The Boston Blackie TV episode was called “Cop Killer” and it was the second show aired when the show went on the air (September 27, 1951), a Ziv Television production directed by Paul Landres (who later directed the Alan Freed rock ’n’ roll quickie Go, Johnny, Go) from a script by Warren Wilson. The series star was Kent Taylor, playing Boston Blackie, a former thief who had served a prison sentence, though he was still suspected by the cops in general and Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) in particular — commenting on one of the “B” quickies from Columbia in the 1940’s that also used the Boston Blackie character, I described Faraday as combining the worst qualities of Javert and Ahab, but in this version instead of being convinced that Blackie is still a crook, he’s merely irritated by the meddlings of a private detective and even more irritated when the private guy solves the crime (much like Holmes and Lestrade, and all too many detective/cop teams since). What’s fascinating about this one is the sheer body count: it begins with an armed robbery of an armored car which results in the murder of the entire crew driving the armored car (including a very young and uncredited David Janssen as the man behind the wheel) and the use of an anti-tank weapon to stop the car — only the weapon also singes the money the crooks were trying to steal, which becomes an important clue later when one of the bills turns up in circulation despite the head crook’s instruction that his underlings not spend any of the money until he figures out a way to fence it and get “clean,” unmarked and unsinged, bills. Then the crooks murder a rookie cop, Tommy Adams (Richard Crane), who stopped them for a moving violation and who was a particular protégé of Blackie’s — whereupon Faraday drops his opposition to Blackie’s participation in the investigation. The big turning point occurs when Blackie gets caught — temporarily, of course — in the villains’ trap when he realizes that the person he’s brought to the villains’ hideout thinking he’s a witness is in fact one of the gang. It was an O.K. crime show for the period, quite action-packed for its time and half-hour time slot (the half-hour crime show seems to have died with the reboot of Dragnet in the 1960’s) but a bit disappointing, especially in the car: one of the main attractions of this series was that incredibly long, low-slung black sports car Blackie drove, but here he’s tooling around in an ordinary white convertible that appears to belong to his on-screen girlfriend, Mary Wesley (Lois Collier). — 11/30/11
I picked out the next episode in sequence on the discs I’ve been burning of the Boston Blackie TV show, “Inside Crime” from the second of the show’s two seasons (originally aired December 19, 1952) and with Blackie driving that beautiful low-slung black car (I’d thought it was a sports car but it appeared to be able to seat four, though just how comfortable the two in the back would be is anybody’s guess) that was almost as much a star of this series as the human male lead, Kent Taylor, was. It was about a bank robbery in which the crooks wore gas masks (for no apparent reason other than disguise, since they did not use gas to incapacitate the people working in the bank when it was robbed — they came in after hours so the only people still there were counting the day’s receipts and putting them into the vault) and clubbed the security guard on the head — only the robbery was witnessed by a homeless man with a dog, and when the guard came to he was being cross-examined by insurance investigator Hanlon (a quite nice tough performance by one Clark Howat) and accused of being a co-conspirator. Hanlon actually gets the guard to confess just to spare his wife from being arrested herself as an accessory (this part of the story seemed contemporary now with the tactics used by police to browbeat suspects into confessing having been the subject of investigative news stories and PBS documentaries), but Boston Blackie is unconvinced and neither is Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth), his nemesis in the 1940’s Columbia movies but here his frequent, if reluctant, collaborator from the official police force. The story by Buckley Angell and Donn Mullaly is based on too many improbable coincidences — it just happens that the security guard’s wife is a good friend of Boston Blackie’s girlfriend, Mary Wesley (Lois Collier), and thereby is able to contact Blackie and get him in the case; and it also just happens that when Mary and the homeless witness are in a restaurant, two of the robbers happen to show up at the same restaurant and are able to target the homeless guy for elimination. As just about anybody could guess if they’d seen more than one or two movies in their lives, the nasty insurance investigator and the mastermind of the robbery turn out to be the same person, and Blackie busts him and turns him over to Faraday. It was a nice show, beset by a poor (grey and foggy) image from the archive.org download, but the show overall is appealing (and that cool car is practically a character in itself!) and I’m looking forward to the episodes we’ve downloaded (we have 20 in all, about one-third the total). One oddity is the presence of Lee Van Cleef in a minor role as one of the crooks — though his last name was spelled “Cleff” in the closing credits! — 12/2/11
We screened the next Boston Blackie episode in sequence, “Queen of Thieves,” originally aired December 5, 1952 as part of the show’s second season, directed by George Cahan from a script by Herbert Purdom and Irwin Lieberman (and, peculiarly, Frank Orth is still credited in the cast list as Inspector Faraday even though it was quite obviously another actor filling in for that week’s episode). What makes this episode particularly treasurable is the marvelous character of Needles (Mary Young), the dotty old grandmotherly type who’s actually the titular queen of thieves, as well as running a sideline making bets on longshots at horse races. To place the bets she uses Archie (Skelton Knaggs), a veteran pickpocket (Knaggs speaks with one of the worst fake British accents I’ve ever heard) who doesn’t place the bets at all, confident that Needles’ horses will always lose — only one comes in and he now owes her $60,000 he doesn’t have. Needless to say, he gets offed by Needles and her gang — only he doesn’t quite get offed: he survives, but in a hospital, where he comes to with amnesia (movie amnesia, anyway) and can’t remember a thing about who he is or why he’s done anything. Like Ma Barker, Needles has a gang of much younger men acting as her hit people and thugs, and she’s naturally upset that the person she delegated to kill Archie didn’t quite finish the job — though this was a relatively decorous episode with much less of a body count than some of the ones we’ve seen — and she has Blackie beaten to try to put him out of commission, but of course it all ends happily with Needles and most of her gang being arrested. It was a fun show but it was Mary Young’s delightful characterization that really “made” it. — 12/4/11
We watched a Boston Blackie episode from December 26, 1952 called “So Was Goliath,” the title stemming from the remark Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor) throws towards attorney and fixer Arthur Bishop (a nicely slimy Emory Parnell) when Bishop warns Blackie he’s a “big man,” and Blackie fires back, “So was Goliath.” The two cross paths when Blackie’s friend Sid “Legal Eagle” Capper (John Kellogg) is shown in the boxing ring — he’s taken up prizefighting to work his way through law school but the workouts and training sessions are cutting into his time for schoolwork and threatening to lead to him flunking out. Blackie is enlisted by Sid’s girlfriend Jenny (Anne Kimbell) — oddly the imdb.com listing for this show gives her the last name “Capper” but she’s clearly not his sister and she’s equally clearly not his wife (yet) — who, in a quite powerfully acted scene, expresses her anguish that Sid is doing himself permanent physical and mental damage in the ring that will eliminate his ability to become a lawyer. She expresses this to Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) when the two are watching Sid’s fight on TV — Jenny turns it off when Sid is knocked down and doesn’t see that he got up before the count was over, then turned the fight around and knocked out his opponent for the victory — and Blackie himself gets involved and finds that Sid’s manager (played by Allen Jenkins in a welcome return in all his Allen Jenkins-ness) was successfully blackmailed into selling Sid’s contract to Bishop for $25,000, and Sid can’t buy his way out of the contract unless he can raise that figure. Blackie investigates and finds that the opponent for Sid’s next fight, Spoiler Garrett (a nice Nat Pendleton-esque performance by John Indrisano), is managed by Bishop — as is Sid, a bozo no-no according to Boxing Commission rules.
The plot then takes a turn anticipating that of Humphrey Bogart’s last movie, The Harder They Fall, in that Blackie learns that — unbeknownst to Sid — all his fights since Bishop took him over have been fixed: one of Bishop’s seemingly omnipresent thugs (at one point they kidnap Blackie at gunpoint just as he’s getting into that monumentally cool black sports car he drove, which practically qualifies as a character in itself, leaving his girlfriend — to whom he has not given the keys — to figure out how to get home by herself) has been bribing his opponents to throw the fights. Blackie turns the plot around by briefing Spoiler that he knows about it and riling him up so much that he fights the fight to the best of his potential — in fact, he gets so riled that he and Sid start beating each other up in the locker room even before their scheduled bout begins — and Sid holds out for eight rounds before Spoiler’s attack is too much for him, he loses the fight but regains his respect and career direction, and with the case spelled out for him by both Blackie and a sports reporter who was investigating the whole thing, police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) — Blackie’s bitter opponent in the 1940’s film series but his friendly rival and collaborator here — takes Bishop and his whole gang into custody. Though a bit rushed towards the end — this is one half-hour crime drama script that could have used a longer time slot — this is still one of the best Boston Blackie TV episodes, well written (by Oliver Crawford) and directed (by Eddie Davis) and quite welcome for Allen Jenkins’ presence, a superb performance by Anne Kimbell (quite better than the usual damsel-in-distress of these productions) and an overall atmosphere that even on the limits of a Ziv TV budget approaches film noir. — 12/17/11
Last night’s episode was even later in the show’s original run (April 17, 1953) but a good deal better written and more exciting. It was called “False Face” and featured a quite inventive plot — this time Eddie Davis, who usually directed, also wrote the script from a story by J. Benton Cheney — in which Elizabeth Farrell (a marvelous femme fatale performance by June Vincent), a former plastic surgeon who lost her medical license due to malpractice, seduces a man named Dave (George Eldredge) whose only use to her is his striking resemblance to banker Lawrence Stuart (also George Eldredge). For two years she slowly remodels his face so that his natural resemblance to the banker becomes a virtually identical “look,” then she kidnaps the real Stuart (she lures him into an antique car she’s offering to sell him and then her assistant Slick, played by Marshall Reed, drugs him and sends out the fake Stuart) and has her double go into the bank and help himself to half a million in cash from the vault. What’s more, she arranges for Boston Blackie to be her witness verifying the false “Stuart”’s identity as the real one — only she’s undone when Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) snaps a photo of his dog Whitey, with the kidnapping happening in the background — and after Stuart (the real one) claims he was kidnapped and held while the embezzlement was occurred, and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) is convinced he’s faking amnesia while Blackie is convinced he really has amnesia, eventually the plot unravels when Dave insists that now that they’ve stolen the money he wants Elizabeth to change his face back to his natural appearance, and Elizabeth decides to kill him instead — only Blackie and Faraday arrive, not in time to save Dave’s life (Elizabeth puts him into an hypnotic state and marches him off the side of a building, much the way the villainess in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie The Woman in Green tried to do with Holmes) but in time to arrest Farrell and Slick and unravel the plot. “False Face” was an engaging story and one of the episodes in this series that might have been stronger in an hour-long time slot (an odd criticism for me since I’ve often in these pages lamented the demise of the half-hour crime show and wished modern police procedurals could use the shorter length instead of having their scripts padded to fill hour slots) but was still exciting and inventive. — 12/20/11
The bank’s manager decides to go public with the story of how the courageous teller foiled the robbery — and the teller’s wife receives a threatening phone call from Dave announcing that her husband will be killed. When he takes the bus home from work (which seems to stop right on their doorstep!) she gestures to him, wanting to warn him of the threat, but too late — Dave is there in his car and shoots and kills the poor guy on the spot. For some strange reason, the teller uses his dying breath to swear his wife to secrecy about who shot him, and Blackie and his girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) try to get the widow to talk to no avail. Eventually they show her some photos of suspected bank robbers, which she squints at — except for one photo in the stack, at which she widens her eyes when she sees it — and just then Dave makes another phone call, warning her that if she ever identifies him she’ll meet the same fate as her husband. Dave has overplayed his hand: the moment she gets his second call, she abruptly changes her mind and decides she will identify her husband’s killer to Blackie and the police after all. “You already have,” Blackie tells her — no doubt referring to the way her eyes lit up when she saw the man’s photo in the stack. Eventually he’s identified and caught. There have been better Boston Blackie shows in the package we downloaded from archive.org, but this was a good one, suspenseful, well characterized and excitingly directed by the oddly named Sobey Martin. — 1/2/12
The other show, interestingly, also revolved around a mute who communicated with people by writing them notes — only in that case it’s Blackie himself who’s posing as a mute. It’s called “Red Hot Murder” because it deals with a gang of arsonists (making it uncannily appropriate viewing given that for the first few days of 2012 Los Angeles was plagued with up to 50 random arsons in which people’s cars were torched; a suspect has been arrested and he turned out to be an undocumented immigrant from Germany who was apparently doing it out of a hissy-fit because his mom was about to be deported). Needless to say, the arsonists in this show are considerably more businesslike: they’re hired guns for warehouse and company owners looking to pull insurance scams — they secretly move goods out of the warehouses, then torch them, so the people hiring them profit twice: they file false insurance claims stating that the goods were destroyed in the fires, then can resell them on the black market. (One of the RKO Dick Tracy films featured a similar racket, only with fake jewel robberies instead of arsons.) The gimmick is that Blackie and one of the arson gang end up in a fight in one of the warehouses just before it goes up; the gang member is killed but Blackie decides to report his own death and impersonate the gang member to infiltrate the group and find out who the mysterious “Big Man” (there’s always a mysterious “Big Man,” it seems, at least in the movies!) is who’s running it.
To pull this off he wears a white hood, supposedly covering up either burn scars or a plastic surgery job (though it looks less like authentic bandages than a Muslim woman’s veil and he doffs it incredibly easily), and he pretends that the fire injured his vocal cords and at least temporarily deprived him of the power of speech. It was an interesting conceit — though writers J. Benton Cheney and Milton M. Raison hit the “sentimental” stop on their typewriter keyboard and had Blackie’s disguise “outed” by his dog Whitey, who chases his master down and recognizes him at once — while he’s in the middle of a bunch of arsonists trying to pass himself off as a heartless criminal. Still, it was a fun show, and while I miss the antagonism between Blackie and Inspector Faraday from Jack Boyle’s stories and the earlier films (the TV show made no mention of Blackie’s original background as a reformed thief, or Faraday’s Javert-like disinclination to believe he’d really reformed) — indeed, Faraday (Frank Orth) didn’t appear at all in “Minuet for Murders” — the 1951-53 Boston Blackie TV show is well worth having. Charles and I have both done Web searches trying to find out the identity of that fabulously cool black car Blackie drives on the show — a low-slung sports car but one with accommodations for four people, and three tails on the back — and none of the candidates offered by the various people whose posts we’ve read on the subject look like the car on the show. (One poster even said he e-mailed fabled custom-car designer George Barris — who made the version of the Batmobile used on the late-1960’s TV series Batman — only Barris never replied.) — 1/3/12
The Blackie episode we’d watched the night before, “Hired Hand” — which originally aired a week before this one, March 20, 1953 (for some reason far more of archive’s downloads of this show are from the second and last season of it than the first) — was considerably better, a great story about chicken ranchers Amos and Rachel Hendrix (James Anderson and Lorna Thayer) and their hired hand, Gillian (Walter Coy), who was paroled to them from a mental institution and is fearful that if he screws up the job, he’ll be sent back. The conflict between the Hendrixes is that Amos wants to sell the ranch to a developer, Rachel wants to keep it, and Amos has hit on the idea of murdering his wife and framing Gillian for it. At one point he actually takes a shot at her, then gives Gillian the gun and tells him to clean it — and Gillian freaks out because even holding a gun is a violation of his parole — and at another point he plants a bomb inside the ranch truck. Not surprisingly, this is the sort of story where the suspense is over how the real criminal is going to get caught rather than who the real criminal is.
It’s an excellent little suspense tale, with a marvelous performance by Coy (who plays his role much the way Bruce Dern acted in To Kill a Mockingbird a decade later) and an overall atmosphere that reminded both Charles and I of Alfred Hitchcock Presents — an especially noteworthy comparison given that one of the most sinister Hitchcock shows (and one of the few Hitchcock directed himself), “Arthur,” was also set on a chicken ranch and featured the owner murdering his wife (though in that version it was because she wanted to sell the ranch and he didn’t), then putting her body in the chicken feeder and giving the chickens so strong a taste for human flesh that eventually they turned on him and killed him. (Arthur was played by Laurence Harvey — who, unfortunately, never worked on a Hitchcock feature film — and the show convinced me that nobody else needed to make a sequel to Psycho because Hitchcock already had, in The Birds: Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho is constantly compared to a bird — her last name, “Crane,” is the name of a bird; in her tight cinch skirt she walks like a bird; Norman Bates even tells her, “You eat like a bird” — and in my reading, The Birds is a Psycho sequel in which actual biological birds avenge themselves against humanity for killing the birdlike Marion Crane.) Though Blackie and Mary come off almost as extras on their own show — like some modern devotees of farmers’ markets, Mary particularly likes the eggs from the Hendrix ranch and makes it a point to go there for them rather than buy eggs at outlets closer to home, which is what she and Blackie are doing there when the plot heats up — “Hired Hand” is still effective drama and is one of the best episodes of this compelling series. — 1/5/12 and 1/6/12
Last night’s episode was “Scar Hand,” based on the old chestnut (also used in movies in the first episode of the Whistler “B”-series with Richard Dix for Columbia and a stand-alone “B” noir called Strange Bargain from RKO in 1948) of a man so desperate for money for his family that he hires a hit man to have himself killed so his survivors can collect on his insurance (which wouldn’t pay if he committed suicide by his own hand but would if he were murdered). In this case the person wants the $10,000 from his insurance because his son needs a life-saving operation and the only person who can perform it is a New York specialist, and the fee is needed not only for the doctor’s services but the hospitalization and other recovery costs. The doctor actually agrees to do the operation for free, but the killer (Karl Davis) is already on the loose and, of course, there’s no way the would-be victim can contact him to tell him he’s changed his mind. Though this was from the first season and therefore Boston Blackie is driving a regular 1950 Ford production convertible instead of the really cool (and bafflingly mysterious — even the contributors to a Web site for car buffs were fooled!) black streamlined sports car he drove in season two — it also was one of the most convincingly noir episodes in the show and had a nice denouement in which Blackie, of course, was able to track down the killer and stop him before he knocked off the no-longer-wanna-be victim. — 2/3/12
The story itself is also quite good: it begins in good film noir style with mystery woman Madeline Warren (Valerie Vernon) bursting into Boston Blackie’s apartment with a story about how she’s supposedly being blackmailed over some indiscreet letters she once wrote — only Blackie gets suspicious, especially when Madeline insists that he accompany her to the money drop and, when he declines, she holds a gun on him and forces him into that cool white car. (Both Charles and I noted the similarity between this story and the opening of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely — all that was missing was the murder in a Black bar.) At the drop point there’s a shootout between Madeline and a minor-league thug called Shanks, and Madeline ends up escaping while Blackie takes the wounded Shanks to a hospital, where he, his girlfriend Mary (Lois Collier) and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) question him. The plot gets more complicated than that but it ultimately turns out to revolve around a murder that previously took place in an office, which Faraday investigated but never solved, and Madeline was the secretary of the murdered man and she was the blackmailer, claiming to have recorded the murder on a dictation cylinder. It ends up with an exciting shoot-out at a miniature golf course (Blackie ends up on top of a windmill picking off the thugs below in what seemed to me to be a visual quote of the ending of the 1931 Frankenstein), the sort of quirky location Alfred Hitchcock liked to use for the climaxes of his movies. It was an engaging little episode and Paul Landres’ direction and Valerie Vernon’s acting were both better than what we usually got from this series. — 4/19/12
Alas, the plan fell awry when the baddies realized they could target Poole by sic’ing a typical film noir femme fatale on him — a rambunctious young woman (Christine Larson) who led him through a joyride including hot music and hot sex. She got him to give up the secret, but she didn’t kill him — she was too proud to wear low-heeled shoes and Blackie found a low heel, detached from its shoe, on the fire escape on which the killer fled (one watches old movies and TV shows in vain for any hint that fire escapes were ever used for their alleged purpose of escaping from fires; they seem to have been just a convenience for fleeing criminals and a location for film and TV directors to stage picturesque shoot-outs) and deduces that Mrs. Poole killed her husband because she was jealous over his shenanigans with Christine — only it turns out she killed him (in a confession scene magnificently delivered by Mary Kent) because Christine had not been his first dalliance: he’d been cheating on her for all 30 years of their marriage and she’d just reached the breaking point. It was a nice episode to leave this quite interesting series on — even though it was too early in the show’s run to get another look at Boston Blackie’s cool custom car (in this part of the run he was still driving a standard Ford convertible) — especially since this was one of the most noir of the episodes, less in the photographic quality (which was pretty plain) than in the scripting by Herbert Purdom, who gave Blackie quite a lot of surprisingly world-weary Raymond Chandler-style dialogue and also created some quite noir villains.
Overall the show lost something from the de-emphasis on Blackie’s criminal past and the turning of Faraday from a Javert-like nemesis always convinced that Blackie is returning to crime into a typical stupid comic-relief police character, made far dumber than a real police official (especially one who’d risen that high in the ranks), and it gained considerably from that incredible car Blackie drove in the later episodes, but it also had three appealing principals (Taylor, Orth and Lois Collier as Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley — interestingly, they’re drawn not only as unmarried but in no particular hurry to “make it legal,” and the writers did not do the usual trope of having their wedding plans interrupted by case after case after case), a wide variety of villains, some clever plots and a wry understatement (just about any other U.S. filmmaker shooting a script about military espionage in the early 1950’s would have filled it with breathless defenses of The American Way of Life and bitter denunciations of those enemy countries — never named, not that 1950’s audiences couldn’t have guessed who was meant — committed to taking it away from us; not Purdom and director Paul Landres, who treated the spy plot as just another MacGuffin) that makes it hold up quite well today. — 4/21/12