Sunday, August 7, 2011

TV Noir

From July 18 to 20, the Roxie presented TV Noir. The films were introduced by Johnny Legend. Legend is a compatriot of Elliot Lavine and mentioned the three day series was a preview of a longer series he and Lavine were planning for September. Legend has quite a pedigree that probably merits a documentary about him. Legend has been an rockabilly singer, actor, pro wrestling promoter, porn producer and now television archivist.

Each night, they screened a double feature which were generically named Program 1 and 2. I was able to catch both programs on July 18 and 19. I skipped July 20 to see The Last Waltz at the Red Vic which I have recounted. Each program consisted of television shows from the 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them screened with the original commercials.

I can't recall all the programs but a few highlights were:

Johnny screened the premiere episode of Medic, a show which ran from 1954 to 1956 and starred Richard Boone as a doctor. In this episode, Boone's patient was a pregnant woman (Beverly Garland) who is diagnosed with late stage cancer (leukemia I believe). Boone must keep the woman alive long enough for her to deliver her child. Dispensing with the melodrama, the episode tells the story with cold and sober delivery. Boone's voiceover narration recites the facts - "patient admitted on March 20 in her 28th week of pregnancy; white blood cell count is 35,000." Boone's character keeps a detached professionalism when dealing with the woman and her husband (Lee Marvin). Any doubt about the doctor's passion is put to rest during the 5 to 10 minute finale. Set in the operating room, the doctor struggles to save the woman. When she dies, he delivers the baby who appears stillborn. Boone won't give up as he tries every method to save the child before ultimately being successful. If that episode was any indication, Medic was a very intense 30 minutes drama.

In a 1960 episode of The Dupont Show, Harpo Marx appears as Benson, a deaf mute who witnesses a murder. Spotted by the killers but unable to communicate what he has witnessed (he's also illiterate), Benson has to hide as the killers come looking for him. At age 72, this was billed as Marx's final performance although I can find later credits for him on IMDB.

Treasury Men in Action ran from 1950 to 1955 on ABC. The title says it all and the 1955 episode with Charles Bronson was just as subtle. Bronson plays a wife beating, gun toting, heroin smuggling, jail breaking, clipped syllable speaking tough guy. Similar to Medic, I liked the way the show stripped away everything but the facts to give a detached view of the story; although according to the prologue, the T-Man story was taken from actual case files.

Bronson had a supporting role in a Dan Duryea episode of Suspicion, an anthology series produced by Alfred Hitchcock which ran from 1957 to 1959. How many times did Dan Duryea play the brains of an outfit that planned a heist? In this one, Duryea is planning a bank job. Duryea infuses his character with a lot of depth and the ambiguous nature of who fired the fatal shot at the end elevated this episode above the crowd of anthology series from the period.

In an 1950 episode of Suspense (1949-1954), a struggling actor (Leslie Nielsen with dark hair!) overhears a conversation to kill a bigshot Hollywood agent (George Reeves) and has to overcome numerous obstacles in his attempt to save the day. Shot live (with a few goofs visible), the episode had that early television look and spirit. As Johnny Legend mentioned, in the early days, Suspense wasn't called a television show but rather a teleplay. Shooting live probably gave the actors and crew an adrenaline rush but give the visible mistakes, its not surprising that television evolved to filmed or tape-delayed programming. Saturday Night Live, one of the few current series I watch on television, is a notable exception.


I don't know how a one or two week series of TV Noir will work out. There were several segments that left me less than impressed & I dozed off a few times. I find myself dozing off more during films. If a film isn't keeping my attention, I tend to drift off to sleep. It's become my new litmus test as to whether a film met the base criteria of being worthwhile.

Even the best segments were 30 minutes or less so it was impossible to flesh out the plots and characters. Whereas a good film feels like having a nice meal, the best TV Noir segments felt lilke I just had a tasty appetizer and left me wanting more.

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