Wednesday, March 14, 2012

He Who Digs A Grave

CANNON opened its third season on CBS with a special two-hour episode filmed on location in the small town of Grass Valley in northern California. Based on David Delman’s 1973 novel, “He Who Digs a Grave” allowed executive producer Quinn Martin (THE UNTOUCHABLES) and producer Adrian Samish (THE F.B.I.) to splurge on production values and guest actors, most notably David Janssen.

A major television star with stints on the hit series RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE and THE FUGITIVE and one season on Jack Webb’s flop O’HARA: UNITED STATES TREASURY, Janssen was well above doing episodic guest shots by 1973. He hadn’t worked in that capacity since a 1963 NAKED CITY, and would do only one more—an episode of the anthology POLICE STORY—before his 1980 death. So getting Janssen to appear as a special guest star in “He Who Digs a Grave” was a real coup for Martin, who had also been the executive producer of THE FUGITIVE.

Stephen Kandel, one of the era’s most creative television writers, adapted Delman’s book for the small screen and remained quite faithful to it, keeping most of the plot points and character names intact. Of course, the teleplay’s major divergence is the role of Los Angeles private detective Frank Cannon, who obviously didn’t exist in Delman’s version (his character was a Jewish Manhattan cop named Jacob Horowitz). William Conrad, whose deep baritone and portly frame revealed his past as a leading man in radio dramas, became a surprise TV star as the urbane and intelligent Cannon, who is fondly remembered by mystery fans for his skills behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental, as well as in the kitchen.

Janssen plays Ian Kirk, an alcoholic writer who is arrested and charged with the murder of his wealthy young wife (Cathy Lee Crosby) and her even younger lover. Tossed into the slammer of a small town (Mercer, California) that mistrusts strangers and resents him for marrying into Irene’s well-regarded family, Kirk calls upon his old Army buddy Frank Cannon for help.

Kirk claims his wife left a suicide note at their house, but it isn’t found. Cannon, whom the townspeople also regard as a big-city instigator, is received hostilely at nearly every step of his investigation, right down to the mischievous brothers who own Mercer’s lone hotel (played by the historic Holbrooke Hotel). Like other small towns in mystery stories, Mercer has a lot of ugly secrets, and the town doesn’t want Cannon snooping around, especially to help Ian Kirk dodge a murder rap.

Richard Donner, who would soon graduate to big-budget features like THE OMEN and SUPERMAN, was the perfect choice to helm this episode. Taking advantage of Martin and Samish’s souped-up production values (it’s likely this season opener had a larger-than-usual budget) and the rich tapestry of characters and subplots developed in Kandel’s script, Donner moves the plot along at just the right pace. The action scenes, including a horse stampede and an interesting shootout in a picturesque river bed, flow well. The extra time accorded a two-parter allows the story to breathe a little in scenes that don’t advance the plot, but provide color and characterization (such as Cannon’s sparring with the hotel owners out to make the stranger’s stay as unpleasant as possible).

Janssen spends most of the show locked in a cell and projects the proper ambivalence. Barry Sullivan as the self-righteous sheriff, Tim O’Connor as Irene’s attorney, and Murray Hamilton as an impotent crack shot provide most of Cannon’s opposition, but the detective finds an important ally in town mayor Anne Baxter. Lee Purcell, Royal Dano, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Hogan, Lenore Kasdorf, Dabbs Greer, and Bill Quinn lend support.

In Delman's book, Baxter's character was the sheriff, not the mayor, and Sullivan's sheriff was her deputy. Kandel's biggest contribution was the addition of action scenes and an illegal cockfighting arena run by Armstrong. A year later, Kandel wrote a similar two-part HARRY O that took Janssen’s Harry Orwell to a small California town to investigate a friend’s murder.

4 comments:

Aimee Powell said...

I just watched both parts of this episode this week, when it aired on Me-TV. I've been looking forward to this one for a while, as I'm a long-time Janssen/Fugitive fan, and have fond memories of watching Cannon with my grandparents when it originally aired.

Anyway, great write-up. I appreciate the additional insight and information you provided, including the fact that the episode was based on a novel. One lingering question: Were Cannon and the Fugitive "trashy," or it is just the novel? ;)

Marty McKee said...

Hi, Aimee,

Thanks for the kind words. No, I classify none of the above as trashy. Every once in awhile, I allow some real culture to slip into the blog. I'll try not to let it happen too often! :)

The book is interesting if you can find it (my local public library had it).

Marty

Paul K. Bisson said...

Great write-up. I just watched this episode on the newly released season 3 Cannon DVD. Sadly it retains what I can only imagine is a syndication "split" (where a two-hour episode is split into two one-hour episodes for syndication); "part one" ends unceremoniously at a very unexpected and inconvenient moment, and "part two" picks up seamlessly from the same moment.

I was gratified to read your description, confirming my suspicions that this was a two-hour premiere. May I ask if there is any online source I can cite beyond yours?

Marty McKee said...

I'm sorry to hear the DVDs use the syndication version. I'd like to see this episode in its original form. There's an episode guide here that confirms this show ran in whole on September 12, 1973. I first found the information in David Martindale's book TELEVISION DETECTIVE SHOWS OF THE 1970s. To really nail it down, I'd like to find a TV Guide entry.