Category Archives: Television

A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).


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Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).


The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973, David Lowell Rich)

I should’ve realized there was no hope for The Horror at 37,000 Feet when Paul Winfield shows up the first time and he’s got an English accent but it’s probably supposed to be somewhere from previously colonial Africa. 37,000 is a TV movie from 1973; there’s a cultural context to the only Black person in the movie doing a really silly English accent and being a doctor. Winfield’s there to be a cartoon character more than a caricature. It’s Winfield, of course, so he at least manages to make it seem legit but… he’s not supposed to get to actually do anything. William Shatner, on the other hand, he gets to do something. Nothing really good, but some things. There are a couple moments when it seems like he’s actually engaged with his performance and not just on auto-pilot. No pun intended.

37,000 is a haunted house story set on an airplane. Roy Thinnes plays a rich guy architect—they were a thing in seventy-three, no doubt—who has rented out the commercial airplane to transport a bunch of English ruins back to the United States. The ruins are from wife Jane Merrow’s estate. Thinnes is just trying to be a good guy and bring them back. Because he cares about his wife’s family history even as he tries to make time with fellow passenger France Nuyen while away Merrow.

So Thinnes is a bit of a prick. Eventually he stands up for Merrow when it counts, even though it’s not particularly memorable. Maybe because most of the supporting cast is plotting to destroy Merrow; see, haunted airplane, they’ve got to make a human sacrifice.

How 37,000 isn’t more amusing after it turns Buddy Epsen into a would-be human sacrificer….

What’s weird about 37,000 is at least one of the writers—Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan—gets the whole “people in intense situations lose their grip” thing. Professional mansplainer Epsen, Spaghetti Western star Will Hutchins, Shatner groupie Lynn Loring, and supermodel France Nuyen all deciding the only rational response to the haunted airplane is to sacrifice someone? It works. Narratively speaking. Sadly the script’s crap, so it doesn’t matter if it’s got sound character development. The acting’s also crap and Rich’s direction is drab; it’s not all the script’s fault. There’s lots of fault to go around.

Though you can’t really get mad at whatever effects person said the onscreen personification of the haunting was going to be shit coming up from the floor. Bubbling shit. It’s really gross. Unfortunately, it’s a tick in the more frequently ticked narratively unsound column of the movie’s details: no one get sick seeing the bubbling shit.

There are no good performances, though there are terrible ones. Loring in particular, followed by Hutchins and Epsen. Thinnes seems like he’s going to be good, but then isn’t (he and Merrow have marital problems caused by Thinnes’s constant gaslighting and implied infidelity; it’s the early seventies so he’s also trying to have her labeled insane because she doesn’t like those behaviors). Merrow’s bad. Tammy Grimes is almost good, but not. It’s not the script, it’s Grimes. She can’t layer her performance.

Shatner’s kind of fun. When he’s not, it’s not his fault. It’s the script. As the captain, Chuck Conners gets some terrible expository lines and doesn’t really react to his plane being immobilized at 37,000 feet by ghosts realistically, but he escapes mostly unscathed. Flight attendants Brenda Benet and Darleen Carr are fine.

Again, Winfield also gets through it with some dignity, which is probably the most successful thing in the film considering how much malarky the film lobs at him.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is most interesting as an example of when a bad movie isn’t bad in the right ways to be amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Lowell Rich; teleplay by Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan, based on a story by V.X. Appleton; director of photography, Earl Rath; edited by Bud S. Isaacs; music by Morton Stevens; produced by Anthony Wilson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring William Shatner (Paul Kovalik), Jane Merrow (Sheila O’Neill), Roy Thinnes (Alan O’Neill), Lynn Loring (Manya), Tammy Grimes (Mrs. Pinder), Paul Winfield (Dr. Enkalla), Buddy Ebsen (Glenn Farlee), Will Hutchins (Steve Holcomb), Darleen Carr (Margot), Brenda Benet (Sally), Mia Bendixsen (Jodi), France Nuyen (Annalik), Russell Johnson (Jim Hawley), H.M. Wynant (Frank Driscoll), and Chuck Connors (Captain Ernie Slade).