Prescription: Murder (1968 TVM)

US / 99 minutes / color / Universal, MCA–TV, NBC Dir & Pr: Richard Irving Scr: Richard Levinson, William Link Story: Enough Rope (1960 teleplay) and Prescription: Murder (1962 play), both by Richard Levinson and William Link Cine: Ray Rennahan Cast: Peter Falk, Gene Barry, Katherine Justice, William Windom, Nina Foch, Virginia Gregg, Andrea King, Susanne Benton, Ena Hartman, Sherry Boucher, Anthony James.

The very first appearance of the iconic Lt. Columbo was in a 1960 TV movie called Enough Rope, an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show; the character was played by Bert Freed. The writers of that episode, Richard Levinson and William Link, then took their teleplay and made a stage play out of it. And, in due course they adapted their stage play back into the teleplay for the TV movie, Prescription: Murder, that would become the pilot for the phenomenally successful series. (It wasn’t the only intelligent crime series birthed by the Levinson/Link team, who Continue reading

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-5), episodes #9-#12

Episode 9: The Spanish Moss Murders

Aired December 6 1974

US / 52 minutes / color / Francy, Universal, ABC Dir: Gordon Hessler Pr: Cy Chermak Scr: Al Friedman, David Chase Story: Al Friedman Cine: Ronald W. Browne Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Keenan Wynn, Severn Darden, Randy Boone, Johnny Silver, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt, Ned Glass, Richard Kiel, Virginia Gregg, Elisabeth Brooks, Donald Mantooth, Roberta Dean.

In many ways, one of the most inventive of all the series, including the two precursor TVMs, this has a tremendous climax in the Chicago sewers that’s let down, in its final moments, by a lack of imagination.

Roberta Dean as Michelle Kelly, the first victim.

First to die at the hands of this latest monster is Michelle Kelly (Dean), one of the lab assistants to sleep researcher Dr. Aaron Pollack (Darden). Next is the chef (uncredited) at a chichi restaurant (“The total value of Chez Voltaire’s wine cellar exceeded the gross national product of Paraguay”). Both victims, as well as those who follow, are crushed to death, their bodies found adorned with gloops of spanish moss. All clues point to Paul Langois (Mantooth), a member of Chicago’s Cajun community; trouble is, Langois has been asleep in Dr. Pollack’s sleep laboratory, under constant monitoring, for the past six weeks.

Severn Darden as Dr. Aaron Pollack.

It’s of course investigative journalist Carl Kolchak (McGavin) who puts all the pieces together. Deliberately deprived of the ability to dream for so long, Langois’s unconscious has conjured into being a Paramafait, a bayou swamp monster that Cajun moms use to frighten recalcitrant children to sleep.

I assumed that the Paramafait must be a creature drawn from existing folklore, as per the others in the series to date (Jack the Ripper appears in episode 1, but in folk-monster aspect rather than as an historical character). I was wrong, however, and it’s testament to the writers’ skills that I was so deceived. Here’s commentary from someone much better qualified than I am, Michael Mayes, who blogs as Texas Cryptid Hunter:

I wondered, years after viewing this episode, if paramafait was based on an actual Cajun legend. . . . I’ve looked often but have never found anything on this monster that connects it to anything but the old television show. It appears that paramafait was purely the creation of the Kolchak: The Night Stalker writing team. Having said that, it is entirely possible that the writers took some well-known Cajun folk tales and weaved elements of them together to yield the ultimate swamp monster that was paramafait.

Virginia Gregg as Dr. Hollenbeck.

The incandescent cop in this episode, Captain Joe “Mad Dog” Siska (Wynn), has been at his wife’s behest trying to control his habitual incandescence through group therapy; naturally enough, dealing with Kolchak soon erodes that effort, to spectacular effect. There are nice cameos from Johnny Silver as street musician Morris Shapiro aka “Pepe LaRue,” Ned Glass as a building superintendent and Virginia Gregg as botanist Dr. Hollenbeck. The homicidal monster is played by Richard Kiel, as per the previous episode; this time, however, you see nothing of his face, just the huge body draped in copious moss.

Keenan Wynn as Captain Joe ‘Mad Dog’ Siska.

Episode 10: The Energy Eater

Aired December 13 1974

US / 52 minutes / color / Francy, Universal, ABC Dir: Alex Grasshoff Pr: Cy Chermak Scr: Arthur Rowe, Rudolph Borchert Story: Arthur Rowe Cine: Ronald W. Browne Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, William Smith, Elaine Giftos, Tom Drake, Michael Strong, Robert Yuro, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt, John Alvin, Robert Cornthwaite, John Mitchum.

Joyce Jillson as Diane Lanier.

Newly built Lakefront Hospital seems to be having structural problems. Only plucky investigative journalist Carl Kolchak (McGavin) recognizes the real truth: the place has been infested by a Matchemonedo, a Native American spirit that feeds on energy—either electrical or protein. With the very considerable assistance of steel boss, modern-day medicine man and inveterate womanizer Jim Elkhorn (Smith) and fetching pathology nurse Janis Eisen (Giftos), Kolchak sets things aright.

William Smith as Jim Elkhorn.

Elaine Giftos as Nurse Janis Eisen.

The hostile cop in this instance, Detective Webster (Yuro), has a fairly underplayed role. Among the various support performances are John Alvin as Dr. Ralph Carrie and Robert Cornthwaite as a physician whom Kolchak briefly uses as cover, Dr. Hartfield.

Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Hartfield.

There’s an enjoyable (albeit innuendo-laden) cameo from Joyce Jillson as one of Jim Elkhorn’s aspirant conquests, Diane Lanier. Also innuendo-laden, though rather sweeter, is Kolchak’s exchange with the would-be-actress PR flack (I think it’s Ella Edwards aka Ellaraino, but it could be Barbara Graham) who welcomes him to the hospital’s opening:

Flack: “I’m just doing this for the exposure. It’s difficult for someone who’s just starting to get exposed.”
Kolchak: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

There are far, far worse fantasy/noir TV series in existence, but at this particular stage in my personal odyssey I was beginning to weary of the makers’ reliance on riffs on a single basic formula.

Episode 11: Horror in the Heights

Aired December 20 1974

US / 52 minutes / color / Francy, Universal, ABC Dir: Michael T. Caffey Pr: Cy Chermak Scr: Jimmy Sangster Cine: Ronald W. Browne Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Phil Silvers, Murray Matheson, Abraham Sofaer, Benny Rubin, Shelly Novack, Barry Gordon, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt, Ned Glass, Jim Goodwin, Eric Server, John Bleifer, Herb Vigran, Naomi Stevens, Robert Karnes.

Someone—or something—is murdering people in a rundown area of Chicago, Roosevelt Heights, and devouring the flesh from the slaughtered bodies. Moreover, someone—or something—is daubing swastikas all over the local walls, which isn’t the most tactful thing to do in a largely Jewish neighborhood. Could the two phenomena be related?

Abraham Sofaer as the elderly Rakshasa-hunter.

Of course they are, as investigative journalist Carl Kolchak (McGavin) discovers. The swastikas aren’t Nazi symbols but Hindu ones, devices painted there to keep away evil spirits—in particular the flesh-devouring Rakshasa—by the owner (Sofaer) of a newly opened Indian restaurant, an old man who has spent most of his life hunting down and killing these hideous spirits with his trusty crossbow. The particular skill of the Rakshasa lies in its ability to pluck from the mind of its intended victim the image of an authority figure or other trusted person and take on that likeness until . . . c-r-r-r-r-unch!

Phil Silvers as Harry Starman.

Comedian Phil Silvers co-stars as Harry Starman, an early witness of the Rakshasa’s crime spree and in due course a victim himself. Emily Cowles (McDevitt) has a far larger part than usual, which is pleasing.

I have to confess that, tricked into thinking the Paramafait of episode 9 was a genuine folkloric monster, I checked up on the Rakshasa. It’s “real” enough—and even has its own Wikipedia entry.

Episode 12: Mr. R.I.N.G.

Aired January 10 1975

US / 52 minutes / color / Francy, Universal, ABC Dir: Gene Levitt Pr: Cy Chermak Scr: L. Ford Neale, John Huff Cine: Ronald W. Browne Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Julie Adams, Corinne Michaels, Bert Freed, Donald Barry, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt, Henry Beckman, Robert Easton, Maidie Norman, Bruce Powers, Vince Howard, Craig Baxley, Gail Bonney.

At the hush-hush Tyrell Institute, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Avery Walker (uncredited) is murdered by a robot (Baxley) that proceeds to make its escape. Investigative journalist Carl Kolchak (McGavin), commissioned to write Walker’s obituary, encounters the robot when it breaks into the Glengarry Mortuary to steal a selection of the cosmetics used to prettify the deceased; he soon makes the connection between the robot and his commission.

Henry Beckman as Senator Stephens.

The trail leads him to Walker’s drunken and not very grieving widow (Adams); to the cyberneticist, Dr. Leslie Dwyer (Michaels), who programmed the robot with, among other things, a survival instinct; and to Senator Duncan Stephens (Beckman), who starts putting pressure on Kolchak’s boss, Tony Vincenzo (Oakland), to kill the story.

Julie Adams as Mrs. Walker.

The story’s told by a Kolchak who’s trying to piece it together even though suffering the aftereffects of the amnesia-inducing drugs the military has been pumping into him in their effort to make him forget the events entirely. It’ll come as no surprise to learn there’s a Frankensteinian subtheme to the tale: the true monsters are not the robot but those who wanted a killer robot for military use—indeed, the robot is trying to educate itself ethically by absorbing works by the likes of Thomas Aquinas. (Kolchak, cornily, sends it into a tizzy by asking it: “What is the difference between right and wrong?”)

Corinne Michaels (aka Corinne Camacho) as Leslie Dwyer.

Both robot and the project of which it’s a part are called R.I.N.G., which stands for Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia. What the heck that means is anybody’s guess.

Cobweb, The (1955)

US / 124 minutes / color / MGM Dir: Vincente Minnelli Pr: John Houseman Scr: John Paxton, William Gibson Story: The Cobweb (1954) by William Gibson Cine: George Folsey Cast: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, John Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Tommy Rettig, Paul Stewart, Dayton Lummis, Jarma Lewis, Adele Jergens, Edgar Stehli, Sandra Descher, Bert Freed, Mabel Albertson, Fay Wray, Oliver Blake, Olive Carey, Eve McVeagh, Virginia Christine, Jan Arvan, Ruth Clifford, Myra Marsh, Marjorie Bennett.

By the mid-1950s the studios were becoming seriously worried over losing their audience to the new kid on the block, TV. One stratagem they tried in response to this threat was the star-studded ensemble movie, of which The Cobweb is a prime example. This blackly comedic soap opera isn’t of much direct noir interest, if any, save for its astonishing cast, with noir icons like Widmark, Grahame and Bacall at the top but others like Jergens and Stewart further down as well as actors better known outside noir but who nevertheless made noir contributions, such as Boyer, Wray, Christine and even Bennett.

Dr. Stewart “Mac” McIver (Widmark) is the de facto chief of a psychiatric clinic, although the physician who ran it for many years, the boozy, philandering Dr. Douglas N. “Dev” Devanal (Boyer), is still formally its Medical Director. Mac has instituted a self-government policy for the patients as part of their therapy; in fact, the place seems more like a posh country hotel with psychotherapy laid on than a grim sanitarium.

Meg Rinehart (Bacall) views Stevie’s designs.

All are agreed that the clinic’s library requires new curtains. Victoria “Vicky” Inch (Gish), in charge of administration, assumes she should order something bland from the usual local supplier, Petlee & Sons. Before she can do so, however, two things happen. First, Mac’s seemingly spoilt, shrewish wife Karen (Grahame), visiting the clinic and discovering the situation, decides to take matters into her own hands and, with the connivance by telephone of the Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, the formidable Regina Mitchell-Smythe (Albertson), orders the most expensive drapes money could buy—to be delivered by special airmail, no less! Second, the extraordinarily repressed patient Sue Brett (Strasberg) suggests the patients should design the new drapes themselves, an idea picked up by the suicidal but artistically talented patient Stevie Holte (Kerr) and supported by the clinic’s art therapist, the widowed Meg Faversen Rinehart (Bacall).

Stevie produces his designs for the drapes, and they’re Continue reading