Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Jack Is High; Kraft Suspense Theatre; Edd Byrnes; Ralph Senensky; Larry Storch; Pat O'Brien

Click here for the previous episode review.

Season #2, Episode #6

The Jack is High

Original air Date: November 19, 1964

Setting/Time:  The present - mainly on a highway between Nevada and Los Angeles.

Plot/Review/Discussion:

Five armed men stop and rob an armored car near Reno, Nevada and steal the $3,000,000 inside.  When the robbery is discovered they become the most wanted men in the region. They must elude the police, transport themselves and the cash to Los Angeles and melt into the city before the police find them. 

The main conflict of this story is, obviously, cops v. robbers.  The robbers put into place an ingenious plan to hide themselves in the belly of a gasoline tanker truck, into which a false inner tank has been inserted. The robbers will take turns driving and hiding in the inner tank (with the money) during the journey to Los Angeles. This plan is intended to fool police checkpoints that will inevitably appear on the highway as the police attempt to prevent the unknown robbers from escaping.


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Other conflicts emerge between the robbers.  Some of the robbers are portrayed as decent (even refined) men who are simply down on their luck, while one of them is a more brutal thug and career criminal. The career criminal is impatient with the plan and the miscues that inevitably occur.  Threats and fistfights result as the truck stops at various points along the highway so the robbers can switch drivers or treat an ill member of their gang. (The highway obviously predates the limited access, modern interstate.)

The audience learns about the robbers only through the police investigation, as the police learn about their backgrounds and motivations for robbing the armored truck. The robbers talk about themselves only to reveal their bad luck and their hopes for a better life with the stolen money. All of the robbers have interesting, but sad, stories, except for the career criminal. The career criminal seems to be inserted mainly to add contrast to the other characters.

There are numerous points of suspense during the epsiode, as the robbers confront police checkpoints and barely escape suspicion a couple of times.  The writer and director build the suspense effectively, as the police investigation and the robbers' plan/journey reach critical points in the climax.

I will avoid plot spoilers, but the ending scene is quite memorable. The ending was simple, chilling, believable and avoided excessive cleverness and violence.  Many of those who saw this episode in 1964 still remember this scene decades later.

One of the best sources of information about this episode is the blog of director Ralph Senensky.  Senenksy's blog includes plot spoilers (even at the beginning of the post), so be careful if you have not seen this episode. Senensky's blog is here and here. Senensky includes a great deal of information, including the story of how a man died during filming of the opening scene. 

Senensky also writes of the general difficulties involved in filming outside, including obstacles to audio recording.  Senensky writes in detail of Universal's (and other studios') policy of inserting studio-recorded dialogue to compensate when background noise ruined a take. Senensky explains how he circumvented that policy to preserve quality.  The viewer does not always fully appreciate the effort involved in filming outdoors. Senensky's blog helps us to associate better quality films with actual outdoor shots instead of indoor shots with painted backgrounds.

William Wood wrote this episode.  This was the first of five episodes he wrote for KST.  Those episodes are somewhat diverse - often (but not always) involving action.  Wood often wrote crime stories, including one 1979 tv movie (Death Car on the Freeway) involving  highway suspense. 

The idea of gangsters hiding in the belly of a tanker truck was used (very differently) in the James Cagney 1949 movie White Heat. While I have no idea if White Heat inspired the tanker scenes in this episode, White Heat is known for having inspired many movies in different ways.

Cars

This episode featured many 1964 Ford Galaxies as police cars.  The following car appeared amidst the police Galaxies several times:


1964 Dodge 880?


It appears to be a 1964 Dodge 880.

The most prominent vehicle was the tanker truck, but I could not identify the make or year.

The highway featured a number of interesting cars. The clip below shows a 1962 - 1964 Buick Riviera (that traveled in the other direction a moment earlier) and a 1954 or 1955 Cadillac convertible.


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A moment earlier, a 1959 Pontiac and a 1963 Pontiac passed in the opposite direction (if you blinked you would have missed them).

In this scene, the white car with its trunk open appears to be a 1956 Pontiac convertible.



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It was obvious that the producers/directors of this (and every other KST) episode were not concerned with the historic/classic importance of the vehicles (for which I do not blame them, given their job in getting a show on the air). The vehicle shots were brief, included only a portion of each car and were often blocked by people or other cars. 

A show produced in 2013 and set 50 years in the past would overemphasize the vehicles and use only the most memorable models.  Such shows make for nice eye candy, but sacrifice authenticity.  The cars that appear in KST are much more meaningful because there was no obvious effort to display those cars. It is much more fun to see which cars turn up randomly in an episode where there was no intention to highlight those cars.  The viewer has the feeling that he is actually looking through a window into the past.

Actors

Ralph Senensky's blog also contains a great deal of information about the casting choices in this episode, including how those choices were made and what difficulties those choices presented.

Edd Byrnes played one of the robbers.  He was the "good guy" in the disputes with the career criminal.  The major role of his career (77 Sunset Strip) had just ended a year earlier.  Byrnes would remain active through the 1990's, including as host in the pilot of Wheel of Fortune and other series work.  Senensky provides interesting thoughts on the studio's choice to cast Byrnes.

Larry Storch played another robber.  He has enjoyed a near 60 year career as a comedian and impressionist, with his most famous role (on F Troop) beginning a year after filming "Jack is High."  Storch's comedic talents played a brief, but pivotal role in the plot.  Senensky's blog comments on the importance of his own avoidance of Universal's outdoor retake policy, especially as it related to Storch's performance.

In September 2008 (almost 44 years after this episode aired) Storch and Byrnes took part in a panel discussion at a Maryland nostalgia convention.  During questioning regarding their careers and different films they had made, both Storch and Byrnes denied ever having made a film or show together.

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(Byrnes is in the middle (speaking) and Storch is on the left.)  KST received no mention during the discussion of these actors' lengthy careers. While they obviously forgot their (major) role in this episode, such forgetfulness is hard for the viewer to imagine. We watched their characters sit next to each other, interract, talk, argue and even fight.  This discussion indicates that a television episode can mean more to the audience after 4 decades than it does to the actors. 












Harry Bellaver played another of the robbers.  His film career lasted almost 50 years (interspersed with a long Broadway career).  He played Sitting Bull in Annie Get Your Gun (both on Broadway and on film). His longest television role was on The Naked City, which role ended about a year before this KST episode aired. Bellaver's role in this episode was pivotal, although no larger than the other robbers. His role was also sympathetic.

Pat O'Brien plays a police detective for the second time in KST, having played earlier in Threatening Eye. His career lasted more than 50 years. 

Henry Jones was the "brains" behind the robbery, playing the character known as "The Professor."  Jones was a constant presence in movies, television and Broadway for  years.  I recall him playing mostly smooth talking villains.  Jones' villains, by design, were not very menacing and were sometimes comical.  Jones' most famous roles were in Vertigo, Bad Seed and as a regular on Phyllis.  I remember him from the Six Million Dollar Man and Big Valley

Don Kennedy plays a policeman for the first of two times in KST, appearing later in episode 2.15.

William Boyett plays a policeman for the second time in KST, having appeared previously in episode 1.07.

Star Trek connections.

William Bramley played the career criminal in the second of his two KST episodes.  He would later play the lead policeman in Star Trek's "Bread and Circuses."  He often played authority figures (police, judges, military, etc.) during his 25 year career, including West Side Story, The Outer Limits, The Streets of San Francisco and Barnaby Jones.

This episode was the second of three KST episodes that Ralph Senensky directed. Senensky directed more than half a dozen Star Trek episodes, each of which Senensky writes of at his blog (along with many other series that he directed in his quarter century career). 

"Jack is High" was one of several television shows in which Bramley and Senensky teamed up, including KST's "A Hero for our Times," Star Trek's "Bread and Circuses," three episodes of The F.B.I. and one episode of Breaking Point.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Kamchatka Incident; Kraft Suspense Theater; John Forsythe; Roger Perry; Leslie Parrish; Malachi Throne

Click here for the previous episode review.

Season #2, Episode #5

The Kamchatka Incident

Original Air Date:  November 12, 1964 

Setting/Time: The present (or some time in "the past few years") in Tokyo and the North Pacific Ocean.

Plot/Review/Discussion:

Major Livingston is the pilot of an American military transport that is scheduled to fly from Tokyo to the American West Coast during a typhoon. The flight is complicated by the presence of a flight attendant with whom he has had an affair and a Russian defector among the passengers.  Further complicating the flight are mechanical defects that become apparent after the transport plane is airborne.

The episode begins with a narrative voice-over:

For the past few years, a report has circulated in the Orient about certain events, which occurred while a typhoon named Hazel was spinning itself in the far reaches of the Pacific. The report was originally classified 'Confidential', but word has continued to spread, and more and more people have heard and passed on the story that has come to be known as The Kamchatka Incident.
There are many conflicts in this episode, the biggest of which plays out between the American flight crew and the Russian military plane that attempts to intercept them in midair when they stray into Russian air space.  As Major Livingston and his co-pilot ponder their options for dealing with the Russians just outside their cockpit window, they are informed of the Russian defector among the passengers. The defector will almost certainly be killed if the American plane is captured. This reality creates conflict between the flight crew and the defector's handler from the U.S. government (also a passenger), who demands that the crew refuse to surrender. 

The Russian conflict has pushed to the background the drama between Livinston and the flight attendant.  The two had previously suffered tense moments at the airport and during the early part of the flight when discussing the affair and its end.  
The typhoon provides the added conlfict of "man v. nature." Even though they are beyond the storm's reach, the storm has forced them to fly an unusual flight path, which path, coupled with the plane's mechanical troubles, led them into the outer reaches of Russian air space. 



Livingston and his co-pilot must decide whether to surrender or try to flee in their damaged plane, while considering the safety of all of their passengers, including the Russian defector. The resolution is primarily action based.  The romantic angle does not contribute to the resolution, although the resolution of the primary conflict helps resolve the romantic plot.


It is apparent from the conversation between Livingston and the attendant that the affair was an adulterous one, even though the writing subtly avoids making that point clear (as best I recall).

The Kamchatka Peninsula is controlled by Russia and has been on the front lines of military and political conflict over many decades, especially involving Russia and Japan.  Nineteen years after this episode aired, the Kamchatka Peninsula was near the location where Russian fighter planes shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 in September 1983.  This episode also predated Pueblo by four years and Mayaguez by 11 years. Instead of copying this episode from modern headlines, this episode predated those headlines.

In 1985, Robert KcKinney wrote a novel with the same name as this episode, based loosely on KAL 007 (with substantial changes).  The online descriptions of this book describe very different plots than this KST episode.  It is possible that McKinney had never even seen this episode.

I was pleased by the realism of this episode.  The writers did not complicate the plot with implausible twists and complicated mysteries, such as you might see in modern political thrillers.  The writers presented a basic story with the Russians as the "bad guys."  They did not see the need to create a new "bad guy" that the Americans and Russians would team up to defeat, such as the shadowy groups fighting James Bond or those that appear in such movies as Sum of All Fears.

The Russians in this KST episode appear only on the periphery of the action.  They are the largely unseen enemy that cannot be ignored.  The primary conflict appears more ominous that way as the flight crew and passengers engage in their own conflicts attempting to deal with the problem. 

This episode has much in common with the old western series, Wagon Train, in which traveling groups must contend with various dangers while traveling great distances in the western desert. Wagon Train featured characters with stories in their past that are explored and revealed over the course of the episode while the convoy deals with their primary danger and their isolation.  This type of story idea is well represented here.  (Episode 1.19 was also similar to Wagon Train, without being overly similar to this episode.)

Actors

John Forsythe played Major Livingston in the second of his two roles in KST.

Frank Maxwell played the Russian defector's American handler in the second of his three KST roles. 

Star Trek connection

Roger Perry played the co-pilot.  Two years later, he would play Captain Christopher on Star Trek's "Tomorrow is Yesterday."  Perry's career has spanned more than 50 years, with his most recent credit coming in 2010.  Perry starred in two series that lasted only one season.  He has played guest roles on many famous series, including Ironside, Barnaby Jones and Falcon Crest.

Leslie Parrish played the flight attendant with the not-completely-defined romantic link to Major Livingston.  She played Lt. Palamas in Star Trek's "Who Mourns for Adonais?"  Her careen spanned more than 20 years, beginning with uncredited roles in movies in the mid-1950's and continuing with guest roles on shows such as Perry Mason, Big Valley, Adam-12 and Police Story

Malachi Throne played the Russian defector in the third of his three KST appearances.  Little more than two weeks after this episode aired, Throne and the cast of Star Trek would begin filming the pilot episode ("The Cage") of that series.  A more detailed summary of his career appears for episode 1.07.  Throne died at age 85 on March 13, 2013.  Throne is the third actor from "The Cage" to appear in the second season, and one of eight different actors from "The Cage" to appear in KST over both seasons.

In one scene, where the defector came to the cockpit to confer with Major Livingston, the only people in the scene were the three Star Trek actors and John Forsythe.

One of the writers for this episode is Paul Schneider, who wrote episodes "The Squire of Gothos" and "Balance of Terror" from Star Trek, along with "The Terratin Incident" from Star Trek's animated series.

Cars.

The only vehicles in this episode were the American transport plane and the Russian fighter plane.  I do not know what type of airplanes the producers used.