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Bonanza: The Blood Line (1960)
You can certainly see why TV critics started coining the term "horse opera" in reaction to "Bonanza" when it arrived in 1959, especially up against "Gunsmoke", "Wanted Dead or Alive" and other more adult westerns. In the 1959-60 series the writing for Ben Cartright's character, particularly, was uneven, often coming across as an ambitious land baron almost to the point of tyrant over any interlopers. Here, the opposite and he's written as an idiot-saint, weeping and wailing about the fate of a 16-year-old boy whose wild, drunken father he shot in self-defense and to save others. Unbelievably, spreading his saintly largesse over all and sundry, he is allowed to take the boy in, after he too has tried to kill Ben and is obviously itching to try again. The boy's part too seemed written for effect, throwing himself all over the place like a spoiled brat; familiar face David Macklin looked too mature for this sort of thing, even aged 14 and a half. Similarly, Jan Sterling as the dance hall woman deludedly in love with the dead sidewinder -- who incredibly encourages the boy in his bid for revenge. Dan Blocker was the only actor here that comes through with much credit, apart from the always dependable Sheriff Roy Coffey.
Gunsmoke: Home Surgery (1955)
This episode is probably the best I've ever seen of "Gunsmoke" -- great story, full of convincing, true acting and authentic-looking sets reminiscent of just how earthy and gritty life was at that time and place. Sexy Gloria Talbott plays a farm girl who takes Matt & Chester back to her place to help her wounded father (Joe De Santis), immobilized with gangrene. Scenes played between father and daughter are touching without being overdone. Matt is forced to apply the "Home Surgery" of the quirky title. James Arness and Dennis Weaver are no less good in this and it is especially impressive how the style and ethic of this series was already firmly established and whole in this first month of airing (1955). No wonder it was hailed as the first 'adult' western on TV compared to "The Lone Ranger", "Hopalong Cassidy" and "The Cisco Kid" already on, and contrasted to the "horse operas" like "Wagon Train" and "Bonanza" that were still to arrive.
Lynn Loring, previously of the "Fair Exchange" sitcom series, aged just 22 in this 1966 episode, gives a lip-smacking, bug-eyed (oh sorry, that was her natural state) performance as a sexual decoy par excellence, a conniving B*tch raised in the image of a man-hating grandmother. In this screenplay presenting the modern treatment of "mental illness", written by two men, the common liberal view is shown expanding to encompass emotionally warped people who are, in all but one aspect, functioning individuals. "Laurie" is deemed not to know what she is doing. The poor, sensitive lass -- Ben Cartright (Lorne Greene) has it figured -- victimizes Joe (Michael Landon) and plays up to her father (Lyle Bettger) to the point that the friendly families are at each other's throats. She lures an employee for fun, just to see him him squirm, then dismisses him. She gets Hoss (Dan Blocker) wounded in an unnecessary gunfight. She plugs a hand from the Ponderosa dead center, point blank, with his own revolver. And she is on the point of blowing away her father with a shotgun when saintly Joe intervenes. He explains the error of her ways and in one minute flat Laurie goes from a screaming banshee to calmly regretting her ways and pleading with Joe for help. But he's clever enough to avoid this bottomless pit and sweetly passes the burden of this back to her father.
Bonanza: Day of Reckoning (1960)
The path to hell is paved with good intentions
This is a well-intentioned attempt from early in the second series of "Bonanza" to sell the idea of Amerindian equality to the mass TV audience, decades after pioneering Hollywood movies did it a lot better. The Cartrights tend to get their liberalism somewhat half-assed here. Matsou, a younger Bannock chief (Ricardo Montalban), and his wife Atoya (Madlyn Rhue), a Shoshone, are outcast from both tribes and live on their own in the rocky high country of the Ponderosa. When they save Ben from Matsou's older brother Lagos (Anthony Caruso) and nurse him back to strength, he offers them his best farm land so they can raise crops and stock and live as white people. Matsou is skeptical and reluctant but, urged on by his wife's Christian pleadings that it's the best hope for their people, he tries. A rabid Indian-hating settler, Ike Daggett (Karl Swenson), another homesteader adjacent who has been gifted land by the Cartrights, does all he can to destroy this initiative. In a confrontation at Daggett's wife's funeral, he grabs a rifle while Ben restrains Matsou and shoots pregnant Atoya dead: "An eye for an eye!" he cries in good Christian spirit. Matsou takes revenge on Daggett but cannot go through with it on Ben. He returns to his people, promising to return in friendship. (As if he hasn't learnt by now!) Montalban was a fine figure of a man at 40, before back problems set in. And Madlyn Rhue too was a dish.
Bonanza: The Genius (1966)
This episode features Lonny Chapman putting in a good performance as a burnt-out "genius" poet with a triple-barrelled name -- one of the most gifted of America's young poets according to Ben -- thought to be dead, who turns up in Virginia City reciting poetry hour after hour in the saloon for drinkin' money, and he downs one quadruple whiskey after the other to little or no visible effect. It turns out he's running away from himself, afraid to live up to his own reputation. His wife, who still loves him, has tracked him from city to city, just arrived from San Francisco. Hoss, who has taken the drunken sot under his wing, and Ben, try to fix what ails him by settin' him to some chores on the Ponderosa. How will it turn out for the jaded couple finally reunited?
I didn't recognize "The Mill" as inspired by Shakespeare's "Othello" because I couldn't recall the character Othello played as a spineless drunkard as his equivalent was here; because this Othello doesn't throttle his Desdemona to death; and because it's "Bonanza" after all. It's obvious early on in this second season of "Bonanza" why critics were calling this 'a horse opera' measured up against more authentic westerns like "Gunsmoke", "Wagon Train" and "Rawhide". The drama is heavily wrought, more akin to say, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", the film that came out two years later. Guest stars Harry Townes and Claude Akins lay it on pretty thick. But it's good to see all the regulars acting like they still enjoyed it, especially Pernell Roberts who came to look severely jaded even judging by episodes screened in 1963. Maybe starting the notorious tradition, the lady, played by a rather sparkling Dianne Foster, escapes the love of a Cartright (Ben in this case) through a ridiculously contrived excuse, going to "friends in Denver" on her way Back East, carrying as she does an unquenchable torch for the husband who lost her in a bet to "Iago".
Bonanza: Five Sundowns to Sunup (1965)
"Five Sundowns to Sunup", originally aired 5th December 1965, was directed by B-movie veteran Gerd Oswald and guest-starred Marie Windsor.
This was quite easily the best "Bonanza" episode I've seen recently, not having seen another to equal it in the current run of repeats (since 1963) of this series shown on Jones channel (#13) in New Zealand. The taut plot and imaginative treatment remind me quite a bit of manhunting/hostage "Gunsmoke" episodes screening in the mid Sixties.
Former noir femme fatale Marie Windsor (aged 46 but well preserved here) plays an embittered widow woman whose son is in the Virginia City jail due to be hanged for murder. Sheriff Coffey has been wounded and Ben Cartright replaces him while Hoss and Joe join a small posse of those willing to run up against this formidable matriarch. The tension builds well without the overdramatics of many previous "Bonanza" outings.
I've been surprised at the modernized quality in the dozen or so episodes I've seen since Adam (Pernell Roberts) left "Bonanza" -- except in the "comedy" episodes -- though Adam did feature in a few good stories in his last series (1964-65). An example of the general improvement was the previous episode featuring Royal Dano, Tim Considine and Dan Blocker, though somewhat spoiled by comedy sequences.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Best ever for Frank Sinatra
This film, as far as thrillers of its era go, is more complexly handled than a Hitchcock movie and far more respecting of the actors. Therefore, ultimately, more satisfying. This, for me, has to be the best performance on screen from Frank Sinatra. I could not spot one one false move in all his lengthy screen time, compared with say, a scene or two from Brando where at some point he is almost bound to be just a little too theatrical. Most stars these days seem content to walk through their roles, unless they're throwing themselves off buildings, through fires, amid a blaze of special effects. Just note the scene where Major Marco is having a drink in the smokers' car on the train and trying to light his cigarette, apparently unaware of Janet Leigh, and the scene where Leigh pursues him outside to light his cigarette... Brilliant. Even more amazing when you consider Sinatra normally insisted on just one take.
The Equalizer (1985)
The Equalizer a sequel to Callan?
Edward Woodward starred as 'Callan' (1966-71), an English series where he played the top agent of a top secret British government spy organization that 'fixed' situations that couldn't be fixed otherwise. It was (and still is) a genuine TV classic, with fine scripts and characterizations -- as seen on the Sky channel UK TV when it's rerun periodically. Co-stars included Anthony Valentine and Patrick Mower as his younger, more ruthless colleagues. As soon as I saw 'The Equalizer' in the mid Eighties I saw it as a worthy successor to 'Callan' for Edward Woodward, now playing someone older and wiser, and a little softer at the centre.