Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The streets of San Francisco, circa 1960-62

Back in March 2007, when I wrote this essay on the critically-acclaimed television mystery series Checkmate (1960-62), I couldn’t even begin to conceive that slightly more than a year later, two box sets of the program—titled Best of Season One and Best of Season Two—would be made available to the vintage TV-buying public on DVD. Let’s be honest: it’s an old series…in black and white…rarely rerun today, despite the fact that it would be perfect for either TV Land or RTN…plus it’s saddled with an additional handicap in that it’s both witty and intelligent—anathema to a DVD-buying, television-watching public that considers crap like One Tree Hill to be on the cutting edge of TV today.

The Best of Season Two collection came out in March of this year, and I’ll admit I was a little slow in buying this one…and even slower in getting around to actually watching it. (This might be explained by the immutable fact that I’ve amassed a backlog of DVDs so large they’ve started to realize they could take over my apartment with precious little resistance.) I did, however, spend this past weekend watching the twelve episodes from Best of Season One—and I’d like to think that counts for something.

Checkmate—a crime-drama where the premise of the series focused not so much on crime solving but crime prevention—was created by celebrated mystery author Eric Ambler…whose original concept of the series focused on the exploits of a detective, his girlfriend and her professor father. As the story goes, Revue/MCA tinkered with Ambler’s co-ed idea supposedly because actor Doug McClure was under contract to the studio and they wanted to utilize his services since he was already collecting a salary. I have no doubt that this is the case, but in watching some of Checkmate’s episodes I can’t help but notice a slight resemblance to many of the Warner Brothers-produced private-eye shows (Hawaiian Eye, Surfside Six) that were on at the same time; indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to see Checkmate as a more cerebral 77 Sunset Strip. (The only characters missing are a comical sidekick and the luscious girl singer/gal Friday.)

I’ve also pondered just what kind of salary stars McClure, Anthony George and Sebastian Cabot were pulling down each week—because judging from the high-wattage lineup of celebrity guests I’m going to guess that it was the same food commonly associated with elephants. Among the performers who guested on Checkmate’s first season (and included in this DVD set) were Anne Baxter (Death Runs Wild), Jane Wyman (Lady on the Brink), Dick Shawn (Laugh ‘Til I Die) and Charles Laughton (Terror From the East)—who not only made one of his all-too-rare appearances on the cathode ray tube but made it practically his acting swan song (just before finally ringing down the curtain with Advise and Consent). The episode Laughton guests on isn’t particularly outstanding (the dénouement to this one can be seen coming a mile away) but it’s always a treat to watch Charlie strut his stuff.

As for the title of the box set—Best of Season One—I’m not entirely sure that this is an accurate assessment. I haven’t seen all thirty-six episodes of the first season (though I did acquire the entire run of the series through…oh, let’s just say “unauthorized channels” and let it go at that) but I suspect that the offerings in this set represent only the ones that were in the best shape (and even they aren’t exactly what you’d call “pristine”) from the prints obtained by Timeless Media Group. (TMG only leased the rights to Checkmate from NBC/Universal; the source material was entirely Timeless’ responsibility.) Nevertheless, there are some excellent hour-long episodes in this set (though they run about an average of 48-49 minutes, sans commercials):

The Cyanide Touch (10/01/60) – Dean Stockwell is a wealthy college student whose fraternity brother was killed by a pair of goons boosting Stockwell’s car, so Dean sets out to punish the man he feels is responsible, small-time kingpin Larry Forbes (Henry Jones). The scene where Stockwell sweats out a confession from Jones is particularly nail-biting; this nifty little suspenser was written by future Academy Award-winning writer Stirling Silliphant.

Face in the Window (10/22/60) – Directed by acclaimed B-picture helmer Robert Florey, this stars Joseph Cotten as an archaeologist whose spotting of a man (John Hoyt) outside an antique store turns into a fugitive Nazi hunt. Julie “Creature From the Black Lagoon” Adams is in this one, too, as Cotten’s fiancée…who’s terrified that he might kill Hoyt.

A Matter of Conscience (02/18/61) – It starts out slowly as a humdrum tale of an ex-con (Gary Merrill) whose recent parole sets off the son of the man he shot…and then takes an interesting turn into a “dark secrets” mystery that also features Josephine Hutchinson and Bruce “Frank Nitti” Gordon. I’m not usually a fan of Merrill's, but he turns in a dandy performance here.

The Paper Killer (03/25/61) – Mickey Rooney treats himself to a generous helping of scenery du jour in this entry about a comic strip artist who’s convinced his creation is trying to kill him. (I don’t know many comic strip artists, but I’m pretty sure they’re nothing like Rooney—who acts more like a sleazy Hollywood agent.) This episode showcases some of the humor to be found in the series, particularly with a priceless scene in which OTR veteran Betty Lou Gerson (a frequent utility player) plays a talent agent checking out the attributes of Doug McClure’s Jed Sills. Dianne Foster, Dennis Patrick and the always reliable William Schallert round out a top-notch cast.

Hot Wind in a Cold Town (06/10/61) – I have to be honest: after so many years of watching Fantasy Island and Chrysler Cordoba commercials, it’s often difficult for me to take Ricardo Montalban seriously. But he’s positively aces as a Hollywood stuntman who can’t get arrested in town, particularly since a vindictive movie director (Jerome Thor) is leaning on him for allegedly making time with his wife. Montalban’s only chance to keep a job depends on his success in convincing the Deliverance-like townsfolk of a backwater burg to let his film company shoot on location…and with Martin Landau as a homicidal half-wit in love with his pet knife, it’s easier said than done. Betty Garde and Norman Fell—the man who would be Stanley Roper—round out a splendid cast.

Other worthwhile episodes in this set include “The Deadly Shadow” (12/11/60), starring Margaret O’Brien as a widowed hairdresser being stalked by a stranger, and “Voyage Into Fear” (05/06/61), which features Joan Fontaine as a woman hiding out on a cruise ship with star Anthony George, convinced her husband is trying to have her killed. Plot wise, this really isn’t much to write home about…but La Fontaine is hysterical when she’s liquored up and flirting with anything in pants; Scott “Shotgun Slade” Brady is also on hand as a rival shamus and Robert Webber (who doesn’t even receive screen credit) as a would-be assassin.

For those of you who like to spot OTR actors/actresses on the small screen, Checkmate is definitely your meat: in addition to the previously mentioned Gerson, you’ll also see Olan Soule, Vinton Hayworth, Forrest Lewis, Tyler McVey and Barney Phillips. In fact, Ken Lynch even had a recurring role on the series as Lt. Brand, Checkmate, Inc.’s liaison on the police force. But my favorite performer remains Sebastian Cabot…as Dr. Carl Hyatt, the tweeds-clad, walking-stick-carrying British criminologist who’s cultured enough to enjoy both Chinese opera and baseball games (and whose irresistibly cute daschund “Bismarck” shows up in a few installments). Cabot’s television legacy—for better or worse—remains that of Giles French, the fastidious “gentleman’s gentleman” he portrayed on Family Affair (1966-71)…so it’s a refreshing change of pace to see him in a decidedly different role (and it’s tragic that no one ever considered casting him in a series as a sleuth in the Nero Wolfe mold). Unfortunately, in “Tight as a Drum” (05/13/61), Cabot is already running up against the kind of precocious brats that would plague him on Affair; only strong turns by TDOY fave Dan Duryea and Dabbs Greer manage to save this entry of murder at a military academy from becoming a mass of treacle.


One said...

Wow. Checkmate sounds sensational. Must check out.

I've always loved Ricardo Montalban, and had my estimation of him quintupled in recent years by his sterling work in Anthony Mann's Border Incident and the underrated Glenn Ford/Rita Hayworth noir, The Money Trap. My wife thinks he's one of the dreamiest men alive.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

You will definitely get a witness on Ricardo's work in Border Incident (1949)--it's definitely one of his finest hours on the big screen. It's hard to believe that such a gritty, violent film was made at M-G-M.

actionsub said...

Part of the reason Checkmate was able to get so many top-level guest stars was its uncredited executive producer, Jack Benny. That said, I'm betting George, McClure, and Cabot weren't getting paid more than was necessary.