February 28, 2020

WITHOUT WARNING! (1952)



This seventy-seven-minute Allart Productions film-noir perhaps oddly falls into the unknown realm though the year offered little, if any, exciting crime films. It seems sandwiched neatly between larger budget crime films from the prior and following year. From a story and script by William Raynor, the film does not break any new ground but Adam Williams's sensitive performance will not disappoint. Most often in supporting roles, we witness his talent as he embodies his character's subtle mood shifts. He is first-rate. Do not pay much attention to the routine, dated police procedural segments and lab work. Focus on the camera work by Joseph Biroc, the editing by Arthur Nadel and the powerful score by Herschel Burke Gilbert. The film was directed by Arnold Laven and shot in a semi-documentary style with voice-over narration in “Dragnet” fashion. There are many elemental details to this fine film but it stumbles over a weak conclusion.

Williams is handsomely creepy as an unassuming, polite independent gardener. His living quarters add a visual to his pathetic existence—a small, run-down house in a rural neighborhood overlooking the distant City of Angels. Few would peg him as a serial killer, but his guilt is no surprise to the moviegoer from the opening scene. He returns exhausted with the startling realization of what he has done, yet a gentle grin emerges for its success. And he is compelled to do it all over again. On his belt hangs a leather sheath containing garden shears. He gives a literal meaning to the term, “backstabber.” Each month another blonde female is found with the killer's same modus operandi. The emotionally scarred paranoiac kills, according to a police psychiatrist, in retribution for his unfaithful, equally blonde wife. I can understand his anger over his wife’s infidelity, but to become a serial killer because of this suggests his psychological issues may have been simmering since childhood.

The killer has been very careful to cover evidence of his crimes. In that opening scene, he rips his suit coat and plans to drop it off for a Taylor to mend. As the next customer in line, the panic on his face indicates he knows a piece of his coat was left behind in the motel room. He exits and returns home to incinerate the coat and his blood-stained shirt in his cast-iron stove. The guy is running out of clothes on a monthly basis. But mistakes accumulate. Tying the clues together falls on the shoulders of Edward Binns, the police detective in charge. I thought his character was a bit nonchalant, almost smirking because he thinks the murderer will be caught in short order because his department is just that good. But he is no closer to solving the crimes after three weeks of investigation.


Some effective camera work is revealed through a shaky “hand-held” effect as it follows Williams wandering the streets at night, looking for his next “wife” to kill in a seedy part of town. Dressed in the only suit that comes with a pair of garden shears, he connects with his next victim, Angela Stevens, in Sears. No. In a bar. With the same possible outcome after arranging a blind date through social media, she instantly cozies up in her car with him for a night she will not remember. The following morning Williams exits the car, appearing almost sick to his stomach. Two motorcycle cops spot the car parked illegally under a freeway overpass and investigate. In a panic, Williams gets back to the car with the officer asking what is wrong with “that dead lady.” He is asked to get out of the car but the officer gets clobbered. Williams takes his gun and later wounds the other officer in pursuit, dumping the revolver beside an overpass. Williams has played his hand at this point and it is only about thirty minutes into the film.

After jumping off the back of a delivery truck, not too inconspicuously he sprints on foot between rows of commercial loading docks, knocking over crates and dodging trucks. Mostly shot from an elevated position, Gilbert’s score is especially effective with a jazzy solo piano frantically playing as Williams tries to create distance from the freeway. I have always been impressed with actors of this period who are scripted to run at full speed in slick-soled leather dress shoes on concrete. Of course, unless you were playing a sport, it is what every man wore.


To entrap the murderer, blonde-haired—bleached or otherwise—undercover policewomen are sent to the streets to notice anyone fitting the killer’s tell-tale pattern of behavior. Preferably before it is too late. Williams connects with one female officer (above) who is not particularly cool with the pressure of undercover work. The officer assigned for her protection does not know how to tail a suspect undetected, either. They are heading to the beach but he catches her nervously looking into the rearview mirror and suspects a setup. Deviously smiling, he keeps driving up a winding road while never answering her persistent questions. She is wondering how the beach is accessible at such a high elevation. He stops. She exits to find only a cliff in front of her. In a clever bit of scripting, he pretends he is an honorable guy and tells her she can walk home from where they are, throwing her suspicions a curve. He drives to a spot where he can see her enter the tailing detective’s car. Williams confidently smiles.


Williams purchased the sharpest shears in Orange County from a local greenhouse. The owner's daughter, co-star Meg Randall, is temporarily helping her father's business. “Creepy McWilliams” cannot help but stare. She has blonde hair. Randall becomes his next potential “dead wife.” The ending frustratingly and implausibly drags on, nearly ruining the intelligence of the film prior to this point. In addition, his final attempted murder of Randall goes against the serial killer’s pattern that was established earlier. Nevertheless, Binns and his partner, Harlan Warde, arrive to find only a little neighbor girl standing by Williams' house. It is apparent Binns does not have children of his own as he attempts to bribe her with clichéd child communication. He even offers her a stick of gum, which she smartly declines, coming from a stranger. It is a little awkward. The reason for the interaction at all is simply for the girl to glance in the direction of Williams crouching outdoors behind a discarded bookshelf, slightly off the property, with Randall. This also explains why Randall has not yet kicked Williams and let out a scream prior to that glance. Perhaps hoping Williams would make a move, Binns and partner start to drive away. Randall finally breaks free and yells for help. As Williams begins to apply his shears, they are no match for six bullets. He was such a nice young man. Viewers only care about his fate so the film ends instantly, focused on Williams’ dormant face.

Note: This United Artists release is highly recommended, yet certainly not perfect. An unscripted filmed section, with voice-over only, is pretty ridiculous as Williams’ unsolved crimes become so famously exciting, people are confessing left and right for the notoriety. Among others volunteering for incarceration is an elderly woman crocheting in the police department then a man on the street pleading to be arrested. Perhaps an attempt for laughs but it certainly has no relevance in the film. Humor is redeemed during a scene in the police lab. Byron Kane, playing a dry-witted police chemist, pours a white powder and then a dark liquid into a large Retort flask. He offers some to a detective who drinks it without hesitation. Kane, in a bit of lab humor, makes coffee in a lab beaker.


February 21, 2020

BIG TOWN SCANDAL (1948)



This fifty-eight-minute Pine-Thomas Production for Medallion Pictures Corporation was released by Paramount Pictures. With three films in 1947, this is the last of four based on the long-running radio drama series, “Big Town,” and garnered a revised title when premiered on television. All four entries starred Philip Reed and Hillary Brooke, as the newspaper’s editor and reporter, respectively. This was not filmed in the early Forties then held back for release. But it looks like it. It moves along well enough but it is an outdated view of juveniles and how basketball was played. You will also witness some of the most unbelievable back-screen in-car footage since the Keystone Cops. This final entry, with its highly improbable ending, addresses juveniles who have found themselves on the cul-de-sac of life's road.



Brooke volunteers Reed to take custody of the boys. He balks initially but an organized team sport might provide needed discipline for the kids. Fortunately, Reed is an avid basketball player and coaching is his assignment. Volunteers convert the second floor of a dormant building into a gym of sorts. During the initial practice, Brooke provides a surely dated commentary about Reed wearing a sweater. It went beyond my understanding. Maybe men did not typically wear a sweater without a shirt underneath. Perhaps a crew neck sweater was a major faux pas when coaching or a sweater was only meant for female pinups. Reed is unable to hear Brooke’s off-the-cuff remarks yet she is within earshot of two colleagues. She teasingly says, “Nothing like a sweater to bring out the ham in a man, is there?” One colleague replies, staring in space, all dreamy-like, “I wouldn’t know. My wife never wears it.”


Twenty-two year-old Stanley Clements is some sort of a teenager and the savvy leader of the “wayward five.” The group is arrested for the theft at a sporting goods store with skewered intentions for starting a team sport on their own, figuring no one would notice the brand new equipment. Some notable actors in the gang are Darryl Hickman, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Tommy Bond—the first Jimmy Olsen from the “Superman” serials—and the lesser-known Roland Dupree. Given any gang's use of slang, Bond's nickname among the other four is “dum-dum.” No cruelty intended. The birth defect was commonly referred to then as “deaf and dumb.” Deaf as in the inability to hear but not dumb as in stupid. Simply the inability to speak, as in “struck dumb.” Bond regularly plays basketball using hand signals with the other team members. Hats off to the screenwriter or producer for including such a character and making him a positive character in the film. He provides a benefit after the championship game, too.



Clements has big town dreams of owning expensive things after his basketball rehab and generally going astray. He has a history with a gangster, played by John Phillips. He entices Clements into stealing furs stored in the garage below the gym. Savvy Clements wants a cut of the profits. After his cut is actually cut, he wants to part company with Phillips. Not that easy. However, if he throws some games, he will receive kickbacks for his lack of effort.

With the championship game on the line, Clements ignores the gangster’s threats and wins the game in the closing second with a one-handed thrust while falling to the court. Right after taking a bullet for the team. Somehow. From a seated position and a gun under an overcoat on his lap, one might wonder how the gangster could possibly hit anything smaller than a milk truck. The shot only wounds Clements. Ironically, his team is named the “Big Shots.”

Note: Perhaps no single element dates this film more than on the basketball court. A faint shadow of today’s fast-paced, aggressive play. These play-actors are not professionals, of course, but it casts a light on the average neighborhood play. Layups are the scoring shots. Free throws are done with both hands in underhanded “bucket shot” form. No one attempts to block an opponent or attempt to steal the ball, perhaps taking the seventh commandment too literally.

February 14, 2020

Hollywood has produced many excellent character and lead actors or actresses who never accumulated a lot of mileage in films but turned in respectable performances. With the advent of television, a common occurrence was their transition to the new medium, often becoming familiar faces in homes across America. These periodic entries offer my insight into the performer and their television transition.



FORGOTTEN FILMS AND TELEVISION TRANSITIONS
Dane Clark: Bernard Zanville (1912-98)


Dane Clark was a popular American character actor during the Forties, more often than not playing ubiquitous characters thrust into confrontation or engulfed in dangerous situations on either side of the law. Audiences identified with him and supported his spirited characters. It was a quick and brief skyrocket to fame during his first ten years in movies yet he spent nearly thirty on television. A 1946 movie magazine named him the most stylish actor in Hollywood.

Being cast as the average guy was what Clark wanted all along. It gave him the chance to portray people the way they really are, not as a romantic idol. As a contract player for Warner Bros., he gained fame in supporting roles in significant films like Wake Island (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), and God is My Co-pilot (1945). For the forgettable, In Never Trust a Gambler (1951), he played a small-time paranoid gambler followed by a significant lead role as Abe Saperstein, the man who organized the Harlem Globetrotters in, Go Man Go (1954). One might have seen him as the lead in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 99 River Street (1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), or Picnic (1955) except that Clark never screen-tested for those roles for which he was considered.

His versatile television career accelerated by way of a number of anthology series in the likes of The Philip Morris Playhouse (1954) or General Electric (1955). These “mini-movies” benefited from his polarizing characterizations. He garnered a regular role in the series, Justice (1954) and was one of the three lead roles on, Wire Service (1956). He was hitting his stride on the small screen with appearances in numerous popular series like The Twilight Zone (1961), The Untouchables (1962), or Ben Casey (1964). His role on Mannix (1970), brought him into the next decade with a recurring role on The New Perry Mason (1973) as Lt. Tragg, and a lead in the mini-series, Once an Eagle (1976). He had seven different roles in Police Story (1975). His final acting roles were two appearances on Murder, She Wrote (1984).

Note: Clark was born in Brooklyn, New York City, where he graduated from Cornell University and later earned a law degree from St. John's University School of Law in Queens, New York. In hindsight, one might consider, that with his “average” good looks, handsome smile and scrapping persona, the 5’ 10” Clark would be an in-demand actor of the 21st century.


February 7, 2020

MADONNA OF THE DESERT (1948)


This sixty-minute Republic Pictures release will go by harmlessly. Directed by George Blair of Republic's western fame, the film is a modern tale of the west. Do not expect a riveting film. Screenwriter, Albert DeMond included a few clichés for those expecting them in a story that centers around a mobster and an ivory Madonna statue. Though inanimate objects do not possess any power, man-made creations have become symbols of hope for many. Such is the case for one lead actor in the desert of Southern California. Rarely has ivory been so beneficial.

Sheldon “Nick” Leonard learns about a priceless statue from his inside man working as an antique swindler...er...dealer, who is also a master at creating exact replica statues. Leonard is pretty much the bookends of this film, hardly seen in the sentimental middle section. Speaking of clichés, it is pretty funny when Leonard calmly chastises his female operative, Lynne “Legs” Roberts, about the importance of doing a caper well. Standing over her, with quintessential gangster mannerisms he grabs his shirt sleeve cuffs with his forefinger and thumb under his suit coat and tugs on each sleeve as his shoulders rise up on every poignant word.


Don “Joe” Castle, half Rory Calhoun, half Robert Taylor, is the owner of a renaissance Madonna statue that has been handed down for generations. He believes it has powers to protect anyone who believes in it. Indeed, the power to heal. It also brings good fortune, sort of like Buddha without the belly rubbing. Helping out on the plantation farm is Paul Hurst, a skeptical, experienced farmhand who quickly sizes up any visitor. He has some of the best lines in the film, usually with spot-on character assessments with humorous results.

Leonard makes the drive up in his Lincoln convertible in hopes of buying the Madonna. Apparently, with no one home, he discovers an unlocked door so he decides to make off with the statue. Castle and Hurst return to find Leonard standing in the back doorway. The shifty mobster instantly becomes an interested “art collector” who was checking its jewels in the daylight. Hurst does not believe that one, either. Leonard admires Castle’s faith in the statue. Hurst acerbically fires back at Leonard, 'Joe has the faith. I have a club!' Accepting that the statue is not for sale, Leonard graciously leaves. Castle tells his farm hand he seems like a nice guy. Hurst responds, 'Eh, that guy could give lessons to an eel.'

If the statue cannot be bought, then Leonard is not above stealing it. After meeting mild-mannered Castle, he thinks it should be an easy operation for Roberts’, whose assignment will be to befriend Castle and make an exchange of the real statue with a fake one. Leonard tells her that he is one of those 'corny golden rule guys' who probably have never met a real woman in his life. She arrives at the farm on foot after prearranged car trouble, dressed down and less demanding than in her first scene. If she is not successful, Leonard will not let her 'play in his yard anymore.' Which is a lot more menacing than it reads, verbally coming from him.


The Madonna has been loaned to an Italian wedding couple for good luck. Castle takes Roberts there to see the statue and for him to honor the family. When she attempts to make the switch, the candles surrounding the altar to Madonna catches her sleeve on fire. Despite her screams, she shows no after-effects of being even slightly burned. Those in attendance thank Madonna. Roberts thanks her flame-retardant dress. Yet she wonders about that statue. Castle astutely notices a conflict in Roberts’ behavior after her burn notice. She is, in fact, having second thoughts about stealing the statue. In a bit of misguided script logic, Castle tells her, 'Only good people have conflicts. The bad ones aren’t bothered by anything.' He tells her not to worry, he has a dress back at the farmhouse. Never mind your Twenty-First Century thinking. It was his mother’s dress. So it gets worse for Roberts.


Donald Barry, a recent ex-con who used to work for Leonard, also finds out about the statue. He figures Leonard is responsible for his five-year vacation at San Quentin. Stealing the statue under his nose would be sweet revenge. After a brief script disappearance, he returns as the new hired hand on Castle’s farm. Roberts, wanting to be able to play in Leonard’s yard, digs a hole in Castle’s yard in about seven seconds—with her bare hands—and buries the Madonna. Perhaps concerned about ruining her nails yet there is no dirt under them. Another miracle. The switch is made and once inside the house, Barry absconds with the fake. As script luck would have it, Leonard passes him on the road then forces Barry to stop, demanding the statue. Leonard recognizes the fake, then the Madonna “flies” toward Barry’s head, knocking him down an embankment. Not finding his car keys that Leonard threw over the cliff, Barry grabs his gun and walks back to the farm. It is dark by the time he arrives to witness a fight between Castle and Leonard's stunt doubles. Barry wounds Leonard then shoots him twice 'where it hurts.' Amazingly, Leonard gets off one final shot in retaliation. For all its protective powers, Madonna did not help Leonard or Barry. Help thou my unbelief.


Note: Castle mentions returning from the war as a cripple with mental turmoil. He chose to believe the statue healed him. The cross that Christ died on was simply a wooden device of punishment and death. It has no power in and of itself despite what Hollywood and Bram Stoker would want you to believe. Likewise, in the 1953 movie, “The Robe,” it was Caligula, among many others, who thought Jesus’ robe explained the miracles he performed. But human logic habitually wants to overrule simple truths.

January 31, 2020

JOHNNY COOL (1963)



A surprising box office success, this one-hundred-three-minute film, distributed by United Artists and directed by Elizabeth Montgomery’s husband at the time, William Asher, has some believability issues and its mix of comedic and criminal elements simply lessens the impact of contract assassins. Borderline tongue and cheek. Light years away from the wallop two years earlier by, “Blast of Silence.” Asher, however, does a fine job with pacing and lending authenticity with location shooting. The film’s violence is not visually brutal even by early Sixties' standards. Still, Asher effectively gets the point across and may have set a new trend for assassins without a moral conscience. Helping sell that point is Henry Silva’s definitive, smirking performance. A Billy May jazz score also provides the right amount of kick when needed. It could be argued Silva did for contract killers what James Coburn did for spies with his Derek Flint character.

Silva is in the early stages of his typecast career—he was even intimidating as a mobster in the Jerry Lewis comedy, “Cinderfella.” Silva’s emotionally detached persona advanced the type, to a higher violent quotient by the late Twentieth Century. At certain angles or lighting, his facial structure may appear as though he had reconstructive surgery after a serious face plant. A face he will eventually mature into. His eyes seemingly lack any iris's, just giant pupils.


Marc Lawrence is riveting in his opening scene, thanks to years of portraying movie gangsters. As Johnny Colini, an exiled American gangster living in Sicily, he has bigger plans for Silva than the local contract killer he has become. A look-alike is killed in Silva’s place so Lawrence can reinvent him for the American market as the oxymoron “cultured assassin.” He wants Silva to eliminatetake outeach former associate living across the pond. Lawrence has equipped him with a detailed history of all things underworld. Silva 2.0 has memorized it all, removed his Sicilian “costume” beard, and takes the name of Lawrence’s character, eventually gaining a modified moniker in the process, the film’s title. After establishing himself in New York City, his next “take out order” sends him to Las Vegas.

Elizabeth Montgomery is believable in an emotionally difficult, roller-coaster role. Witnessing Silva easily dispense with an obnoxious bar patron in a nightclub, she is instantly attracted to the button-eyed Silva in the worst way. Her boredom is quelled by his mysterious aura. This guy’s persona overpowers all her discernment. Danger is always teasingly attractive to Hollywood.


Silva infiltrates a Vegas crap game with no real relevance to the plot, only providing the aforementioned levity. Sammy Davis, Jr. wears an eye patch similar to the one he used for a while after his 1954 injury. Though long-since fitted with a glass eye, he uses the patch here as a comedic prop. He has a knack for rolling winning numbers. After a few winning rolls in a row, his nervousness demands he lift his eye patch—albeit with Silva holding a gun to his headjust to make sure he is still using the same die. Another Vegas heritage connection, comedian Joey Bishop, takes an amusing turn as a fast-talking Los Angeles used car shyster who prevents Montgomery getting a word in edgewise during her purchase.

Then there is a “filler” scene with a Vegas tour bus driver. The local police are looking for a suspicious passenger, perhaps lined up outside his bus. Silva, who already “confessed” his religious views against gambling to the driver, is in a flowery tourist shirt with three cameras around his neck. Looking down the line, the police are convinced by the bus driver that Silva could not possibly be wanted for anything. Just look at him. A guy in line with a cowboy hat is bragging to Silva about the money he won, exclaiming, “Boy I murdered ‘em!” He asks how Silva did and he blandly replies, “I did all right.” It is the cowboy who gets yanked out of line.

Finishing with a bit of unintentional amusement are scenes involving FBI agent Douglas Henderson with only one tinted eye-glass lens. We have already seen Davis with an eye patch. Now, this. Even if it was caused by natural lighting or reflection, it is strange enough, obvious enough, that the director would ultimately have the character not use eye-glasses or re-position the lighting or camera position. Within the same scene, there is another agent with some scripted lines. I found his delivery uncomfortably funny. His low register monotone with smirking clinched jaw delivery, suggests he may have intended to steal the scene, in hopes for a future lead role.

Silva systematically checks off his to-do list. Jim Backus is an unethical contractor, whose day is cut permanently short. Perhaps as an inside joke, he manages to do his popular Mr. Magoo character laugh after one off-screen exit. John McGiver can play silly or ruthless. He is the latter, here, as a casino owner with limited dialogue once Silva arrives. McGiver's confidence man is the then-popular comedic pundit, Mort Saul. In typical comatose acting form, he actually has a purpose in the film by calmly informing Silva that Lawrence is using him like he was used. Murder's delivery boy. Unemotional Saul is aware he faces eternity at the hands of an embarrassed Silva.


Silva and Montgomery are off to Los Angeles where she learns his background, which does not phase her much. In “trial by fire” she unwittingly becomes the getaway driver for Silva’s latest hit on an oil baron, Brad Dexter. With her convertible automobile idling atop an overlook above Dexter’s backyard pool, she hears an explosion then she and her windshield become spotted with chlorine water in a rather creepy detail. In somewhat of a panic she drives away attempting to process Silva's detailed instructions about doing ordinary things until her time comes to reconnect with him back in New York City. She goes to a hair salon and pulling curbside, it is clear she has issues with parallel parking. Upon exiting the salon, she notices a patrol officer looking over her 1962 Ford parked at a fifty-five-degree angle from the curb. Guessing “what would Johnny do,” she abandons the poorly parked car. This is a big error. She will never know the officer was only giving her a ticket for an expired parking meter. A second officer hits pay dirt, though, by discovering fragmented pieces in the car's interior, typically used in a homemade bomb. Evidence that is a turning point in Silva’s future.

Silva's killing efficiency may be hard to believe but he is also an expert con artist. Posing as a photo-journalist on assignment, he uses a motorized outdoor window washing system to inch his way up to the upper floor skyscraper office of Telly Savalas, a New York mobster. What would otherwise be a comedic parody scene, Savalas turns to see Silva’s head slowly rises outside his skyscraper window. As surprising as this is, the only thing concerning him is the rifle pointed his direction. One-shot not captured by Silva's camera.


Montgomery finally has a reality check while ensconced in Newport Beach. Though still disturbingly attracted to Silva, she realizes he is a despicable human, especially after learning Dexter’s two children were poolside, potentially killing them. His location is revealed and the east coast “brotherhood” puts Silva in a straight jacket then explains in very specific details how his life will slowly and painfully end. Not so cool, Johnny.

Note: James Van Heusen wrote a nearly incoherent title song as if Sammy Davis Jr.—totally without blame—was making up the song on the spot in an attempt to fit in with the orchestra. A song that seemingly could never be duplicated the same way twice. A perpetual motion tune with rambling lyrics by, sorry to say, Sammy Cahn, who seems to have written too many words for Van Heusen's given notes. Were they ever in the same room together?

January 24, 2020

MAN WITH A CAMERA (1958)



FILM BRAKE: A FORGOTTEN TV SERIES

This black and white thirty-minute ABC network crime series centered around a celebrated World War II combat photographer, now a nationally famous freelancer working out of New York City. In reality, Desilu Studios in California. He is also well-known among his peers. Except that he had none. This man handled a space heater sized press camera with its huge flash dish like few others could. He had fists of iron and an uncompromising persona. He had the latest spy cameras and always had the correct film for any lighting situation. He could change flashbulbs in a mere two seconds no matter how hot they were. His prints were to die for. Surely an entertaining premise where the lead character unwittingly “develops” into a freelance private detective.

Various Hollywood writers were used but most of the twenty-nine episodes were directed by either Paul Landres or Gerald Mayer. The action-packed jazz theme was by television's groundbreaking composer, Herschel Burke Gilbert. The series was a veritable “who’s who” of B-movie and television guest stars, many of whom would garner fame in their own right on the small screen. In his one and only leading television role, Charles Bronson is Mike Kovac, the envy or bane of all photojournalists.


Bronson’s voice-over introduced or periodically addressed his assignments and their potential dangers. Adding authenticity, he might provide technical details about a particular, high-tech camera to explain how it got that perfect shot. He drove a Ford station wagon equipped with a phone and a portable lab to develop prints on location. Though not much could be done with those prints without sending with a “wire service.” Expect to see the lean and toned Bronson sans shirt, sometimes with boxing gloves. Whether assisting newspapers, insurance companies, the police, private individuals or clicking where he is unwelcome, taking photos can be life-threatening. Of course, Kovac had a connection with a police lieutenant who more often than not followed the cameraman's lead.

A nice touch was scripting in a father for Kovac. For seven episodes, his immigrant father was played by Ludwig Stossel who owned his own photo business. “Pop” was the photo genius and his son would seek out his photographic or assignment advice. There was good chemistry between them and it would have been nice to have these two interact in more episodes. It was difficult to make this happen as Kovac was not always in New York City and the series' short run gave little opportunity.

As the series progressed, Kovac was increasingly sent undercover, sometimes on foreign soil—stock footage inserted to sell the idea. He usually felt inadequate for these complex assignments, arguing that someone more qualified should handle it. But he is always persuaded, knowing full-well Kovac is up to the job. If you are going deep cover, get yourself a photographer. The show began losing its identity, morphing into another in a long line of private detective shows. In part, due to hiding spy cameras inside a portable radio, a cigarette lighter or even his necktie. That nifty Ford station wagon was essentially garaged as well.

This Friday prime-time show with its initial uniqueness, plenty of action and a captivating performance by Bronson, was sandwiched between “Walt Disney Presents” and “77 Sunset Strip.” One could not ask for a better time slot. For its second season, ABC switched it to the graveyard shift, the last prime-time show on the dreaded Monday night schedule. The move, coupled with some routine or lame scripts, had a “negative” effect and its second season was cut short. I wonder if ABC knew what to do with a guy like Bronson.


With the exception of Bronson devotees, the show resides in unknown territory. The complete series is available on DVD with a great cover image and type layout on the packaging. Following in Steve McQueen’s footsteps, Bronson soon found his niche and became a superstar in action films. Almost always a man with a gun.

January 17, 2020

EXPERIMENT ALCATRAZ (1950)



The best news about this film is that it makes good use of only fifty-seven minutes. Distributed by RKO Pictures, it was directed by Edward “B-movie” Cahn who turns out a good one with a small budget and a low-tier cast. Orville Hampton wrote the screenplay with Irving Gertz's score used appropriately. Voice-over narration gives a sense of an exposé documentary, but the medical research in this film is merely hypothetical. Hopeful thinking of the era to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In keeping with an RKO trend, location titles are superimposed over the given background footage so no viewer gets lost. With my design background, the angled title lettering in the opening frames seems awkward. The wording appears angled for a purpose but it does not match the same angled view of the bridge. Just close enough to appear as an oversight in editing. But I digress.


Equal-billed John Howard, doing a respectable job here, plays the doctor who discovers a serum that may cure for a fatal blood disease. Death is an alternate outcome. Leading and supporting actor, Robert Shayne, had an unmistakable vocal tone as if talking through a hollow plastic box. A wound tight mellow sound. His perpetual smirk here will immediately suggest he is up to no good. He is one of several Alcatraz prisoners to go free if they volunteer to take part in the Navy's experimental research. A notorious racketeer, Shayne appears to go insane after his injection of a radioactive isotope, stabbing and killing his prison pal lying in the nearby bed with a pair of scissors lifted from a Navy Lieutenant, Joan Dixon. It reflects badly on her assumed negligence and the Navy removes her from the immediately canceled experimental program.


Dixon’s untrained vocal delivery sounds periodically like she is pretending to be a bad actress in a classic movie spoof. Her occasional “heavy” eyelids appear to be lacking a proper night’s rest. Dixon's short B-movie career was in the hands of Howard Hughes at RKO who had hoped to mold her into a star. She was attractive enough, with a face that blends Gene Tierney and Elizabeth Taylor, according to my current eyeglass prescription. Her most famous role coming a year later in the more famous, “Roadblock.”


Howard knows from repeated tests, the reaction of the serum with the isotope actually dulls the person’s emotions, not excite them to violence. He sets out to prove Shayne, who has since returned to his racketeering, is a murderer. Back in his formal wear, Shayne is quite smug about his chances of being booked for murder. To deter his investigations, Howard is pummeled repeatedly by Shayne’s muscle. The balance of the film reveals why Shayne would kill his prison pal. Not exactly an original idea, it involves the pal’s wife. Though Howard never witnesses “The End” by the end, his research is reinstated by the Navy and I assume Dixon gets her job back.

Note: Real-life Navy veteran, John Howard, became one of the first screen actors committing to the new field of television. He formed a friendship with Fred MacMurray and was a frequent guest star on his Sixties television show, playing his boss. Howard transitioned into the field of specialized education, teaching English for more than twenty years.