Tag Archives: William Shatner

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).


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Incubus (1966, Leslie Stevens)

Incubus is the day in the life of a dissatisfied succubus (Allyson Ames) who, after killing three men in the ocean and condemning their souls to hell, decides she wants a challenge. Her sister, also a sucbus (and played by Eloise Hardt), counsels her against the impulse. But Ames won’t be dissuaded. She wants to condemn a clean soul to hell. How hard can it be.

Well, given the clean soul she comes across is recovering war hero William Shatner, turns out it’s going to be quite hard. Because Shatner has the one weapon Ames can’t defend herself against–love.

So Hardt decides to pay back Shatner for defiling her little sister with love by bringing up an incubus (Milos Milos) to assault Shatner’s little sister. Ann Atmar plays the little sister. While Shatner’s supposed to be this great guy–and he’s reasonably likable (everyone’s speaking Esperanto poorly so it’s a little hard to get attached)–he’s always abandoning Atmar for Ames. And since the film takes place over about a day, it’s a lot of abandoning. And bad things always happen to Atmar when Shatner’s gone, which he never acknowledges.

Shatner doesn’t speak a lot. He’s got a lot of lines, but they’re short. Director Stevens has some tricks to hide the Esperanto–Ames and Hardt have one scene where their mouths are blocked from view during what must have been difficult Esperanto passages. None of the actors are “native” Esperanto speakers; often acting and the actors getting their lines spoken are mutually exclusive activities. Ames is the best. She’s at least sympathetic.

Atmar ought to be really sympathetic but she’s not. Though it’s more Stevens’s script’s fault than anything Atmar does or doesn’t do with her performance. It’s a lousy part.

Great photography from Conrad L. Hall–at least when it’s not day-for-night–and terrible music from Dominic Frontiere.

Incubus’s greatest strength is its straightforward plotting at the beginning–Ames kills a guy, wants a better soul, argues with Hardt, goes for a better soul. Sure, there are a lot of scenes with Ames walking by herself around Big Sur, but Stevens has earned some goodwill after the frankly vicious killing of that first guy. It’s not really disturbing, but it implies Incubus isn’t messing around. At least, not entirely. After the demonic symbol opening titles and, you know, the freaking Esperanto, the film’s already a little goofy. For a while, it seems like it might not end up goofy.

But it’s a story about a succubus who wants to condemn a clean soul so she can become a demon–she needs to show off to Satan, who’s a giant bat in a fog machine–it’d be hard for Incubus not to be goofy.

Stevens’s script runs out of ideas fast. His direction doesn’t. While he does ignore Atmar a little too often, Stevens is otherwise high energy. It’s not always good direction, but Hall shoots most of it well so it at least looks great. And during the bumpier periods, Incubus gets by on the strange factor, which wouldn’t have been present in the same way on release. Even when things start to get real bad in the third act, there’s a pre-Captain Kirk Shatner fight scene. Unfortunately, he’s fighting Milos Milos, who doesn’t get anything to do when he first arrives, then does. Once he does, Incubus starts getting worse fast.

Milos looks like a beatnik doing a Karloff Frankenstein Monster impression. Just the walking and stature, but doing it exaggerated. Everyone in Incubus except Milos can keep a straight-face–including Hardt, who keeps one so long it ends up hurting her performance.

Again, terrible music. It’s hard to say how Incubus might’ve worked without the Esperanto, the Milos Milos, the Dominic Frontiere music. It might not even have needed better day-for-night photography.

Actually, without the Esperanto, Incubus’s script would be way too slight. Even with the Esperanto, there are those long dialogue-free passages… Sed kiu scias?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Leslie Stevens; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Richard K. Brockway; music by Dominic Frontiere; produced by Anthony M. Taylor; released by Mac Mahon Distribution.

Starring Allyson Ames (Kia), William Shatner (Marc), Ann Atmar (Arndis), Eloise Hardt (Amael), and Milos Milos (Incubus).


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The Explosive Generation (1961, Buzz Kulik)

The Explosive Generation has expert plotting. Joseph Landon’s script; it’s expertly plotted. Even when it high tails it away from the “hook,” it’s still expertly plotted. The film goes from being about teenagers trying to frankly and openly discuss sex in teacher William Shatner’s classroom to being about student protest. The protagonist goes from being good girl Patty McCormack to her initially a jerk boyfriend, Lee Kinsolving.

McCormack is all right.

Kinsolving is horrific. He tries really, really hard too. The movie’s eighty-nine minutes and at least three of the runtime just has to be Kinsolving’s dynamic thinking expressions. He’s always so perplexed.

Maybe if director Kulik helped with the performances, but he doesn’t have time for the actors. He’s too busy butchering everything else.

Explosive Generation is an ugly, cheap picture. Floyd Crosby’s photography is bad. Hal Borne’s music is bad. Kulik’s composition and sense of timing are a nightmare. When the film does have its moments, it’s a shock; those moments succeed just because Landon’s plotting is so strong and his flat expository dialogue just happens to sync with the actor performing it.

Those actors are usually Shatner (though his performance falls apart as he becomes an unwilling martyr), McCormack, maybe Suzi Carnell–more on her in a bit–and sometimes Edward Platt. Oh, and sometimes single dad Stephen Dunne, who just wants to look cool to son Billy Gray. Gray’s never good but he’s a lot better than Kinsolving.

Again, who knows how it would’ve gone if the direction were a micron better. The film’s got some bad sets for home interiors, but the location exteriors are fine and it does shoot in a high school. Or some kind of school. Composition and lighting can do wonders. Kulik and photographer Crosby exhibit a striking inability to do wonders.

When the movie starts, it’s about teens McCormack, Kinsolving, Carnell, and Gray having a sleepover at Gray’s dad’s beach house. After some terribly cut together and scored opening titles–everyone involved in Explosive’s post-production seems to think having bland boppy “jazz” is going to make the film seem edgy. It leads to opening titles setting a bad tone. But then it’s Carnell talking McCormack into spending the night. Gray bullies and teases McCormack to get her to stay (for Kinsolving’s sake).

Well, then the movie cuts to the next morning and McCormack seems upset but Carnell’s having a full breakdown. Explosive drops Carnell as a character about ten minutes later, though it later blames her for snitching. It’s weird and about the only weak plotting decision Landon makes.

At some point, the movie becomes about Kinsolving trying to save Shatner’s job for him and discovering even though the school’s full of bland, upper middle class Southern California white kids, they have the right to intellectual curiosity.

The film entirely cops out on resolving the issues with the controlling parents. McCormack’s dad, Arch Johnson, gets to do a big meltdown and then disappears. Virginia Field, as mom, does something similar but then returns as a deus ex machina, because it turns out she’s just a person too.

Landon plots well. He doesn’t write well. Explosive Generation shows just how big wide the gap is between the two. The film has a great set piece at the end, which Kulik couldn’t direct even if he had the budget to stage it, but it’s a fantastic idea. The film’s got a few of them. Ideas but no potential because it’s so poorly made.

Crosby’s cinematography is so bad, so flat, one wishes for a computer colorized version just to break up the same shade of school hallway gray. It infests the pallette.

Despite being an audiovisual blight on the medium of film, The Explosive Generation is a heavily qualified “success.” So qualified it needs quotation marks, in fact. But thanks to Landon’s plotting, Shatner and McCormack’s likability, and its earnestess, the film compells.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Buzz Kulik; written by Joseph Landon; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Hal Borne; produced by Stanley Colbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Patty McCormack (Janet Sommers), Lee Kinsolving (Dan Carlyle), Billy Gray (Bobby Herman Jr.), William Shatner (Peter Gifford), Suzi Carnell (Marge Ryker), Edward Platt (Mr. Morton), Stephen Dunne (Bobby Herman Sr.), Phillip Terry (Mr. Carlyle), Arch Johnson (Mr. George Sommers), Jan Norris (Terry), Beau Bridges (Mark), and Virginia Field (Mrs. Katie Sommers).


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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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