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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

(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.


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