Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Danger: “Padlocks” (CBS-TV, aired November 9, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I stuck a half-hour crime drama in last night between the end of Elementary and the beginning of Stephen Colbert’s program, and it was the next in sequence from the James Dean TV boxed set, a Danger episode called “Padlocks” which according to the opening commentary from Dean’s cousin Marcus Winslow, Jr. (though since Dean was orphaned and Winslow’s parents Marcus and Ortense raised him, they grew up more like brothers than cousins) had long since been thought lost and only surfaced shortly before the boxed set was assembled. It turned out to be one of the best items in the set and a real surprise given that my only knowledge of the Danger program had been from John Frankenheimer’s recollections of it as an associate producer in the early 1950’s in the book The Celluloid Muse, in which he called it a dumping ground for directors who had bombed out on other shows: “I was put on the show to try and help these bums, to try and get these damned things on the air. And of course they would know they were on the verge of being fired, and they’d be very tense before the rehearsal ever started, and they’d give me these ridiculous sums of money to help them keep their jobs. I didn’t want their money, but they insisted on it. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t help them keep their jobs, because they were just terrible.” 

My surprise was that “Padlocks” turned out to be a great little piece of filmmaking even though the director, Byron R. Kelley, isn’t even listed on the imdb.com page for it (or anywhere else on the site); unless he had Frankenheimer or someone else “ghosting” the show for him he actually turned in a marvelous job, and though some of the opening shots and scenes of the police stalking out the New York apartment building where most of the action takes place might have been filmed inserts, Kelley seamlessly blends a wide variety of locales for a quite stunning effect, especially by the standards of live TV that all too often reduced potentially compelling stories to just a bunch of people talking in a cheaply built set of a room. “Padlocks” was originally aired on CBS-TV (not NBC, as the credits on the Dean box falsely claim) on November 9, 1954 — just two months after the immediately preceding item in the Dean box, “Run Like a Thief” from the Philco Television Playhouse, and likewise a product of the interregnum during which Dean had already completed his first starring feature film, East of Eden, but was waiting for it to be released — and it’s interesting that after his performance in “Run Like a Thief,” in which he’s playing a sympathetic character and speaks in a clear, distinct tone of voice, here he’s back to playing the out-and-out crook he usually got typecast on in his TV shows and is mumbling à la Brando in the curious voice Dean adopted to express alienation. The plot is simplicity itself: a middle-aged woman (Mildred Dunnock — the final credits identify her simply as “The Woman” and James Dean as “The Man”) who lives in a seedy apartment in a section of New York City so run-down the building next to it is condemned is suddenly accosted, while opening the padlocks that are the only way she has to secure her apartment or anything in it, is suddenly accosted by a young man who’s just fled the scene of an attempted armed robbery of a local store where he shot and presumably killed the clerk. 

For half an hour of screen time director Kelley and writer Louis S. Peterson maintain the suspense — will the woman be able to talk the man out of shooting her? Will she be able to hold him off until the police arrive? Will he kill her before the police can get to her apartment, and when the police do come will they merely arrest him or kill him? They also maintain the suspense around Dunnock’s character, who has a series of rooms in her apartment, each of them separately padlocked, that contain what she calls her “treasures,” though the only one she sees is a large old Raggedy Ann-type doll and Dean’s character can’t stand the thing and can’t understand why Dunnock’s reveres it so. We get the impression that it’s probably a souvenir from Dunnock’s childhood — though Peterson doesn’t spell this out for us, and indeed he keeps the situation ultra-simple, employing that marvelous economy of narrative that made it possible for 1950’s TV to do quite enthralling half-hour crime dramas (and, for that matter, half-hour dramas in all sorts of genres), where today the half-hour TV drama is as dead as the Hudson Terraplane. I particularly liked the ambiguity over to what extent Dunnock’s character is genuinely crazy and to what extent she’s merely pretending to be crazy to mind-fuck Dean into letting her live. Eventually the ending is predictable — the cops storm the place and shoot down Dean before he has a chance to kill Dunnock or anyone else (the final credit roll lists only three actors — Dunnock, Dean and Ken Konopka as the cop who finally takes Dean out, though the imdb.com page lists a fourth actor, Robert Snively, playing “Charlie”) — but “Padlocks” is an excellent little mini-drama that keeps the suspense going and also ends up surprisingly moving.