evident, he is grieved to discover that her inheritance being in abeyance, she is without heat, and is about to be cut off from other household utilities. Shocked to witness her breaking up the room's furniture to be utilized as firewood, he advises her to instead consider the wood to be gleaned from the many trees lining the property. "I love trees," she objects, whereas "I loathe Victorian furniture. That's why I keep it covered" He comments "The absence of furniture in this room means that you have burned it all?" She then punctuates her earlier objection: "Yes! I finally found a use for Victorian furniture!" Feeling oddly compelled, both by her neediness and quirkiness, he proffers to her a check in an amount sufficient to keep her utilities active.

As immediate remuneration he asks only, in turn, that she permit him to take her to dinner. When she demurs, noting that she has been far too long cloistered, he instead offers to bring her groceries, but that she'll "have to cook," which she gleefully agrees to. He entreats her to divest herself of her mourning attire, and she assents to this as well, though at best her "things are a year old." Once outside, he is suddenly accosted by a young man professing to be protecting the property on behalf of the "Civil Protection Agency." A brawl ensues, and the youth escapes by way of his motorcycle.

On his return, groceries in tow, Bailey discovers that the gate has been newly padlocked and that the wires to the speaker have been cut. Reconnecting the speaker, Eunice responds that she is unaware of these changes, and directs him to simply break the lock. Suddenly she comes running toward him with the news that "Someone's in the house--the landing on the stairs!" Quickly investigating, Bailey finds that the image of an apparent intruder was caused by a statue bust having been draped with one of her cloaks. She notes that the bust has been moved. Bailey assures her: "I have a friend who's a policeman; I'll have him over tomorrow." Eunice then begins to prepare dinner--by way of the fireplace. He has also rendered to her a jack-o-lantern, befitting a haunted house. "You delight me!," she intones.

"77 Sunset Strip" fellow investigator Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith) telephones Bailey to reveal that Eunice's late husband's brother "Avery Rice is loaded," and thus has no need to extend his holdings. As Spencer had been planning for that evening a masquerade ball to which Bailey was invited, Bailey solicits Spencer to bring his costume party entourage instead to the Rice Estate. To Eunice Bailey affirms "The time has come for you to start meeting people from the outside world!" On learning that the house has an attic, with many wardrobe chests, he remarks: "That's where we'll find the costumes!"

While the pair are rummaging among the wardrobes, Eunice observes the presence of cigarette butts strewn about: "Someone's been up here! I don't smoke!" She also observes a group of mutilated magazines, from which obviously the threatening letters were crafted. Helplessly drawn toward Bailey's self-assuredness in the face of imminent danger, she asks "May I give in to a strong impulse and kiss you?" But their romantic interlude is cut short, as she glances toward an attic window and screams "There's someone outside there!" Bailey pursues the intruder outside the window toward the roof and then downward through doors under a porch entrance. The intruder having locked him inside, Bailey resourcefully begins to tap an SOS on a series of pipes evidently leading through to the attic, and Eunice indeed comes to his rescue. Of her own qualities, Bailey remarks: "Beauty and intelligence!"

That evening, with Eunice, Bailey and guests all donning costumes for the Masquerade Ball, the festivities proceed in earnest, capped at one point by Jeff Spencer's rendition of the Cole Porter song "Just One of Those Things." "77 Sunset Strip" receptionist Suzanne Fabray (Jacqueline Beer) is attired as a witch, and Bailey assesses her comeliness, even in witch garb, with the comment, "Suzanne, you're a witch after my own heart" Witnessing this, Eunice is clearly envious, until learning from Bailey that Suzanne already has a steady boyfriend. Suddenly, a guest in clown costume enters the scene, deliberately spraying Eunice with his glass of champagne. In pursuit, Bailey tackles the apparent culprit, only to discover that this particular clown is "77 Sunset Strip" associate Gerald Lloyd Kookson III, alias "Kookie" (Edward Byrnes), who informs Bailey that his fleeing costumed clown has in fact just run up the stairs. In tandem Eunice and Bailey proceed to her bedroom, whose entrance has been marked with a skull and crossbones. Once inside, they discover the real culprit, hiding in a closet, has been in truth Eunice's own stepson Colton (Gary Conway), who, alongside his accomplice, the burly Bobby (Charles Hicks), freely confesses his "childhood pranks" of the past several days. "I never really liked you; I don't want the property sold," he acerbically explains to a consternated Eunice. In the ensuing scuffle, in which Kookie has come to Bailey's aid, the investigators find that they are no match for Bobby's brawn. Again, a resourceful Eunice saves the day, shattering a glass urn over Bobby's skull.

The final scene finds a much revitalized Eunice visiting with Bailey at the detective agency. She offers him to seek now after his promised remuneration. She has sold the Rice Estate, and happily forwards to him the draft: "I thought you might like to see a check for $500,000. I've never seen one before." Bailey responds: "My fee is the pleasure of having met you!" But Bailey is unprepared for her rejoinder. She is heading back East, "to a man that looks like you," and she needs time to sort things through. "Will you call me when you know for sure?" he plaintively suggests, and she retorts "Either way!" Now a lovelorn victim he assumes the role of a Lochinvar and, in their parting, kisses her hand. To Suzanne he muses: "What's the name of that television program Jeff always watches when he's nursing his broken hearts?" Suzanne answers: "Bronco." And Bailey then entreats her: "Find out what time it goes on, would you?"

While Montgomery Pittman's teleplay can be pedestrian, it is the skillful playing of Ms. McCay and Mr. Zimbalist Jr., both veterans of live dramaturgy, and both in real life clearly romantics at heart, which uplifts "The Rice Estate." Ms. McCay's exemplary acting range is such that she can effortlessly display emotions ranging from pathos to comic playfulness; from desolation and despair to resoluteness and optimism. As is true of most Warner Brothers series of the period, episodes shamelessly plugged their fellow series, such as the prescribed viewing of the western "Bronco" as an antidote for aborted romances. Still, in a less troubled period, despite the all too frequent infusion of Cold War rhetoric, "The Rice Estate" defines a romance truly as "refreshing as the rain."
Below: The extraordinarily prolific Peggy McCay, a Barnard College graduate whose acting career spans the decades from work at the Actors Studio, remarkable study under the helm of such giants as Harold Clurman and Margo Jones, years of live teleplays in the period of "The Golden Age of Television," and having the distinction of being among the first of television soap opera stars (she was the seminal figure "Vanessa Raven" in the CBS early entry "Love of Life"), appears as the wistfully mysterious Eunice Rice, opposite Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s private investigator Stuart Bailey in "The Rice Estate," an episode of ABC's "77 Sunset Strip" first airing on December 30, 1960. Zimbalist, Jr., the son and namesake of celebrated concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist, was well established before his role as the dapper Stu Bailey. He had earlier performed in 1955 in the CBS soap opera "Meet Miss Marlowe," and had performed in several anthologies of television's live drama era, as well as in the ABC "Conflict" episode "Anything for Money," airing on July 23, 1957, in which his character "77 Sunset Strip" character Stuart Bailey first appeared. Later, Zimbalist, Jr. would assume the role of Inspector Lewis Erskine for the decade-long (the fall of 1965 through the fall of 1974) ABC entry "The F.B.I.," and still later, he would appear in several episodes of NBC's "Remington Steele" as Daniel Chalmers, a roguish con artist and mentor to the assumed "Remington Steele" character (Pierce Brosnan in his television starring turn), the creation and love interest for the sleuth Laura Holt, portrayed by Zimbalist, Jr.'s real-life daughter Stephanie. But even prior to his career as a television matinee idol, Zimbalist, Jr. was an impresario; a sponsor of operas (Zimbalist Jr.'s mother was opera diva Alma Gluck) for the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. Recently the yet vibrant Zimbalist, Jr. was feted at Manhattan's celebrated The Players at #16 Gramercy Park, where he discussed his long and varied artistic career. In the following three photographs, the cloistered Eunice Rice comments to her visitor Stuart Bailey upon the inclement weather, "Beautiful day, isn't it? Rain is so refreshing"; later, observing that she is suddenly demolishing the furniture to be used as firewood, he notes: "The absence of furniture in this room means that you have burned it all?" He advises her to instead utilize for firewood the trees from the grounds. She answers: "I love trees; I loathe Victorian furniture. I have finally found a use for Victorian furniture." Still later, while perusing the attic wardrobes for costumes to be donned by themselves and guests attending the evening's masquerade ball, the couple is helplessly drawn toward a kiss.

Below: Among the guests at the evening's masquerade ball are "77 Sunset Strip" Stuart Bailey associates Kookie (in fact Gerald Lloyd Kookson III, who was a villain in the series pilot "Girl on the Run," but became a loyal and lovable parking attendant turned fellow sleuth in the series shortly afterwards) and piquant handsome ladies' man Jeff Spencer. Edward Byrnes portrayed Kookie, whose character was the subject of a Connie Stevens song rendition with the refrain "Kookie, lend me your comb," in reference to the character's constant fussing over his tresses. Roger Smith, whose earlier best known film characterization was as Mame Dennis' (Rosalind Russell) ward in the much celebrated 1958 cinematic transcription of Patrick Dennis' 1955 memoir "Auntie Mame," was not merely a co-star of "77 Sunset Strip," but often wrote and directed for the series as well as several times displaying his fine singing voice, sometimes from compositions of his own. Smith's two wives were both actresses; the first being Victoria Shaw, and from 1967 through the current day he has been wed to Ann-Margret, whose stage shows he often managed, while quietly recovering from myasthenia gravis, after a stint in the starring role of the ABC 1965 series "Mister Roberts," based on the Thomas Heggen play and 1955 film scenario. Earlier in 1963, Smith would need to depart from the series "77 Sunset Strip" before it concluded its run, having been diagnosed with a cerebral blood clot.

Below: Ultimately Stu Bailey pursues the villain, in clown costume, to Eunice Rice's bedroom. He is revealed to have been Eunice's stepson, Colton Rice (Gary Conway), the original sole heir to his father Carlton's estate, not willing to tolerate his stepmother's right to inheritance. Colton's accomplice has been the burly Bobby (Charles Hicks). Conway would co-star in two additional ABC series: "Burke's Law," from 1963-1965, and in "Land of the Giants," from 1968-1970.

Below: Stu Bailey, in a final romantic gesture, bids adieu to Eunice Rice. In an extensive interview the author conducted with Ms. McCay in 2001, she reveals that in real life, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was indeed the consummate romantic: "I was very charmed by him. We had mutual friends. He played piano, perfectly. And composed music. He is an educated gentleman with a great sense of humor and taste; exceedingly handsome and a gentleman down to his fingertips."
Below: Ms. McCay, an OBIE winner for her work in a 1956 New York theatre production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," and an Emmy Award winner for her role as as the incarcerated homeless woman Irene Hayes in "State of Mind," a 1991 episode of the series "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," which featured Sharon Gless in the title role, has been a twice-elected member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences." Besides her long-standing role as Caroline Brady in NBC's soap opera "Days of Our Lives," the actress never ceases to assume key vitalizing roles on stage and television. She portrayed James Dean's instrumentally influencing grandmother in a TNT telefeature "James Dean: An Invented Life," directed by fellow live drama acting veteran Mark Rydell, first airing on August 5, 2001. That telefeature turned out to be the star-making vehicle for James Franco, who received an Emmy for portraying the legendary James Dean; the real Dean having appeared with Ms. McCay at New York's celebrated Actors' Studio. A strong advocate of the live theatrical experience, Ms. McCay appeared as "The Swan" in a much-acclaimed opening play of science fiction master Ray Bradbury's dramatized trilogy of tales under the broader title "The Time of Going Away," debuting on March 14, 2003 at the Los Angeles Court Theatre," as the card advertisement below prominently displays.

Ms. McCay, also a crusader for animal rights, may well be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records. With her several thousand television appearances, beginning very young in the early days of the medium, with roles ranging from live dramas in both primetime and matinee, to soap operas and telefeatures, she is likely the reigning most prolific actress on American television. Despite her dizzying schedule, she is ever steadfast in her support of theatrical initiative, anywhere and everywhere. Below, she is pictured, second from left with the author (posed at center with members of his family, brother-in-law Michael Gerard Smylie, at extreme left, and sisters Dr. Patricia Gianakos and Dr. Irene Gianakos (wed to Michael Smylie; at extreme right), in a debut gala in Warren, Ohio for the author's affiliated Curtain Calls Productions, Incorporated, at the Avalon Inn (formerly a golf course stopover on the LPGA tour), on April 1, 1995. Attending with Ms. McCay as fellow Advisory Board members were Ms. McCay's then fellow member of the ATAS Board of Governors and Los Angeles Chapter AFTRA President Marvin Kaplan, and the late Roy Stuart, a gifted actor, composer and lyricist, best known to television audiences for his role as Corporal Chuck Boyle in the CBS long-running "Gomer Pyle, USMC." Also attending as an Advisory Board member was Ms. McCay's fellow alumnus of NBC's "Days of our Lives" Joseph Mascolo (portraying the dapper but cunning Stefano DiMera), who is pictured in the final photo addressing the gala assembly, with the author standing just behind.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Finding Joy in Cryptic Fellowship: Stirling Silliphant's Glowing "Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain"

Above: Lois Nettleton, axiomatic in her role as an unknown enchantress donning a multiplicity of roles, opposite the smitten Tod Stiles, the prolific Martin Milner's most versatile and enduring of television roles, in Stirling Silliphant's glowing teleplay based on the story by Jerome B. Thomas, "Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain," an episode of "Route 66" first airing February 8, 1963 via CBS. Ms. Nettleton, a former Miss Chicago once married to the humorist Jean Shepherd, died on January 18, 2008, leaving behind some six decades of theatre, film, and television work, mirroring in duration and scope the yet active Mr. Milner's own.

"Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain," adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the story by Jerome B. Thomas; directed by David Lowell Rich; Herbert B. Leonard, executive producer; Leo Davis, supervising producer; Sam Manners, in charge of production; Leonard Katzman, associate producer; series created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant; music composed and conducted by Nelson Riddle; music orchestrated by Gil Grau; Aaron Nibley, supervising film editor; art direction by John T. McCormack; Jack Marta and Irving Lippman, directors of photography; costumes by Charles Arrico; make-up by Abe Haberman; filmed with the cooperation of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, California.

The Cast: Martin Milner as Tod Stiles; Lois Nettleton as an unknown actress; Robert Duvall as Lee; Philip Abbott as Lieutenant Cook; Harvey Korman as Mr. Mills; Frederick Downs as the Reverend Brenton; CeCe Whitney as waitress Ethel; Jerry Hausner as the auctioneer; Suzanne Ried as the cashier; Dale Johnson as the Maitre D

Nomadic Tod Stiles (Martin Milner), stopping on the Los Angeles Sunset Strip, and utilizing his credit card for some purchases, is quietly observed by an attractive young lady (Lois Nettleton). While staying at the Hotel Bel Air, he finds a well-groomed poodle on his doorstep--then meets up with the pet's apparent owner, the very same attractive onlooker as before. Stunningly decked out, she merely utters "Tonight--eightish, same place where you were Saturday night." He asks "How do you know where I was Saturday night?" Receiving no response, he inquires "I'm Tod, who might you be?" After which on screen appears the title "Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain."

Arriving at the designated night spot, a fine restaurant, he finds her there already, having ordered for him his precise preference in advance. Tod speaks of the English word "waffling," here meaning "Is there any clue as to who she is?" She answers "Let's just say I'm a little something for the man who has everything." The next morning finds Tod working at an oil derrick with a friend Lee (Robert Duvall, early in his later celebrated acting career). Lee, noting Tod's concern over his mysterious dinner companion, observes "When an angel lands on your shoulder, that doesn't make you want to ask how to fly."

In a subsequent romantic meeting at his hotel room Tod finds the mysterious lady even more enticing when she remarks "I've never been in love before. Out of the whole constellations of humans, I chose you." Tod inquires "If you can trust me with your love, why not your name?" She answers "Suppose I said I was the Queen of Spain. Suppose I said I was the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper. Suppose I said I don't exist; I'm an illusion. Is love dependent on a substance, a reality?" Tod then announces "The first Queen of Spain was Isabel. I dub you Isabel, darling." Having fallen head over heels in love, Tod afterwards accompanies her back to her apparent hotel and asks "Which window is yours?" She responds with yet another conundrum "When you say I open . . . but when you ask I close. I read somewhere, 'love without reason is love without end.'" She leaves him to go into the hotel, then offers some money to the cleaning lady so that she may go out to Tod with the words "The Queen of Spain sailed without Columbus. Tell him 'I love you, Tod.'"

Soon afterwards Tod discovers his credit card missing, and reporting that fact to investigator Lieutenant Cook (Philip Abbott), learns of his dismal chance of retrieving it. Enter one "Mr. Mills" (Harvey Korman, long before his days with Carol Burnett), a representative of the credit card company, who reports that Tod has been charged to the tune of $9,216.43; demands proper payment from him and summarily terminates his any future credit. Mulling over his seemingly overwhelming debt, first at a local bar, then in a Turkish bath to sober up, To chances upon "Isabel," the obvious purloiner, in a skid-row section of town. She is now posing as "Susan Anders," a Salvation Army mission worker. She feigns absolute surprise when he seizes her, demanding the return of his credit card. Upon this "citizen's arrest," she merely implores that he rest "You look hungry and tired. May we get you something, young man?" He retorts "the bunco squad!," which initiates a brawl. Released, she comments, "Mr. Stiles, don't lose faith in all women." Meeting up with her on the street, she calmly advises "What's wrong with illusion?" He notes that she had run up some ten thousand dollars in expenses by profligate spending on tickets in all directions and a "wardrobe to match every place." Ignoring this, she simply states "I'm twenty-two today--my birthday."

Back at his hotel, Tod's credit card representative now informs him that all the disputed items purchased with his card have been returned, leaving a balance due of just over one hundred dollars, with Tod accordingly being reinstated of his credit. Thus Tod, feeling his love requited, drives off in search of this "illusion or reality." Returning to the mission, he finds her former supervisor reporting that she has gone, having mentioned Columbus, with "two many worlds to discover." The investigator likens her to "a kid in a candy store, who's got to see a different life." While with him, Tod is summoned to a phone where her unmistakable voice asks that he meet her at the Department of Theatre at the U.C.L.A. campus.

Once there, he finds her very much alone, now posing as "Lila Gunther." Again she feigns no familiarity with him. Becoming a captive audience, he sits singularly in the auditorium as she appears on stage. She asks if he has read any Russian novels, of the sort whose characters meet strangers on trains. She expatiates "I'm working on a kind of play. Would you listen, as only strangers can, with complete honesty?" Her soliloquy opens: "Ladies and gentlemen. This is a play very much like human life. Obviously it has a beginning. Unfortunately, it has an end. You see me here alone. Yet if you watch, if you listen, you discover a person within a person. You are free to choose what you may from my play . . . free to cast your own players. As children do, reaching for everything, they can have nothing. . . . Since my players can so no to nothing, they can't say yes to anything. Don't follow the players too closely; ask 'What did you mean?' They are migratory. . . . In this fashion, if I were to say I were the Queen of Spain, in my heart, I know its not true, but I can still live the enchantment."

Dejected, Tod can only conclude "I'm sorry I won't get to see the rest of the play." And she, in turn, concludes both her own play and the teleplay itself with the line "The end . . . is that everyone goes his own way." His cue properly taken, Tod applauds briefly and exits the theatre.

"Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain" represents "Route 66" at its most enigmatic. A celebration of adventure, of finding joy in cryptic fellowship, the teleplay remains potent, as it adjures us to seek after intellectual liberation.

Below: Silliphant's teleplay concludes with the elusive chameleon, now assuming the role of "Lila Gunther," alone on the stage at the Department of Theatre at the U.C.L.A. campus, before her solitary captive audience of Tod Stiles. She reveals to him: 'This is a play very much like human life. In this fashion, if I were to say I were the Queen of Spain, in my heart, I know its not true, but I can still live the enchantment." Before departing, a disconsolate Tod remarks: "I'm sorry I won't get to see the rest of the play."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hitchcock at His Most Diabolical: What Really Constitutes a "Specialty of the House"?

Above: Robert Morley (left) and Kenneth Haigh as business proprietor Laffler and his employee Costain survey the dinner entree at restaurateur Spirro's famous establishment.

"Specialty of the House," adapted by Victor Wolfson and Bernard Schoenfeld from the story by Stanley Ellin; directed by Robert Stevens; produced by Joan Harrison; Norman Lloyd, associate producer; photographed under the direction of John L. Russell; art direction by Arthur Lonergan; Edward W. Williams, film editor; music supervision by Frederick Herbert; sound by William Russell; set decoration by Julie Heron; Vincent Dee, costume supervisor; makeup by Jack Barron; Florence Bush, hair stylist; an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" airing December 13, 1959, via CBS

The Cast: Robert Morley as business proprietor Laffler; Kenneth Haigh as his employee Costain; "Spivy" as restaurateur "Spirro"; with George Keymas, Bettye Ackerman, Charles Wagenheim, Tetsu Komai, and Lee Turnbull

Hurrying to restaurateur Spirro's establishment, inconspicuously planted within the confines of seemingly deserted brownstones, are the portly, remonstrating business proprietor Laffler (Robert Morley) and his gentlemanly employee Costain (Kenneth Haigh). Before the entrance, where they are summarily announced, Laffler comments: "Behind this door we leave behind us the vulgarity of our time. Two qualities are missing from this day and age: mystery and dignity, especially mystery. Inside, they are both restored to us."

Inside, upon whose formal air Costain observes "I feel as if I were going into a temple, not a restaurant," the obviously exclusive male patronage has been arranged who sit in tandem at twenty tables. Laffler reveals that there are "exactly forty members," only one of whom, a recently elected "life member," is notably absent, "Jackson--there's his picture on the wall; he's the puffy one on the end." Costain is surprised to learn that "Spirro's" is devoid of intoxicating liquors, tobacco and condiments. Nor are there even menus, although the food varies every evening, for as Laffler explains, "Spirro offers no choice; here we have no doubts, we ask no questions; we only know that there is a genius in the kitchen."

After consuming his soup Costain is surprised to find that it has been much to his liking, without his customary salt. And although the dinner itself was superb, Laffler expresses regret: "Can't possibly compare to the specialty of the house." Costain inquires "And what might that be? Nightingale's tongues? Filet of unicorn?" To which Laffler simply responds "Lamb Amirstan."
The following evening Laffler expatiates on this succulent meal which has formed an obsession not merely for himself but for every other member as well. "According to Spirro, Amirstan is a desolate plateau on the boundary of Uganda in Africa. Here, a small but superb flock of sheep graze on the delicate grasses which are only to be found there and which give the lamb its incredible flavor. This is the only restaurant in the world where you can get it!" To Laffler's great pleasure, the evening's course is, indeed, to be the "Lamb Amirstan," and as it is being served, Laffler stares longingly and Costain quizzically at this by now legendary entree. Costain soon discovers, however, that every swallowed portion becomes an almost exotic experience and he too comes to relish even the thought of the next sampling of "Lamb Amirstan."
Their shared ritual of dining at "Spirro's" have made them close friends, Laffler, who has been summoned to check accounts abroad, reports that he will be entrusting the management of his office to Costain. Earlier conversations with the mysterious Spirro ("Spivy"), a double-chinned proprietress who commandeers her staff with a queenly air, reveal Costain to harbor ambitions belying his apparent humility. When Costain asks of her "I suppose there's no chance of my becoming a member?," and she responds "Who can say? We have here a very long period of testing. . . .," he resolves, firmly, "I'd be glad to wait."
Laffler confesses that in addition to his craving of the "specialty of the house," he has "but two other obsessions. One is to become a life member of the club. The other is to see the kitchens where those miracles are performed." But Spirro proscribes access to her kitchens to all but a very few select members. Spirro relates the fact that she "merely supervises. . . . the only dish I prepare personally is the Lamb Amirstan. I've been preparing it now for three days; there is a marinating process, you understand."
Spirro telephones Costain that she desires a suitable wall-size photograph of his employer, apparently to commemorate the fact that Laffler at last has been designated a life member. Costain, too, has been granted his request for club membership. On the eve of his departure, Laffler arrives at Spirro's in advance of Costain, who reportedly has been attending to office affairs. In the alleyway to the entrance there is a skirmish between a waiter and an obviously inebriated man. Laffler comes to the waiter's aid, although the would-be victim dismisses any thoughts of calling for the police, seeking instead to preserve the reputation of Spirro's. Not long afterward, Costain arrives, presenting to Spirro herself the requested portrait.
Preparing to dine, Laffler is dismayed to discover that the "specialty of the house" is not to be served that evening. After lodging his protest with Spirro, he finds that she is strangely apologetic: "It must be an oversight on the part of the chef. Come with me into the kitchen; let's see what we can do about it." Before going in, he is caught by the waiter whom he had earlier assisted and who now beseeches him "I beg you sir, do not go into the kitchen!" A determined Laffler, about to realize a longtime passion, cannot, however, be dissuaded. He enters, finding a spotless, but not unconventional area for food preparation. "But where's the chef?," he asks. Spirro points to an enclosed area, where a burly man stands holding a meat cleaver. Laffler extends his hand in congratulation, as Spirro quietly closes the door behind them.
The final scene finds a smiling Spirro greeting Costain in her dining room. She places the portrait of Laffler alongside other former "life members." "Ah, how well he looks there among our other absent friends!," she comments, continuing, "I shall be expecting you to dine with us more often now that Mr. Laffler is away." Costain suggests, "Perhaps we shall be having the specialty of the house soon; maybe next week?" She responds, seriously, "It takes time to prepare--but I think, I think I can promise you!," as she stares at the portrait of Laffler once again.
Faithful to Ellin's story in all but a single major respect, inasmuch as the literary Spirro is a man, "Specialty of the House" offers an abundance of witty observations on the nature of man as a virtual slave to what he consumes. The literary Spirro offers this bit of wisdom to Costain: "You must turn your thoughts a little to the significance of the lamb in religion." For in this gourmet restaurant there is nothing pious about the consumption of "Lamb Amirstan." This is a perfect example of a Hitchcock tease; this is, pun fully intended, a delicious tale, deliciously told.
Below: Spirro (portrayed by the enigmatic "Spivy") explains to her customers that Lamb Amirstan, "takes time to prepare." Later, however, she accommodates them with this most exotically succulent meal. In the final scene she imparts to new member Costain that "I shall be expecting you to dine with us more often now that Mr. Laffler is away." Robert Morley as Laffler was a frequent player in sardonic cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, whereas Kenneth Haigh would perhaps realize his most enduring characterization as the multilingual scholar, translator, and explorer Sir Richard Burton in the BBC"s sublime series "The Search for the Nile," based on the Alan Moorehead accounts of Victorian England's quest for the source of the Nile River, first airing in the United States in six parts, from January 25 through February 29, 1972, via NBC.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Do Look to a Masterly "Alfred Hitchcock Hour" for "Don't Look Behind You"

Vera Miles, a frequent player for "Master of Suspense" Alfred Hitchcock is being surreptitiously followed and studied--she assumes by "Woodside" College Music Professor Edwin Volck (Alf Kjellin; an accomplished director in both cinema and television in his own right, also pictured above), when in fact she ought to be in fear of the movements of her fiance, psychologist and faculty member Harold (Jeffrey Hunter). Hunter's twisted Harold was among the most compelling of his many television characterizations, and through repeated viewings of "Don't Look Behind You" (the teleplay can now be downloaded through the Internet Movie Data Base, or IMDB), it is fast becoming one of the late Hunter's (he died at all of 42 in 1969, of complications from surgery following two strokes) also most memorable. The flawlessly handsome (complete with deep crystal blue eyes) Hunter remains best remembered for his role as Martin Pawley, who accompanies John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, and curiously enough, Vera Miles' Laurie Jorgensen as among "The Searchers," John Ford's 1956 western classic, and of course for portraying The Christ in Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings
"Don't Look Behind You" was adapted by Barre Lyndon from the novel by Samuel Rogers; directed by John Brahm; photographed under the direction of John Russell; original music by Lyn Murray; airing as an episode of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" on September 27, 1962, via CBS.
Principal Players: Jeffrey Hunter as psychologist and "Woodside" College faculty member Harold; Vera Miles as Daphne, Harold's fiancee; Alf Kjellin as music professor Edwin Volck; Dick Sargent as colleague Dave Fulton; Abraham Sofaer as Dr. MacFarlane; Madge Kennedy as Mrs. MacFarlane; Ralph Roberts as Paul Hatfield.
Although Alfred Hitchcock directed a mere eighteen of the 361 episodes comprising both his half and full-hour television anthologies, his personal influence in the selection of suspense material, and of the performers and technicians chosen to convey that material, was pervasive throughout. The hour-long "Don't Look Behind You," adapted by Barre Lyndon from the novel by Samuel Rogers and directed by John Braham, is quintessential Hitchcock for, like the great Hitchcock feature films, the viewer comes away with an impression that propriety least exists where it should be most evident--in this case, within the walls of Academe.
In the seemingly quiet college town of Woodside, Daphne (Vera Miles), alluring fiancee of psychologist and faculty member Harold (Jeffrey Hunter) is walking through a wooded area en route to the home of Dr. and Mrs. MacFarlane (Abraham Sofaer and Madge Kennedy). She has had the ominous feeling that she has been followed, and though the evening is still, the clearly discernible movement of foliage, the rustling drawing ever closer, more than confirms her suspicions. Now detecting something in the growth, she screams and bolts, then sprints the remainder of the way. She arrives, breathless, at the MacFarlanes', where she is greeted by her concerned host who, however, observing no one else even far into the distance, quickly dismisses her claim. Inside, she is welcomed by other faculty members and their coterie. She is told that perhaps her apparent follower was merely fellow guest Paul Hatfield (Ralph Roberts), an ardent bird watcher in pursuit of a hermit thrush. But Paul himself tells her otherwise; that he had been observing among the trees of the local cemetery, not in the vicinity of Daphne's path.
Daphne's anxiety is, however, mitigated upon the arrival of the music professor Edwin Volck (Alf Kjellin), whose deportment and piano dexterity, which he almost immediately begins to display, she finds fascinating. Yet another colleague of Harold's, Dave Fulton (Dick Sargent) finds himself drawn toward Daphne, an attraction which is obvious to Harold, whose own appearance at the gathering further augments tensions. At the dinner table faculty and their spouses begin a morbid discussion on the recent series of campus homicides involving young women both strangled and slashed. Edwin comments that the killer may not be necessarily from the area. Harold, however, thinks otherwise, and holds his audience captive as he offers his own theories on the character of the slayer. "You may remember that Jack the Ripper struck to one section of London; that the French Bluebeard stayed in Paris and that Fritz Harmon (of Hanover) murdered more than forty men in his butcher shop." Harold moreover establishes a campus town as an ideal environment for a similar type of killer: "You see there are a lot of high strung individuals here; some very curious, some very frustrated, easily apt to be well caught up on the literature of murder--couple that with the power of suggestion..."
He expatiates: "Take an intelligent man who's even slightly off-balanced, for example. Say he's dissatisfied--he's building up grudges. Suppose he's been reading about these multiple killers; he may be a specialized kind of madman who's only occasionally seized by these compulsions. He could easily be one of us. You ask why he does this. I think it's a pathological distortion of something normal; something that's already there, waiting, in all of us. Sane, insane--it's all a matter of balance."
In this perturbed air the dinner guests take their leave, Harold escorting Daphne home. Their leisurely walk, however, is interrupted by a scream. Almost instantly a lovely young blonde is detected, her blouse torn; collapsed unto the ground. Harold remarks to Daphne: "She's fainted; he neglected to kill her. Maybe it was you he was after; if she was only substituting, he may try again." The following day Harold imparts to his fiancee that he has volunteered his professional services to the police department, for he is convinced that the would-be homicide "had to be a particular kind of man in a particular state of mind." Dave appears, and Daphne flippantly observes "You're always creeping up behind me, aren't you?" Later, walking alone towards Edwin's residence, she stops before his open window and overhears the virtuoso playing sections of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Edwin momentarily ceases to offer Daphne this bit of philosophy: "Music always gives away one's feeling--especially in loneliness. That's the universal predicament, isn't it? Loneliness."
Later at Daphne's home Harold confides to her his own perceptions on this criminal mind: "I've studied these people. . . . He watches you. To him, you're like a living jewel. You're perfection; you're irreplaceable. To destroy you would be a triumph." He then entreats her to serve as a decoy and repeat her original walk through the woods, where Harold will follow her, gun in hand, out of sight of the unknown assailant. Yet Daphne cannot bring herself to accept. That night, however, Daphne is awakened by ominous sounds outside her balcony doors. She quickly investigates, only to witness a man whose face she does not recognize hurriedly dismounting, then fleeing. Fearing now her own safety at home, she telephones Harold, agreeing to proceed with his ruse.
The following evening, again the guests of the MacFarlanes', Harold once more escorts Daphne back by way of the wooded path. For a few minutes they walk in tandem but suddenly Daphne feels herself alone, knowing that Harold has since kept himself concealed. Abruptly Daphne is startled as Edwin approaches. She continues walking as she initially believes their paths have merely crossed, he also having left the MacFarlanes'. But she soon turns apprehensive when Edwin explains that the man following her on her approach to the MacFarlane home two evenings earlier was in fact himself. His words are grave as he confesses "There was nothing to be afraid of, then. I only wanted you to know that you are not alone." Then, in fierce tones, he remarks "You sweet. . . . You must feel that you are not alone now. This will be different. I'm glad you like my music; that's all there is, you know." He produces a length of rope, makes it taught and lunges toward her as she screams and flies from her attacker. A pistol shot is heard, and Edwin falls to the ground as Harold reappears, his weapon properly discharged. A subdued Harold comments only "It worked, Daphne," noting that Edwin is still very much alive, even as Harold now caresses the rope, the would-be instrument of murder.
Later, with Daphne in Edwin's study, following the police inspection there, Harold is contemplative as he reveals a sorrow for the now institutionalized virtuoso. "You know Edwin reads music like you and I might read a book; he hears the sounds in his head." He gathers together several sheets of music, intending to return them to Edwin in his hospital room. Harold reiterates to Daphne what she herself has assumed, that Edwin was not the lone assailant, and that the attacks will begin again. Her fiance repeats to her what he earlier explained to the police: "Some crimes come in waves, as if they're contagious; a ceremonial knife, blood sacrifices--that appeals to some mentalities." Of Edwin's own character he comments "You remember how you felt about Edwin--his music, his charm? And yet, in his heart, he hated all women." He warns her to trust no one, as she initiates a kiss and he reciprocates, only half-heartedly.
On visiting Edwin, Harold whispers to him "Tell me; that time with the girl in the woods, when Daphne and I interrupted you--that was all for nothing, wasn't it? You began it all wrong. You tried to take the life without the ceremonial, so the compulsion stayed with you." He expresses a desire to visit Edwin once again as the still recumbent Edwin methodically remarks "I know you will. I'm looking forward to it." At Daphne's apartment, Harold imparts to her his new impressions of the virtuoso: "He's not so non-sane as one would think."
Later Daphne arrives at Harold's office. She sits solitarily with him, perhaps expecting him to reaffirm his love for her. He tells her "I'll always remember you as you are at this moment, darling, smiling at me . . . across a glass of wine. You came from Dave to me; I like that." Reaching for an object in his desk drawer he continues "Now, I didn't want you to be frightened by what I have to say, and run away as you did with Edwin." She interrupts, "But he intended to . . .," as a look of profound horror comes across her face, and as he rises and moves toward her. Harold methodically proceeds: "Edwin killed those women in hatred and revenge. But I've decided tonight to make you completely my own for love, in the full aesthetic moment of final sacrifice." With both dagger and rope brandished in his hands, he completes his descent into madness: "Pain is only a secret name for pleasure, my darling, and there can be no true sacrifice, no complete feeling of love unless the victim dies." Now almost upon her, Dave, whose room is adjoining, appears, and after a scuffle, Harold lies unconscious on the floor.
The final scene finds Daphne and Dave observing a straight-jacketed Harold being led to a room not far from Edwin's own. Dave summarizes: "He really caught the contagion; the spirit of killing, from Edwin--the strange and ancient illusion that by blood sacrifice you can reach a more intense communion. It totally unbalanced him." In the final shot Edwin, who has been witnessing the scene from an adjacent door, speaks the final words: "Harold is here. I knew he would be. I've been looking forward to it," even as the background score takes up the final strains of the "Moonlight Sonata."
So much remains unresolved at the teleplays' conclusion. If Edwin has influenced Harold to commit homicide, has Harold had a similar effect upon Dave? And was, indeed, Edwin the initial killer? That Daphne did not recognize Edwin running from her balcony, and that she was only a moment later on the telephone with Harold would seem to preclude either man as a suspect in the early slayings. And what strange quality does Daphne evoke, beyond her physical beauty, which induces so many men to want to possess her so entirely? Edwin speaks to her of his music as "all there is," on the verge of strangling her. Later Harold attempts to do the same, speaking of love through sacrifice.
Photographer John Russell elucidates Daphne's fine features. He frames his camera carefully upon her every gesture, as if she were as delicate as the filigree earrings she wears. And Lyn Murray's music complements this careful lensing. By occasionally utilizing the strains of "The Moonlight Sonata," he has manifested moonlight, and the lunacy it is presumed to induce, on evenings where serenity can have no place. That Jeffrey Hunter, two years following his definitive performance as The Christ in Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings" should now play a role so bereft of the human element proves to be an intriguing choice of casting. With his deep crystal blue eyes now shrouded in somber black and white, he is a stark contrast to the opalescent Vera Miles, herself just two years past the searching sister role she assumed for Alfred Hitchcock's celebrated 1960 "Psycho." Here, viewers have been forewarned "Don't look behind you," for truly none who dwell in this academic community are as they might seem.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Celebrating Lucifer After His Fall: Betty Andrews' Marvelous "The Ben Engel Story"

Clu Gulager in the performance of his career, a striking "diable au corps," in Betty Andrews' most unusual celebration of a Mephistopheles, an episode of the very long-running (1957-1965) "Wagon Train," first airing March 16, 1964, via ABC.
written by Betty Andrews; directed by Joseph Pevney; photographed under the direction of Lionel Lindon; sets designed by Howard Johnson
Principal Players: John McIntire as Scoutmaster Christopher Hale; Robert Fuller as Scout Cooper Smith; John Doucette as Ben Engel; Clu Gulager as Harry Diel; Katherine Crawford as Evie (Mrs. Harry) Diel; Darby Hinton as Benjy Diel
Whatever influenced Betty Andrews to write "The Ben Engel Story" must have rivaled the "tears and blood" of Eugene O'Neill's plays of pure hellfire and thunder.
As a new passenger aboard Christopher Hale's (John McIntire) wagon train west, the darkly handsome but somewhat debilitated Civil War veteran, believed to have been a hero, Harry Diel (Clu Gulager) immediately impresses most all the ladies on board, drawn to his exotic glimpses, but who leaves much of the male population with thoroughly differing perceptions. Stories begin circulating concerning what the menfolk find to be Diel's general wantonness and unholy aptitude with poker, and when such a game culminates with Diel's shooting a rival with what an onlooker is fully prepared to testify was an act of deliberate cold-blood, there are those who advocate a quick lynching. In steps the taciturn, middle-aged Ben Engel (John Doucette) who in gentlemanly fashion begins to plead on behalf of Harry who, reports Ben, is a man to whom he cannot owe enough. But scout Cooper Smith (Robert Fuller) imparts to Mr. Hale that during the war Diel was notorious, and was said to have "thought about killing the way that some men think about women." Hale then comments that in Scotland, from whence Harry came, "Diel" is the word for Devil. A passerby comments on the Diel gait: "Did he always limp? Lucifer was said to have had a limp after his Fall."
In a flashback, Ben Engel then relates the story of how he came to know Harry Diel. An incorrigible youth who had once attempted to stab and rob Ben of his money, Ben nevertheless took pity on the youth, for if sentenced to a penitentiary what, then, would become of Diel's expectant wife Evie (Katherine Crawford)? The judge is unconvinced by Engel's Samaritan plea, but because the over-aged Engel had received an induction notice for service in the Union Army, the judge arranges for Diel to serve in place of Engel. The judge warns, "He looks like an angel, but not all angels stayed in heaven, Ben."
Diel returns from the war, his bloody notoriety preceding him, to Engel's home, where he finds his wife Evie and their four year-old son (Darby Hinton) whom his wife has named Benjy after their benefactor, doing well indeed under Ben's guidance. Yet Diel toys with the affections of his wife and needlessly, ostentatiously, gambols with his son, so as to impress upon Ben, if only by implication, that his heretofore surrogate fatherhood lacks the physical agility of a man in the springtime of his youth. Ben cannot help noting the fact that Harry seems not to have aged at all; that, just the opposite of the lot of war-scarred downtrodden veterans, Harry seems to have come from the war more robust than ever. When Harry learns that Ben now intends to return to him his family for his youthful keeping, as Ben intends to travel West, Harry crudely remarks that if the war has been debilitating to him at all (his limp remains, but from a small child Harry is believed never to have been without it), then surely Ben's mental anguish on the home front means that he too must be looked after by Harry. Accordingly, Engel, Diel, Evie and Benjy all board Hale's wagon train and the flashback concludes.
Evie, beautiful, patient, steadfast in her loyalty both to her husband and to Ben, fits well the image of her archetype, the pristine (that is to say, before given to the temptation) Eve. She bears up to her husband's acerbic commentaries on her freedom from him for four years, tucked away in the status of Ben's middle-class morality. Looking into their reflection in a mirror, he lasciviously eyes both his wife's and then narcissistically his own image. Evie says to her husband, "You just use people until there's nothing left"; then, "When will I ever look into a mirror and not see you?"
Diel then limps back to the camp, where before a much interested audience, but in the absence of his wife and Ben, he calumniates that he did not know of his wife's pregnancy when he left her for the war; that Benjy was born "about a year" after Evie had been safely in Ben's keeping and himself far from home. He further suggests that he was made to substitute for Ben for precisely that implied purpose--Ben making Evie his own and that Ben (what if not a coward after all?)--had also found a way out of his army conscription. The women gasp; the men listening hang down their heads in disgust and suddenly the completely unaware Engel finds himself proscribed from company with the wagon train.
Feeling himself triumphant in the ruin of the heretofore esteemed Engel, he seeks him and Evie out in seclusion and delivers, in a Satanic, simpering confidence, during which perhaps he has reverted at last into an earthly manifestation of Satan himself, his ultimatum: that Evie will remain in Ben's keeping, but that they must surrender his son to him to be brought up in the very moral depravity which his wife and former benefactor know him to be capable of. Then Diel will have conquered, both by achieving turpitude in his son and thereby having control over Ben. "What makes you think I'll do all these things?," inquires Ben. And Diel answers: "Because you've begun to doubt your motives, Ben, because I have you off-balance and now you're ready for The Fall." Ben asks: "Why do you want Benjy?" And Diel responds: "With him in my hands I can maneuver you from any distance. Because you'll be thinking if you do everything I ask, maybe someday you can get the boy back before I've begun to--sully his soul. My lever. Give me a lever and I can lift the world!"
Alone before Ben he adds: "If I weren't in such a hurry I'd like you to fight a little. You almost take the enjoyment out of it." But Ben produces a pistol. And Diel, shocked for perhaps the first time, in wild disbelief, objects "But you can't kill me That's my way. That won't be an answer for you, Ben. You're on the side of life." But Ben pulls the trigger, point blank into Diel's heart, and a consternated Diel falls genuflect, then prostrate, lifeless on the ground.
In itself, Betty Andrews' teleplay would have been thought-provoking but not exceptional. What gives "The Ben Engel Story" its power is its collective energy, a major source being the performance of Gulager himself, displaying the best acting of his career. For the most part attired in an elegant corduroy chaqueta, his dark hair groomed backward, he poses a striking "diable au corps"; his simpering stare, hoarse Scottish accent, protracted limp additionally augmenting his grand malevolence. It is an actor's field day and Gulager soars.
Under Joseph Pevney's meticulous direction, every Satanic eccentricity is magnified, from Diel's sibilant laugh to his inverted glances in and out of Evie's mirror. The drama is so bizarre that we are forced to suspend our disbelief, so wildly out of the mold of any of the 226 one-hour storylines preceding it in the "Wagon Train" series, or indeed any of the other thirty-one ninety-minute "Wagon Train" storylines following, that it stands as a sort of compelling sigil.
Bathed in the blues of Lionel Lindon's sharp photography and framed in the spare but decorous Howard Johnson sets, "The Ben Engel Story" actually celebrates its Mephistopheles, who even in death is triumphant because it is the yet calumniated Ben who must bear the responsibility of Diel's killing. "The Ben Engel Story" is not a masterpiece, but is a particularly glittering small gem in the vast wasteland of situational television, and fully merits its inclusion here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thriller of the Decade: Robert Bloch's Most Chilling of Teleplays: "The Grim Reaper"

Above: Host Boris Karloff against painter Henri Rodin's cursed portrait of "The Grim Reaper," also the title of the decade's most chilling teleplay by "Psycho"'s Robert Bloch, adapted from the engimatic and doubtless pseudonymous Harold Lawlor's short story, as stunningly directed by Herschel Daugherty and hauntingly scored by Jerry Goldsmith, airing as part of the NBC anthology "Thriller" on June 13, 1961. A generally superior collection of dark parables, "Thriller" bears the production stamp of live drama veteran Hubbell Robinson. Below, the prolific William Shatner, himself a veteran of live teledrama from at least 1956, some six years before he became immortalized as Captain James T. Kirk of NBC's very cultish "Star Trek," and several decades before his turn as an irascible associate in "Boston Legal," as well as being both the image and voice of "Price Line" commercials, was at the absolute top of his form as a would-be con artist done in by "The Grim Reaper," concerning whose cursed portrait he dramatically expatiates upon before a captive audience.

"The Grim Reaper," adapted by Robert Bloch from the short story by Harold Lawlor; directed by Herschel Daugherty; produced by Hubbell Robinson; music by Jerry Goldsmith; an episode of the NBC anthology "Thriller," first airing June 13, 1961.

The Cast: Natalie Shaefer as mystery writer Beatrice Graves; William Shatner as her accountant nephew Paul; Scott Merrill as fortune hunter and Mrs. Graves' current husband Gerald Keller; Elizabeth Allen as her personal secretary Dorothy Linden; Henry Daniell as Henri Rodin's father in the France of 1848; Fifi D'Orsay as the concierge in the France of 1848; Paul Newlan as the police sergeant.

From NBC's 1960-1962 superior suspense anthology "Thriller," produced by Hubbell Robinson, whose series evokes fond memories of well-staged dramaturgy in the live video era, came this unnerving tale of daemonic possession and supernatural revenge.

Opening somewhere in France in 1848, the presumably mad painter of Stygian figures Henri Rodin has been found dead by his father (Henry Daniell) and the concierge (Fifi D'Orsay), hanging from a noose dropped from the ceiling of his cheap flat. Before his lifeless form, supported by an easel, stands Rodin's just completed masterpiece, a ghastly representation of "The Grim Reaper," with a skull head, enrobed in black, swinging a sharply pointed scythe from around his left shoulder. "What could have made him hang himself?," wonders openly the grieving father. But his question has been perhaps already answered by the concierge when she remarks "His work is evil--what Rodin paints is monsters. He works at night in a graveyard. His last model was a corpse!"

The time now shifts to the present (1961), as the portrait of The Grim Reaper has been purchase by the eccentric mystery writer Beatrice Graves (Natalie Shaefer), as an additional set piece for her Hollywood situated Gothic mansion, complete with chauffeur-driven hearse. Coming to visit is Beatrice's nephew Paul (William Shatner), an accountant who, by his own admission, manages to "get along." Noting the bizarre decor, he asks "Who designed this place, Charles Addams?" She answers "This is show biz," and explains that the home is now referred to as "Graves' End." Paul is soon introduced to Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill), the television actor/gigolo turned Mrs. Graves' fifth husband, and to Dorothy Lindon (Elizabeth Allen), the punctual, smartly dressed cool beauty who is Mrs. Graves' personal secretary. It becomes apparent to Paul that Ms. Lindon has more than once rejected the advances of the recently married Keller, a fact which Mrs. Graves professes to be fully cognizant of, manifesting equanimity, but now drinking heavily nevertheless.

Paul explains to his hosts the nature of his visit being not a social call but rather as the bringer of a very serious warning as regards the recently acquired portrait of The Grim Reaper. Posed before Henri Rodin's always menacing "masterpiece," hanging prominently in the library, Paul proceeds to relate for his captive audience the long history of fatality which invariably accompanies ownership of "The Grim Reaper." Paul cautions "Apparently you don't know the history of the picture. According to the record this picture was painted in 1848. It has had seventeen owners; fifteen have met with a violent or mysterious death." When Mrs. Graves explains that she purchased the painting for precisely that reason--the publicity surrounding the alleged curse, which she merely discounts as a series of natural accidents, Paul interjects, "Then how do you explain the stigmata?" For the painting, Paul continues, does indeed bleed: "Who knows what went on in Henri Rodin's twisted mind when he painted this nightmare? But one thing we do know is that fifteen of the people who owned this painting met with a sudden, unexpected, violent death--and each was warned. They say this is The Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death, and he gives a warning. See the scythe he carries? Whenever anyone is about to die, the scythe he carries..."

But his narrative is interrupted, for as Paul turns to point to the scythe in the portrait, he recoils as his fingertips come away, dripping with blood.

Once the shocked listeners have gained their composure, Mrs. Graves reaffirms her resolve to be unaffected by this "curse," stigmata and all. She has not, however, gained her equilibrium, and further lapses into the temporary comfort of inebriation. Later, seated solitarily before the portrait, Mrs. Graves is approached by her nephew, who again implores her to rid herself of the ghastly image, be it curse or no. She reveals to him full knowledge of her newest husband's duplicity, and while that has caused her much grief, the portrait has not, for she is unafraid of "death...just a business partner." Now rather rudely dismissed, Paul retires, but is awakened well into the night by a distraught Dorothy, who summons him to the balcony. At the foot of the stairs lies the obviously lifeless Mrs. Graves, evidently having plunged headlong to a fatal fall.

A cursory inquest under the auspices of a local police sergeant (Paul Newlan) concludes that the victim met with "accidental death." A reading of the will reveals that husband Gerald has been left Mrs. Graves' sole heir. Of the ominous portrait of The Grim Reaper, the exiting sergeant comments, "I could swear that the eyes were working," though the Reaper's face is but a skull. In Paul's room afterwards, wanting sleeping pills, Gerald confesses "I haven't closed my eyes since Bea died." Paul then reveals that there never was blood on the Reaper's scythe, only on his own fingers. "Dear Aunt Bea, so selfish, so rich..." Paul thus conveys his elaborate plot to acquire his aunt's fortune. Gerald remaining the only obstacle in the way of Paul himself becoming beneficiary, Paul has tricked him into signing a confession by which Gerald admits to having engineered the death of Mrs. Graves. Paul then reveals that the sleeping pills contained lethal poison, which will leave authorities to conclude that a remorseful husband merely took his own life. A disbelieving Gerald quickly succumbs.

A second inquest goes according to Paul's plans, and Gerald is judged to be both killer and self-inflicted victim. Alone before the portrait of The Grim Reaper, a gloating Paul imagines that the Reaper's skull assumes first the face of his Aunt Bea, then that of Gerald. Finding his bearings, he quickly makes his way to his bedroom to pack, intending to depart forthwith, but hears a determined knocking at the front door. The visitor is the returning Dorothy, who prompts that they quickly incinerate the portrait: "From the moment I heard about Gerald, I knew what had to be done." Paul, however, who has found himself attracted to Dorothy, and hopes to make her his accomplice, interjects: "Nothing has to be done. I've taken care of it all! There's no curse. I made it up to frighten them all. It doesn't really bleed."

Jolted by this admission, Dorothy recoils, whereupon Paul grasps her at the neck in an attempt to make her comprehend. To free herself, however, she performs a ruse by crying out "The portrait--the arm, its moving!" Paul turns toward the portrait abruptly and she makes her way through the library doors, bolting them after her. Trapped therein, Paul scans the room in pursuit of an alternate exit and again glances toward the portrait, which he now notices is bereft of The Grim Reaper itself. Petrified, he again peruses the library and his eyes focus on a fixed point. The obvious swinging to and fro of a scythe is heard as he backs his way toward the bolted doors, his face and breathing mixing shock and anticipation. At the doors he drops downward, out of camera view, as a final swish indicates that the scythe has found its destination.

Soon afterwards, Dorothy has returned with the authorities. Pushing back open the library doors, the sergeant look upon the recumbent Paul, whose throat has been lacerated. "Good Lord!," the sergeant remarks, "What kind of a weapon could have done that?" Dorothy now examines the portrait: "The picture! Look at the picture!" And there, just before them, The Grim Reaper again stands in its frame, blood dripping from his menacing scythe.

Robert Bloch based this, his most chilling of teleplays, on a short story by the obscure pulp fiction writer Harold Lawlor. An immeasurable contribution is the use of string instruments, by which composer Jerry Goldsmith has augmented the pervading sense of doom. The portrait itself is a haunting component, as compelling as was the heroine's suspended likeness in "Laura" (1945), a classic work of cinema whose chiaroscuro seems to have much influenced "The Grim Reaper"'s director Herschel Daugherty.

Below, a series of frames from Robert Bloch's remarkable teleplay. First, a captive audience consisting of fortune hunter Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill), current husband of wealthy eccentric mystery writer Beatrice Graves (Natalie Shaefer, later of "Gilligan's Island" fame) and her personal secretary Dorothy Lindon (Elizabeth Allen), on the fabled cursed portrait of Henri Robin's "The Grim Reaper," as explained by Beatrice's scheming accountant nephew Paul (William Shatner), in the frame immediately following. Below these, Paul finally confesses to Dorothy that "There's no curse!," only to drive her from the room with the portrait, where she has bolted the door behind her. Glancing back at the portrait, Paul then notices to his horror that there is no Grim Reaper in the frame. Instead, it has descended, moving toward him, whirring forth its deadly scythe. In the final frame, Dorothy returns with authorities to discover that Paul lies dead, his neck violently ripped open, while The Grim Reaper has returned to its portrait, fulfilling the fabled curse, as its scythe drips blood once more.