Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Piece of Shat: Naked City – “Portrait of a Painter” (01/10/62) and “Without Stick or Sword” (03/28/62)

(Spoiler warning: Because these dramas don’t depend as much on the element of surprise as yesterday’s Thriller episodes, I’ll probably telegraph an ending or two—so I figured I’d give you a heads-up in case you’d rather not know…)

As Day 3 of Shatnerthon—the five-day blogathon tribute to William Shatner initiated by Chuckie Award-winning blogger Stacia Jones at She Blogged by Night—gets underway, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear directs your attention to two installments of Naked City—the seminal 60s television crime drama oft discussed on this blog, particularly back in its halcyon Salon Blogs days.

The more episodes of City that I tuck under my belt—the more appreciative I become of what is truly one of television’s most outstanding dramatic series…and unfortunately, I also become a bit saddened by the fact that this program can’t find a berth on television today…not even on the once-proud TVLand. (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that City is a staple of the programming on Chicago’s Me-Too channel…but Me-Too doesn’t quite have the “reach” that TVLand does.) Image Entertainment did at one time release a series of DVDs containing selected telecasts from City…but they’ve since forfeited the rights to issue the show on further discs.

The first of the Naked City’s that I’ll look at is, fortunately, available on the now OOP 2004 Image release Naked City: Portrait of a Painter—in fact, it’s the titled entry and stars our man Shat as a struggling Greenwich Village painter named Roger Barmer, and as we’re told in voice-over narration (courtesy of TDOY OTR idol Lawrence Dobkin):

These are the paintings of Roger Barmer…the works of a man…the window he opens to let you look into his life. On the day Roger Barmer painted this picture…

…his landlord had had him thrown into the street with a single canvas under his arm and a box of paints in his hand. Roger Barmer painted this anger.

For three months, Roger Barmer lived in a cellar with a single window…which looked up through a grating in the sidewalk. There was no line marking off day from night in the darkness of this setting…in order to say this, Roger painted the sun, the moon and the stars in the same sky…

If he was hungry and found a piece of fruit, he painted it before he ate it…

…if he wished to paint despair he looked into the mirror and painted his own face...

…but if he felt the world had insulted him, he mocked it by painting pictures that he himself could understand…but no one else might decipher…he painted hate…and hunger…and anger…and anguish…he painted his hopelessness…and sometimes…very rarely…he dared to hope…but in all his paintings, there was no picture of a woman…there was no love…

This is a portrait of Jan, who is Roger Barmer’s wife…this is a portrait brought forth for the world by love…


So, as you may have guessed…Roger’s a little on the messed-up side. In fact, the camera pans through his apartment to discover him passed out on the floor from what clearly must have been a first-class bender. Roger gets to his feet, and makes it over to a wash basin to splash a little cold H2O on his face. The narration continues: “This is Roger Barmer, who finally in the twenty-sixth year of his life has become capable of love.”

Barmer then staggers over to the painting of his wife Jan, and does a little touch up on the portrait with a lick of paint…lick of paint. He then appears to have dropped something on the floor, so he falls to his knees in an attempt to search for it…and then he discovers this…

Man! Ever have one of those days when you wake up with the hangover to end all hangovers—and then find your wife’s corpse on the floor of your apartment? (Boy, if I had a nickel for…well, this isn’t really about me, is it?) Barmer bolts out of the apartment, passing a young neighbor on the landing…and all the while protesting his innocence: “I didn’t do it….I didn’t do it…I didn’t do it!”


Three of NYC’s finest quickly swing in to investigate the case: Detectives Adam Flint (Paul Burke) and Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver), supervised by Lieutenant Michael “Mike” Parker (Horace McMahon). Another OTR vet, Robert Dryden, plays the police surgeon who dryly fills Parker and Flint in on the details of murder…and from his report, one can only deduce that Rog has croaked his better half with a handy little artists’ tool known as a palette knife. Meanwhile, we’ve followed Roger and his trail of “I didn’t do it’s” to the offices of Dr. Stanley Wilford (Theodore Bikel), a shrink that the painter has been seeing off and on for several years now. We then learn through their conversation that Rog is a troubled young man (as if the paintings didn’t already tip you off to that news flash); Barmer bares his soul to Wilford and admits that he may have killed Jan but he has no memory of doing so. Towards the end of the consultation with the good Doc, Wilford and Barmer have this particular bit of back-and-forth:

WILFORD: You realize you haven’t mentioned her name once since you’ve been in this room…
BARMER: Jan…I had a quiet feeling toward her…I…I was painting her…and she was sitting there, wearing that strange, complacent look women wear when they’re pregnant…that secret look…
WILFORD: Was she pregnant?
BARMER: I don’t know…
WILFORD: Why was she wearing that…strange, complacent look…?
BARMER: I was painting her as a Madonna…
WILFORD: Yes, I know that’s what you were doing…but why was she wearing a pregnant woman’s…
BARMER: I…don’t know…
WILFORD: Did her pregnancy frighten you—is that it? Are you afraid that if she had a child that she would care more about the child than about you?
BARMER: I want a child…
WILFORD: Oh, no…no, Roger—we’ve already established that you hate children…
BARMER: No…no…
WILFORD: …hate women who are bearing children…
BARMER: …no…no…
WILFORD: …you hated your mother when she was bearing…
BARMER: No, that’s not true!
WILFORD: …you do not want a child!
BARMER: Dr. Wilford, I’ve changed!
WILFORD: Roger, you could not change!
BARMER: Don’t you have any mercy?
WILFORD (after a long pause): Mercy…do you remember, Roger…what the judge says to a condemned murderer…just before pronouncing sentence? May God have mercy on your soul…is that why you need mercy?
BARMER (turning away from him): Leave me alone…
WILFORD: Then why…I’m asking you why you need mercy…
BARMER: I didn’t kill her, Doctor…
WILFORD (shouting): Then why do you need mercy?
BARMER: You keep picking up that word and sticking it into me like a knife
WILFORD: What knife, Roger?
BARMER (shouting): Don’t pick me up on every word!
WILFORD: They’re not just words…you’re trying to tell me something…
BARMER: Leave me alone…just leave me alone…
WILFORD: You came to me, remember? You came here to tell me that your wife was killed…killed with a knife…now who killed her? We both know who killed…
BARMER (raising his arm and shouting): I’ll kill you, too!


Wilford’s had the foresight to capture this exchange via a hidden tape recorder…and because that whole “doctor-patient confidentiality” thing seems to be more a guideline than a rule, he plays the tape for Flint, Parker and Arcaro at Police HQ. With this damning evidence, Barmer confesses to the killing…and the rest of the episode is spent with Flint—who, at the time, was as close to a “liberal” cop as was possible back then—investigating further to remove all reasonable doubt that Barmer isn’t the culprit. He chats up an art dealer (who looks suspiciously like a cop from Stafford, Indiana*) as to Barmer’s state of mind and grills the murdered woman’s ex-boyfriend (actor and future TV director Lou Antonio), who’s also considered a suspect after a witness reports that he was banging on the apartment door at 2 in the a.m. After a thorough investigation, it’s obvious that Barmer committed the murder—and he finally remembers the details when Flint confronts him in a holding cell. To be honest, I don’t know why writers Mel Goldberg and Howard Rodman expended the energy to try and cast doubt on Barmer’s guilt…particularly when they’ve established early on that the apartment was locked (with a chain) from the inside.

“Painter” isn’t the strongest Naked City episode I’ve watched, but it’s hard to deny that the hallmarks of the series—authentic on location filming, great writing and superlative acting—aren’t in full force here; Shatner gives a superb performance, though in the scene where he and Bikel have their heart-to-heart you can detect minute traces of those halting speech rhythms that he would later develop in full force on Star Trek…and which would become fodder for Shat impersonators and parodists for decades to come.

Unfortunately, Shatner’s second showcase on City—“Without Stick or Sword”—doesn’t quite measure up to his nice work on “Painter”…for the simple reason that he’s cast as Maung Tun, a Burmese sailor who comes to New York to kill a sea captain (Martin Balsam) he holds responsible for the deaths of his four brothers (they drowned when Balsam refused to steer his freighter off course)…and winds up murdering the captain’s wife instead. I particularly liked the stylish way the murder is presented in the episode’s opening credits—with the murdered woman in her death throes calling for help from her husband…who’s too busy sleeping one off in a nearby chair. (Apologies for the sucky screen caps, by the way…my copy of “Sword” is—well, calling it shitty would actually be a compliment.)


It’s not that Bill doesn’t give it the old college try in this one—it’s just that the role is a bit beyond his range…and of course, there’s the old “why-didn’t-you-cast-an-Asian?” conundrum. I realize the answer to this is that Shat had a lot more star wattage than your average Asian actor at the time—but the incongruity of using Shatner is all too obvious when he appears in a scene with a Buddhist priest (Otto Han Yamaoka)…and it’s difficult to overlook just how white the Shat man is. The “Caucasian-as-Asian” problem is alleviated somewhat with the presence of actress Pilar Seurat-Cerveris (the actress born Rita Hernandez played quite a few Asian characters in various film and television venues) who’s a bit more convincing as the sympathetic prostitute who makes Maung Tun’s acquaintance. I’ve seen Seurat in a number of television shows including Checkmate, The Wild Wild West, The Fugitive and Hawaii Five-O, and she always turns in first-rate performances. (She and the Shat would cross paths again when she played Sybo in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold.”)

Tomorrow: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear takes a “road trip” with his Shatness by reviewing two of his guest appearances in television shows that deal with life on the road: Route 66’s “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” (10/25/63) and The Fugitive’s “Stranger in the Mirror” (12/07/65)

*Yes, that is Barry Morse—better known to legions of television obsessives as Lieutenant Philip Gerard, the supercop who chased after Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) for four years on The Fugitive. For some odd reason known only to the IMDb, Morse is credited as “Art Dealer Silliphant”—the “Silliphant” being a supposed nod to Sterling Silliphant, the series’ creator and executive story consultant. But he’s never addressed as such in the actual episode…and in fact, the opening credits identify him only as “Art Dealer.”

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1 comment:

Stacia said...

So awesome. I'd love to see the 2nd episode, just because Martin Balsam and Shatner in the same episode is too good to be true. The whole white guy playing Asian thing was just so IN back in the 1960s and 70s, wasn't it? Unfortunate.