BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

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The reputation of  Boris Karloff’s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’  top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.

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Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first,  the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001, it was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of  Tales Of The Unexplained From The Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.

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“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”

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As we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.

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“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): With marital discord between his parents (Frank Overton and Bethel Leslie), young Hank (Tommy Nolan) is overdosing on B-Westerns and William Tell while vacationing at a cabin. The potentially darker side of the imagination is explored, with young Hank transforming into a symbol for gun control. A slight improvement over the pilot episode, it’s surprisingly a stationary affair that could have used a dose of fantasizing.

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“Worse Than Murder” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Mel Goldberg) takes a turn for the worse. If television viewers of 1960 relied solely on first impressions, it’s relatively easy to see why “Thriller” failed to find its audience. This one’s about a murder motivated by love of dyed green paper. Constance Ford kicks into high gear as a scheming gold digger, but her acting is the only thing that thrills here. Otherwise, it’s pedestrian in both writing and direction.

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While the first three episodes are dull and conventional, “Mark Of The Hand” (directed by Paul Henried, Laszlo of Casablanca fame, and written by Eric Peters) may be the series at its lowest ebb. An eight year old (Terry Turnham) may or may not be guilty of murder. While that premise might have potential in better hands, this is a mystery devoid of mystery: predictable, campy, and a sluggish affair.

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“Rose’s Last Summer” (directed by Hiller and written by Marie Baumer) could be easily dismissed as a small screen ripoff of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or a lame warmup to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). It’s about the murder of an aging actress, which remarkably fails to generate even the slightest interest, despite starring one time Oscar winner Mary Astor.

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“The Guilty Men” (directed by Jules Bricken and written by John Vlahos) is a run of the mill crime melodrama starring Frank Silvera  as a mobster who is trying to go clean and… yawn. On the plus side,  Silvera’s campy acting is a hoot.

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With “The Purple Room” (written and directed by Douglas Heyes)  starring Rip Torn and the house from Psycho (1960), we finally have a genuine “Thriller.” It’s hardly original, having an old dark house plot, but there’s some fun to be had in the send-up of genre traditions and stereotypes. Karloff never resented being stereotyped, believing that it gifted him a career niche. Additionally, unlike many actors of his period Karloff, had no qualms embracing the small screen medium, and with new producer William Fry, the series takes advantage of its host’s screen persona none too soon.

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Duncan (Rip Torn) has inherited his sibling’s Bayou mansion, with the condition that he must live there for a year. However, as lawyer Ridgewater (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from TVs “Batman”) informs Duncan that, if he fails to do so, the mansion falls to scheming cousins Rachel and Oliver (Patricia Barry and Richard Anderson, who would later be known for rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man ). Naturally, as host Karloff warns us in the intro, the mansion has a little problem with ghosts. Being a pragmatist, Duncan isn’t worried in the least, and to prove it, he will spend the night in the Purple Room, where a murder took place one hundred years before. Shot in crisp black and white, this episode almost makes up for a lack of originality and uneven acting with atmosphere.

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“The Watcher” (directed by Jon Brahm and written by Donald Sanford) is serial killer Freitag (Martin Gabel) who is so good at dispensing with his victims and playing the role of religious zealot that local law enforcement (Alan Baxter) believes the deaths to be unrelated suicides. Freitas sets his sights on sinful lovers Larry and Beth (a pre-“Doctor Kildare” Richard Chamberlain and Olive Sturges) and attempts to convert them before he judges them. There’s a latent bit of same sex lusting in Freitag, but despite the peanut butter and jelly theme of religious hypocrisy, this somewhat grisly episode is an also-ran in the “Thriller” canon.

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“Girl With A Secret” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Beaumont) missteps back into the crime melodramas of the first six episodes, courtesy of producer Fletcher Markle. Newlywed Alice (Myrna Fahey) discovers that her husband Anthony (Rhodes Reason) is not who he says he is. The same goes for his “family.” It takes a deft hand to sell this kid of espionage nonsense, and Markle is no Hitchcock. Also starring Victor Buono.

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“The Prediction” (directed by Brahm and written by Sanford) stars Karloff himself as a phony psychic who begins to have death visions for real. A first season “ Adventures Of Superman” episode covered related ground, and did it in a more entertaining way. Karloff wrings pathos out of his role, which almost makes up for the contrived plot.

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“The Fatal Impulse” (directed by Gerald Mayer and written by Phillip MacDonald) features a superb cast, which includes Robert Lansing, Conrad Nagel, Elisha Cook Jr. and, briefly, a young Mary Tyler Moore. It’s another preposterous melodrama about a loony named Harry (Cook) who gets caught in an attempt to kill Mayor Wylie (Nagel). Not one to concede defeat, Harry plants incriminating evidence—a bomb–in the purse of an office worker, which brings in a bleak Lt. Rome (Lansing). This crime caper has a different producer in Maxwell Shane, and it helps considerably. There’s tension aplenty as Rome races to find the bomb before it is set to go off. The flavoring of this episode supersedes awkward writing. Mary plays a librarian named Mary.

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“The Big Blackout” (directed by Maurice Geraghty and written by Don Tracy) is an anonymous, dull episode about an alcoholic amnesiac named Burt (Jack Carson) who belatedly discovers he was involved in some shady business.

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“Knock Three One-Two” (directed by Herman Hoffman and written by John Kneubuhl) stars Beverly Garland as Ruth, the put-upon wife of gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross). Ray, having cried wolf one time too many, is not going to be bailed out this time by his wife, which inspires him to hire killer Benny (Warren Oates) to make him a widower. Garland steals the show, although there’s not much to steal in this episode of contrived irony.

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“Man In The Middle” (directed by Fletcher Markle and written by Howard Rodman) miscasts comedian Mort Sahl  in the dramatic role of Sam, who overhears Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer—son of conductor Otto and star of “Hogan’s Heroes”) plotting a murder. Reluctantly, Sam decides to try and thwart the thug’s evil plan. If the plot sounds hackneyed, that’s because it is. Series Producer Markle is also out of his element and bowed out for good after this entry.

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“The Cheaters” (directed by Brahm and scripted by Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch) is the first authentically “classic” episode, one worthy of the series’s cult reputation. It kicks off in an entirely different mood: rather than the usual Pete Rugolo jazz opening, producer William Frye brings in composer Jerry Goldsmith, who expertly shrieks and enhances the drama about to unfold. Former Karloff co-star Henry Daniell (from Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher) briefly appears as an inventor who puts on a pair of queer “cheaters” (sunglasses) and has a vision that leads him to hang himself before dawn. His failure to destroy the lethal eyewear proves unfortunate for the victims ahead, who include “A little old fashioned lady named Miriam Alcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, a nephew named Percy Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles, Sebastien Grimm played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot, and neither will you, my friends, because as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thrillah.”

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This time, Karloff’s lisp lingers, convincing us of goosebumps ahead. Inscribed in the “cheaters” is the name Veritas, the Roman goddess of Truth and, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the spectacles reveal the soul, shorn of pretense. In a cast of superlative performances, Paul Newlan is a standout as the junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Most fans and critics rank “The Cheaters” in the top five episodes and, for once, the consensus is spot on.

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THE PRISONER (1967-1968) EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

The Prisoner

The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan, is the model for cult television. It is an indirect sequel to a previous series, “Secret Agent” (AKA “Danger Man,” 1960-1962), which also starred McGoohan. By general consensus, “The Prisoner” ranks as one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction as a television genre. The consensus, for once, is probably accurate, because “The Prisoner” is far more than science fiction, dispensing with genre expectations. We could also describe it as being psychological, surreal, allegorical, existential, countercultural, satirical, Kafkaesque, psychedelic, nightmarish, absurdist, comic bookish, supernatural, born from the spy genre (in a far more interesting breed than 007), and enigmatic. It’s still enigmatic today, with enthusiasts and critics compelled to attempt to express its mystification in the absence of creator McGoohan, who steadfastly refused to ever explain it. Even its reputation is aptly enigmatic; it’s heard about more than actually seen. “The Prisoner” often causes polemical arguments among many who have seen it and debate the chronological order of its seventeen episodes. It was created smartly and contrary to our priorities and agendas regarding television. To many of us, the series should be ongoing. In its blueprint stage, the goal of “The Prisoner” was always to end, and yet in its (for us) brief run, McGoohan crafts a saga that feels narratively and aesthetically accomplished. Comparatively, many series, after being cancelled prematurely, will feel unfinished, cheating its dangling audience. At the other end of the spectrum, many ongoing series have trekked on well past the point of what should have been a well-developed beginning, middle, and satisfying climax. “The Prisoner” was originally intended to be even briefer, but was extended in order to ensure an American market. In hindsight, “The Prisoner” might even be seen as an advance metaphorical commentary on that puerile abomination known as reality television: elastically taunting and playing with our concepts of reality, daily humdrum, juxtapositional narrative, and cryptic completion.

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What we do know is the idea for “The Prisoner” sprang from McGoohan’s exhaustive workload on “Secret Agent.” In “The Arrival” (directed by Don Chaffey), its unnamed protagonist (McGoohan) quits the British Secret Service with no reason cited; but as we know, departing an intelligence position is hardly a done deal. Drugged and abducted by arcane forces, he  awakens …

Where Am I?

In the Village.

What Do You Want?

Information.

Whose Side Are You On?

That Would Be Telling. We Want Information.

You Won’t Get It.

By Hook, or By Crook, We Will.

Who Are You?

The New No. 2.

Who Is No. 1?

You Are No. 6.

I Am Not a Number, I Am a Free Man.

The Prisoner THE VILLAGE

As the Prisoner soon learns, the Village is a facade, seemingly populated by affable occupants, located on a remote island. And, as our protagonist will further discover, resistance is futile. Or so the Fascist state will try to convince him.

From this first episode, The Prisoner established its aggressive editing.  A series of village inquiries take the Prisoner nowhere. From the Green Dome, No.2 (Guy Doleman) invites the Prisoner to breakfast, which becomes an interrogation: “Why did you resign, No. 6?” The Prisoner is warned that he only has a short amount of time to cooperate before the information is extracted.

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After taking in the village, the Prisoner witnesses the fate of a fellow nonconformist who, upon trying to escape, is engulfed in an organic, white mass called the Rover. What is it? It is never explained, but its function is to capture and return potential escapees.

Undeterred, the Prisoner refuses to be identified by his number or fill out a questionnaire. He throws out the maid, and, in rage, destroys a radio, which continues playing music.

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After an encounter with the Rover, the Prisoner wakes up in the village hospital and is reunited with a former colleague named Cobb (Paul Eddington) who also talks of escape. However, that plan is put to an end with Cobb’s suicide by jumping out the window. At Cobb’s funeral, the Prisoner meets No.9, Cobb’s girlfriend (Virginia Maskell, who actually committed suicide shortly after filming on the series ended).

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Together, the Prisoner and No. 9 plot an escape via a helicopter, but with a new, more hostile No. 2 (George Baker) things are not as they seem: “Trust no one.” Even maps lie and villagers can take on multifarious incarnations. The end result is a hopelessly circular one.

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“The Arrival” stands as a well written, acted, directed and edited pilot, one of the most memorable in television. Yet, apart from the pilot, each episode can be a standalone (which renders arguments about its chronology as pointlessly silly).

In “The Chimes Of Big Ben” (again directed by Chaffey), a new No. 2 (Leo McKern) emphatically states that he does not want No. 6 broken into fragments. The Prisoner, on his end, awakens to the sound of an announcement for the Village Arts and Crafts Exhibition, which he responds to by placing the loudspeaker in the refrigerator.

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A new Number 8  (Nadia Gray) has arrived in the Village and is placed next door to No. 6. No. 2 is delighted to see that she and the Prisoner are hitting it offThe outcomes seems to be a softening of the Prisoner’s resolve. However, a sequence of  events, some of which utilizes the Crafts exhibition, lead to a daring escape attempt by both the Prisoner and No. 8. Fragments are indeed heartbreaking.

Both McKern and Gray are superb guest stars in this psychologically complex and entertaining episode. McKern is so good, he will be one of only two actors to reprise the ever-changing role of No. 2.

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In “A. B. and C. (directed by Pat Jackson, who also worked on “Secret Agent”) the new No. 2 (Colin Gordon) believes that the Prisoner’s defection was part of a plan to betray the agency. His belief is so steadfast that he subjects the Prisoner to a drug interrogation, performed by No. 14 (Sheila Allen, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Thus, the episode take us securely into the dream realm. The end result is surrealism-lover’s paradise, which does not mean (as is often the case with surrealism) emotional bankruptcy. At the heart of it is McGoohan, guiding us through a topsy turvy state where choices are never simple. This is a standout episode, which is saying a lot.

The Prisoner FREE FOR ALL

In “Free For All,” McGoohan steps in as both writer and director in this political manifesto in which the Prisoner chooses to run for office in the Village. The new and humorless No. 2 (esteemed character actor Eric Portman) assigns the Prisoner a maid, the non-English speaking No. 58 (Rachel Herbert).

Although the spy element is naturally retained, “Free For All” is more of a political parable (making it rather apt in this American election season, especially with delusional paranoia about fixed elections being bandied about). As a matter of fact, the Prisoner here could actually be in the predicament that a certain narcissistic candidate today likes to fancy himself in. Fortunately, the Prisoner is devoid of both demagoguery and rhetoric. He’s too inherently broken for that.

The Prisoner “The Schizoid Man”

Does 6 plus 6 really equal 12? So asks the aptly titled “The Schizoid Man” (directed by Pat Jackson). After a seemingly innocuous trifle about bonding with a psychic villager and a bruised thumb, the Prisoner lies down for a good night’s sleep, but it appears that the room night light has a faulty bulb.

Drugged once more, the Prisoner is taken by men in white coats who wheel him into the hospital, turn him into a southpaw (via electroshock, in a moment of karma for all us lefties who were at the mercy of brainwashing status quo teachers with rulers back in first grade), throw away his razors, and give him a new do.  After an indeterminate amount of time on the gurney, the Prisoner awakens with a new look in a new surrounding, as pawn of an elaborate scheme composed by the new No. 2 (Anton Rodgers), a surprisingly young administrator.

“You are Number 12,” the Prisoner is told at the Green Dome, “and you are to break Number 6.” “But I am Number 6.” And so he is, or at least his double is. And if you think that in addition to being an attempt at uncovering the reason for the Prisoner’s resignation, this is also a ploy to get him to own his number, you would be right.  See Number 12 fence with Number 6. See them box. See them duel with pistols.

Now actually, Number 6 is Number 12 , Number 12 is Number 6, and Number 12 is in cahoots with Number 2. Of course, No. 6 (12) knows this is a feeble scheme hatched by No. 2. Of course, No. 2 knows that No. 12 (6) knows that No. 6 (12) knows. But, what if No. 12 pretends to be No. 6? Perhaps then he could escape. And the helicopter circles back, as it always does. And the psychic is remorseful over having cooperated with No. 2, but neither she nor No. 2 counted on a bruised thumb. Ah!

The script for “The Schizoid Man” so impressed McGoohan  that he hired its writer, Terence Freely, to join the production company’s board of directors. In contrast, for years director Pat Jackson claimed to have been utterly confused by the script, but simply directed it as written. His confusion was an honest one and shows in one of the series most legendary episodes. McGoohan responds with a tour de force performance.

The Prisoner “The General”

Director Peter Graham Scott was reported to have been equally confused by the script for “The General.” Again, that turns out to be a plus (and undoubtedly an astute choice by McGoohan and company).

The Prisoner cannot even enjoy his coffee without Village trauma drama when he hears an announcement ordering history students to immediately return to their dwellings, which is followed by his witnessing the Professor being caught and manhandled (by his students) while attempting to escape.

The Village is obsessed with a new fad, Speed Learning: “Learn a three-year course in three minutes.” “It’s not impossible,” says No. 12. The Prisoner finds the Professor’s tape recorder, which has “information” that may prove damaging to the General and No. 2 (Colin Gordon, this time out). However, before he can listen to it, the Prisoner is forced to bury it and attend the very same history course subliminally taught by the Professor.

No. 2 actively searches for the tape recorder, which he believes is in the Prisoner’s possession. After finding no incriminating evidence, No.2, still convinced that No. 6 has it, hints at offering a ticket out of the Village.

After losing the tape recorder, and retrieving it via No. 12, the Prisoner hears the Professor’s message: “Speed learning is slavery,” and learns it is the General who is behind it all. Allies are hardly that, and this No. 2 underestimates the Prisoner’s cunning, as does the General who is asked an unanswerable question.

This episode is a chillingly contemporary one with commentary on mindless trends and shades of a Big Brother Fox Network appealing to and manipulating their sycophants.

The Prisoner “The General”

Gordon makes for a winningly effective No. 2 , who, along with Leo McKern, will be the only returning administrator to play the role.

McGoohan himself returns to direct “Many Happy Returns,” where he awakens quite alone. The Village is entirely deserted. Even the rover is missing. Apart from the Prisoner, the only sign of life is the No. 2’s black cat. Building a raft, he finally escapes and, after a tumultuous journey at sea, the Prisoner makes his way back to London.

The Prisoner “Many Happy Returns”

Sharing his incredible story, the Prisoner is accused of lying by his superiors, and that barbed wire fence he comes across isn’t just a prop. But, in the blink of an eye….

“Many Happy Returns” is often listed as an archetypal episode. Despite the multiple altercations, including a physical one at sea, this is a minimalist episode, sparse in actual dialogue.

The Prisoner “Dance Of The Dead”

“Dance Of The Dead” (directed by Don Chaffey), is, as its title indicates, is one of the bleakest episodes, with a female No. 2 (Mary Morris) who could probably give Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge a good run. She leads likeminded merciless, bloodthirsty women who the Prisoner will face, in a trial, after having found and stolen a transistor radio attached to a dead body. The ending is awash in harrowing despair, making this an episode that is often ranked as quintessential Prisoner.

The Prisoner “Dance Of The Dead”

Director Chaffee returns to helm “Checkmate,” and again shows a flair for suffocating gloom. This is one of the episodes whose chronology is debated, since it was actually filmed before the pilot. Regardless, in a human chess match played on the Village green, the Prisoner discovers a potentially useful ally in the Rook.  But, nonconformity necessitates therapy as this week’s No. 2 (Peter Wyngarde) is apt to remind us.

The Prisoner “Checkmate”

A distress signal, a pawn (brainwashed to fall in love with the Prisoner), would be rescuers, and guards who will be pawns are all symbols in this highly expressionistic episode that is one for connoisseurs.

The Prisoner “Hammer Into Anvil”

“Hammer Into Anvil” (directed by Pat Jackson) is an adrenaline rush tale of revenge against No. 2 (Patrick Cargill), whom the Prisoner blames for the suicide of No. 73. The revenge is psychological as the Prisoner searches for and finds flaws in his nemesis. It’s an episode of reversals as the Prisoner mercilessly begins his campaign to destroy No. 2. With the Prisoner slightly less sympathetic than before, our empathy for No. 2 rests on Cargill’s performance, which he succeeds in soliciting. Such shrewd emotional manipulation requires a degree of absurdity, which is bounced straight off a trampoline into a paradox of a finale. This is one of the most visceral and wily episodes that lingers well past its compact running time.

The Prisoner “It’s Your Funeral”

“It’s Your Funeral” (directed by Robert Asher) involves an assassination plot against the current No. 2 (Andre van Gyseghem) before a new No. 2 (busy and acclaimed character actor Darren Nesbit) steps in, although, he may or may not be be No. 2 after all.

The Prisoner’s preoccupation with freedom is relegated to the back burner as he and Monique  join forces to thwart the plot. Paranoia is the weapon of choice in a Village mutiny, but the lingering question lies with the mutiny itself: is it to be avoided or desired?

The Prisoner “A Change Of Mind”

 

“A Change Of Mind” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking,  in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.

The Prisoner “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”

“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.

On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly.  When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.

Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.

Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.

The Prisoner “Living in Harmony”

“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.

The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff in the town of Harmony, which has a corrupt judge (David Bauer as No. 2) and an upstart trigger-happy gunslinger, known as The Kid (energetically played by Alexis Kanner).  The Kid, of course, wants to challenge the Sheriff’s reputation. Every western genre cliche is tapped: from an unruly, hysterical mob, to a trial, to a brutal beating of the pacifistic protagonist. There’s even a Wyatt Earp-like call for gun control, a damsel-in-distress saloon girl for the Sheriff to protect, and a despicable murder, which forces a reluctant hero to put his guns back on. The real question, after a heterodox resurrection, is: “why did the sheriff resign?” The answer is hardly going to be located in acid-induced visions of cardboard cut-outs.

The Prisoner “The Girl Who Was Death”

“The Girl Who Was Death” (directed by David Tomblin) is yet another mind-boggling episode that plays silly putty with formula writing. We are taken away from the Village to (apparently) the Prisoner’s past as a “Secret Agent.” This episode is in full satire mode, with a femme fatale Lady Death (Justine Lord, looking like a prototype from the modish 60s) and her mad scientist father Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith, AKA No. 2) wanting to blow up London with his big rocket. Death could be a dominatrix villain straight out of Adam West’s “Batman” series (or any Fu Manchu plot): threatening our hero with spikes, trapping him in a room of exploding poisoned candles, and locking his head in a fish bowl.

The macho spy, detective, and serial genres are all mercilessly parodied, and references abound to Sherlock Holmes (McGoohan in comical mustache), “Mission Impossible,” “The Avengers,” and even the Prisoner’s predecessor “Danger Man.”  It’s delightfully corny and kinetically paced, like any good children’s action book should be.

The Prisoner %22Once Upon A Time%22

Leo McKern returns as No. 2 in “Once Upon A Time” (directed by Don Chaffey), which usually makes every fan’s top ten list. In addition to  pop/abstract editing and sumptuous visuals, one major reason for this episode’s broad acclaim is a tour de force performance from McKern (who reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown due to the role’s intensity). No. 2 has sworn to “Degree Absolute,” meaning that he will engage in a battle of wills, to the death, with No. 6. McGoohan also gives one of his most determined, sustained performances in this despair-laden entry.

Drugged again, the Prisoner finds himself regressed to a childlike state with an unwanted paternal figure in No. 2, who fatally discovers, through the seasons of life, defiance and resistance accompany knowledge in his contentious student. The cruel secrets and dark purpled heart of the Village lie dead on the floor in the Embryo Room.

The Prisoner %22Once Upon A Time%22

As the new No. 2, the Prisoner is finally asked:

“What do you desire?”

“Number One.”

The Prisoner “Fallout”

Aptly, the two-part “Fallout” (directed by McGoohan) is a “Looney Tunes” finale that, in hindsight, couldn’t have been anything else, which is why it was nominated for a Hugo award. A tying up of loose ends or satisfying narrative conclusion would have rendered the entire series hypocritical. Fortunately, McGoohan is too vital an artist to solicit any kind of applause for the ending.

For the last time, we are subjected to the opening ritualized credits, but the Prisoner has evolved. He is no longer even No. 2. He is a cool-toned rugged individual. McGoohan throws in the allegorical kitchen sink with his Prisoner facing the temptation to become the Village idol.  As a simian No. 1 is blasted into outer space, the previous No. 6, with the resurrected Kid from “Living in Harmony” (Kanner) and No. 2 (McKern) rumba to “Dem Dry Bones.”  It’s a final image that ingeniously provokes even its most rabid fan base: paradoxically of its time and relentlessly contemporary.

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN STARRING GEORGE REEVES: SEASON 3 -6 EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

SUPERMAN WEEK

Under Kellogg’s sponsorship, the second season of The Adventures Of Superman began steering away from its adult audience. By the third season, the show was aimed almost solely at the pubescent. It was also shot in color, which made it an expensive production with less money allocated for actors or professional writers.  Oddly, it was only aired in black and white, not having its color premier for another decade. In this, Kellogg’s was ahead of its time, realizing that color, being inevitable, would assure the series a long syndication run.

%22Superman's Wife%22 Joi Lansing

With the third season,this is an entirely different series than the first two and, with few exceptions, it’s a dreadful affair. The series’ decline continued until its final, sixth season. Although officially cancelled, The Adventures Of Superman had been picked up for a seventh season with star George Reeves coming in as director (he had helmed three, late episodes in season six) and, reportedly, more money was going to be spent on better scripts. However, Reeves’ premature death put an end to a series which began high and should have bowed out on a better note. Alas, like its star, it was not afforded a happy ending.

Superman George Reeves

The cast still has charisma, but even they can’t save the worst episodes, many of which are excruciating and virtually unwatchable. Still, The Adventures of Superman, with I Love Lucy was the longest running series of the fifties and maintained its popularity (with reruns) for another three decades in syndication, which is almost remarkable given that its lead, who had presented something of a super boy scout image, had in fact been ousted as quite the colorful character, engaged in a sordid affair when he was found dead, allegedly by his own hands.

The third season opens with the godawful Through The Time Barrier (dir. Harry Gerstad) and the Daily Planet staff (all four of them) being teleported to the Stone Age via Professor Twiddle (Sterling Holloway in his last series appearance). The look on Reeves’ face (in stills below) speaks volumes.

Adventures Of Superman Through The Time Barrier

Adventures Of Superman Through The Time Barrier

Adventures Of Superman Through The Time Barrier George Reeves, Sterling Holloway

The Talking Clue (Dir. Gerstad) is marginally better. It’s about a bank robber named Muscles McGurk and focuses primarily on Inspector Henderson. Shane enjoys the spotlight and our enjoyment factors primarily from his.

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THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN STARRING GEORGE REEVES: SEASON 1 EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVESADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

Today, few seem to pay mind to the artists, writers or creators of comic book characters. When as Indiana adolescents, Denny Stephens and I walked into Denny White’s comic book shop, we immediately knew -without looking at the credits, if a book was penciled by Jack Kirby, Frank Robbins, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko,  Mike Ploog, Curt Swan or Wayne Boring. In their place is a bland homogeneity permeating both the world of comics and the shops which market them. One book looks the same as the next, blending without seams, shorn of rough edges, entry points, atmosphere, originality, color, or inherent personality.One could say the same regarding the recent spat of films based on DC characters (not so with their television work, including animation where they rule their Marvel rivals. On the big screen, Marvel does it better).  While the 50s Television Superman was nowhere near as imaginative as stories being cranked out by Otto Binder in Superman Magazines, ( TV didn’t have the budget or, still in its infancy, the know how) the first season of The Adventures Of Superman has reached something of a silver age within itself.

George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, John Hamilton, Robert Shane, Tommy Carr and Lee Sholem each put an individual stamp on the characters and episodes; a personalized milieu and individuality that today is alien to an audience whose primary concern towards character tends toward biblical fidelity and adulation.

Phyllis Coates TV's first Lois Lane

actor Jack LarsonJohn Hamilton aka Perry WhiteRobert Shayne aka Inspector Henderson

For many, George Reeves remains the quintessential portrayal of Clark Kent and his alter ego, Superman. It’s not out of nostalgia or because he was the first actor to portray the pulp character. In fact, he wasn’t the first at all. That honor belongs to Kirk Alyn who starred in the serials: Superman (1948) and Atom Man VS. Superman (1950). Alyn, who interpreted Kent as a kind of bumbling Jimmy Stewart character, simply doesn’t inspire. That lack of inspiration isn’t just limited to the serial’s quality. Certainly, many of the later television and big screen incarnations were equally poor in writing and execution. Rather, it’s due to Alyn’s Kent, which set the blueprint for the later Christopher Reeve performance: Kent really isn’t Kent.He’s Superman and the newspaper paper reporter is just a caricatured facade.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

It’s hardly a secret that George Reeves had no love for playing a role that later actors would kill for. For Reeves, this was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Not only was he playing a little boy’s pulp comic book character who wore underwear outside of his pants, but he had been reduced to television. Like many actors of his time, including Alyn who had refused to repeat the role for TV, Reeves was suspicious of the new medium. It was called small screen for a reason, lacking the glamour of the big screen.

George Reeves as Tv's first SupermanClark Kent Nash-Healey

Earlier, Reeves’ career had been on a roll, having played the Tarleton twins in Gone With The Wind (1939) and a critically acclaimed starring role in So Proudly We Hail (1942) before being drafted into service for WWII.

Gone With The Wind George Reeves So Proudly We Hail George Reeves So Proudly We Hail George Reeves Claudette Colbert

So Proudly We Hail George Reeves Claudette Colbert

From Here To Eternity George Reeves Burt Lancaster

After returning from the Air Force, Reeves discovered he had been forgotten by studios. Adding to that woe was the unexpected death of the producer who had aided Reeves career. Still, known for his ability to quickly memorize dialogue, along with a rugged physique, Reeves landed roles in low-budget serials and features, which were rushed productions, and live television. Although he was successful on the small screen, the quality of scripts he was offered seemed to confirm his trepidations.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

In 1951, Studio executives and producers unanimously chose George Reeves for the starring role in Superman and The Mole Men, which was to be followed by one season of a television series. Producers saw something of the quintessential Superman/Kent in Reeves that neither the actor himself, nor post-Christopher Reeve audiences could see. Producers envisioned Reeves as embodying Kent/Superman as a barrel-chested father figure (he is closest to Wayne Boring’s Superman). As Whoopi Goldberg astutely observed in a documentary about the actor, “Reeves’ disappointment in not becoming the next Gary Cooper inspired him to put his all into Kent.” Reeves refused to play Kent as a slapstick idiot. His Superman is merely an extension, or an afterthought of Clark Kent. As two villains observed in one of the series’ episodes,”it’s not Superman we need to worry about, but Kent.” George Reeves’ aggressive Clark Kent was far more of a threat with type writer than Superman merely banging two heads together.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

This portrayal of Kent is matched by the writing of the first season. It’s not as well-matched in seasons 2-6 with Noel Neil’s Lois Lane and John Hamilton’s Perry White making occasional snide comments about Kent’s “being afraid of bullets or running to hide  from danger,”which we never see as Reeves’ portrayal of a toughened, fearless reporter remains consistent throughout the series run.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATES

Still, despite his enthusiasm for playing Kent, Reeves was told, and hoped, that the series would be shelved and forgotten. He seemed to get his wish when producers sat on that first season for two years, in an attempt to find a sponsor. That delay turned out to be a blessing for sponsors.

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN

By the time The Adventures of Superman beamed into 1953 living rooms, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been elected President and the country was swept up in a style of leadership that came to be known as Rockefeller Republicans. Reeves/Kent/Superman fit that mood like a glove. Reeves’ Kent/Superman has a genteel, patristic quality that no other actor has given the role (s). His type of conservative echoed Ike and the Webster definition of conservative as a moderate. Tradition was valued, but never at the expense of being bought by special interests (the NRA and religious right).

Superman gun control

Superman and the Mole Mn lobby card

Nor was the Eisenhower conservative prone to anti-government sentiments. Indeed, the idea of conservatives allying themselves with confederacy sentiments would have been unthinkable to an ideology still under the influence of its founding father figure, Abraham Lincoln. Of course, this was before Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats infiltrated and sabotaged the conservative American party. It was also before the appearance of radical right-wing Dixiecrat offspring who have rendered conservative and bigot as synonymous.

George Reeves AKA CLARK KENT

Indeed, in Superman And The Mole Men, Reeves’ Superman seems to symbolically echo mounting warnings of the threat in uneducated right-wing thugs dismantling an authentic conservative tradition.

Superman and the Mole Men news adSTARRING GEORGE REEVESSuperman and the Mole Men advertisementSuperman and the Mole Men advertisementSuperman and the Mole Men George Reeves Phyllis Coates

Nor would Reeves’ Kent be given to bigotry and homophobia. He proved an advocate for gun control  in Superman And The Mole Men, and, although hetero, his best pal was the gay Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson). It’s no wonder that Reeves’ Kent/Superman is indeed an alien to millennials who only identify conservative as extremist kooks.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATESthe mole-menGun control Superman style

Off-screen Reeves was a passionate drinker, known for his partying and decade-long affair with a mafioso’s wife. However, the actor took his role seriously enough to stop smoking and give Kent-like moral advice to the show’s pubescent audience. In this he had a model in William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, which is apt; Reeves’ Superman is more noir B Western cowboy than sci-fi character (and it probably is no coincidence that the series debut director was Tommy Car, who had previously helmed several episodes of Hopalong Cassidy and Dick Tracy). When finally released, the success of The Adventures Of Superman took everyone, including Reeves, by surprise and he immediately transitioned into mantling a public persona.

Suerman and the Mole Men lobby cardSUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES

superman and the mole-mensuperman and the mole menGeorge Reeves and Phyllis Coates in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)George Reeves and Phyllis Coates in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951).

The consensus, for once, is right in ranking the first season of The Adventures Of Superman as the best, being heavily inspired by the preceding noir radio show (with Bud Collier voicing Kent/Superman). There really never has been anything like it before or since. The second season has its gems, and some actually prefer its slicker sheen, but few of the episodes were well-written and set the stage for the lower, Kellogg’s sponsored, family friendly quality for later color seasons (many of which can compete with the ineptness of Ed Wood script writing).

Naturally, the special effects throughout are dated and sub par (the Mole Men ray gun is a decorated vacuum cleaner, Superman’s flight is executed by placing the actor on a glass table, etc). Seen today, it becomes clear that the enduring legacy of The Adventures Of Superman six seasons are primarily due to Reeves’ performance.

Reporter Lois Lane Phyllis Coates

Additional standout performances include Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane (still, the yardstick measure of both characters). The Lois Lane of Noel Neil, from seasons 2-6, was uneven, through no fault of the actress. In contrast to Coates’ brassy portrayal, Neill gave Lane a charming perky, petite quality, but was often reduced to June Cleaver-like decor. It’s a testament to Reeves’ that he responded well to both actresses. His chemistry with Larson, and at the opposite end, Robert Shayne (as Inspector Henderson) was equally winning.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES

Special effects always date and, in a few years, it’s a given that Man Of Steel (2013), like Superman (1978) will look antiquated. Unfortunately, Snyder’s film neither has a good narrative, nor a charismatic lead performance to ground it, such as in Superman II (1980). Although in slight defense of actor Henry Cavill, the Kent of Man of Steel, like Dean Cain’s Kent from the TV series Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, proves more influenced by George Reeves’ portrayal, rather than Christopher Reeve’s.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATES

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN PHYLLIS COATES

 The Adventures Of Superman actually premiered in theaters with Superman And The Mole Men. Dispensing of a pointless mythology-making origin, it gets straight to the action and is far more a testament to the Clark Kent/Superman character than its predecessors (the dual serials) or offspring. Here, Kent is pure 50s Americana. A tough, but genteel defender who inherently knows that “Truth, Justice, And The American Way” means justice and civil liberties for all, including the minority, misfits, and outsiders.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN PHYLLIS CAOTES GEORGE REEVES

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