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Thriller: The Next Victim (1976)
This is an episode of "Thriller" from its sixth and final season. By this time the show was displaying signs of fatigue and it comes through in the uneven quality of this installment. All the same it is good fare and rather better than initial impressions might suggest.
Sandy Marshall is an American woman married to a successful British insurance agent. She is also confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident in which her new sports car crashed. A heatwave has hit Britain but she is less than delighted. She cannot get out of her flat and her husband has gone away on business, leaving her alone. A number of local women have been strangled and she is very anxious. She tries to reassure herself but without success. Her friend Betty offers support and promises to meet her for a drink. However Betty never arrives and Sandy fears the worst. A visit from a personable neighbour, Tom, seems to offer protection - or does it?
The story premise above promises a very gripping tale but doesn't quite deliver. Essentially it is a "whodunit", not unlike the earlier "If It's a Man, Hang Up!" but lacks the latter's quality, never quite seizing the imagination. However there is much more there than might first be apparent. The final part of the story, mostly occupied by Sandy and Tom, is very good as both characters slowly lose their composure while the police finally feel they have their man. The conclusion is quite clever and delivers a fine twist which within a stronger episode would have been even more satisfying. It is spoiled a little though by a strange final shot which doesn't really wrap up events properly.
Characters and acting performances are quite good without reaching any heights. Tom Packer, well conveyed by Max Mason, is probably most interesting as Sandy's neighbour. Tom appears very friendly but there is more to him than meets the eye. He is capable of great perception, offering some powerful, if discomforting insights on her accident. His mother was confined to a wheelchair and this provides a bond between him and Sandy. However it does make him anxious and at times disturbing.
Bartlett, the caretaker (or janitor as he is referred to throughout in deference to the Americans!), is very intriguing and an obvious suspect. Not only is he lazy, not attending to problems in the building, but he has a disturbing fixation on mothers and babies, covering his office with pictures of them cut from magazines. A very creepy character very well-acted by Ronald Lacey. This role isn't dissimilar to the suspect caretaker in "If It's a Man" but is a rather more sinister figure.
TP McKenna, who appeared in the very first outing of "Thriller" returned, this time as the detective Frampton. The show almost always portrayed detectives in eccentric, somewhat ambiguous, lights and this is no exception. Frampton seems happy to let his assistant do almost all the work while he lounges around, scoffing at the "police college" theories offered. However he does hit on some smart insights. Not memorable but still interesting - like the story in general.
Carroll Baker as Sandy must have been one of the biggest American names to star in the show. She does a good job as the vulnerable and anxious Sandy. However she doesn't convey the same warmth and therefore inspire the same feeling as other "Thriller" "damsels-in-distress". Brenda Cavendish, best known for her part as Nell in the fifth series of "Public Eye", does well as Sandy's friend Betty.
The direction (by James Ormerod) and music are well up to the usual high standard. Altogether a capable if not outstanding outing which might have been more successful with better casting and a little improvement in the writing. Omitting the dreadfully wooden news reports would certainly have helped!
Her September Song?
One of the final stories within the "Thriller" anthology. Although it doesn't reach any particular heights it is a very professional offering with much to commend it.
It opens with opera singer Tony Risanti decrying his own ability to a tramp he has met. He tells the tramp that he will kill him and use his body to fake his own death but the tramp is too drunk to take any notice. Soon after he knocks him out.
Action then switches to a starring performance by opera singer Anna Cartell. Anna seems to have the musical world at her feet and is soon to marry high-flying American diplomat Hal Bridie. So far, so good. The only slight problem is tension with her protective manager Sam when she tells him of her plans to retire when she marries Hal.
However when inspecting a new house she hears a man singing and is shocked to see her husband Tony whom she had presumed long dead. He tells her that he faked his death and now intends to return, spelling scandal for Anna and her husband-to-be. He will disappear though if she pays him - blackmail. In a struggle she pushes him and he falls and bangs his head. There is no response and she fears she has killed him.
From this point her composure disintegrates. Matters become far worse when she sees Tony at her concerts. She goes back to the house but can find no trace of his body. Eventually she tells Sam. He offers to help. It is help that will have a high price.
Although rather low-key this is still an intriguing tale. The operatic setting is an unusual one and quite well-done. Susan Flannery is a very engaging presence as Anna and the performances of Stuart Damon as Hal and Keith Baxter as Tony are good. The honours though are taken by Sydney Tafler as Sam. The English Tafler is a very convincing American and contributes impressively to an enigmatic character.
The US movie version is much the most likely to be seen. It opens with a very violent scene that bears only a tangential relationship to the later action and is out of tune with the understated attitude to violence of the show. This sort of liberty was rather typical of the American titles added in post-production and was ill-advised. However there is the virtue of excellent dark, atonal piano music over the end titles. The US version also benefits from a better title than the original British one with its clumsy alliteration.
The ending may come across as a little flat and undramatic, as well as being rather abrupt, but it has the virtue of breaking with the clichéd climaxes that typify the genre. Although there are better episodes to see this is still worthy of examination.
Thriller: The Crazy Kill (1975)
An inopportune call
This episode hails from the fifth series of Brian Clemens's "Thriller" anthology. It is one of the few stories not written by him but by prolific writer Dennis Spooner, although Clemens still provided the basic storyline. It's also one of the best, although little seen.
Garard and Filton are two escaped convicts. Filton is small-time - unlike Garard who is a certified psychopath and a great danger to the public. To make matters worse Garard soon steals a shotgun and the pair go looking for a hideout. The place they find is occupied by a distinguished doctor and what appears to be his wife. Garard makes it quite clear that blood will be spilled if either of them raise the alarm. Meanwhile a young American journalist is heading to visit the doctor's wife to discuss her priceless collection of poster art. She could not be calling at a worse time...
An extremely professional outing. Garard is a superb character - utterly dominant, extremely threatening but with the clean-cut looks and ability to turn on the charm that can make him quite plausible. His accomplice Filton is essentially a bully's mate, a seemingly pathetic figure who is also terrorised by Garard if he steps out of line. However his suggestive behaviour in the presence of the doctor's "wife" indicates that he may not be as unthreatening as he appears, at least as regards women.
The doctor is an intriguing figure. A top heart specialist, he is clearly unnerved by events. However it is clear his nervousness betrays a wider unease and we do see a rather different aspect of his character at times. His "wife" Hilary is terrified but again it may not just be Garard and Filton scaring her. All these parts are distinguished by impressive acting but the performances of Denholm Elliott as Dr. Henson and Anthony Valentine as Garard are quite exceptional. Elliott especially shows what a top-class actor can do, aided by fine writing and direction.
The police room scenes were often a weak spot in "Thriller" and while these ones are not perfect they are far stronger than usual. Alan Browning turns in a sharp display as the forceful Superintendent Brook. Brook is a man who knows his mind and gets his way while officers below him squabble. There is a very impressive scene when he rebukes a Sergeant who thinks he will get in Brook's good books by criticising the Inspector whom Brook has just over-ruled. Brook is not happy at this insubordination and defends the Inspector.
The part of the journalist Tracy Loxton (Tandy Cronyn) is fairly small but she plays a very important part when events take a very unexpected turn late in the action. Her journey to the house is also enlivened by her talkative, somewhat wet, taxi-driver, played by Ken Parry.
The tense story comes to a strong climax. Not untypically for the show one ends up feeling sympathy for Garard after the tables are turned on him in a very underhand fashion. It's definitely well-worthy of attention. However if you do get to see it, hopefully it will be the original UK ATV version and not the US movie one which features some of the worst animated opening titles you could see, added long after the event. However even if you do see them, just enjoy the great story that follows.
The only way is Earp
This installment of "Thriller" aired at the end of its brilliant third series. Unfortunately it is way below the standard of the five preceding episodes but it is still very sound and profits from further watching.
Bernard Peel (Christopher George) is an American businessman living in England, married to an exceptional corporate lawyer. He returns home from a party one evening, has a drink and falls asleep. He is woken by the doorbell and is alarmed to find the police. They tell him they have been tipped-off about an incident involving him and his wife. He is utterly incredulous. An inspection of the house shows evidence of a violent incident and of a female visitor, but Bernard denies all knowledge. Matters get far worse when the boot of his car is opened and his wife's body is found.
Bernard is arrested by the police for the murder of his wife. He strenuously denies responsibility and calls in the services of the foppish but remarkably skilled private investigator Matthew Earp (Dinsdale Landen). Earp approaches the case with typical incisiveness and is true to his word that he will prove who killed Jennifer Peel.
On screen this is a rather pedestrian outing, never generating the tension and edge of many other stories. However it is very professional, and doesn't embody some of the glaring weaknesses of some other lesser episodes. Its great virtue is the return of the marvelous Matthew Earp. Earp is a deliciously witty and entertaining figure but never just a comic presence or a caricature. There is also a very sharp brain, and he is a brave and skilled fighter as the climax demonstrates. Dinsdale Landen's performance, as in Earp's other appearance in "An Echo Of Theresa", is perfect. There are also some neat exchanges with Gifford (Edward Hardwicke) the detective who quietly resents Earp's involvement as well as his enormous fees.
Christopher George does a fair job as Bernard Peel. Hans Meyer has a nice part as a director of Peel's business who is clearly suspicious of him and unhappy about being down the pecking order. There is a note-worthy appearance by Richard Todd as Tulliver, one of Bernard's colleagues.
1974 was a big year for the martial arts and they make an appearance here, with karate being employed by one unlikely assassin. Unfortunately they also make for a very silly piece of art-work on the American end-titles in which a fist above Peel's head appears to be pulling his hair! These "artistic" end-titles were almost always appalling and are best avoided.
The climax features an extraordinary twist that is a great bonus - one of the most striking in the show. Maybe if the preceding hour had been more memorable this could have been one of the better installments of a great programme.
Thriller: Kiss Me and Die (1974)
Although this installment of "Thriller" is generally popular with fans I've never been keen on it and consider it one of the weaker ones. All the same it is a pretty professional job and does have its merits.
American Robert Stone comes to England searching for his brother who went missing shortly after arriving in a quaint village and meeting a beautiful young woman called Dominie. At the village pub he gets a warm welcome but when he visits Dominie's stately home he gets short shrift from the housekeeper. Fortunately for him Dominie is more welcoming.
An attraction develops between Robert and Dominie but it is uneasy. She has been hurt by what she sees as past rejections. It is also clear that her guardian, a German cum-English "gentleman", Jonathan Lanceford is not keen on the relationship at all. Robert gets the message from other quarters that his presence isn't wanted but he persists. He isn't frightened off even when Fred, a local rat-catcher who had given him some interesting information, dies in a mysterious accident. The signs are that Robert could be next...
The story premise is quite promising but somehow the result on screen doesn't really work. There is an Edgar Allan Poe theme running throughout, with Jonathan Lanceford obsessed with the writer. This is an interesting angle but doesn't make the impact expected.
The performances are, for the most part unremarkable, although quite competent. There are two major exceptions. Anton Diffring is very impressive, making Jonathan very sinister. Russell Hunter does a very good job as the permanently drunk but revealing Fred. The direction is quite good, particularly in some night shots and light and dark are well-handled in scenes in the dark recesses of the house and the accompanying party. At no point though was this as unsettling as it could have been.
An irritating aspect is the use of unconvincing rural accents in the village pub. This is an echo of the yokel scenes in the village store in "A Place To Die", an episode from the previous season also written by Terence Feely. On a more positive if trivial note it is refreshing to see a pub full of working class beer drinkers in a show otherwise dominated by privileged people downing spirits. "Thriller" was not noted for its humour but there is a rare joke here. Robert is asked how they deal with foxes in America. He dryly replies, "Well in our country the foxes shoot back"!
The final scene I find one of the worst endings to a story - it is horribly cheesy and out of keeping with the very serious action beforehand, in particular detracting from a fairly effective climax.
Overall then a mixed bag. I would recommend checking other installments of "Thriller" first but this is still worthy of attention.
Thriller: A Coffin for the Bride (1974)
Third time lucky?
The opening episode of the third series of "Thriller" set off a run of five marvelous stories. This is one of the better known ones as it received a commercial video release in 1994. All the same too few people have seen it, and they have certainly missed out, although maybe not for much longer.
Mark Walker is an attractive, charming young man who marries two older women - and then kills them. He is very clever because he disguises their deaths as tragic accidents - drowning in the bath. His only problem is the solicitor acting for the first woman, who suspects him of murder but cannot convince the police.
While visiting a health club he meets Stella, a very attractive young woman whom he pursues simply for pleasure. However he very soon is attracted by an extremely rich older widow called Angie. Everything seems to be going to Mark's plan, and it looks as if he will soon be a wealthy widower for the third time. However Mark is a hunted man, and not necessarily in the way he expects...
Almost every aspect of this production is brilliantly done. The story is captivating and features an extraordinary and very poetic climax. That climax is based, it has to be said, on a rather large plot hole but there is no doubting that it is superb to watch.
There is an array of great characters. Mark Walker is a very complex man. Obviously he is dangerous and ruthless but he does have real charm and it is clear that he is coping with a very traumatic event from his past. Late in the episode the turn of events makes us sympathies for him - a mark of fine narrative. Stella and Angie seem very different - Stella is elegant, refined and calm while Angie is loud and unattractive. However both share an independent spirit. Oliver Mason, the solicitor, impresses with his dignity,incisiveness and determination. Freddy the barman is an avuncular, very likable figure. The various other characters are very effectively done.
The acting is splendid. Michael Jayston as Mark, and Helen Mirren as Stella are the obvious candidates, with the latter especially impressive. However the supporting cast is extremely strong. Particularly worthy of mention are Michael Gwynn as Mason, Arthur English as Freddy (a very good straight performance by a comic performer) and Richard Hampton as a very steely detective. John Sichel's direction complements things perfectly.
The brilliant (if improbable) climax also has the bonus of raising a very interesting moral dilemma. A future DVD release is quite possible so hopefully you'll be able to enjoy this and try to work out that dilemma for yourself!
A worthy prospect
A middle-ranking outing of Brian Clemens's "Thriller" series. While not one of the best it is still very effective.
An excellent teaser leads into a young woman (Babs) spotting a great job opportunity, involving lots of travel, in a newspaper. To her consternation her flatmate has already found the job and snapped it up. Nothing more is heard for some time until the same advert reappears. Babs and her other flatmate Helen assume that their friend got fired, which they regard with a little glee. This time Babs has an unobstructed run and gets the job. She also doesn't make contact later and Helen is a little worried when she visits the employer's office and finds it empty. Her worries multiply considerably when she visits the American Embassy to change her passport details and finds a woman there answering to exactly the same description as Babs. Helen's new husband Charley believes it to be just coincidence but Helen disagrees and starts to investigate.
This is one of "Thriller"'s espionage episodes. The "employers", if that's quite the right word for them, are certainly not what they seem. The two men fronting this organisation, Carter and Gifford, are a curious pairing. Carter is a genteel man who seems to find his organisation's activities ghastly if necessary. His colleague Gifford is the man who does the dirty work, and seems to delight in doing so. There is a clear tension between the two that works extremely well. Both characters are highly memorable. One irritating aspect though is Gifford repeatedly using the word "pig" after Carter describes him as one.
There are other good supporting characters. Babs's brother, a journalist, briefly but powerfully appears inquiring into her disappearance. After a rather cringe-worthy entrance in which he tries to chat up Helen, who he assumes is single, he gets down to business. It is soon apparent that he knows rather more about Carter than the latter would like and there is a great scene in which the two, and Gifford, meet. Hanley is the head of security at the embassy who is a disconcerting and rather enigmatic figure.
Julian Glover (Gifford) and James Maxwell (Carter) are both fine, helped of course by great writing. Other performances are quite good without anyone being truly memorable. Kim Darby is not the most magnetic of "Thriller" heroines as Helen Masters but she still performs soundly. Keith Barron, who plays Charley, is of course a very familiar TV face and voice. The writing and direction are up to the usual standards with the murder scenes especially chilling.
The story is engaging but certainly picks up momentum towards the end. The climax is generally impressive with a number of twists, let down a little by one inadvertently amusing sequence and an ending that isn't as polished as it could be. On the whole though a strong piece of television.
The Punch and Judy Man (1963)
Lacking in punch
I first saw this film many years ago and was struck by the fact that for a "comedy" I found it not just utterly unfunny but couldn't actually see much attempt at humour at all. The tone just seemed very bleak and depressing.
Unfortunately I don't see any need on review to be more generous. This is not to say that all comedy must be "laugh-a-minute" but this is very limp. I suppose the humour is supposed to be gently satirical, poking fun at the attempts at social climbing of Hancock's screen wife and the snobbery of the local dignitaries. However if this is so it really likes bite. Some of the more obvious attempts at comedy such as the scene in the ice cream parlour I find very irritating.
Possibly the film might be taken as an early attempt at comedy-drama. However as drama it also fails to hit the mark - it really is hard going. The contrast with Hancock's excellent previous film "The Rebel" is all too stark, and not just in the switch from vibrant colour to black and white. Maybe the often outlandish world of modern art made comedy easier in the earlier film but the problem is much deeper than that. In his TV shows Hancock had shown he could make great comedy out of mundane circumstances. The absence of Galton and Simpson as writers would appear to be the key problem. Hancock never made much impression without them.
This film will strike most viewers as evidence of Hancock's sad decline in the 1960's, although other comments suggest it does work for some. However there is much still to delight in his earlier work - a great legacy - and it is best to stick with that.
Nearest and Dearest (1972)
I really liked this as a TV series in the past. I haven't seen an episode in many years and this film is the only evidence I've encountered recently. It is a desperate disappointment.
This feeling isn't that surprising. In the 1970's most major British sitcoms were turned into film versions, every time with inferior results. The best of these sitcoms, like "Steptoe and Son", "Porridge" and "Rising Damp" still managed to produce quite good films. However the results with the second rank comedies were generally poor. This is such an example.
It is difficult to turn a 25-30 minutes format into a workable feature film. The writers and producers always took the characters out of their original situation and then struggled to keep quality and pace going for 90 minutes. Here the characters are sent to Blackpool for part of the film (a holiday being a standard plot device) and then pad the rest out with a marriage. Where "Nearest and Dearest" especially struggles is its lack of real comic quality. The best sitcoms had really well-drawn characters and were capable of social comment and even pathos. It is one of those sitcoms that relies very heavily on innuendo, which has not fared well over time. There are the habitual comic confusions of the time over sex, with any suggestion of pre-marital action provoking apoplexy in those more traditional times. It also has the standard inclusion of some large-breasted young women for laughs, an approach we have rather transcended.
Other humour comes from Nellie's malapropisms. These are quite amusing in small doses but lose their impact over time. Most frustrating is the use of stupid behaviour in a feeble attempt to amuse.
There are some funny lines and the film will certainly hold some nostalgic interest for fans of the series and of the seventies in general. However after seeing this it is hard to seriously see those days as the halcyon ones they are often portrayed - certainly not in terms of comedy. I think we should be thankful that our modern favourites are not subjected to this sort of demolition on the big screen.
Thriller: A Midsummer Nightmare (1975)
A Midsummer Mess
The penultimate outing for "Thriller" is in my opinion its worst, rivaled by "Kiss Me and Die" and "Murder Motel". It was a sign that this splendid series had run its course, at least at that point.
The action opens with the fatal stabbing of a teenage girl in a forest. The murder is unsolved after five years so her uncle and guardian, Arnold Tully, visits the office of J. Baxter, a private eye. When he gets there he meets J. Baxter's wife, Jody. and assumes she is the private eye before she can explain. She takes on the job anyway. She finds that everyone assumes the killer is a local actor called Peter Ingram, but there has been insufficient evidence to charge him. While Ingram is an unpleasant figure with an unhealthy interest in women, Jody is not convinced of his guilt. Jody makes good use of some apparently trivial details but her search for the killer leads her into danger.
Although this story outline could have led to a good episode the actual results are very disappointing. Almost all the characters are dislikeable, with only Jody attracting any positive feeling. While Tully has clearly had a tragic past his obsessive attitude towards his niece is rather creepy and, if not pedophile, is certainly too close. Ingram is one of several characters, including Tully with a tiresome preoccupation with the theatre. The detective George, played by Brian Blessed, is rather boorish. Mrs. Fitch, Tully's Cockney housekeeper, is dismally deferential in a way more suited to the Victorian age. Jody's semi-estranged husband Johnny has nothing useful to contribute.
The acting performances are sound but fail to give a mediocre offering a necessary lift. This is despite the presence of renowned actors such as Blessed and Freddie Jones as Tully, although neither is a favourite of mine with their expansive styles. Joanna Pettet as Jody is quite effective and certainly makes an attractive sight for the male viewer.
Attitudes to women in "Thriller" were frequently patronizing and predatory but here these tendencies become overbearing - the treatment of both the murdered girl and Jody demonstrate this. Given the grim murder storyline the presence of some supposed humour in the interchanges between Jody and Johnny is quite out-of-place. The final scene is a sickly piece of nonsense that would better suit "Hart To Hart".
That last scene is a shame because the climax to the murder story was quite well done. It ends in a fairly low-key but quite poignant fashion. It breaks from the often-clichéd dramatic confrontations that ended many episodes, although a little more "bite" wouldn't have gone amiss.
This is really for "Thriller" completists only but hopefully it makes more impact if you do encounter it.