I have begun the Spillane western, now entitled DEATH RIDES IN and labeled “a Caleb York Western.” I’m working from a screenplay Mickey wrote for John Wayne in the late ‘50s which, obviously, was never produced. There will be a background intro that will discuss Mickey and Wayne’s history together.
It feels okay so far – one chapter in – but with the exception of the MAVERICK novelization and the flashbacks in BLACK HATS, I’ve never tackled a western before. I called my long-tall-Texan pal Bill Crider for some help on a few points – he knows what he’s doing – and that helped me saddle up and ride. The script – not necessarily written for Wayne the actor, rather Wayne the producer – is very much a vehicle that you might have seen starring Audie Murphy or Randolph Scott circa ‘58. I love that, but as somebody who doesn’t read contemporary western novels, I can’t anticipate how modern readers will react. It’s very much a tough Spillane story transferred to the west, so that’s a plus.
My love for westerns comes not from novels – I’ve maybe read a dozen in my life, counting TRUE GRIT – but from movies and TV. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of old TV, sometimes with Barb, sometimes alone. We both greatly enjoyed revisiting MAVERICK, which was my favorite show of any kind in my distant youth – James Garner’s Bret Maverick influenced Nate Heller as much as any mystery-fiction PI – and Barb grew up on it, too. I’m also fond of Jack Kelly’s Bart Maverick, and the very best episodes often feature both brothers. I would argue that “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres” (maybe you saw the remake – THE STING?) is the greatest single episode of a TV series ever made.
Binge watching is something Barb and I (and Nate, when he was younger) practically invented. But it must be said that serialized series of today work better than runs of classic series of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those shows had such punishing schedules – PERRY MASON did as many as 39 hour-long episodes a year – that maintaining consistency much less high quality was damn near impossible. On the other hand, Barb and I have worked our way through PERRY MASON – inhaling each half-season DVD release in a couple of days – and it has a surprisingly small number of clinkers. Maybe half a dozen out of 271 (!). The best episodes, not surprisingly, are adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner novels. The first two seasons are mostly such adaptations, and are highly recommended.
MAVERICK doesn’t fare quite as well. The first two seasons are excellent, really as good as TV westerns of that (or really any) era get. But creator/producer Roy Huggins left at the end of season two, and James Garner was starting to have battles with some very stupid Warner Bros. executives who thought screwing their star out of money was a good plan. Season three begins well but flags at mid-point, and toward the end, even some Bret episodes are clinkers. Season four lacks Garner, and Roger Moore is brought in as a Maverick cousin, faring only so so. “The Maverick Line,” one last Garner held back from season three, does the impossible: it’s a lousy Bret/Bart episode. Jack Kelly was magical working off James Garner, but tended to do the straighter, more “serious” episodes, and when Garner left, he was shifted into Garner-style scripts. He was pretty good at comedy but wasn’t getting the level of material that Garner got in the Huggins years. So my advice would be: watch the first two seasons.
As for more contemporary fare, right now Barb and I are working our way through VERONICA MARS, and are almost done with the second season, which is very good if not up to the amazing first one. We’ll press on to the somewhat maligned third season, as we prepare for the imminent VERONICA MARS feature (I was a Kickstarter contributor). VERONICA MARS is one of the really great private eye series. The first season may be the best single season of any private eye show. Kristen Bell, as a teenage detective (the set-up is pure Nancy Drew – her father is a P.I. – but the feel is absolute FREAKS AND GEEKS) tosses off witty lines with a wry ease that Marlowe or Rockford might well envy.
Barb did not join me on my long journey through the complete NAKED CITY – 138 episodes. This is a wonderful show, with much to recommend it. Initially John McIntire is Lt. Dan Muldoon, the fatherly mentor to James Franciscus’ younger detective. They have a nice chemistry, but McIntire leaves two-thirds of the way through the first season – his landmark demise in “The Bumper” remains shocking – and Franciscus grieves his way through the remainder of the year. Replacing McIntire is Horace McMahon with his overly gruff, even unpleasant Lt. Mike Parker. When the show returns in a new one-hour format (after a year hiatus), it’s almost a surprise McMahon has been asked back. Franciscus does not return – he was a busy movie and TV actor – and Paul Burke comes in as the similar Adam Flint, his liberal, sensitive cop warming McMahon’s Parker up. The only cast member who spans all four seasons is Harry Bellaver as lovable, not-brilliant Detective Frank Arcaro.
Of course, the location shooting, capturing late ‘50s/early ‘60s New York, is the real star – the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Times Square, we’re there. The talent pool is drawn from Broadway and the Actor’s Studio, including regular Nancy Malone, very winning and naturalistic as Burke’s girl friend, Libby. The series is justly famous for early appearances by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Bruce Dern, Sandy Dennis, Alan Alda, Jessica Walter, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken and many more. Moonlighting Broadway stars like Robert Morse, Orson Bean, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Klugman and William Shatner turn up frequently as do such Hollywood legends as Mickey Rooney, Sylvia Sidney, Dennis Hopper, Roddy McDowell, Chester Morris, Steve Cochran, Claude Rains, and Burgess Meredith. Jack Warden, Carroll O’Connor, Lois Nettleton and Nehemiah Persoff make multiple appearances. Legendary acting coach Sandy Meisner has a rare on-screen role in one episode – he was Mike Cornelison’s teacher. Small world.
NAKED CITY is a child of early television – dramas like STUDIO ONE and PLAYHOUSE 90 – and is essentially an anthology series pretending to be a cop show. This can be a problem, because the cops are often shoehorned in, and sometimes the stories have little to do with crime. Some of the famous actors deliver terrible, scenery-chewing performances; many of the young actors – James Caan, Dustin Hoffman – are so in Brando’s thrall, you want to shake them until they agree to see a movie that isn’t ON THE WATERFRONT. The shadows of Tennessee Williams and William Inge loom large, turning some of the scriptwriters into pretentious windbags, burdening actors with impossible, archly poetic dialogue.
After a while, I began to see writers in the opening credits whose scripts I knew I’d abhor – in particular, Abram Ginnes, a blacklisted writer so over the top, his silly titles serve as a warning: “Stop the Parade, a Baby Is Crying,” “A Horse Has a Big Head, Let Him Worry,” “Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out with Bow and Arrow.” He’s responsible for at least a dozen episodes, and I would run screaming into the night before sitting through any of them. And almost every change-of-pace “comedy” episode is cringe-worthy.
There are several NAKED CITY “best of” collections, but unfortunately they choose episodes featuring famous cast members, with no thought to quality of writing. So why do I recommend the series?
Because when the show is good, it is really good – on that same list that includes “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” you’ll find “A Case Study of Two Savages,” in which hillbilly honeymooners Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld cut a bloody carefree swath of robbery and murder across Manhattan. Scripted by Frank Pierson – who wrote everything from DOG DAY AFTERNOON and COOL HAND LUKE and was working on MAD MEN when he died in 2012 – “Two Savages” clearly influenced Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (the historical couple is directly referenced) and Weld’s later PRETTY POISON. Rip Torn’s performance is my favorite among all the NAKED CITY’s – funny, dangerous, charismatic. Actor’s Studio “Method” at is best.
And there are plenty of other terrific episodes – Duvall in “A Hole in the City,” Klugman in “The Tragic Success of Alfred Tiloff,” Rooney in “Ooftus Gooftus.” Writers include Howard Rodman, W.R. Burnett, and Gene Roddenberry. Directors include Arthur Hiller, Paul Wendkos, and Irvin Kershner. But you must commit to the complete series, and learn which writers and actors you want to avoid as you move through.
I should mention that the series creator, Stirling Silliphant (adapting the Jules Dassin film), writes all but a few of the first season half-an-hour episodes, which is my favorite season (not a view widely held, I admit). He only scripts a few of the hour-long episodes, as he’s off to create ROUTE 66. Silliphant is a fine screenwriter (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), though he’s somewhat purple in THE NAKED CITY (its first-season incarnation included “THE”), a sin committed to some degree by almost all of the writers involved. So you have to get in that groove.
But it’s worth it. The omniscient narration by Lawrence Dobkin (credited to producer Herbert Leonard in the first season, but sounding identical) is so very memorable, often giving the series a novelistic feel. Ed McBain was clearly influenced by the Dassin film, and must have watched this series, as well – the 87th Precinct vibe is strong. The music is memorable as well – Billy May at first, later Nelson Riddle.
How interesting is NAKED CITY, for all its flaws? In the first hour-long episode, an unbilled Peter Falk is killed before the opening credits. The episode also features Eli Wallach, George Maharis, Clifton James and Godfrey Cambridge.
The first SUPREME JUSTICE advance review is in (from Ron Fortier) and it’s a rave!
Still more WRONG QUARRY reviews are coming in. Here are two that are less than raves – the always interesting Alpha-60 and a new one to me, Bullet Reviews. Both complain about one of my favorite things in the novel, having to do with the build-up given to one of the hitmen Quarry goes after. Go figure.