Friday, September 30, 2011

Sudden Deth

TRANCERS 5 was filmed in Bucharest at the same time as TRANCERS 4, so director David Nutter (ENTOURAGE) and the whole cast return to continue writer Peter David’s (OBLIVION) storyline.

Still trapped in the parallel world of Orpheus, Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) learns of the existence of a gem called the Tiamond, which will allow him to return home to 24th century Los Angeles. To get the Tiamond, however, he must venture into the Castle of Unrelenting Terror, where he faces vampires, zombies, gorgeous women, his own evil doppelganger (!), and Lord Caliban (Clabe Hartley), the trancer leader whom Deth destroyed (or so we thought) in TRANCERS 4.

Executive producer Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment pictures tended to fit into a tight formula, and TRANCERS 5 is no exceptions. Among the rules were that each film shoot as little original footage as possible. Take out opening and closing credits and flashbacks to TRANCERS 4, and TRANCERS 5 runs barely an hour. Nutter manages to squeeze a good amount of swordplay and adventure into the scant running time, though Band’s tiny budget doesn’t allow for anything too elaborate.

As usual, Thomerson is the best and maybe the only reason to watch this TRANCERS picture. During the nine years he portrayed Jack Deth, he created one of Full Moon’s most enduring heroes—as quick with a quip as he was with his fists.

Band underestimated the importance of Deth’s supporting players to the TRANCERS franchise, however. Not only do TRANCERS 4 and 5 sorely miss the colorful characters that surrounded Deth’s earlier adventures, such as Biff Manard’s laidback baseball pitcher Hap Ashby, Art LeFleur’s hardnosed cop McNulty, and, of course, Helen Hunt’s Lena, the last two sequels also cheaped out in their casting, using unfamiliar and less skilled players to bounce off Thomerson.

TRANCERS 5 was, basically, the last Jack Deth movie, possibly because of diminishing audience interest, but more likely due to Full Moon’s money problems. A TRANCERS 6 was released in 2002, written by TRANCERS III writer/director C. Courtney Joyner, but it’s an amateurish abomination and should be ignored (Tim Thomerson was not involved).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jack Of Swords

Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) gets medieval on trancers—literally—in this time-tripping adventure that turns our favorite trancer hunter into Robin Hood.

TRANCERS 4 was filmed in Romania back-to-back with TRANCERS 5 by David Nutter, a very good director with a knack for helming successful television pilots (MILLENNIUM and THE MENTALIST among them), from a screenplay by comic book scribe Peter David. The story ignores the doorway to Deth’s new adventures created by TRANCERS III writer/director C. Courtney Joyner in favor of one that could be cheaply lensed overseas.

If nothing else, TRANCERS 4 is a decent try at breathing new life into the series with brighter photography and different trancers. Maybe David and Nutter wanted to make a vampire movie instead of a TRANCERS movie and decided to mix genres? An accident traps Deth in a parallel world called Orpheus, where swords and sorcery reign and Deth’s futuristic gadgetry is useless (no more 10-second watch!). Orpheus is ruled by Caliban (Clabe Hartley), the leader of a kingdom of parasitic trancers who feed like vampires upon the lifeforce of innocent peasants.

Deth is now a Van Helsing type, teaming up with a band of rebels called “tunnel rats” to stop Caliban’s evil reign. Of course, he also rescues two beautiful innocents: slave girl Lyra (Stacie Randall) and feisty rebel Shaleen (Terri Ivens). One thing about Jack Deth: he may get older from film to film, but his love interests always get younger.

Shooting in Romania provided Nutter with plenty of production value in the shape of castles, forests, and rolling hills that is a refreshing change of pace from the dirty alleys and cardboard sets of the previous films. Without Helen Hunt, Telma Hopkins, or any other actors from the first three TRANCERSes aboard to help out (except for a cameoing Stephen Macht, back as Jack’s supervisor Harris), Thomerson has to carry the ball alone. He wears Jack Deth like Deth wears that ratty raincoat, providing a nice balance of humor, fisticuffs, and tough-as-nails banter. Deth isn’t nearly as smart or as tough as he thinks he is, which is fun to watch, because Thomerson is careful to toe the line and not make Deth into a joke.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Jack Deth Lives

Full Moon Entertainment honcho Charles Band, who directed the first two entries, turned the TRANCERS franchise over to writer C. Courtney Joyner (CLASS OF 1999), who made his directorial debut on TRANCERS III. It sends future cop Jack Deth (Full Moon regular Tim Thomerson, also in DOLLMAN and BAD CHANNELS, among others) leaping into two new time periods, as well as 1992, where his marriage to Lena (MAD ABOUT YOU star Helen Hunt making a gracious cameo) is in a rough patch.

A super-strong android with a shark’s head, imaginatively named Shark (R.A. Mihailoff), arrives in 1992 Los Angeles to kidnap Deth, now a struggling private eye, and take him back to his old time period in the 24th century. He finds his other wife Alice (Megan Ward), lone surviving councilman Harris (Stephen Macht), and doctor Ruthie (Telma Hopkins) fighting—and losing—a bloody war against a new, more powerful breed of trancers. Harris then sends Jack back to 2005 to destroy the new trancers at their origin.

Andrew Robinson (DIRTY HARRY) is deliriously weird as Colonel Muthah, whose grotesque military experiments are transforming soldiers into trancers to do his bidding. Helping Deth defeat Muthah’s troops and destroy his organization are Shark and renegade trancer R.J. Garrett (Melanie Smith), who’s ready to rebel against her master Muthah.

Thomerson’s new brush cut and Joyner’s more fluid camera give TRANCERS III a healthy new look for producer Albert Band. Joyner’s screenplay develops its villain better than previous films did, and thankfully he has an actor in the role eager to run with it. The seductively loony Robinson is a great match for Thomerson’s tongue-in-cheek macho. Both have a way of making bad dialogue sound good, and their performances, as well as the cameos by other TRANCERS family members, are the film’s highlight.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Boxoffice: September 3, 1973


Future Cop Is Back

TRANCERS II is the first of four direct-to-video TRANCERS sequels produced by Full Moon Entertainment. It’s set six years after the original film—fitting, since it was also produced six years after TRANCERS. It has a great exploitation cast, but it also gives them little to do, and Jackson Barr’s screenplay is a real mess. The first act is a geyser of exposition that overwhelms the viewer with information about the characters’ backstories and the machinations involved in 23rd century time travel (which is a lot more needlessly complicated than it was in Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo’s script for TRANCERS).

Dr. E.D. Wardo (Richard Lynch), the brother of the evil cult leader Whistler killed by future cop Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) in TRANCERS, is kidnapping homeless people and mental patients, bringing them back to his ecologically minded Green World clinic, and turning them into trancers to use in his army to take over the world. Deth’s old supervisor McNulty (Art LeFleur) comes “down the line” in the body of his 15-year-old ancestor (Alyson Croft) to give Jack his new assignment—and to warn him that Alice (Megan Ward, star of Band’s CRASH AND BURN), Jack’s late wife, will be joining him on this trancer hunt.

As you can imagine, Jack’s present wife Lena (Helen Hunt) isn’t too thrilled about Alice’s appearance, and recovering alcoholic ex-baseball star Hap Ashby (Bill Manard), whose descendent is 23rd century L.A.’s last surviving council member, has fallen off the wagon in fear of again becoming a target for trancers. Band’s penchant for casting pretty but stiff young actresses like Croft and Ward put a damper in their scenes with the more experienced Thomerson, but genre fans will enjoy seeing Barbara Crampton (FROM BEYOND), Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR), Martine Beswicke (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE), and John Davis Chandler (PHANTASM III), even if they aren’t used particularly well.

If you don’t mind the massive story holes (to be fair, the much better TRANCERS has some too, but they’re more easily overlooked), TRANCERS II is worth a look for the cast alone. Band bumped up the rating from a PG-13 to an R with several juicy squibs, and he stages the climax’s low-wattage pyrotechnics well enough. An early success for Full Moon, TRANCERS II inspired a second sequel a year later.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dry Hair Is For Squids

Charles Band’s low-budget TRANCERS, released by his Empire Pictures in 1985, is one of the most imaginative science fiction films of a decade filled with very good and great ones. Much credit should go to debuting screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, who demonstrate a real knack for the genre and went on to write THE ROCKETEER and create THE FLASH for CBS.

Even considering the script, which manages to seem original despite being heavily influenced by THE TERMINATOR and BLADE RUNNER, the movie wouldn’t work without leading man Tim Thomerson. Known to this point as a comic actor and standup comedian, Thomerson graduated from wisecracking sidekick in Band’s METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN to tough-guy hero Jack Deth, a rebellious cop patrolling post-earthquake Los Angeles of the 23rd century. His obsession is destroying “trancers,” who are basically zombies created by nefarious cult leader Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), since a trancer killed his wife years earlier.

The three-man council that runs “Angel City” learns that Whistler, whom Deth thought to have killed, is still alive in the L.A. of 1985 with plans to kill their ancestors, which would crumble the city’s already shaky government. Deth is sent back to 1985, where he convinces pretty punker chick Lena (future Oscar winner Helen Hunt) to help him find Whistler and stop his plot.

Bilson and DeMeo’s method of time travel is clever. Instead of Deth being physically sent back in time, he is strapped down and chemicals are used to send him “down the line” to inhabit the body of one of his ancestors—a womanizing journalist named Phil Deth. The dialogue’s frequent use of creative futuristic vocabulary, such as “singeing” trancers and the reference to the weak-willed people who are easy prey for Whistler’s brainwashing as “squids,” adds to the film’s original atmosphere.

Thomerson is really terrific as Jack Deth, playing his trenchcoat-wearing noir cop with great humor and self-awareness (watch the way he bobs and struts to fit in with the rest of the dancers at a punk rock concert). With only 76 minutes to play with, Band has little time to establish relationships among the characters, so he relies on his talented cast to fill in the blanks. Hunt (MAD ABOUT YOU) displays instant romantic chemistry with Thomerson (though Lena buys Jack’s “future cop” story rather quickly), and Art LeFleur (THE SANTA CLAUSE 2) as Deth’s rival cop acts as though he’s been bickering with him forever.

TRANCERS was also theatrically released in some markets as FUTURE COP. Surprisingly, given his fondness for sequels, it took Band several years to produce a follow-up, probably because of Empire’s money troubles.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Man Behind The Mask

ITC’s ponderous retelling of the legendary story of Texas Ranger John Reid was in trouble right from the start.

First, the production company pursued an injunction against beloved TV Lone Ranger Clayton Moore that prohibited him from wearing a mask in public, which angered longtime fans.

Then, cast in the title role was a wooden unknown named Klinton Spilsbury, who not only got into a brawl during production, but was such a terrible actor that his part had to be totally redubbed by James Keach (THE LONG RIDERS).

One of the most notorious movie flops of the 1980s, THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER at least looks nice, as well it should, having been photographed by Laszlo Kovacs (EASY RIDER) and directed by Oscar-nominated cameraman William A. Fraker (HEAVEN CAN WAIT). On the other hand, Fraker’s stodgy direction moves the film along at a snail’s pace, and the shallow screenplay is the product of five writers, including CHARLIE’S ANGELS producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who clearly have no idea what people want to see in a Lone Ranger movie.

What people most want to see is the Lone Ranger. Sounds like an obvious point, but the masked man doesn’t appear until 56 minutes into the movie. That’s just ridiculous. Also in the bad decision department is the use of Merle Haggard as a narrator that tells us every six minutes exactly what we’re looking at. Haggard sings the wretched theme song penned by FAME’s Dean Pitchford and John Barry, who also composed the score (which is good).

It isn’t until LEGEND gets into its final half hour that a plot actually occurs. And it’s a good one, as nefarious bandit Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), the man responsible for the murder of the Lone Ranger’s brother, details a plan to hijack a train and kidnap President Ulysses Grant (Jason Robards). But by the time this story gets underway, it’s almost time for the movie to be over, and the plot is no more developed than a typical TV episode.

What does work about LEGEND? The stunts and special effects are first-rate. Horse imbues Tonto with dignity. Lloyd is appropriately chilling in a role that should have been beefed up in a rewrite. And despite the script’s fiddling with the Lone Ranger’s origin, it’s still a thrill to see the hero gallop into action to the strains of the “William Tell Overture.” Performance issues aside, Spilsbury looks good in the costume.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Arrest And Trial

LAW & ORDER was not as original a concept as you may have thought. During the 1963-1964 television season, ABC aired ARREST AND TRIAL, one of the most obscure television series to receive a DVD release. Obviously, the title is one tip-off that L&O creator Dick Wolf remembered this crime drama, but its format is the most obvious clue.

Like LAW & ORDER, ARREST AND TRIAL was split into two distinctive sections. The first half ("The Arrest") starred Ben Gazzara (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) as Sgt. Nick Anderson, an unusually introspective Los Angeles police detective who investigated that week’s crime. In the second half ("The Trial"), Gazzara gave way to Chuck Connors (THE RIFLEMAN) as defense attorney John Egan, who went to court to defend whomever Anderson arrested.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of ARREST AND TRIAL is its unusual 90-minute format. Only 30 episodes were ever filmed (ratings woes were likely the result of its killer timeslot against THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on CBS and BONANZA on NBC), and its 90-minute format has kept it out of syndication in the fifty years since it went off the air.

The other unusual aspect of the series—and its biggest difference from LAW & ORDER—is that the “Trial” portion took the point of view of the defense, spending the rest of the episode attempting to free the guy Anderson busted his hump to arrest during the first half.

The L&O series are almost entirely plot-focused, eschewing stories about its characters in favor of murders “ripped from the headlines.” With ARREST AND TRIAL’s hour and a half to fill, writers were encouraged to create full-figured characters for the weekly guest stars to have fun with. Scenes that would be considered padding in today’s ADD television landscape were allowed to play out in full, adding layers to characters’ motivations and giving name actors a reason to sign on to an episodic guest role.

Timeless Media released two volumes of ARREST AND TRIAL episodes on DVD. As a showcase for your home theater, they aren't even close to ideal. Reportedly, Universal (which, by the way, also owns LAW & ORDER) agreed to lease Timeless the rights to ARREST AND TRIAL, but provided no elements. Therefore, Timeless prevailed upon private collectors to lend 16mm prints, which, at least in the case of Disc 1 of Volume 1, resulted in the episodes having no opening titles and suffering from various scratches and blemishes. Don’t get me wrong—the episodes are more than watchable, but they have not been cleaned up in the slightest.

It’s possible that the show’s skillful dramatics will overpower the 16mm visuals anyway. Reportedly, some critics of the time cast doubt on Connors’ ability to overcome his exceptionally popular RIFLEMAN persona and believably wear a three-piece suit and tie, but both he and Gazzara are very good. The natural casting process would have been to switch the two actors’ roles, but both actors playing against type seem to relish the opportunity. By the way, you’ll also see future IRONSIDE sidekick Don Galloway as Connors’ assistant, perennial guest star Roger Perry as Gazzara’s partner, and John Larch and John Kerr as district attorneys.

Egan’s client is Sgt. Anderson in “A Shield Is for Hiding Behind,” in which the detective guns down a teenage hoodlum played by future HAWAII FIVE-0 sidekick James MacArthur. The boy’s father (Barry Sullivan) refuses to believe his son could be a killer, leaving it up to the only witness, MacArthur’s younger brother, to clear Anderson’s name.

“Whose Little Girl Are You?” boasts a powerful performance by Joseph Schildkraut (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as an elderly tool-and-die maker unable to come to grips with the loss of his physical dexterity due to age. Stubbornly refusing to step aside to make room for the young at his brother-in-law’s (Leif Erickson) plant, Schildkraut kills a co-worker in a rage, leaving it to Egan to convince the jury it was all an accident.

Michael Parks (THEN CAME BRONSON) is also quite good in “We May Be Better Strangers” as a 19-year-old vandal who gets into a beef with a judge (Everett Sloane), busting up his collection of ancient weaponry and beating a security guard almost to death. As with the Schildkraut character in “Whose Little Girl Are You?”, Parks isn’t an ordinary thug, and a great effort is made to humanize him and explore the reasoning behind his violent acting-out. Gazzara and Connors have little to do in this episode, which revolves around Parks, Sloane, and Lillian Bronson as Sloane’s wife. Martin Sheen also appears as Parks’ friend; Sheen later guest-starred in Parks’ THEN CAME BRONSON pilot, and Parks played Sheen’s brother in the TV-movie THE STORY OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD.

Although the series was on the air only one season, Lancer Books released two tie-in paperbacks. The first, simply titled ARREST & TRIAL, by Norman Daniels is split into two "books." "The Arrest" follows Anderson and his partner as they investigate the shooting of Vince Callanan, the new head of the Grenville Construction Company. The chief suspect is Callanan's old friend, Fred Lansing, who was drunk during the shooting, but had plenty of motive to do it. Lansing is eventually arrested, but defended at "The Trial" by Egan. Interestingly, both "The Arrest" and "The Trial" are exactly 78 pages long, as if Daniels was writing two 45-minute chapters for the 90-minute TV show.

Daniels' book isn't bad. He seems to write for the main characters well, even though the book almost treats them as supporting cast. The prosecution's case is all circumstantial, and I'm not convinced a real district attorney would have taken it to court. Daniels also wrote a follow-up novel for Lancer, THE MISSING WITNESS, in 1964.

For much more on ARREST AND TRIAL, see Stephen Bowie's excellent Classic TV History website.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Death Is A Spectator Sport

The silliest movie about illegal underground swordfighting bouts ever made, 1994's RING OF STEEL was written by its star, Robert Chapin, whose blade skills kept him consistently employed as a stuntman, actor, and fight choreographer through the 1990s. His screenplay isn’t good, but it’s good enough. The film is never boring, and the unusual premise leads to some well-staged fights and stunts.

Alex Freyer (Chapin) and his hilarious mullet (Chapin’s mullet) are blackballed from fencing after he accidentally stabs an opponent in the eye and kills him during the National finals. It’s ridiculous to punish the guy over something that everyone agrees wasn’t his fault (the button snapped off his sword), but there he is anyway: a broken man, pouty, depressed, despite the encouragement of his girlfriend, pretty lady fencer Elena (Darlene Vogel, later a regular on USA's bicycle cop show PACIFIC BLUE). Redemption arrives in a colorful and mysterious Man in Black (top-billed Joe Don Baker of WALKING TALL), who invites Alex and Elena to his private club, Ring of Steel, where they are horrified by the illegal gladiator-style swordfights going on in the back room.

Well, not equally horrified. Seduced by the money, excitement, and sultry moll Tanya (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED hottie Carol Alt), he shows up at Battlin’ Baker’s tryout camp, but when he sees Ring champion Jack (Gary Kasper) humiliate and beat a fat nerd LARPer, he has second thoughts and splits. There’s no way out, though, because Baker kidnaps Elena and forces Alex to fight using his choice of ancient and presumably valuable antique weapons (I’m sorry, I mean “instruments of truth,” according to Joe Don).

As silly as it is, RING OF STEEL is an entertaining picture, the highlight of which is a fun and funny swashbuckling fight between friends Alex and Brian (Jim Pirri). Chapin and supermodel Alt are not good actors, but the appropriately hammy Baker, likable Pirri, and appealing Vogel make up for their shortcomings. The action is plentiful and handled very well by director Frost, fight coordinator Jan Bryant, and stunt coordinator Shane Dixon.

Co-executive producer James Glickenhaus directed SHAKEDOWN and THE EXTERMINATOR. Don Stark (THAT 70S SHOW) and Henry Brown plays cops investigating the fat LARPer’s death. Chapin went on to create, write, direct, and act in a web series called THE HUNTED.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: How To Steal The World

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. aired its 105th and final episode on January 15, 1968 after four and a half seasons (NBC replaced it with ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN). It was Part Two of “The Seven Wonders of the World Affair,” both parts of which became the eighth and final U.N.C.L.E. feature film. Only the first three U.N.C.L.E. features received major theatrical releases in the United States, but all eight were hits in other countries where either THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. or just these particular episodes weren’t televised.

Renegade U.N.C.L.E. agent Robert Kingsley (Barry Sullivan) has developed a gas that makes its subjects docile. He kidnaps six other scientists, and plans to use these “Seven Intellectual Wonders of the World” to control the minds of everyone on Earth and eliminate hate and wars. Men from U.N.C.L.E. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) want to prevent Kingsley’s plan, while THRUSH agents Webb (Peter Mark Richman) and Margetta Kingsley (Eleanor Parker) plot to steal the gas for their own nefarious means.

Fatigue seems to have set in the U.N.C.L.E. team in the fifth year. Vaughn and McCallum appear bored, Norman Hudis’ script is patchy and unclear, and footage seems to have been hastily assembled. More than the usual amount of dialogue is patched in off-camera to cover story lapses. Only the visually inventive Sutton Roley is having a good time playing with producer Anthony Spinner’s toys. Los Angeles International Airport and Vasquez Rocks substitute for Kingsley’s Himalayan base (which is surrounded by desert!).

Monday, September 12, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: The Helicopter Spies

U.N.C.L.E. men Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Kuryakin (David McCallum) are sent to Iran to retrieve a fantastic death ray from the vault of evil Persian scientist Kharmusi (John Dehner). While Solo flirts with Kharmusi’s sultry wife Azalea (PETER GUNN babe Lola Albright), Kuryakin creeps into the compound with notorious safecracker Luther Sebastian (Bradford Dillman), who will receive amnesty from all 22 countries in which he’s wanted for completing the task.

Unfortunately for U.N.C.L.E., Sebastian doublecrosses the agents and plans to use the death ray to conquer the world in the name of his cult, the Third Way, which is led by a silent old man (John Carradine) who will speak only when the Third Way is in control of Earth. Joining Solo and Kuryakin’s investigation are Annie (Carol Lynley), who wants revenge against Sebastian for framing her fiancĂ© for murder, and four circus acrobats (all amusingly played by H.M. Wynant).

An improvement over the previous U.N.C.L.E. movie, THE KARATE KILLERS, THE HELICOPTER SPIES is one of the series’ best. Dean Hargrove’s exciting screenplay is packed with witty dialogue and imaginative action sequences that are staged by Boris Sagal at a brisk clip. The twist at the halfway point is a real surprise (unless you’ve already seen the film’s trailer). The film was originally “The Prince of Darkness Affair,” the next-to-last two-part episode from THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s truncated fourth season.

Is it ironic that the director of THE HELICOPTER SPIES was later killed in a tragic helicopter accident?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: The Karate Killers

“The Five Daughters Affair,” a two-part episode from THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s third season, hit foreign theaters as THE KARATE KILLERS. MGM furnished producer Boris Ingster with extra money for two-parters, knowing they would easily recoup the cost and more at the box office.

The result of the higher budget meant a stellar guest cast—movie stars like Curt Jurgens (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), Herbert Lom (RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER), and Joan Crawford rarely did episodic television—and bigger action sequences. KARATE KILLERS’ opening scene with the super-cool U.N.C.L.E. car being pursued by rocket-launching miniature helicopters stands up to the chases in many more expensive spy flicks of the era.

Unfortunately, KARATE KILLERS has too much star power for its own good. The disinterested Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are supporting players in their own movie and have barely more screen time than their stunt doubles. Norman Hudis’ episodic screenplay appears more interested in creating broad cameos for the guest stars than in giving the stars anything meaty. The “treasure hunt” scenario is not a bad one in theory, but director Barry Shear (ACROSS 110TH STREET) helms Hudis’ more like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD than James Bond, right down to a “comic” fight scene.

U.N.C.L.E. and THRUSH are in a race to find a murdered scientist’s formula for transforming seawater into gold. The clues lie with the scientist’s stepdaughters, who are scattered around the globe. Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (McCallum) compete against THRUSH agent Randolph (Lom) to find Margo (Diane McBain), now married to a jealous Count (Telly Savalas); Imogen (Jill Ireland), who’s in the custody of a London constable (Terry-Thomas); and Yvonne (Danielle DeMetz), the plaything of Swiss von Kesser (Jurgens). On Randolph’s side are four kung fu henchmen who wear identical costumes like on BATMAN. Solo and Kuryakin get beaten up a lot, which doesn’t humanize them or make them more vulnerable. It just makes them look clumsy.

Not among the better U.N.C.L.E. movies, THE KARATE KILLERS is still entertaining with good pacing and sets. Ireland, who wears a bikini, was married to McCallum at the time and appeared on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. five times. Gerald Fried composed an original score for the film version that apes Nelson Riddle. Every Mothers’ Son, an MGM Records act, sing their hit “Come on Down to My Boat” over the main titles.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shout Out To The Rap Sheet

Big thanks to J. Kingston Pierce's essential The Rap Sheet for plugging U.N.C.L.E. Week here at the Crane Shot. The Rap Sheet is your one-stop blog for anything crime- or mystery-related, including books, films, and television shows. I'm going to be writing a guest post for the Rap Sheet later this month, so stay tuned to both our blogs for more info.

U.N.C.L.E. Week: The Spy In The Green Hat

When Boris Ingster produced the two-part episode “The Concrete Overcoat Affair,” THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. had already begun its BATMAN-inspired slide into camp that would culminate in the unfortunate sight of Napoleon Solo frugging with a gorilla—surely the series’ nadir. The heightened budgets of the U.N.C.L.E. two-parters allowed Ingster, executive producer Norman Felton, and director Joseph Sargent (ONE SPY TOO MANY) to hire name guest stars, such as Jack Palance (THE PROFESSIONALS) and Janet Leigh (HARPER), who otherwise weren’t doing a lot of episodic television at the time. This practice gave “Concrete Overcoat” extra marquee value when MGM cut it together and released it in overseas theaters in 1967 as THE SPY IN THE GREEN HAT.

Palance is at his most unrestrained as Louis Strego, a megalomaniac who recruits a Nazi scientist, Heinrich von Kronen (Ludwig Donath), to reroute the Gulf Stream and transform Greenland into a lush paradise from which THRUSH can rule the world. Even more amazing is Leigh playing Miss Diketon (!), Strego’s insatiable secretary, who conceals a knife high on her thigh under a short skirt. It’s hard to imagine that Leigh’s erotically charged performance, which includes a clear exclamation of lust when she drives a knife into the spine of Strego’s incompetent henchman, passed NBC’s censors unscathed.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Peter Allan Fields included a ludicrous subplot about three elderly Italian gangsters who hunt Solo (Robert Vaughn) and force him into a shotgun wedding with their niece Pia Monteri (Letitia Roman), whom they believe Solo deflowered (strangely, this time he didn’t). Pia’s sexy catfight with Miss Diketon is one of the film’s highlights, so I guess her story isn’t a total bust, but the humor falls flat and really slows down the film’s momentum. Roman contributes a couple of from-the-back nude shots and—I swear—a side nipple flash that couldn’t have appeared in the TV show.

Felton hated Nelson Riddle’s original score, probably because it sounds like a BATMAN reject. Felton also tried to squeeze this film into theaters before the episodes aired on NBC, but the network rejected that plan.

Friday, September 09, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: One Of Our Spies Is Missing

The second-season two-part MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. episode “The Bridge of Lions Affair” became the fourth U.N.C.L.E. movie to hit the big screen. Gerald Fried composed an original score for the film, including a real gone main title, and director E. Darrell Hallenbeck shot new scenes of soon-to-be-Batgirl Yvonne Craig playing a flirtatious U.N.C.L.E. agent to pad the running time. Although it was written by the great Howard Rodman (the creator of HARRY O) from a Henry Slesar novel, ONE OF OUR SPIES is among the weaker U.N.C.L.E. movies, mainly due to its lack of a strong villain.

While Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) is in Soho investigating a string of stolen kittycats, Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) sends Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) to Paris to find out how an elderly biochemist (James Doohan) could have de-aged thirty years in three months. The dual subplots come together when both agents discover Madame DeSala (Vera Miles) and her scientific rejuvenation process.

Hardly a feature-worthy threat, particularly behind journeyman Hallenbeck’s dutiful direction. Miles (PSYCHO) is a fine actress, but a fizzle as an adversary for U.N.C.L.E. because her performance just isn’t “big” enough.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: One Spy Too Many

MGM chose wisely in expanding one of its best MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. episodes into a feature film. Taken from the second-season opener, “Alexander the Greater Affair,” ONE SPY TOO MANY was the biggest U.N.C.L.E. hit, particularly in London, where 007-mania was at its apex.

It was also the last U.N.C.L.E. film to receive a major American release, as MGM was beginning to draw criticism for charging money to see something already aired on free TV. As a bonus to ticket buyers, ONE SPY TOO MANY offers new footage of a bikini-clad Yvonne Craig (BATMAN) as an U.N.C.L.E. agent.

The first beneficiary of executive producer Norman Felton’s idea to pump up the budgets and star power on two-part episodes intended for later theatrical release, ONE SPY TOO MANY features a terrific turn by Rip Torn (THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW) as Alexander, a megalomaniac with an Alexander the Great complex who wants to rule the world. Based on producer David Victor’s clever story, Dean Hargrove’s razor-sharp screenplay sketches Alexander as a fascinating villain—a man so fantastically self-absorbed that his plan for world domination involves facing down God Himself.

He finances his scheme by committing crimes based on the Ten Commandments and leaving behind a stone tablet with a numeral inscribed on it. He also has a yen for colorful deathtraps, including one based on “The Pit and the Pendulum” that threatens to turn one U.N.C.L.E. agent into two. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) pursue Alexander to Greece, where they reluctantly team up with their prey’s ex-wife, Tracey (Dorothy Provine), who’s after the alimony owed to her. Superbly directed by Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE), ONE SPY TOO MANY is exciting and humorous without descending into the deadly camp that would eventually infect THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: The Spy With My Face

It took THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. only eight episodes to do an “evil twin” episode, which director John Newland (ONE STEP BEYOND) later expanded to feature length. “The Double Affair,” along with sexy new footage of Robert Vaughn cavorting with beautiful guest stars Senta Berger and Sharon Farrell, first played theatrically overseas in 1965 before hitting U.S. theaters on a double bill with the first U.N.C.L.E. movie, TO TRAP A SPY, in 1966. Aside from the racy new scenes, the main draw was the chance to see U.N.C.L.E. in Metrocolor, since the first season of the series was broadcast by NBC in black-and-white.

Slinky THRUSH agent Serena’s (Berger) mission: to distract U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) long enough for her boss Darius (Maurice Evans) to replace him with a surgically altered Solo double. Knowing Solo’s close friendship with Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) may blow the double’s cover, Darius tries unsuccessfully to bump off the Russian using missile-firing toy robots! Newland and producer Sam Rolfe hilariously try to pass off the Griffith Park Observatory for the Swiss Alps, where Darius and Serena take Solo, while the duplicate infiltrates U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to steal a super-weapon.

I wonder why this episode was chosen to release as a feature. Perhaps because Berger was an international box office draw? Vaughn leads THRUSH on an entertaining chase through Griffith Park, though the observatory is too familiar a landmark to play anything else. Fred Koenekamp’s color photography is quite nice, and Vaughn pulls off his double role with aplomb, particularly in the finale when he has to fight “himself” (give editor Joseph Dervin a big hand too). Morton Stevens, who scored “The Double Affair,” also composed some new cues for the feature version.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: To Trap A Spy

MGM tried to squeeze extra revenue out of its MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. television series by editing together two-part episodes and releasing them theatrically. It’s easy to see why overseas audiences would flip for this, but Americans also bought tickets to see an U.N.C.L.E. movie they’d already watched for free.

At least TO TRAP A SPY offered U.N.C.L.E. fans something new: color. The MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. pilot, “The Vulcan Affair,” was filmed in color, but only aired on NBC in black-and-white, the same as every other first-season episode. Perhaps the thrill of seeing Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in bright Metrocolor was enough to lure fans to their neighborhood theater.

Producer Norman Felton, who had the idea for creating U.N.C.L.E. movies almost from the beginning, and director Don Medford (THE ORGANIZATION) also gave the paying fans something extra by shooting racy new scenes not in the TV episode. The most significant addition is sultry guest star Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL), who wasn’t in the pilot. She receives a major subplot in the feature as a WASP assassin named Angela, who helps kill an U.N.C.L.E. agent in the prologue and then plays a sexy game of cat-and-mouse with Solo, which leads to a crackerjack action sequence at her home.

Oh, yes, that’s another change from the TV series. The name of U.N.C.L.E.’s evil rival is now WASP, rather than THRUSH, but for this film only. Actor Will Kuluva also steps in as the head of U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Allison; he was replaced in the series by Leo G. Carroll as Mr. Waverly.

The Bondian plot sends U.N.C.L.E. agent Solo (Robert Vaughn) against wealthy chemical magnate Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), who U.N.C.L.E. believes is a WASP operative planning to assassinate an African prime minister, Ashumen (William Marshall). Ashumen arrives at Vulcan’s mansion for a party, along with chief aides Soumarin (Ivan Dixon) and Nobuk (Rupert Crosse), but Solo hopes to thwart the assassination attempt with a guest of his own: Elaine May Bender (Pat Crowley), an Ohio housewife who dated Vulcan in college.

Action specialist Medford handles the exciting scenes like a pro, giving the setpieces a production value that may not equal the James Bond movies, but are certainly as thrilling as or more so than many of the low-budget Bond knockoffs filling theaters in the mid-1960s. Opulent sets constructed on the MGM lot and a Lever Brothers soap plant posing as Vulcan’s chemical operation makes TO TRAP A SPY look like more than a TV show, which, of course, it was.

TO TRAP A SPY may disappoint fans of David McCallum, whose Illya Kuryakin is only seen briefly in a couple of scenes. Illya was originally intended to be a supporting character, but when his popularity with fans skyrocketed as more episodes aired, he soon became Solo’s fulltime partner. Jerry Goldsmith composed the groovy score, including the iconic U.N.C.L.E. theme. MGM did well with TO TRAP A SPY and released seven more U.N.C.L.E. movies, though not all of them domestically.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Matter Of Conscience

THE DEFENDERS is one of the most important dramatic series in American television history. MAD MEN fans may remember that a DEFENDERS episode played a large role in the episode "The Benefactor" a couple of years back. The events as described on MAD MEN were not far from the truth, as THE DEFENDERS was a hard-hitting legal program, created by Reginald Rose, that wasn't afraid to tell dramatic stories about important social issues.

One of those issues was birth control, the focus of the February 1, 1964 episode "All the Silent Voices," directed by Gerald Mayer and written by the prolific William Woolfolk. Father-and-son attorneys Lawrence (E.G. Marshall) and Ken (Robert Reed, later the BRADY BUNCH patriarch) Preston agree to defend physician Katherine Tasso (Eileen Heckart), who has been arrested and charged with violating Public Law L176--to wit, the dissemination of birth control literature.

I wasn't aware of this--I suppose because it seems like such backwards thinking--but as recently as the 1970s, it was against the law for some consenting adults to possess contraceptives and illegal for licensed doctors to not only provide them, but also to suggest the use of contraceptives or pass out medical pamphlets discussing birth control. "All the Silent Voices" (which refers to the babies who never would be born because of birth control) examines one such statute through the courageous Dr. Tasso, who stands to lose her job and possibly her husband (James Gregory) in her effort to stand up for a moral right.

I haven't seen "All the Silent Voices"--THE DEFENDERS is never rerun nor is it on DVD, for some reason--but I have read Roger Fuller's 1964 Pocket Books adaptation of Woolfolk's teleplay. It's an intelligent, brief (159 pages) morality play strongly anchored by Lawrence Preston, whose ambivalent feelings about birth control (back to those "silent voices" again) don't prevent him from respecting his client's views or defending her in a court weighing heavily against her (after all, she admits she did break the law as written).

To stretch a 50-minute teleplay to 159 pages, Fuller (actually Don Tracy) has added some padding, including a subplot involving an oily politician hoping to gain some votes by backing Dr. Tasso's cause that I doubt was included in the episode. What stands out about ALL THE SILENT VOICES is the respect the characters have for their opponents' point of view and the honest discussions they can have.

Like the television series that spawned it, ALL THE SILENT VOICES is an interesting adult take on an important issue of the day.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Assignment: Earth

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the alt.tv.startrek.tos newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

ASSIGNMENT: EARTH
Episode 56 of 80
March 29, 1968
Teleplay: Art Wallace
Story: Gene Roddenberry & Art Wallace
Director: Marc Daniels

STAR TREK's second-season finale was created as a pilot for a potential spinoff series set in the 20th century. ASSIGNMENT: EARTH (the series) would have starred busy leading man Robert Lansing, formerly of 87TH PRECINCT and TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH, as Gary Seven, a human from another planet who has been sent to Earth by his extraterrestrial peers to help us survive. It would likely have mixed science fiction with the then-hot spy genre (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and I SPY were among the era's most popular TV shows), complete with high-tech gadgetry and a sexy young female assistant played by a pre-TOOTSIE Teri Garr.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feel like afterthoughts in Art Wallace’s script; in fact, neither Enterprise crewman was present in the original draft of the pilot script. They beam down to a 1968 Earth and encounter Seven, whom they mistake for a saboteur. After some fumbling around and unwise comic relief involving an innocent bystander (Garr’s Roberta Lincoln) who becomes accidentally involved with Seven’s mission, it is revealed that the secret agent from outer space is attempting to end the world’s nuclear arms race.

“Assignment: Earth” doesn't really work for me as a TREK or as a pilot. Not enough of “our guys” in it for a proper STAR TREK. The low budget is too much of a distraction; I pity poor director Marc Daniels trying to present a NASA rocket base on what Paramount was willing to pay. The NASA stock footage used doesn’t match very well, and the scenes of Lansing on top of the rocket gantry don’t look good at all. Possibly because it was the end of the season, Roddenberry had used up all of his money and none left over to make his pilot look good.

Lansing was among TV and film's most dependable leading men, though he was never able to break into the A-list (THE NEST director Terence H. Winkless and I discussed Lansing in this interview). This may have been due to a lack of warmth or humor, as Lansing tended to play dour personalities. For an audience to tune in every week, they have got to like the guy a lot. He played big-city detective Steve Carella in one season of 87TH PRECINCT, and whenever I read one of Ed McBain's excellent crime dramas, it’s Lansing's face and personality I associate with the character. Lansing was terrific as a detective on an episode of THRILLER in which he had to track down a woman who was unknowingly carrying around a bomb in her purse. He died of cancer in 1994.

Interestingly, Lansing is the only STAR TREK guest star to be credited in an episode’s opening titles. This was most likely done to showcase Lansing’s stature as the star of the “new” series. Teri Garr was primarily a dancer at this time. The same year “Assignment: Earth” aired, she had a brief but memorable role in HEAD, the Monkees’ only movie, which was written by Jack Nicholson. She later appeared in OH, GOD; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; THE CONVERSATION; and a lot more very good movies.