July 25, 2013
“Why not directing? There’s no big mystery about it. It’s – well, it’s just having a point of view and – and a certain amount of selection and taste.”
– Vince Edwards
Last month, I wrote about the problems of writing about television direction. With the auteur concept in film criticism, the collaborative nature of the medium becomes a dangerous trap: how do we determine, through research or comparison, which decisions were made by the director rather than by the writer, the cinematographer, the actors, or the editor? Television multiplies that problem by sheer volume – most directors racked up a hundred or more TV episodes during their career – as well as access – logistically, how many of those hundred or more shows can be located and screened in quick succession? Compounding the daunting element of scale is the assumption that television is not a director’s medium. More than in feature filmmaking, the director’s role is proscribed, with producers, stars, and editors routinely making decisions that would typically fall to the director in cinema. The process of discerning a television director’s personal style is a kind of reverse engineering. It’s not enough to study Director X’s episodes of many different series. One also needs to look at other directors’ episodes of the same series, as a means of identifying which touches are unique to Mr. X and which might be part of a given show’s overall “house style.” And, perhaps, familiarize oneself with the unquantifiable work of many actors: how are they different under Mr. X’s direction than under someone else’s?
The fraternity of fanatics who have seen enough television to be qualified to undertake such studies is small. I’m one of them, but even I find the prospect intimidating. In the back of my mind, I have a list of a dozen or so episodic directors active between the fifties and the seventies who consistently delivered first-rate work. But it would take a pretty big research grant to fund the hundreds of hours necessary to write authoritatively about even one of those bodies of work.
Which brings us to Vincent Edwards, the star of Ben Casey, and also an occasional director of television segments. Edwards might seem an unexpected choice to serve as our guinea pig here, but there are certain factors that make him well-suited to our purpose. First, his videography is manageable: he helmed only about twenty-two hours of television across nearly thirty years. Second, he was famous, which means that we have access to more biographical information than we would expect to find for a rank-and-file television director. Third, the case of the television-star-turned-director is a fairly specific phenomenon that recurs across the history of successful TV series, and we may be able to benefit from certain generalizations about how it happens, and what the results tend to be.
The other factor that makes Edwards interesting is that he’s something of an extreme case. Edwards came to mind when I was reading reviews of a Mad Men episode directed by John Slattery (who, like his co-star Jon Hamm, has become one of the series’ regular directors). One mentioned Slattery’s “lovely lyrical images,” another his “usual visual flair.” The seven episodes of Ben Casey that Edwards directed are also precociously cinematic. In fact, Edwards’s kid-in-a-candy-shop infatuation with the camera and its possibilities is so manifestly in evidence that his work on Ben Casey has attained a tiny cult following among the handful of aficionados who pay attention to such things. (The post seems to have been swallowed by the internet, but Edwards-as-director came in for a round of both admiration and scorn a few years back in one of the discursive discussions on auteurist extraordinaire Dave Kehr’s blog.)
“I just went up [to the producers of Ben Casey] and said, ‘I wanta direct a show.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll find a script.’”
– Vince Edwards
The script that Edwards pulled was a heavy female melodrama called “Dispel the Black Cyclone That Shakes the Throne.” The patient of the week was one Clarissa Rose Genet (Mary Astor), a reclusive opera star whose comeback has been thwarted by blindness (because blind people have never become successful recording artists) and also by the controlling impulses of a live-in manager (Eileen Heckart) who prefers that her solo client remain as helpless as possible. Although Clarissa’s heterosexuality is carefully established by the introduction of an old flame (James Dunn), it’s implied that the hysterical, unsympathetic manager, Polly Jenks (Eileen Heckart), is motivated in part by an obsessive same-sex attraction. Can Dr. Casey untangle all these unhealthy attachments and convince Clarissa to have the surgery she requires?
“It needed – uh, fluidity,” said Edwards of this rather lugubrious outing. “Fluidity” translated into a range of showy, often unmotivated camera movements. Fittingly for someone with a megastar’s ego, Edwards began his directing career on a crane: “Cyclone”’s cold open commences with a crane down into Clarissa’s cavernous foyer, and then a two-minute long-take in which Polly and a doctor (Wilton Graff) outline some of the basic facts of the plot. Edwards tries to enliven several routine dialogue scenes by sending the camera on a slow, circling prowl around the actors. There’s a distracting fast pull-back on Astor during a scene in which she makes a pivotal shift in loyalty, from Polly to her estranged, alcoholic daughter (Luana Anders), and an equally flashy zoom in on Heckart at the moment when Polly learns she has been fired.
Amid the expected overzealousness of a freshman director, though, there are good instincts. Edwards creates a number of stark, forceful close-ups on his actors:
“Where does the shadow go when the sun has set?” is the last line of the episode – Polly’s, as she contemplates an empty life after her break with the healed Clarissa. Edwards creates a literal correlative for this line, a dramatic final image in which the camera pulls back, isolating Heckart in a shadowy hospital corridor amid a row of bright spotlights extending into the background. No actual hospital anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say, has ever employed a lighting scheme of this sort.
Edwards’s second episode, “For a Just Man Falleth Seven Times,” concerns dying businessman Thomas Hardin (Lew Ayres), who experiences a burst of strength and euphoria during his final hours. Once buttoned-down, now impulsive, he goes forth into the seedy side of town and proposes marriage to a coded prostitute (Lee Grant). Edwards tries out more ambitious compositions in the red light district sequences: a handheld camera following Ayres as he walks through the scuzzy streets, a god’s-eye point of view to establish a waterfront dive. The circling pans from “Cyclone” recur, and Edwards sets up several compositions that can be called signature shots. The most evident is a positioning of actors at right angles in different planes, which creates a dramatic depth of field and also allows Edwards to eschew the standard shot-reverse shot grammar of the television conversation. Here it is in “For a Just Man”:
And an earlier instance in “Cyclone”:
Amid the show’s rudimentary sets, Edwards sought out striking places to put the camera. In “For a Just Man” he positions Grant and Sharon Farrell (playing Ayres’s daughter) behind the fence that surrounds the upper-floor terrace (an indoor set) where patients are often seen recuperating.
An identical shot recurs in Edwards’s next episode, “Every Other Minute It’s the End of the World”:
The ninety-degree positioning of actors reappears in “Every Other Minute,” too:
“Every Other Minute” is a convoluted story about a teenaged girl (Patricia Hyland) who’s going blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy; the twist is that her father (Francis Lederer) is a survivor of Nazi medical experimentation and thus vehemently opposes the experimental procedure that Dr. Casey proposes to save Hyland’s eyesight. The script never recovers from that cringeworthy (in)convenience, not even after a wild second-act curveball. Edwards, rather like Dr. Casey, is hell-bent on experimentation, most of which does not spring organically from the material. There’s an attention-grabbing move in a scene between Casey and the German refugee, in which the camera suddenly whirls around a hospital wall and places the two actors in silhouette, behind the window. The dialogue at that moment is routine; nothing in it compels such an extreme shift in emphasis. (Casey even turns off an overhead lamp for no reason, except to make the lighting more dramatic.)
Edwards also sets up some odd shots in a scene where a frantic Hyland go-go dances herself into a coma. At one point, Edwards creates an impossible image, intercutting overhead shots of the dancers with low-angle shots taken from a hole in the floor (which is, of course, not evident in the wider shot). A moment later, Hyland appears to be positioned upright against a wall, even though her character is supposed to be lying on the floor. These shots are disorienting, but without evident purpose.
Hyland, of whose brief acting career Ben Casey was one of the high points, recently spoke favorably of Vince Edwards as “a lovely, generous director” who instilled “a warm sense of trust in her.” Fifty years earlier, Eileen Heckart offered a similar endorsement of Edwards’s first time behind the camera: “I didn’t think much of the script, but he was brilliant. He’d done all his homework.”
All of Edwards’s first three directorial turns feature not just strong performances but, notably, strong performances by women. In “Cyclone,” the two leads deliver work that’s well within their range – Astor world-weary and formidable, Heckart sharp and shrewish – but there’s also a fine, fragile performance by Luana Anders (below) as the neglected, wistful daughter. In “For a Just Man,” solid, enjoyable work by Lew Ayres is upstaged by the two younger women in Hardin’s life: open-faced Sharon Farrell, playing Cordelia to Hardin’s lear, and Lee Grant as the waterfront wife, bitter but secretly vulnerable. (Farrell was dating Edwards at the time; Grant took a similar approach to a similar character two years later on Peyton Place, and won an Emmy for it.)
It’s commonly assumed that actors who become directors will function best as actors’ directors, and Edwards seems to succeeded in that regard. “People who are actors often know how to deal with actors really well. They don’t treat them like a light fixture,” said Hyland. “There’s just a little more rapport.” But another, less intuitive scenario is that actors will take performance as something already mastered, and become more consumed initially with mise-en-scene, because it’s the aspect of the job that’s new to them. This was true of Vic Morrow, the Combat star who started directing for his series a year after Edwards, and of Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, two young character actors who initiated a permanent transition into directing on Ben Casey – and of Edwards as well.
Compared to what came before, Edwards’s next three episodes – “Eulogy in Four Flats,” a quasi-comedy about an old con man who fakes illness so that his neighbors will take care of him; “Three L’il Lambs,” an unsold backdoor spinoff about three newly-minted residents of varying skill and commitment; and “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here,” a silly, cliched yarn about the generational conflict between an aging Latin American revolutionary and his assimilationist doctor son – were comparatively restrained. The signature shots are still in evidence – for instance, the god’s-eye point of view in “Eulogy”:
And the ninety-degree positioning of actors in “Three Li’l Lambs”:
But the eye-catching set-ups are less evident. In fact, only this restricted composition in “Three Li’l Lambs,” which emphasizes one character’s anxiety about his professional performance and echoes the earlier behind-the-fence set-ups, stands out. (It’s also another long take that allows a two-person conversation to play out without cuts.)
A laziness begins to creep in: “Eulogy” contains a twenty-three second shot of Edwards descending a flight of stairs, a shot duration which (along with some of the endless dancing scenes in “Every Other Minute”) suggests that Edwards’s episodes may have come in short. “Galanos,” in particular, is almost entirely conventional in its lighting and composition. And the performances are uneven: Norman Alden is quite moving in the scene shown above, in which his character expresses uncertainty about the choice of medicine as a career, but he conspicuously overplays an earlier scene in which the character botches a diagnosis. Was Edwards passing out of his experimental phase and trying out a more conventional style? Or was he simply getting bored? Did it matter that none of his second three episodes included female roles as prominent as those in the first three?
If there were only six Edwards-directed Ben Casey segments, they would form a predictable arc from novice’s enthusiasm into easily-distracted TV star’s boredom. But there’s a seventh, an episode called “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” which is as overstuffed as its title and as gloriously, wonderfully, touchingly self-indulgent any television episode ever has been. Into it, Edwards crams every crash zoom, Dutch angle, ostentatious dissolve, extreme overhead angle, and action-framed-by-a-random-object-in-the-foreground composition that he can muster. (A very small selection of them appears below.) It is his “Wagon Wheel Joe” moment.
What to make of “If You Play Your Cards Right”? Some of Edwards’s excess is justified by the delirium that is periodically experienced by the central character, a glue-sniffing wife-beater (!) played by Davy Jones (only months before he turned into a Monkee). Much of it, though, seems to be an expression of disinterest or contempt toward the material, which is difficult to fault. The script is tawdry and unsubtle, and Jones’s fatal miscasting sinks what ever chances it had; there isn’t even a bit of throwaway exposition to reconcile his British accent with the American ones in which the actors (John McLiam and Louise Latham) cast as his parents speak. In its final season Ben Casey morphed into a serial, and one could argue (perhaps feebly) that the splintering of episodes like “If You Play Your Cards Right” into three or four discrete subplots invites a disorienting mise-en-scene. And there’s one other X factor, the replacement of the long-time cinematographer Ted Voigtlander with his former camera operator, William T. Cline. But Cline’s imagery in the fifth season is generally no more adventurous than the gifted Voigtlander’s had been, and other directors’ episodes in that year are far more sedate. Plus, there is evidence of a clash between Cline and Edwards. (In his memoirs, producer John Meredyth Lucas claimed that Edwards packed on the pounds in between seasons, then scapegoated Cline for making him look fat after the need to slim down was pointed out.) When Edwards went off the directorial rails, it was his own doing.
The initial assumption one makes about TV stars who begin directing their own shows is that they do so purely as an expression of ego. (“Isn’t directing a TV show that you’re acting in an exercise in vanity?” is how The Atlantic put it, rudely, to Slattery last year.) Perhaps. The actors who launched abortive directing careers off their long-running hits often tend to be the same stars who used their clout to seize control of those shows and push out the original creative teams – for instance, Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel and Alan Alda on M*A*S*H. Edwards falls into this category to the extent that, after Ben Casey became a hit, the show’s set ran according to his whims. Although there’s no evidence that Edwards controlled the hiring of producers, or influenced story content, as Boone and Alda did, there was little question of anyone saying no when he expressed the desire to direct.
But it’s important to consider the context behind Edwards’s career move. Ben Casey’s initial producer, Matthew Rapf, was committed booster for young talent and the series was a training ground for aspiring directors from the beginning. Sydney Pollack did his first important television work on Ben Casey, and then paid that forward by inviting his friend Mark Rydell out from New York for an on-staff apprenticeship as a director-in-training. Pollack and Rydell in turn became mentors of sorts to Edwards as he prepared to direct. Crucially, in the years just before Ben Casey, Edwards had the good fortune to work as an actor for some of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood. He’d garnered some acclaim for leading roles in two existential, quasi-independent films noir (Murder by Contract, 1958; City of Fear, 1959) directed by Irving Lerner, who (presumably at Edwards’s behest) became a regular director on Ben Casey. Edwards appeared in The Night Holds Terror (1958) with John Cassavetes, who remained a friend and cast him in a memorable cameo (as a dumb lug who beats up a whole jazz combo in a long pool-hall confrontation) in the second feature he directed, Too Late Blues. And Edwards was in The Killing (1956), and always spoke proudly of having working with Stanley Kubrick. A smart observer – and Edwards, whatever his other flaws, was anything but dumb – couldn’t help but absorb some of the creativity and enthusiasm of these men.
Edwards shot home movies and other films with a personal eight-millimeter camera, and became an avid shutterbug; according to his second wife, the actress Linda Foster, Edwards’s still photographs displayed an excellent eye for composition. (Notwithstanding that a sneering TV Guide article suggested that Edwards mostly enjoyed photographing the pretty nurses on the set of Ben Casey.) Foster and others suggested that Edwards’s interest in directing was not an indulgence but, in fact, a remedy for some of his diva behavior on the Ben Casey set. The more cerebral task of directing diverted his attention from the excesses of stardom and other personal problems and refocused it on the work. “Vince was volatile but when it came directing he quieted right down and got to work. And he worked hard at it,” said actress Kathy Kersh, who was briefly married to Edwards during Ben Casey and appears in “Three Li’l Lambs.”
Asked if Edwards was a cinephile, Foster said no, but noted that his filmgoing was highly focused. “He’d say we’ve got to go this or we’ve got to go see that. It was quite specific. He was never a ‘let’s go to the movies’ type of person. The only movie I remember he liked [in the seventies], he was crazy about Stallone and Rocky.” Earlier, in a 1966 interview, the actor cited at least one influence that suggested he’d been paying attention to new developments in the cinema: Richard Lester’s peppy mod comedy The Knack … And How to Get It, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1965. Given the chronology, The Knack almost certainly explains the left turn in Edwards’s style between “Dr. Galanos” and “If You Play Your Cards Right.” In that interview, Edwards complained about “old-school” (his words) directors who “are so determined to keep the picture in frame that everything becomes ‘static’” (the reporter’s paraphrase, apart from the last word). Lester seems to have liberated Edwards as a visual stylist.
Unfortunately, at the same time, ABC liberated the actor in a different way: they cancelled his show at the end of the 1966 TV season.
“[Directing] brings a different sort of adulation. Kazan isn’t mobbed by teen-agers.”
– Vince Edwards
However much Edwards might have enjoyed his work on the back end of the camera, becoming the next Elia Kazan wasn’t on his mind when Ben Casey went off the air in 1966. His priorities, according to a 1965 TV Guide interview, were marriage, kids, and a movie career. Edwards left Ben Casey with a three-picture deal at Columbia and a successful nightclub act that he’d originated during his summer vacations.
Edwards also had a crippling addiction to gambling – specifically, horse racing – one that had been amply covered in the press and that earned him a reputation around town for epic unprofessionalism. He regularly bolted from the set during the middle of the day to go to the racetrack, and even though he’d made millions off of Ben Casey, he was always putting the touch on friends and co-workers for a loan. His lazy attitude towards acting didn’t help, either. While rival TV doctor Richard Chamberlain, also a wooden unknown when Dr. Kildare made him a star, studied the craft and grew into an acclaimed performer, Edwards clung to the snarl and the somewhat smarmy charm that landed him the Ben Casey role. His one-expression-fits-all acting was fodder for nightclubs’ and columnists’ wit. After the three films he top-lined flopped, Edwards had nowhere to go but back to television. If you play the ponies wrong, you too can be a loser.
In 1971, Edwards starred as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, a clear attempt to recreate the magic of Ben Casey; it failed after one abbreviated season. In the meantime Edwards had married (twice) and fathered three kids; with movie and now even TV stardom eluding him, he’d tried all of those goals he enumerated in 1965. Directing worked its way back to the top of the list. One of the last Matt Lincoln episodes was his first directing credit in five years, and his deal with Universal (which produced the series) extended to the closest thing to an auteur effort in Edwards’s videography. Maneater (1973), starring Ben Gazzara and Sheree North, was the first project that Edwards directed without also acting in. He originated the telefilm himself. The story idea about tigers on the loose came from a crony and former stand-in, George Fraser, who had been an animal trainer, and Edwards wrote the teleplay with another member of his entourage, an occasional Ben Casey writer named Marcus Demian. (Horror master Jimmy Sangster did a credited rewrite.) Cecil Smith, TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that Edwards “builds a fine sense of tension” in his direction, but Maneater earned little attention and mixed reviews.
According to Foster, Edwards expressed a preference for directing over acting more than once, and “tried to develop a couple of things,” but Maneater became the only film or television project that he would originate. During the seventies, Edwards’s always precarious personal life took a nose-dive. He’d been to several psychiatrists to try to control his gambling, but always ended up ditching the sessions and heading to the track. Foster divorced him after nearly a decade of marriage, because of the gambling, and in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.
It’s likely that most of Edwards’s directing credits after Maneater were undertaken primarily out of financial necessity. He enjoyed a parallel career going back and forth between acting and directing, but most of the directing gigs came from producer friends; Edwards never established himself as a sought-after director. Nearly all of his episodic directing during the seventies and eighties traces back to either David Gerber, Aaron Spelling (a pal since the sixties who called Edwards his “itty-bitty buddy,” and with whom Edwards shared a business manager), or Glen A. Larson (at whose Hawaii estate Edwards married his third wife in 1980).
Most of those shows, with the exception of Gerber’s Police Story, can be charitably called junk, and Edwards was no longer the biggest wheel on the set but, now, just another down-on-his-luck journeyman director. Ten years after the impossible object that is “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” do we find anything of the old exuberant Vince Edwards, cineaste, in the likes of Larson’s pablum? Surprisingly, yes – if only a glimmer.
It’s harder to analyze performance in the likes of BJ and the Bear and The Fall Guy than in Ben Casey. Most of the shows Edwards directed in the seventies emphasize action and spectacle over character-driven drama. Of the seven Edwards-directed segments I was able to view, the most accomplished performance came from a young actress: Anne Lockhart (below), playing the guilt-ridden girlfriend of a villain in a two-part Hardy Boys.
Lockhart also turns up in Edwards’s Battlestar: Galactica two-parter, “The Living Legend” (which inspired perhaps the high point of Ronald D. Moore’s remake of that series, making it, in hindsight, the most significant of Edwards’s later directing efforts), giving a less polished performance but still a striking, sexy one. Lloyd Bridges, the primary guest star in “The Living Legend,” does all the things you’ve seen Bridges do a hundred times before, but Edwards assists him with a shadowy entrance that foreshadows the direction his character will turn:
Edwards’s other excursion into the Battlestar empire was a single episode of Galactica 1980, “The Super Scouts Part 1.” In one shot Edwards revives the familiar right-angle positioning of actors that he used repeatedly in Ben Casey:
“Super Scouts” also brings back another favorite Casey tic, the slow circling pan, which is why this child actor ends up addressing Lorne Greene over his shoulder in their scenes together:
Greene and the boy have scenes together on the same set in the second half of this two-parter, which was directed not by Edwards but by Sigmund Neufeld, Jr. While the gauzy fog filter is used there, too, the camera remains static in Neufeld’s scenes. Thus Galactica serves as a rare petri dish in which elements of house style (the filter) can be distinguished from choices made by individual directors (the camera movement).
There are new techniques, not evident during Ben Casey, that Edwards favors in the seventies shows. Here’s a close-up of Lorne Greene from “The Living Legend” in which the actor is positioned toward one side of the frame while others bustle out-of-focus in the background in the other half of the image:
A nearly identical set-up occurs at least three times in Edwards’s episode of BJ and the Bear, “Silent Night, Unholy Night.” Edwards also displays a facility for staging action in real locations, something that Ben Casey – which very rarely left the soundstage – afforded little opportunity to do. Scenes shot in a bank and a department store in “The Super Scouts Part 1” and on the USC campus in Edwards’s episode of David Cassidy – Man Undercover capture more of the flavor of those locations than one typically observes in television location shoots. The “Super Scouts” sequence in which Barry Van Dyke “accidentally” robs a bank builds a unexpected amount of tension as it progresses. As a standalone sequence, it’s more effective than the banal story into which it’s integrated.
Edwards’s rebirth as a TV director fizzled out in the early eighties. There was one outlier, an In the Heat of the Night episode in 1990, and then nothing. According to Linda Foster, he never defeated his addiction to gambling. “He never was going to be a serious filmmaker, because he was too interested in the sixth race at Santa Anita,” said Mark Rydell, who noticed Edwards’s divided focus even as he began preparing for his first turn as a director. “He was a little bit like a rabbit running around rabbit holes. I don’t think he had the patience and discipline to see things through half the time. And he’d get frustrated and take himself off to the racetrack,” said Foster.
“The ultimate satisfaction in film is the director’s. I love it,” said Edwards in 1973, in what may have been his final recorded statement on the subject. “But it’s two months’ work for two weeks’ pay. As an actor, you come in to do an 11-day TV movie, take the money and run. You can’t do that as a director. At least I can’t. I have to be involved every step of the way through post-production up until it’s on the air.”
Sources (in addition to linked text above): Dwight Whitney, “Anybody Know What Kind of Mood Vince-Baby Is in Today?” TV Guide, April 4, 1964; Whitney, “Vince Baby Plays It Cool,” TV Guide, February 18, 1967; Cecil Smith, “Will Ben Casey Make a Comeback?” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1973; Kathy Kersh interview in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul, Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 (McFarland, 2002); John Meredyth Lucas, Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (McFarland, 2004); and July 2013 telephone interviews with Patricia Hyland Tackett, Mark Rydell, and Linda Foster Winter.
August 12, 2010
I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual. But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:
In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise. When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.” Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly. He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.
I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character. (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.) It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.
Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys. That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.
II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)
The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe. Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film. It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.
III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)
Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (8½, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961). In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors. “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me. “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”
But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?
V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)
Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.
“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical. “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story. He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it. I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”
VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)
In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.
“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.
VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)
The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company. The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).
NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor. “I said, I can’t do that. It [violates] the purity of the script. I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.” Eventually Zagor added the father angle.
VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)
Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).
Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.
IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)
Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).
Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film. (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)
X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)
This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves. In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present. “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.
Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members. When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.
XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.
In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema. Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies. They’re not dumb. They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed. They’re ahead of us.”
Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.” Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.” Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.” The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.” Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”
The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.
XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented. George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey). Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors. The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.
XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.? Yes and no. “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me. “It was an erudite group. We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors. Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them. We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”
But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule. The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said. Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered. Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources. The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.
XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising. She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”
XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper. Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.
XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis. It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.
All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.