Category Archives: Television

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade (1990, Mark Schultz)

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a television pilot spin-off of a movie (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). It has the same writer as the movie–Keenan Ivory Wayans–and much of the movie’s cast. The three “leads” all return from the movie–Bernie Casey is Slade, Jim Brown is Slammer, and Isaac Hayes is Hammer. Slade, Slammer, & Hammer does sound terrible, but it’s the more accurate order as far as plot importance goes for the characters.

And then there’s Eriq La Salle. He’s playing the Wayans part from the movie, but a rookie cop for TV instead of the film’s war hero. Frankly, he’s in it too much. La Salle’s got two modes–passive and even more passive. He can’t figure out the part and director Schultz is no help. Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is often hilarious. But it’s never because of Schultz. His direction is an unmitigated disaster.

Harsh adjective, but there’s no reason this pilot shouldn’t have been magic. Except it’s not magic. And it’s not even Schultz’s fault; he’s just not the right guy to do this thing. Because this thing is a spoof of an eighties cop procedural, seventies blaxploitation pictures, with three–ahem, “older”– genre superstar leads, and an often deft script from Wayans. But Wayans’s jokes aren’t paced right for the forty-seven minute pilot–right, Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a pilot for an hour-long action comedy show. Back when it was shopped around in 1990–spoiler–it didn’t sell. Because it wasn’t time yet.

It also doesn’t help the film stock–that standard eighties drama film stock–used on the pilot doesn’t fit the content at all. Especially not with Schultz’s bad composition of set pieces. He’s never good, but he gets noticeably worse on the set pieces. Because he can’t direct the comedy.

The first act is La Salle’s cop mentor (also blaxploitation star Ron O’Neal) getting framed and La Salle going to Casey for help. It’s a great time for the character focus to pass off because La Salle’s too tedious. The show’s called Hammer, Slammer, & Slade, not the The Guy From the Movie Didn’t Come Back. It’s about Casey, Brown, and Hayes.

The getting the band back together takes way too long. It eventually pays off. But it takes too long.

Another timing issue is how long the talking scenes go on. Sure, all the actors get some cool posturing, but then it just keeps going. So either Wayans wrote terrible scene transitions or someone told the actors to just ad lib and hope for a quotable gem. During the second act, it gets annoying. The pilot has these illustrated transitions for commercial breaks–which are awesome–but when a scene is bad, you just sit and hope for it to go to illustration instead of it not stopping. It’s the same series of boring shots from Schultz and bad cuts from Stan Allen.

The editing is real bad, partially because Schultz clearly can’t get consistent deliveries from the actors. Just in conversation.

So it’s kind of rough going for a while. The soft misogyny jokes (from the good guys) don’t help–and it’s one of La Salle’s few scenes after the first act, so it makes him even more grating. And the way Wayans frames Hayes initially as a punchline for being hen-pecked (a fantastic Ja’net DuBois in a poorly written part) is tiresome.

There’s been at least one good laugh, but some failed ones too.

Then the team comes together in action scenes and there’s actual energy. Casey, Brown, and Hayes are all willing to do more work than the script or direction requires. They’ve been getting nerf balls or worse–Schultz has no idea how to direct Brown or Brown’s lines–but then the requirements of the medium take over and the pilot has to throw fastballs or whatever. And the actors are ready.

Even La Salle. He breaks character for a couple lines when he actually seems like he’s acting. Sure, he seems like he’s an angry Peter Benton but it’s something.

Poor Steve James does the most work in the unfortunately written part of Black man obsessed with karate. He never gets good material, though the script does at least recognize he’s the only one in shape. The out of shape, aging jokes are good. Not even Schultz can mess up the direction enough in those scenes. The actors seem cautious about it at first, then commit as things go on.

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade ought to be awesome. It’s not. It still should’ve been a series. With a lower budget–being shot on video and looking like a sitcom would’ve helped–and anyone else directing.

Still, as is, the cool factor outweighs the significant problems.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Schultz; written by Keenen Ivory Wayans; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Stan Allen; music by Stanley Clarke; production designer, Maxine Shepard; produced by Tony Bishop; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bernie Casey (John Slade), Eriq La Salle (Jack Spade), Jim Brown (Slammer), Isaac Hayes (Hammer), Steve James (Kung Fu Joe), Ron Dean (Sgt. Hill), Mark Rolston (Little Mr. Big), Martin Lawrence (Willie), Bentley Kyle Evans (Lenny), Ja’net DuBois (Joanne Wilson), Almayvonne (Coreatha), and Ron O’Neal (Ray Samuels).


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A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


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The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


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Sentence of Death (1953, Matt Harlib)

Sentence of Death unfolds gradually. The action mostly follows Betsy Palmer, playing a naughty blue blood who the tabloids love to cover. She’s slumming it and having a nice private dinner at a drug store. She’s there when someone holds it up and kills the owner.

Enter cops Gene Lyons and Ralph Dunn. Lyons is the younger, more sensitive one. Dunn is the older, lazy one. They round up suspects based on previous behavior and new widow Virginia Vincent identifies James Dean as the murderer. Palmer does not, but also doesn’t say it isn’t him for sure.

Dunn railroads Dean with Lyons nodding along, albeit hesitantly.

Jump ahead until after Dean’s convicted and on death row (hence the title) and Palmer happens to see the man she saw that night. She tries to convince the cops without much success and has to threaten to use her tabloid platform if they don’t investigate. Eventually she convinces Lyons to look into the matter.

When Sentence opens, Palmer’s just annoying. Adrian Spies’s teleplay goes out of its way to make her unlikable. Same goes for Dunn. Dean gets some great material–or just does great things with it–as he realizes he’s in a lot of trouble. For most of that time, before the story jumps ahead, Lyons is just along for the ride. He perturbed banters with Palmer, not much else.

Once they partner to investigate, however, Lyons gets a lot better. Dunn’s failures as a responsible cop wear Lyons down. He also can’t help finding himself interested in Palmer, who proves to have a bit more depth than anyone thought she did.

Palmer’s good once the action gets started. Dean’s only got a couple scenes, he’s excellent in both. Lyons gets good too, though more than anyone else in Sentence he gets too stagy, too exaggerated. Director Harlib doesn’t do much to rein in performances.

Sentence of Death has a surprising twist at the end, some excellent character development, and some nice performances. The wrap up is a little rushed. Not too much, but a little.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Matt Harlib; teleplay by Adrian Spies, based on a story by Thomas Walsh; “Studio One” created by Fletcher Markle; produced by John Haggott; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Gene Lyons (Sgt. Paul Cochran), Betsy Palmer (Ellen Morrison), Ralph Dunn (Sgt. MacReynolds), James Dean (Joe Palica), Virginia Vincent (Mrs. Sawyer), Tony Bickley (Tommy Elliott), Fred J. Scollay (Harry Sawyer), Henry Sharp (Eugene Krantz), Eda Heinemann (Sylvia Krantz), Charles Mendick (District Attorney Lugash), and Frank Biro (The Man).


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