Monday, July 04, 2016

MAVERICK Mondays: "Prey of the Cat" (1958)








MAVERICK Mondays: Number 20









MAVERICK: "Prey of the Cat" (1958 ABC/Warner Brothers TV) Starring Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Wayne Morris as Pete Stillman, Patricia Barry as Kitty Stillman, Barry Kelley as the Sheriff, Yvette Duguay as Raquel Morales, William Gordon as Fred Bender, William Bryant as Chase.  Written and Directed by Douglas Heyes.


After making the acquaintance of jovial cattleman Pete Stillman on a cold, windy night in Woodstone, Bart suffers a broken right leg when his horse is spooked by a mountain lion.  Since Maverick faces several weeks' healing before he can ride again, Pete insists that the stranger convalesce at his Star Trail Ranch.


During his extended recuperation (which includes the Christmas holiday), Bart learns that Pete's wife Kitty is a Chicago transplant who isn't especially happy at Star Trail or with her marriage.  When he realizes that Mrs. Stillman has designs on him, Bart resolves to leave as quickly as possible--but he meets resistance from the unsuspecting Pete.  Mr. Stillman insists that Maverick come along and help hunt for the mountain lion that has been menacing his cows since Bart's accident.  It's a hunt that proves fatal for the rancher, and the gambling newcomer is an easy target for blame by the suspicious Sheriff.  Then Bart learns that it was a bullet fired by Kitty that killed Pete--and her shot was intentional.


Douglas Heyes wrote and directed a noir-ish segment for each Maverick brother during the highly acclaimed second season.  Garner's was Escape to Tampico, in which Bret also makes a sympathetic but doomed new friend.  While Escape to Tampico is much more of a "straight" western than the typical Garner outing, it's positively light-hearted compared to what Heyes had in store for Jack Kelly.  Prey of the Cat is the grimmest MAVERICK episode, bar none, with a situation going completely against Roy Huggins' oft-stated guideline for the show: it is deadly serious in addition to being as hopeless as usual.


The opening scene induces a few smiles, as Bart tricks ranch foreman Bender out of a chair next to the wood stove.  Your jaw will stay tightened after that: Prey of the Cat turns as cold as the temperature on that windy night.  It's a story with three tragic figures all ruined by unrequited love: the Stillmans and Raquel ("Rachel", Pete teases) form the real triangle in Woodstone. 


All three love someone who doesn't reciprocate the feeling, though only Pete Stillman is doing so unknowingly.  The rancher chose the fair-skinned lady from Chicago over the Hispanic woman who truly loves him: the end result for Pete was a wife who accepted his proposal despite indifferent interest in him and his ranch.  Kitty is calculating (note how quickly she does math in her head) in more ways than one, but she's just as delusional about Bart's feelings for her as she was about her own feelings for Pete.  Mrs. Stillman "can never truly love something" unless she "makes it her own". 


Raquel is also hiding her true feelings: she's devastated to have lost the man she has always loved to an outsider.  We see hints that Pete--despite his public proclaimation that Kitty is his "smartest choice" ever--might subconsciously regret the marriage.  Note the contrast between the humorless, awkward dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Stillman and the effortless rapport Pete still has with Raquel in what seems like daily banter.  Raquel asks him why he isn't "home with his wife" in the opening scene, and it's a good question: it's a freezing night outside, yet Mr. Stillman is in front of a wood stove in town with his bunkhouse workers and his ex. 


Loyal, generous, fair and good-natured, Pete Stillman's misjudgment of Kitty's interest level is his fatal flaw.  He's allowed her to slowly take over the ranch in all but name in an effort to keep her happy, and everyone thinks he's succeeded.  Caught in the middle, innocent Bart Maverick almost becomes a fourth tragic casualty in Prey of the Cat, with the Sheriff joining all of Pete's loyal employees who blame the outsider for their boss' death.


Patricia Barry (Two Beggars on Horseback) is up to the challenge of playing what has to be the most disturbing and unhinged female in the series' run.  Kitty is stunningly beautiful (and aware of it) and highly intelligent, yet bitter about giving up Chicago for this impressive but remote town with a man she doesn't truly love.  Her attraction to Maverick reveals that she has bad boy syndrome--Pete is simply too nice a guy for Kitty.  Bart Maverick, a self-described "drifter and gambler", excites Kitty, and the "edgy" outsider gets her--she thinks, anyway.  Kitty shows increasing psychosis triggered by Bart's rejection but she remains sane enough to use the situation to ensnare him.



In short, Kitty is one scary lady.  Only poor Maverick has seen the unmasked Mrs. Stillman: she has the entire town snowed ("No two people were ever as good together as those two!" the Sheriff asserts.) to the point that the lawmen and other seemingly civilized people like Bender and Chase are turned into a bloodthirsty lynch mob as a result of her machinations.



Somewhat surprisingly, Prey of the Cat is not a script recycled from a more conventional WB series.  Despite the lack of levity, Heyes wrote it specifically for MAVERICK, and avoids some of the errors made by others who attempted "straighter" installments.  Epitaph for a Gambler (for example) had Bart Maverick doing way too many things that were out of character to engross the show's audience: Heyes' script, while unrelentingly solemn, is sermon-free and faithful to the Bart we've come to know.  The writer-director was only one of the many top-notch creative minds (Huggins, Hargrove, Hughes) sorely missed after that landmark 1958-59 season.


Wayne Morris was fated for an early demise less than a year after Prey of the Cat aired.  The World War II hero and rising Warner Brothers star of the pre-War years was as busy as ever (nine credits during 1959 alone) when he died suddenly of a heart attack on September 14, 1959.  He was only 45.  Heyes usually cast fellow writer William D. Gordon as an actor in his MAVERICK and TWILIGHT ZONE projects, and Gordon makes a solid impression as the ranch's loyal but guarded right-hand man.  The episode also marked one of the last acting roles for stunning Fifties starlet Yvette Duguay, who was 28 when she retired from the screen in 1960.

 
HOW'D BART DO AT POKER?

Despite all those ranch hands at the bunkhouse and all that time convalescing, Bart finds no time for real poker.  He relieves his boredom by teaching Mrs. Stillman a few basics of the game while staying off his broken leg, almost losing a lot more than just valuable table hours through no fault of his own.


WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

Only the revelation that Bart made him two promises: he'd never hold a drink or a steady job.  Stillman tries mightily to keep Bart around for the latter after he heals, so one of Pappy's proverbs heard that we hear two seasons later (in The Ice Man) applies here: "Never impose too long on a man's hospitality.  He's liable to put you to work."


THE BOTTOM LINE:

It is understandable that this unapologetic melodrama is disappointing to many fans and is considered a rare second season dud by some, but I think that assessment is off the mark.  Prey of the Cat isn't what one expects from MAVERICK by any stretch, but it is intriguingly acted, directed and written--a successful stab at much sterner subject matter than the series was usually mining by this time.  Pretty courageous of Heyes to put this blatantly dour effort on Huggins' desk, if you ask me--and hey, the show's creator didn't reject it, did he?  (*** out of four) 




MAVERICK currently airs Saturdays at 4 PM Eastern, 3 PM Central and Sundays at 4 AM Eastern, 3 AM Central on Cozi-TV. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Apache Kid" (1967)







"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!"






HONDO: "Hondo and the Apache Kid"  (1967 ABC-TV/MGM/Batjac Productions) Episode 6; Original Air Date: October 13, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Kathie Browne as Angie Dow, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards, Michael Pate as Chief Vittoro, Buddy Foster as Johnny Dow, William Bryant as Colonel Crook.  Guest Stars Nick Adams as The Apache Kid, Farley Granger as Jack Graham, Danielle Rotar as Star Bird, Sofia Marie as Emmy Jo, Stan Barrett as Running Wolf, James Beck as Highton.  Written by Frank L. Moss.  Directed by William Witney.


Series Overview for HONDO: TV's Unlikeliest Cult Hit at this link  


Ace Civil War and Ohio Flood journalist Jack Graham is brought to Arizona territory by his latest cause celebre: the "persecution" of The Apache Kid, childhood friend of Hondo's turned renegade who is wanted for murder (among other crimes).  Graham's articles have already resulted in pressure on Richards to capture the Kid alive.  After Lane is instrumental in doing so, the famed reporter excoriates Hondo in print as a "Judas", putting the scout and all of Fort Lowell under intense scrutiny from coast to coast--and particularly from Washington D.C.



With Graham's unwitting (and unknowing) aid, the Apache Kid soon breaks out of the guardhouse to start a fresh crime spree.  After killing his sentry, the renegade Kid (who is even less welcome on his tribe's land) slays Star Bird's father, kidnapping the bride-to-be and sending her fiancĂ© Running Wolf in pursuit.  With faithful Sam at his side, Hondo gamely tries to track down the escaped prisoner and his badly abused hostage.  Hot on the trail of both is Graham, brandishing a telegraph guaranteeing his "heroic" subject a top attorney.


Like the previous segment, Hondo and the Apache Kid gives us a clueless outsider to the Arizona territory with impressive credentials in his field, but a thoroughly wrongheaded superiority complex.  Jack Graham is hailed as the champion of Pennsylvania coal miners and New England mill workers, but he's out of his element in the southwestern desert--he first "saw an Indian" just three months earlier.


Witnessing the unjust execution of that falsely accused Native American in Texas inspired his current crusade, but unfortunately, Graham's chosen representative is as unworthy a poster boy as he could find: a kidnapper, thief, rapist and murderer.  Hondo gets a terse (ten seconds, tops) soapbox moment, telling the reporter that he's wasting his help on a sociopath hated by his own people that could be used by the numerous Natives who have been wronged and cheated: Delgado (Hondo and the Singing Wire) and especially Ponce Colorados (Hondo and the Savage) come to mind.


Moss avoids some of the pitfalls that befell Frank Chase in that latter teleplay.  Obnoxious Graham threatens to wear out his welcome, but fortunately Chase gives him to us in smaller doses: Graham disappears completely during the episode's middle third while the audience witnesses the treachery that the scribe is oblivious to.  The three Apaches who end up unjustly executed here are all murdered by The Kid, whose every action justifies the jailing (not solitary confinement as embellished by Graham).  An equal opportunity criminal, the Apache Kid also slays a farmer (while raiding the man's home for food) in addition to the aforementioned trooper.


Tarantino favorite William Witney keeps this one moving, staging a truly badass reveal for Adams and an exciting apprehension of him in the teaser alone.  The director fades in on the collateral damage of the trackdown and doesn't disappoint during the cat and mouse game between Hondo and the Kid.  Lane's frustration at every near miss is palpable as time ticks away for the fugitive's captive--carnal desires after three weeks in the guardhouse are the least of her worries.

Danielle Rotar
The main flaws with Hondo and the Apache Kid have to do with its titular antagonist.  Captain Richards' early assessment of him as just a "bad Indian, that's all" is never convincingly elaborated on.  Buffalo tells us that the Apache Kid (no other name, either) was "like a brother" to Hondo, and the two were trained as Indian scouts by the same man before The Kid broke bad.  It takes a leap of faith to believe that the illiterate, almost mute (he has three words of dialogue, total) Apache Kid could have ever been all that, and the only explanation we're given for his despicable actions is his Napoleon complex.  "Runt of the litter", Hondo says, eliciting one of those three words: "Lies!".


If the Kid's feral manner requires one suspension of disbelief, Adams diminutive stature makes another necessary, particularly in fistfights with Taeger, who is eight inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier.  Fortunately, Adams' trademark intensity helps a great deal towards that end.  The star of Fenady's THE REBEL some six years earlier, Adams is consistently ferocious and elusive.  His Kid also shows a remarkable gift for infiltration time and time again, which helps make it plausible that he learned alongside Lane--"part panther, part Apache" himself--once upon a time.


Jack Graham may seem just as one-note on the surface, but on closer inspection he's broken bad himself.  It's clear from his reputation and past triumphs that he started out as a true champion of underdogs before losing his way.  He states he's there to see that the Kid is treated fairly, but his actions tell us that journalistic objectivity has long fallen by the wayside: Graham is addicted to the power his pen gives him.  Charles Foster Kane's belief that people will think "what I tell them to think" comes to mind.  Any information that contradicts the narrative he's constructing is dismissed as a lie--Graham simply cannot be dissuaded from making his latest "discovery" into a larger than life hero (the Kid appears as tall as the mountains on the newspaper's front page).


After Graham's close call (yes, his muse turns on him), does he seek out any of the numerous Native Americans that (as Lane stated) could "use his help"?  No, the writer only knows one way to apologize, and it's a self serving one--he attempts to make Lane into his next sensationalized hero (after trashing the scout's reputation for weeks).  Of course, the prospect of Graham "repaying his debt" by making Hondo the next protagonist of his "dime novel garbage" gets the reaction you'd expect.  And yes, after an hour with this blowhard, it is a satisfying thing to see.


Chief Vittoro adds gravitas as always, another improvement over the prior segment.  The Apache's leader is with Hondo in spirit but unable to assist him since the scout's task involves taking the Kid to "white man's justice".  The Chief would prefer to do away with the murderer the Apache way, and might be right in this instance, since a sequel (Hondo and the Apache Trail) was needed.


HOW MANY CANS OF WHOOPASS?

That pictured punch in the tag aside, Emberato's temper has improved ever since the closure provided in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre.  The inevitable final confrontation with the Kid is Hondo's only other one on one scuffle (the Kid is swarmed in his initial capture) and the scout ends finally ends it with a right cross after the villain's rifle ammunition runs out. 


IS THE CANTINA STILL STANDING?

Proof of just how formidable an adversary we are dealing with: Hondo and Buffalo never get a chance to set foot in their favorite watering hole--a first for the series.


A DOG'S LIFE:

Sam helps with the tracking for two-thirds of Hondo and the Apache Kid, but he spends the final act as a therapy dog for the newly orphaned Emmy Jo.


GUEST CAST NOTES:

Striking Diane Rotar (credited as Danielle), nineteen at the time, was already known as Jennifer Somers on THE VIRGINIAN.  Long-time stunt coordinator Stan Barrett had his first acting credits on HONDO, appearing in three episodes in all.  He too gets to duke it out with The Kid--can't that guy get along with anyone?



THE BOTTOM LINE:

An interesting examination on the power of the press and how easily that power can be misused, Hondo and the Apache Kid also manages to be an exciting, tense chase tale.  In what would end up being one of his final performances, Nick Adams makes a lot out of very little dialogue.  A solid, satisfying effort--though the Kid's return (Hondo and the Apache Trail) is arguably even better.  (*** out of four)

HONDO airs every Saturday afternoon at 3:30 PM Central on GetTV. Effective July 3rd, 2016, HONDO changes time slots, to Sunday mornings at 6 A.M. Central on GetTV.


Friday, May 27, 2016

F TROOP Fridays: TV GUIDE, May 27-June 2, 1967

The second of our trilogy of F Troop TV Guide Covers.  If you like vintage TV Guide reviews, It's About TV has a new one each Saturday, and you'll find one periodically at Retrospace also.


When F Troop made the cover of TV Guide for the first time on December 11-17, 1965, the show was riding high.  Three months into the 1965-66 season, it was ABC's biggest new hit despite a difficult time slot, giving top-billed Forrest Tucker his signature television role.

The show was front and center on TV Guide a second time during summer reruns eight months later, with Tuck's co-star Larry Storch being the subject of the feature article for the August 13-19, 1966 issue.  (Yes, I will be profiling that one, too, when we get to its 50th Anniversary later this summer.)  The ratings stayed steady through a transition to color and a new night and time in 1966-67, and the Fort Courage foul-ups made TV Guide's cover a third time, 49 years ago this week:


Unfortunately, this feature story was a bittersweet one for the show's fans.  Despite solid ratings in its sophomore season, studio politics and a pending merger with Seven Arts at Warner Brothers ended F TROOP after 65 episodes and two seasons.   

The feature article accompanying F Troop's third and final TV Guide cover is a heartfelt tribute to "one of the funniest ideas to have hit television in years" by frequent TV Guide contributor Ronald Searle.  Of course, the British satirist and artist did the illustration of Berry, Tucker and Storch you see above, along with three more Searle classics that accompanied the three page article (see the next two pictures below).



Searle drolly calls F Troop a "virtual on-the-spot portrait of frontier life as it was lived in everyday terms" and describes meeting (well, maybe) Wild Eagle himself--coming away with an autographed souvenir scalp.  Not as much information on the show as the previous cover stories on Tucker and Storch (save for de Kova's claim to have done "the only Shakespearean Indian role in the business") but Searle's wonderful tribute is still a must-read if you're an F Troop fan.  The long-time (1965-1990) contributor to the best-known television weekly on this side of the pond clearly would have welcomed a third season as much as anyone.  Searle wasn't alone: like its spiritual predecessor The Phil Silvers Show, F Troop quickly gained a significant following in the U.K., re-running continuously on ITV from 1968 to 1974.)


In the same issue that British freelancer Searle pays tribute to an American television classic, U.S. correspondent Robert Musel is far less kind to British TV.  Musel's It Isn't Just Cricket! goes so far as to say that British TV needs a "healthy counterblast" to such pieces as the BBC's examination via 24 Hours: "How Corrupt is America?"  Musel's piece is as serious as Searle's is humorous; his list of grievances can be summed up by his early statement that "the picture of life in America conjured up by the average Briton by what he sees on his screen is more caricature than portrait".  It would be interesting to see the news programs cited; maybe if Musel had been watching The Avengers, The Saint or The Prisoner instead of gotcha journalism (nothing new under the sun, eh?) he would have found more to like.

Should have been available to him, since New York-born Musel was a UPI journalist based in London for many years.  Musel wasn't a writer to be easily dismissed: his career dated back to the Lindbergh kidnapping case.  A songwriter ("Band of Gold") as well, he died in 1999 at age 90.


It's apparently an issue of the recently cancelled, as Robert Loggia of T.H.E. Cat is the subject of the two page article that follows.  Loggia's show lasted a single season, perishing opposite the CBS Friday Night Movies and failing to make the year's top 70. (It had ranked # 68 out of 91 shows at midseason.) Cut-Ups examines Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat's fencing talents, with the background on Loggia's abilities (he learned at the same time he was studying acting under Stella Adler) and offering a little credit to Loggia's double, stunt coordinator Paul Baxley.


Next up is an article that yours truly has a complaint with.  Diahann Carroll up next for four pages, and we get one picture.


Three pics of Mr. Loggia and one of Ms. Carroll?  I have a lot of respect for both performers, but come on, we all know who's easier on the eyes!  Jeez....

The issue of race looms large throughout Edith Efron's profile, with the article's era is given away in the third paragraph: "she is a Negro first and Diahann Carroll second".  By 1967 she was already a thirteen year show business veteran with a Tony award (for 1962's No Strings) and was just a season away from becoming one of TV's most popular stars in NBC's Julia.  Carroll's first marriage to Monte Kay is covered; she declines to discuss the affair with Sidney Poitier that (in part) ended it.  A half century later, the Television Academy Hall of Fame inductee (2011) is still going strong at 81.

Before I continue, I'd rather not make the same mistake they made in this issue.  Here's a second pic of Diahann Carroll in 1967:



Next up, Melvin Durslag's How to Elbow Your Way into Television is about the latest jock-turned-broadcaster, recently retired Dodger great Sandy Koufax, whose career came to an abrupt end after the 1966 season due to elbow problems.  Koufax was signed to a ten year contract by NBC.  While announcing didn't come naturally to the Hall of Fame pitcher, he did end up staying on until 1973.


The next article is a nice read for us Dobie Gillis fans. It's written by Zelda Gilroy herself, Sheila James.  The First Minute Hurts details her adventures in auditioning for commercials, with one breakfast ad and a ubiquitous bowl of mush getting the bulk of the attention.  James was 26 and had been a regular on The Stu Erwin Show and (just two seasons earlier) Broadside in addition to her four year run as Zelda, but her acting career was winding down.  She had guest starred on a January episode of The Beverly Hillbillies (Paul Henning had hired her multiple times for that series and Love That Bob) but only has a half dozen TV credits to her name since, the last being the 1988 reunion Bring Me The Head of Dobie Gillis.
 
James with Hickman on a May 1962 cover


Taking a brief jab at Governor Reagan in her article, James (now known as Sheila James Kuehl) hinted at her future career (and party).  She attained her law degree at Harvard in 1978 and went into politics in 1994, serving six years in the California State Assembly and eight more in the state Senate.  At 75, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native is still at it, in her first term as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.  Two decades apiece in acting, law and politics; like her co-star Dwayne Hickman, she's led many lives.
 

Stephen Strimpnell of Mr. Terrific is the subject of the final article, giving this issue three recently cancelled article subjects, including the season's two highest-rated shows to be cancelled.  Mr. Terrific ranked 36th at season's end, (F Troop was 40th), improving on the show it replaced, Run, Buddy, Run (# 62 with a 27 share).  The season-ending numbers don't tell the whole story: Mr. Terrific was a midseason replacement with only 13 episodes aired, and the premiere ranking # 13 for the week.  It fell out of the top 50 completely by its third segment, never to return, so the high initial rating was considered a fluke by CBS.

Strimpnell originally auditioned for the "cross-town rival", NBC's Captain Nice.  That role was won by William Daniels, but Strimpnell had the last laugh in the ratings.  Well, sort of--both shows lasted only half a season.  Despite the demise of Mr. Terrific, Strimpnell has few complaints: the young (27) actor is living his dream.  A former teacher at Uta Hagen's H.B. Studio and a graduate of Columbia Law School, Strimpnell finds his current situation "amazing and wonderful, gratifying to the senses".

Dwight Whitney's profile of "the child prodigy who grew up to be Mr. Terrific", also gives stunt double Chuck Courtney a little recognition and director Arthur Lubin is also quoted.  While Strimpnell would stay active in the business for the next two decades (including roles in ALL THAT JAZZ and FITZWILLY), Mr. Terrific would remain his best remembered role by far.  He died in 2006.



Moving to the listings, it's summer rerun time, but we still see the premiere of a legendary cult classic with a production history that might be even more interesting than the show itself.  Coronet Blue premiered on Monday, May 29, 1967.  As the Close-Up above notes, Coronet Blue was originally intended for the 1965-66 season, but CBS shelved it, deciding to burn off 11 of the 13 episodes produced two years later.  Surprisingly, the show caught on despite airing opposite Run For Your Life and The Big Valley.   By the summer of '67, continuing it was not an option: star Frank Converse already had a new series, N.Y.P.D. on ABC for the upcoming 1967-68 season.  (It was a modest success; co-starring the great Jack Warden, it lasted until 1969.)

While Converse didn't get a chance to reprise the role of Michael Alden--or at least, hasn't to date--he did have the cult favorite Movin' On in his future as well.  Paul Bogart directed the series premiere.  A detailed history of the series and its long, strange journey to the airwaves can be found at the always fascinating Television Obscurities blog.


On Friday night, the upcoming fifth installment of the James Bond franchise (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) warrants a special on NBC, pre-empting The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Other listings tidbits:

Joanne Dru

Joanne Dru is one of the Hollywood Squares this week; her brother Peter Marshall is the host, of course.  Other Squares: Marty Allen, Steve Rossi, Vincent Price, Eva Gabor and Michael Landon;


Crooner Julius La Rosa (from the various Arthur Godfrey shows, at least until his "swan song" in October 1953) alongside country comics Homer and Jethro on Friday's Mike Douglas Show; La Rosa actually is in for the entire week.  His public firing by Godfrey was still mentioned in the headlines of his obituaries after his passing on May 12, overshadowing several major hits including Eh, Cumpari and Anywhere I Wander.  R.I.P.


What of F Troop itself?  Forrest Tucker gets his chance to shine in a dual role, playing both Sergeant O'Rourke and father Angus in Did Your Father Come From Ireland? Thursday night at 8 PM. 

In the "Letters" section, the May 6 John Banner article brought a thumbs-down from a reader.  True, controversy over Hogan's Heroes was nothing new even then.   One reason you might find the letter interesting--it's written by a very familiar name:


Allan S. Manings was married to Whitney Blake (Hazel) and the two of them co-created One Day At a Time in 1975.  In the more immediate future, he was months away from a long run writing for Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.  Manings (1924-20100 won an Emmy for the latter; he also produced Good Times from 1975-1977.

Yes, I did these out of order, but the in-between issue is still coming up in August, when we will visit the world of the legendary Larry Storch.  Until then, It's About TV can satisfy your TV Guide fix on a weekly basis, taking an in-depth look at a vintage issue every Saturday.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Television Review: GET CHRISTIE LOVE!: "Highway to Murder" (1974)





GET CHRISTIE LOVE!: "Highway to Murder" (ABC-TV/Universal; Original Air Date: October 30, 1974) Starring Teresa Graves as Det. Christie Love, Charles Cioffi as Captain Reardon.  Guest Stars: Clu Galager as Sheriff Burl Taggart, John Quade as Deputy Willet, Donna Andresen as Myrna James, Walter Brooke as Kane, Rudy Ramos as Dimas, Jack Ryland as Chan, Migdia Varela as Tina Estrada, Pat Corley as Duffy, Patch McKenzie as Loretta Brooks, Brion James as Trent Hopper, Georgia Schmidt as Mrs. Bannister, Douglas Dirkson as Tolan.  Written by Donn Mullaly.  Directed by Ivan Dixon.

Series overview for GET CHRISTIE LOVE! and introduction to the episode guide at this link.


The incarceration of material witness Myrna James brings Detective Love to the small town of Monroe.  Needing to arrange James' extradition for a key L.A. murder trial, Christie finds that she'll have to wait: Myrna's jailed for robbery and the Judge is away on a fishing trip.   Monroe Sheriff Burl Taggart can't be much help, since Love's arrival coincides with the discovery that one of Burl's officers has been found murdered outside of town.


Taggart offers to let Love ride along and observe investigative techniques "out here in the sticks".  Despite Deputy Willet's discovery of an incriminating stolen watch in Dimas' luggage, "big city" Detective Love thinks that the Sheriff is barking up the wrong tree when he suspects the Hispanic immigrant of the killing.  Meanwhile, with the backing of a menacing biker gang (The Vikings), the dead officer's brother Chan threatens vigilantism if Dimas is "let off".  When public defender Tolan pulls a few strings with the Attorney General,  Christie is assigned to help with the case, putting the L.A. Detective squarely in someone's crosshairs.  But who?


Highway to Murder is the obligatory episode where our metropolitan detective unwittingly gets involved in a rural case and finds a hostile reception from the locals.  But don't expect many echoes of In the Heat of the Night---while none of the locals we meet are African-American, no one makes so much of a mention of Christie's race.  The lone comment Christie's appearance elicits?  Deputy Willet's opener: "They sure do package 'em nice in the big city!"  Even the Vikings' leader avoids racist or sexist perjoratives while menacing the outsider.


This isn't to say that Highway to Murder is devoid of racial tensions; Chan is upset to learn his brother has been murdered, and seems even angrier at the thought that Mexicans might get away with the crime--lynching is his stated threat from the officer's sibling if justice "isn't served".  As it turns out, the choosing of Dimas as a patsy is purely to cover up a much larger operation, one that has an impressive number of collaborators.  Not surprising in 1974, but this conspiracy isn't of (say) Race With the Devil proportions: the sheriff and the most powerful employer Kane certainly aren't in on it.  However, both have moles in their respective organizations.


Despite a few comments early, the expected urban/rural law enforcement conflict never really develops.  He initially seems eager to demonstrate that hustle and know-how can compensate for budgetary shortfalls, but Sheriff Taggart owns a Masters in criminology from UCLA, takes refresher courses through the LAPD and already embraces the latest technology.  Still, it takes Taggart a while to release his idea that Dimas is guilty.  The Sheriff doesn't appear all that pleased to be ordered to work with Detective Love, but he welcomes her input before and after this brief irritation, agreeing that they both want the same thing: a real culprit behind bars.


Taggart and Love are equally dogged invesigators, and the former implies he's in Monroe instead of L.A. because he dislikes the hassle of the big city.  Then again, for all his training, hustle and expertise, he's still unaware of the major criminal activity taking place right under his nose--specifically, with his top deputy.  On the surface, Willet fields the calls and minds the store at the department, all the while directing and concealing the illegal immigration scheme.


Willet is intriguingly written by Mullaly: using his position to stay one step ahead of Taggart's leg work, deftly planting phony evidence to steer suspicion,  easing Love into a wild goose chase to the Kane farm (and into harm's way after).  All the while, he's deferential tto his boss, of whom he speaks glowingly--it's Willet who lists Taggart's credentials, something the modest Sheriff appears highly unlikely to do.


Unfortunately, much of the resolution doesn't hold water.  The incriminating body at the resort would almost certainly be disposed of after the first officer's death, particularly with the manpower available to our labor suppliers.  Chan's inflammatory actions also seem very puzzling in hindsight, once the final revelation is known.  Willet foolishly handles the showdown with Love--he should be telling her to throw down the gun instead of asking her to hand it to him (so he can lose his balance reaching out for it), shouldn't he?   (It makes as much sense as approaching Steven Segal with a gun instead of shooting him at a distance always did.)  Too many highly unlikely mistakes from a meticulous mastermind.


Outside of the disappointing finale, director Dixon (Trouble Man) handles the action capably, with Christie's second run-in with the Vikings well handled--Dixon doesn't even utilize the overexposed right hand flip that seemed to show up in every episode.  Christie's Capri takes the beating that the Detective avoids, with her back windshield shot out by "crazy hermit" Trent Hopper as he supposedly hunts for jackrabbit.


Speaking of Hopper, he's played by Brion James in what appears to have been the actor's first prime time TV role.  In fact, I suspect James may have been doing double duty, since he's credited only as Hopper, while the Vikings' leader is unlisted in the credits, but definitely appears to be him as well.  You be the judge:


Elsewhere, a young Patch MacKenzie plays Kane's much younger squeeze,


Migdia Chinea has one of her earliest credits as well, before launching her career as a writer-director:



And Donna Andreson makes an appearance as Christie's jailed material witness, shortly before her most memorable role in 1976's Mansion of the Damned.  Incidentally, that cult classic was directed by Michael Pataki, who would join the cast of GET CHRISTIE LOVE! just a few episodes later as Christie's new partner, replacing Andy Romano.



The eclectic guest cast headed by Galager, Quade and Brooke is a definite plus, since both Andy Romano and Dennis Rucker are M.I.A. this week and Charles Cioffi is limited to a fifteen second telephone cameo.  Doesn't quite all tie together, but does set up a potential sequel with Galager's Sheriff, since Quade's accomplice who actually committed one murder and sabotaged Christie's car is still at large.  Alas, Highway to Murder would be our only visit to Monroe, California and those fiery enchiladas.


ONE LUMP OR MORE?

Christie doles out two. with Trenton and Deputy Willet uneasily sugared by our wary heroine.  The first after that aforementioned back windshield blast, the latter after the deputy gets the drop on the big city detective who threw a wrench in his seemingly foolproof scheme.



THE BOTTOM LINE:

The guest cast is deeper and more fascinating than usual, and both Mullaly and Dixon bring impressive credentials and skills, but neither seems to be at the top of his game with Highway to Murder. On the plus side: Galager and Quade give well conceived performances to lead a strong guest cast, and the change of scenery (for the first time since the pilot movie, we're out of L.A.) is welcome. An interesting setup that doesn't quite come together but has its points of interest.  (**1/2 out of four)