Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Great TV Episodes: Knife In The Darkness

A television western may seem like the last place a horror fan would go for spooky thrills, but producers of the 1960s TV series CIMARRON STRIP were certainly thinking outside the box when they mounted the episode "Knife in the Darkness," which aired on CBS the night of January 25, 1968.

First, some background. CIMARRON STRIP was a co-production of CBS Television and actor Stuart Whitman, who landed the leading role of Marshal Jim Crown, who was based in bustling Cimarron City, Oklahoma and patrolled a strip of country that stretched all the way to Kansas. CIMARRON STRIP was unusual in that it was, like NBC's hit western THE VIRGINIAN, a weekly 90-minute dramatic series, which allowed the writers to explore more complex stories, provided talented guest stars (such as Joseph Cotten, Robert Duvall, Warren Oates and Tuesday Weld) with a larger canvas on which to express themselves, and lavished extra money and time upon the crew to provide uncommonly fulsome production values. In fact, it has been reported that the series' excessive budget helped lead to its cancellation after one season and 23 episodes. Perhaps airing against hits like DANIEL BOONE on NBC and BATMAN, THE FLYING NUN and BEWITCHED on ABC didn't help either.

Emphatically declaring CIMARRON STRIP's status as a small-screen epic was its opening titles. As Whitman galloped across a calico California desert, the camera swooped past him horse-high and up high into the clouds, while Maurice Jarre's sweeping theme heralded a production of some prestige. It's one of the finest credit sequences in television.

Back to "Knife in the Darkness," which is an unusually horror-themed episode for a TV western. Harlan Ellison, who has since become a renowned author of fantasy-oriented books and stories, wrote it, and journeyman Charles Rondeau directed it. Rondeau, although he did direct shows of no little style, such as MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE WILD WILD WEST in his career, was not suited for Ellison's dark, moody story, and it is said that the writer deplored the flat, clumsy look that Rondeau brought to the episode.

Whereas producer Douglas Benton (THRILLER) and executive producer Philip Leacock (HAWAII FIVE-0) erred in using Rondeau, they positively shone in their selection of the great Bernard Herrmann to compose and conduct the "Knife" score. Herrmann had a glorious history with CBS on shows like TWILIGHT ZONE and RAWHIDE, but the favorite composer of Alfred Hitchcock's last television turn was this episode of CIMARRON STRIP. Evocative and atmospheric as hell, Herrmann helps provide "Knife" with a chill factor sadly lacking in Rondeau's direction.

Ellison's central conceit was a tried-and-true one, even in 1967 (when the episode was produced), and it had, oddly enough, been presented on an episode of STAR TREK ("Wolf in the Fold") that aired one month prior to "Knife." The idea was to take Jack the Ripper out of England and transport him to the United States, and a series set in 1888 was in the perfect position to run with Ellison's story.

Taking place over a single night, "Knife in the Darkness" opens with the bloody murder of a prostitute named Josie (Jennifer Billingsley), who had just instigated a slight brawl between a couple of cowboys at a dance. Shortly after Marshal Crown (Whitman) begins running down his long list of suspects, another prostitute is slashed to death: Maddie (Victoria Shaw), an old friend of Crown's.

Tensions run high in Cimarron, as people are either afraid to go out, causing the saloons to close early, or anxious to impulsively suspect their neighbors, which leads to the tragic lynching of an Indian (Ron Soble) at the hands of some drunken cowboys. Although "Knife" is structured as a mystery, Ellison introduces too many suspects who are underdeveloped, and Crown doesn't think much like a detective. Rondeau tries to soup up his setbound show with light and fog effects that don't compensate for the bloodless tone (of the three victims, only one is killed on-camera).

One of Crown's interviewees is a Brit named Tipton (Patrick Horgan), who believes the Cimarron slasher to be a serial killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper, who killed seven women in London before apparently leaving town the month before. Tipton believes he has followed Jack to America—from New York to Philadelphia, Kansas City and now Cimarron City. Crown finds Tipton's theory too bizarre to believe, and he has no shortage of native-born suspects, including gambler Kallman (Philip Carey), knife salesman (!) Pettigrew (Don Hamner) and soft-spoken intellectual Shelton (Tom Skerritt).

Ellison's touch is pronouncedly felt at the climax, which preserves some mystery as to the Ripper's identity and mixes in elements of Native American mysticism. Yeah, it plays somewhat like a cheat, considering the previously straightforward storytelling common to episodic television, but I think it's an effective way to end the show.

Although lacking in the location shooting CIMARRON STRIP was known for, "Knife" doesn't lack for star power. In addition to familiar TV faces then (Carey) and now (Skerritt), the show boasts a fine turn by Jeanne Cooper (THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS) as a worried madam, David Canary (later on BONANZA and currently still on ALL MY CHILDREN), George Murdock, Joe E. Tata and STAR TREK yeoman Grace Lee Whitney. Outside of the busy Whitman, the series featured a small cast of supporting regulars, including the lovely Jill Townsend as a naïve innkeeper and Percy Herbert as an outspoken Scotsman, but they consistently paled alongside the more impressive guests.

CIMARRON STRIP has been airing weekly on Encore Western for some time now, so if your cable or satellite provider offers the channel, keep an eye out for "Knife in the Darkness," which is flawed, to be sure, but still an unusual and effective way to pass 74 minutes.


James Reasoner said...

I didn't watch many episodes of CIMARRON STRIP, but I remember seeing this one.

Anonymous said...

All you had to say was Stuart Whitman. Me-ow!