Category Archives: Television

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).


Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).