Friday, March 23, 2012

The Plot Thickens (Jack Guedel Productions/Screen Gems, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was just half an hour long, an download of a really peculiar unsold pilot for a TV show that probably sounded like a good idea in theory but went sadly awry in the execution — an entertaining jumble, but still a jumble. It was called The Plot Thickens and it was made in 1963 as a co-production of sci-fi/horror schlockmeister William Castle and John Guedel, who had achieved success as the producer of Groucho Marx’s hit (three years on radio and then nine years on TV) quiz show You Bet Your Life. The gimmick on this one was that a group of panelists, which would always include Groucho (this time he was a perpetual contestant rather than the series host), would sit down and watch a short movie about a murder and then they — Groucho, a fellow celebrity, a rank-and-file audience member and Richard Halley, an actual private detective based in Hollywood — would try to solve the crime. (Just how they determined who “really” done it is something of a mystery, since it would seem easy enough for the producers to adjust the script of the film-within-the-show to reflect the outcome they wanted rather than the one the original writer might have had in mind.) In this sample episode — the only one filmed, since no network or syndicator picked the show up and ordered more — the amateurs, besides Groucho, were Stan Ross, an ad executive from Coney Island; and Jan Sterling, the marvelous actress from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (had that film been a success Sterling would have headed to stardom on a rocket — her performance as the amoral opportunist who’s married to the pathetic cave-in victim and is grabbing the main chance while virtually burning up the screen with pent-up sexuality is one of the greatest things about that film, along with Kirk Douglas’s finest and, alas, final villain role: after 1951 he’d got to be too big a star to be cast as a heavy), the 1956 version of 1984 and several other quirky movies.

The mystery film is surprisingly well done, though not surprisingly it’s little more than a chip off the cliché log; it was written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho (and also a close friend of H. P. Lovecraft — to the extent that the famously reclusive Lovecraft had any close friends — and if you read the novel Psycho, with its depiction of a middle-aged Norman Bates not only living in his ancestral home but obsessively clinging to his mother’s possessions, it’s clear that Bloch’s conception of Norman Bates was based on Lovecraft even though most of the similarities were eliminated by Alfred Hitchcock and his writer, Joseph Stefano, when they made the film) and directed by William D. Russell. It’s the old chestnut about the phony “psychic” who rips off gullible suckers with the usual gimcrackery, projected images supposedly representing the shades of the marks’ deceased loved ones and a trumpet-like horn hanging from the ceiling on wires through which the voices of the dear departed are supposedly regaling the living in a séance. The most interesting part of the story-within-a-story is that the phony mystic, Kazam (Arthur Batanides), is killed in the middle of a séance, while everyone is holding their neighbors’ hands — an interesting variation on the locked-room concept and one that gets resolved in much the same sort of trick way most locked-room mysteries do [spoiler alert!]: the victim’s wife Lois (Linda Bennett) actually killed him before the séance began, then propped him up at the table so it would appear to the other participants that he was simply in a trance, not actually dead. She worked this deception out with her lover, Kazam’s assistant Arnold Martin (James Callahan), who agreed to cover for her in hopes of getting to flee the country with Kazam’s ill-gotten gains, and the purpose of the whole thing was to fleece some of the suckers one last time instead of fleeing town as Kazam, worried that the jig was up, had insisted on doing.

Among the suckers were Carleton Lowe (Jay Adler), who brought a large amount of cash to the séance in exchange for the materialization of his teenage daughter, and also brought along a gun, intending to shoot Kazam if he turned out to be a fake; and Martha Collins (Kathryn Givney), who wasn’t a sucker herself but was pissed off that she’d become disabled in an accident and her brother Sid (Frederic Downs) was throwing away all her insurance money on worthless stocks Kazam had touted to him. Of course, it turns out at the séance that Martha isn’t disabled at all — she had been but had laboriously, and without Sid or anyone else noticing, retrained her legs and regained her ability to walk (yeah, right) — and she too brought along a gun and shot Kazam, but didn’t kill him because he was already dead. There are several other characters but the MC, Jack Linkletter (Art Linkletter’s son, the oldest of Art’s five children; ironically, though he lived to be 70 both his parents survived him!), announces that a (fictional) private detective on the scene, Penfield (Joe Maross), had already cleared them, so the four suspects get hauled in front of the panel, who get to ask them questions to try to figure out whodunit. The prize is $500 to any panelist who correctly guesses the murderer, which is upped to $1,000 in case they’re right and the professional private eye on the panel, Richard Halley (ya remember Richard Halley?), is wrong — and [spoiler alert again!] Groucho Marx guesses right, Richard Halley guesses wrong and Groucho gets to take home the $1,000.

It’s a peculiar show in that the genre clashes between hard-edged mystery and game show really don’t come off, and Groucho’s attempts at humor are chuckle-inducing instead of laugh-out-loud funny: one suspects the limitations of the format as well as the absence of anyone he can play off against (as he did with his brothers in his movies and with the contestants as the host of You Bet Your Life) held him back. His fellow panelists are not only unmoved by his witticisms but seem positively annoyed with his joke-cracking, as if no one bothered to tell them that this was simply a game show about a fictional murder instead of an investigation into a real one! There are two other characters, a “bailiff” named Warrene Ott — that’s a woman, in case you couldn’t guess from the final “e” — clad in black velvet tights and equipped with a tail to make her look like a cat (they might well have borrowed the look from the Catwoman in the Batman comics) — and a real cat, also a female (or so we’re told) called Lucifer, whose face is the opening close-up of the show as the stentorian narrator announces its title and central premise. The Plot Thickens is an interesting curio but it’s not surprising no one picked this show up for an ongoing run; it’s hard to imagine how far they could have gone with such a bizarre concept or how long they could have kept it on the air, and as it stands it’s probably more an oddment for Marx Brothers completists than truly compelling entertainment — but the sheer weirdness of the gimmick gives it some sort of enduring appeal.