Danger Man

Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.

Called Secret Agent when it was broadcast in the USA, Danger Man stars Patrick McGoohan as John Drake.

From September of 1960 to January of 1962 the 39 episodes were made for a half-hour time slot. Drake was an agent for NATO, based out of Washington, D.C. The show was cancelled when American financing could not be obtained. Over the next two years, Danger Man had been resold in markets around the world, James Bond had become popular, as well as shows like The Avengers.

It returned in 1964 with double the running time and a transplant to London, where Drake now worked for “M9” doing the same sort of work. These one hour black and white shows aired from October, 1964 to April, 1966. After another gap, two final episodes were aired in January, 1968. These final two episodes were in color.

I preferred the theme song and incidental music from the first season over the rest. For the hour long shows, they changed to a main theme that sounds to me like a harpsichord. Over time, though, the theme grew on me, particularly the horn section in the middle. But the harpsichord sound always seemed odd to me.

I was familiar with McGoohan from The Prisoner, which was made after Danger Man. When I was about half way through viewing this series, I did a bit of reading about McGoohan. I didn’t realize that he was one of the actors considered for the role of James Bond in Dr. No. He was also offered the part of Simon Templar in The Saint, which he turned down. He again was offered James Bond in Live and Let Die, and again turned it down. Roger Moore took both these roles.

I’m having a hard time imagining McGoohan as either Templar or Bond. It’s not that I think he wouldn’t have done a fine job; it’s more a failure of my imagination. John Drake is not very much like either Templar or Bond. Drake is neither a womanizer nor a fan of guns. He’s serious, wholly lacking the humor Roger Moore brought to both Templar and Bond.

The series was developed by Ralph Smart, who remained involved with it for the entire run. Smart wrote or co-wrote 37 of the episodes and directed two others. McGoohan directed three episodes himself.

Like The Saint, John Drake is a multi-talented guy. Fisticuffs are a regular occurrence for characters of this nature, so Drake is an able fighter, often needing to outfight multiple foes who are typically armed. Drake can fly a plane and pick locks but, unlike Simon Templar, he cannot crack a safe.

His main talent is role playing. Simon Templar was a notorious public figure: everybody knew him. Drake is an undercover agent and relies on anonymity. As such, he goes on his missions with a cover. On multiple occasions he’s been a journalist or a lawyer. He’s been a butler twice, a disc jockey once and a radio reporter once, a mining engineer, traveling salesman, recently released ex-convict (twice), a merchant sailor, an artist, and so on.

Some of these identities require a certain amount of specialized knowledge and abilities. This implies that Drake regularly undergoes some extensive training. When posing as an artist, he bought the entire output of a painter because, presumably, Drake wasn’t much of an artist. But he passed as a highly competent butler and could work all the equipment when he was masquerading as a DJ. He once posed as a code-breaker, and while undercover was expected to build and configure a code breaking machine, which he accomplished.

He’s also quite competent at the usual tasks of the secret agent: breaking into homes, apartments, and offices; working radios, including sending and receiving Morse code; conducting surveillance.

And, as every other television character of the day, he smokes and drinks like there’s no tomorrow.

The influence of James Bond on the show is evident as time went on. In the beginning, Drake had no special gadgets. By the end, he had an entire electronics store concealed in his bed in his apartment: radio receivers, tape recorders, decoders, video monitors. None of this served the plot in any way; it seems it was thrown in just because it was expected.

Drake did make regular use of a number of handy gadgets. He often used an electric shaver that concealed a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder. My favorite was a cigarette lighter that was a camera. These devices all looked to me like they could really exist in the time the story took place, unlike many of the things Q supplied James Bond.

I don’t think Drake ever failed in his job, but that doesn’t mean things always turned out “right”. For example, he was once told to bring a man in and that the man wouldn’t be arrested. He made this promise to the man and the man’s wife, but the man was arrested, angering Drake.

I found the entire run of shows entertaining, except for the last two episodes. I wouldn’t say that Danger Man ever “jumped the shark”, but those last two episodes were a mistake.

Although it would be natural for me to watch The Prisoner next (was #6 John Drake?), I’ll instead move on to Peter Gunn.

The Saint

I’ve had more than the usual amount of free time lately. Somehow I decided to watch The Saint, the British TV series from the sixties starring Roger Moore. They made 118 episodes between 1962 and 1969, the first two-thirds in B&W and the rest in color. I found them quite entertaining.

The Saint was a literary character created by Leslie Charteris. He wrote the first Simon Templar story in 1928 and cranked them out as short stories, novellas, and novels for the next 35 years. Almost all of the black and white episodes had scripts based on Charteris stories, while only a few of the color ones were.

I love the character. Simon Templar is famously known as The Saint. Everywhere he goes, somebody recognizes him. In fact, it’s built in to each script: the cold open always ends with somebody ending a sentence with “Simon Templar”, at which point a halo is put on screen above Templar’s head. He often looks up at it.

During the cold open, Templar gives us a few words. In the black and white episodes, he breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly. His eye will catch the camera and he’ll give a half-nod or beckon us with his eyes and the camera moves in to a closeup. And then he talks to us. In the color episodes he no longer does this; but he still gives his little monologue as a voice-over.

Templar has no job, no visible means of support. The police in every major city of Europe know who he is, and often threaten to jail him under the slightest pretext. They often have an officer tail him. And Templar often buys said officer a nice dinner, or drinks, or takes him to a party. The police all agree he’s a jewel thief, but we never see him steal anything from the thing’s rightful owner, and always on behalf of some wronged individual, although he sometimes gets a reward and occasionally gets a cut.

He is an expert safe-cracker and picklock. He’s an excellent fighter and can take a few punches. That is to say, the fights are pretty hokey, but The Saint almost always prevails over one or two or even three assailants, even if he is unarmed and they have knives or guns or even swords. I love that in about half the fight scenes (particularly in the early episodes), they manage to break every stick of furniture in the room. He’s so good at boxing that in one episode he got in the ring with a championship contender and won.

I like his car, a Volvo P1800, a sporty white two-seater hardtop with red interior (in some later episodes it’s a black interior, but it switches back to red). He’s an excellent driver, which should be no surprise. He’s so good, in fact, that he can drive a Grand Prix car against championship drivers and lead the race. It’s not just Grand Prix cars: he drove (and won, of course) a rally. When he’s not needed to compete in the race, he volunteers to help with the setup of the car: “Do you want me to find the vibration?”

Our hero is also a pilot. To be specific, he can fly a helicopter, a single-engine prop plane, and with a little help flew a Harrier jump-jet in the first year it was in service. (They called it an Osprey, not a Harrier. But it was definitely a Harrier. I’m amused that the US now has a VTOL plane called the Osprey.)

He’s a snappy dresser. He sports a tuxedo or a suit and is almost never casually dressed. He’s able to scale walls and fences and break into mansions, apartments, and hotel rooms while dressed to the nines. I love that when Templar breaks into somebody’s residence and conducts a search, he helps himself to a drink. In one episode he stole cigars instead of drinks, then later smoked one of these cigars in front of the man he stole them from.

He travels to Europe, the USA, South America, and even Australia. Beautiful women are attracted to him. He’s conversant in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. He can spot fake jewels quickly, but isn’t so keen a judge of paintings. He’s a witty conversationalist.

The production, particularly in the black and white episodes, is a bit on the cheap side. That could be due to the truly staggering amount of cigarettes that are consumed. If the alcohol was real, they wouldn’t have been able to afford film. Templar prefers whiskey and soda (dispensed from a seltzer bottle, natch) but will consume a wide variety of potent potables. I’d say the characters are always drinking, but that would be an exaggeration. They don’t drink when they’re in cars, or during fight scenes (although it’s not uncommon for someone to get hit over the head with a bottle of wine).

I shouldn’t make fun of the production. It was above average for its time. The entire run was shot on film. Many sixties shows that were shot on video tape were lost because the tapes got reused. And film transfers to digital better, having much higher resolution.

They shot establishing shots on location, but without Roger Moore. These were always long shots and used a lookalike. Anything close up was shot in the studio. The interiors were obviously designed like those for the stage: there are no interior 90 degree corners. Walls on the left side are not parallel to those on the right side. The actors are often blocked such that they don’t face each other when giving dialog.

They often repeated these exterior shots. For the episodes where The Saint is in Spain or Latin America, they always showed the same hotel: La Perla. Another generic looking building got repeat screen time as a number of different generic hotels. The studio lot evidently wasn’t very big, as we kept seeing the same building exteriors over and over, but with different names painted on them.

We probably also saw the majority of the contents of their props warehouse. I noticed the same suit of armor show up in an English castle, a French chateau, a Spanish villa, and a German lodge. We repeatedly see a series of framed drawings of antique cars. And there are the framed photos of birds. In one episode, Templar asks a woman “did you take this?” and we see the same photo on the wall of a bar a few episodes later. I might not have noticed it if they hadn’t pointed it out the first time.

All that said, I found that the stories were very efficiently told. That is, they packed quite a bit of plot into the 49 minute running times. Harry Junkin was the script supervisor for the entire series. He also wrote a number of the screenplays. Another writer of several early episodes was Terry Nation, who wrote many early Doctor Who episodes and created the Daleks.

On the whole, the black and white episodes were quite good. Primarily, they were detective stories. Templar must figure out who the bad guy (or gal) is, get them to confess, and recover the stolen goods, if goods were stolen. Sometimes it’s a murder mystery: too often, one of Templar’s “good friends” is the victim. (It really wasn’t healthy to be a “good friend” of Simon Templar, given how many of them are killed.)

When they started doing shows in color, they changed the main title music (but didn’t update any of the incidental music). The opening title sequence was changed and lengthened. Originally, it was just the title of the show and the only names were Leslie Charteris and Roger Moore. In the last two seasons, they moved producer and script supervisor to the opening credit sequence. For the final season, they changed the main title music again, and not for the better.

Some guest stars showed up in more than one episode. “Guest star” may not be the best term, as I can’t say that any of them were stars. Bert Kwouk, best known as Cato in the Pink Panther movies, shows up in three episodes (as three different characters). I always liked the Cato character, so when I saw Kwouk playing a Chinese Colonel or a hotel desk clerk, I noticed him immediately. An actress called Dawn Addams showed up in three episodes. I don’t think I’d heard of her before, certainly didn’t think, “Hey, that’s Dawn Addams!” But when she showed up in a second (and third) episode, I thought “she looks familiar.”

Another “gee, that’s familiar” moment was when I watched an episode that involved voodoo. Some of the situations and even little snippets of dialog from this story ended up in Live and Let Die, with Roger Moore playing James Bond.

The stories in the last two seasons were a bit uneven. Only one or two were based on stories by Charteris. The last of the Charteris stories was when The Saint jumped the shark. The story was called The House on Dragon’s Rock. Clearly, after cranking out more than a hundred stories they were finished. This one was a poor rip-off of the movie Them! Templar is reduced to fighting a giant ant. The last season also featured a Terry Nation script. Another dud.

To wrap things up, I watched the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer. This is definitely not The Saint. They used the character name, and the name of Scotland Yard’s Claude Eustice Teal. But neither of these characters has any resemblance to Leslie Charteris’ Saint. In the TV show, as I said, he was well known by the police. In the movie, he was an unknown, a master of disguises, a wanted man. He used technology to crack safes. He was a crook, only in it for the money. Not at all the same character. It wasn’t necessarily a bad movie, just not The Saint.

Next up: Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan.

J. J. Abrams Killed Star Trek

I watched Star Trek Into Darkness last night. What a disappointment. To say Abrams killed Star Trek is probably a bit of a stretch. Between the original series, the spinoffs, and the movies, we’re talking something like 728 stories. To say Abrams killed all that with two hours of dross is an exaggeration. Surely, in a few years somebody will spend another quarter billion dollars and make another Star Trek film that isn’t complete crap. Star Trek fans will be able to deny the Abrams films much like Bond fans ignore the Peter Sellers version of Casino Royale. We can hope.

Abrams “rebooted” the series. A very clever tactic on his part. He piggy-backs on his predecessors, people who spent their careers building a franchise, and is allowed to discard all that familiar back story. He gets to leverage the Star Trek name, has a cast of fully formed and familiar characters, and inherits a galaxy populated with enemies we all love to hate. Because he doesn’t have to create any of this stuff, he’s free to concentrate on story. And no matter how badly he executes, he’s guaranteed a certain minimum amount of box office success. Yes, a clever plan.

I wouldn’t call my self a Trek fanatic, but I’m sure some have. I’ve seen every episode of the original several times each. I had big sections of dialog memorized. (I’ve since killed those brain cells.) I watched all the other TV series. I don’t think I saw all the episodes of Deep Space 9, but probably caught every episode of all the others. I’ve seen all the movies. I enjoyed the great majority of it. Many of the episodes are very interesting and compelling stories. A lot of them are forgettable.

The special effects for the original series were quite primitive. Things had to be kept very simple and on the cheap. The effects could never really add to the story, but if they weren’t careful, the could have taken away. From TNG on, though, there were a lot more options. And today, a film maker can show us vision he has the capacity to imagine.

So here we have Abrams with $185 million to spend and a clean slate, a list of familiar characters, a robust setting, and the technology to tell whatever he dreams up. Which leads me to wonder how he managed to make such a bad movie. I think the entire amount was spent on colorful explosions. It certainly wasn’t spent on the script.

It was mostly a cut and paste job. Parts of old Star Trek episodes – characters, back stories, dialog, even tribbles. (Did shooting them up with Khan’s blood cause them to multiply so fast? But they didn’t get shot up with Khan’s blood before the reboot. I’m so confused!) Big chunks of Space Seed and Wrath of Khan. Even a bit of Amok Time – that was the first time they “killed” Kirk. (Was there any major character in the original that didn’t get “killed” at least once in those 80 episodes? I don’t think so.) And, finally, he destroyed the Enterprise for about the eighth time.

But they didn’t just crib from the Star Trek canon. They sampled liberally from buddy cop movies – the cop who breaks the rules and his lieutenant who takes his shield away. And old B-movies about WW II – she says he doesn’t care if he dies, he stoically tells her it’s his duty to return to battle.

Cardboard cutouts

Cardboard cutouts

By giving the characters such cliched dialog, Abrams managed to take these fully-fleshed out characters and flatten them into cardboard cutouts of themselves. But he didn’t stop there. He had these cardboard cutouts do ridiculous things.

Yes, it’s Star Trek, and they routinely did ridiculous things. But even in the context of accepting the Star Trek premise – technology advanced enough for faster than light travel, tractor beams, photon torpedoes, transporters, miracle medical gadgets – Abrams manages to jump the shark.

The movie starts with the Enterprise sitting on the ocean floor. It appear to be hundreds of feet below the surface, even though it’s only a few feet off-shore. Why is it there? We can’t allow the local inhabitants to see a star ship! But the star ship is just waiting for the shuttle to do something. Why not just orbit the planet and send the shuttle – something done dozens of times in other Trek stories? Well, if we did that, we wouldn’t get to show the Enterprise rising out of the ocean!

Later, we see a meeting of all the star ship captains and their first officers. It’s an emergency meeting because there’s been a disaster. Rules tell them all to assemble in that one room together. No using the 23rd century version of Skype here – it’s got to be face to face. I wonder what they’d have done if they were actually on board their ships, exploring or monitoring the Klingons, or doing something otherwise useful. But no, they all have to be right there. In a glass room at the top of a skyscraper. Because that’s the best place to have an emergency meeting during a disaster.

Spock is stranded in an erupting volcano. Lava bubbles and bounces all around him, towers over him thirty feet at times. Sure, he’s in some sort of magic space suit. But not one speck of lava lands on him.

Khan and Kirk are shot out of an airlock as if from a cannon to the other ship. Sulu dutifully lines up the ships. Their target is another airlock that’s only a few feet across. A very difficult shot in the best of conditions. But wait, there’s some debris between the two ships. Of course, the debris is like flying through a junkyard at mach 3, dodging old Buicks. What could go wrong?

And on and on. There wasn’t an action sequence in the whole movie that didn’t drag on for way too long.

I’m glad I didn’t spend the big bucks to see this at the theater. The biggest screen and best sound system in the world can’t help this disaster of a movie.

‘Come and See’

I watched a very powerful movie last night. ‘Come and See’ is about a 14 year old boy who joins the partisans to fight the Nazis in Byelorussia in 1943. I’d never heard of it. Genae found it in a magazine article listing eight great movies you can only stand to see once.

It was made in the Soviet Union in 1985. About two and a half hours long, in Russian with English subtitles.

You can only stand to see it once because it is ruthless in its depiction of brutality. Nothing good happened in that part of the world in 1943, and nothing good happens in this movie. The centerpiece of the film is the burning of a village and everyone who lived there. Not exactly a happy movie.

I really liked the way it was put together. It seemed like the vast majority of the film was made of very long shots with interesting camera movement. Shot after shot, thirty seconds long, forty five seconds long. In one scene, the camera sneaks up on a man, sprinting through open spaces then stopping to peer around a corner, then sprinting to peer around another corner. In a shot near the end of the movie, the camera moves with a column of marching men, then diverts through thick trees and regains the road and the men. Alongside the road we see snow on the ground but at the beginning of the shot it was still summer. A creative way to indicate the passing of time.

Reading subtitles wasn’t an ordeal. Long sections of the movie have no dialog. At one point our protagonist is shelled, deafened by the near miss. We hear his ears ring, all sounds muffled. A hollywood movie would have the ringing stop witin a minute. Here it goes on for quite a while, gradually lessening. Another recurring sound was the drone of aircraft engines. Sometimes we heard it long before seeing the plane.

I forget most of the movies on the list Genae found. One was ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Straw Dogs’ was on it too. ‘Schindler’s List’ was pretty dark, but it tells the story of how people were saved. At the end of ‘Straw Dogs’ the ordeal is over. But in ‘Come and See’ nobody is saved. When the movie is over, it’s still 1943 and the ordeal still has years to play out.

Quite the powerful movie. I’m glad I watched it, but it’s hard to recommend.

“Rush”

Saturday afternoon, after we returned from Estes Park, we headed down to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to see Ron Howard’s new movie “Rush”.

Scan10027sThis particular screening was put on as a fund raiser for Auto-Archives. The original plan was that this screening would be the first showing after the premieres in London and LA. That didn’t work out, but so it goes. The event was sponsored by Ferrari of Denver and about a dozen other firms and was attended mostly by car club members. The theater seats 200 people and fully a quarter of those in attendance were Lotus Colorado members.

A side note here. I’m on the mailing list for Circuit of the Americas, the track in Austin, TX where F1 now holds events. I received an email about a week ago from COTA inviting me to a “Rush” premiere event which they are sponsoring at the Alamo Drafthouse. I had to look closely – this was for an event at the theater in Austin.

The evening started off with a little car show. Most of the close in parking was roped off for the car clubs. I didn’t count, but my impression was that we had more Lotus Elises than Ferraris of all models. We also had the usual assortment of Elans, Esprits, Evoras, and Caterhams. There were several models of Ferrari and a smattering of other notable cars including a Mercedes McLaren and an Excalibur. Also, in the lobby, a club member brought his Formula B Lotus 69 for display along with a bunch of other memorabilia from Auto-Archives.

We hadn’t been to the Alamo Drafthouse before. This is a chain of movie theaters that serve dinners during the movies. I was expecting a single screen facility for this but it turns out it’s a multiplex. We were in auditorium 7. For this event, we all got our choice of entree from a somewhat restricted menu and one alcoholic beverage each. We were told that this was the first time this auditorium had been sold out for a movie.

The theater is much like any other multiplex except that the rows are a bit farther apart and there are small tables attached to each pair of seats. Wait staff came through before the film started and took our orders. It took quite a while for everybody to get served; many of those around us got food before we did, but we all got served in the dark.

Rather than the usual pre-film viewing – ads and coming attractions – we were treated with a number of old car-related shorts. One was the trailer for Howard’s first movie, “Grand Theft Auto”. I’ve been saying for a while that I don’t think he’s made a bad movie. But I don’t remember seeing “Grand Theft Auto”, which looks pretty cheesy.

The food was nothing special. I had a spicy bleu cheese burger and Genae had the “Royale with Cheese”. Turns out it wasn’t so Royale and not so cheesy, either. She had asked for no mayo, no onions. She got that, but it also came with no tomato and no cheese. So it was a burger with a leaf of lettuce. Mine was better – it was constructed to specification. I always figure a burger is a risk-free item. It’s hard to serve a bad burger, but it’s also hard to serve a really good one. This was smack-dab in the middle: a mediocre burger.

Before the movie, the Alamo Drafthouse shows some rules. They’re pretty strict about talking during the film. But this was a special event, so it was announced that “this is our theater. Feel free to cheer for the good guy and boo the bad guy.” My neighbors took this to heart. They not only cheered and booed appropriately, they also talked through the entire movie. Very annoying. But I’m generally non-confrontational and didn’t tell them to STFU.

We enjoyed the movie nonetheless. I stand by my comment that Howard hasn’t made a bad movie yet. This was a fairly true retelling of the 1976 F1 season fight between Lauda and Hunt. Both actors did fine jobs with their portrayals. The action was very well done. We intend to see it again soon, in a theater with a bigger screen and better sound. (Not that the screen and sound at the Alamo were lacking, just that if we’re going to see it again so soon, we should get an “upgrade”.)

Another side note here. A number of times during the film, characters are watching TV or listening to the radio. At one point, we hear a report of the Big Thompson flood. Having just spent the day visiting Estes Park after another flood that destroyed the road through the Big Thompson canyon, it was a bit jarring.

If you’re an F1 fan, I think you’ll enjoy the movie.