Wednesday, July 29, 2020

BATMAN: “THE 13TH HAT” (1966)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

DC Comics’ villain The Mad Hatter had a complicated history. Workhorse-writer Bill Finger created not one but two Mad Hatters—one in 1948 and one in 1956—and since the two did not resemble one another in the least, it’s pretty much a given that he meant them to be separate characters. BATMAN ’66 clearly modled its version of the Hatter on the character from 1956, not only because there’s a loose resemblance between the two mustachioed villains, but also because the TV-version shares the civilian name of the ’56 crook: the very Dickensian-sounding “Jervis Tetch.”

Finger’s original Mad Hatter is mad about only one thing: collecting all kinds of hats. He doesn’t care about committing crimes for profit, he only wants to add headgear to his collection—particularly one hard-to-get item: the cowl of Batman. This is pretty much his only goal in the original Finger story, and writer Charles Hoffman only borrowed one major scene from the comics-version: one where the Hatter lures Batman to a sculptor’s studio so that the hero will doff his cowl for a sitting.

In “The 13th Hat,” Jervis Tetch is not just tetchy about hats; he’s tetchy about vengeance on all those who sent him to prison earlier—meaning all twelve jurors on the case, and the chief testifying witness against him—namely Batman. In keeping with his garments and those of his two henchmen—which have an early 20th-century look to them—this Hatter (David Wayne) is as pompous as the Penguin, but has a pronounced air of sadism that verges on the erotic. This particular madness of the Hatter, masterfully captured by Wayne, is most evinced in a scene in the villain’s hat factory, wherein he shows off a variety of assembly-line devices supposedly used for hat-making, and lovingly describes the way he wants to see Batman’s body torn, stretched, and acid-soaked by those devices. His two thugs merely want to know their next caper, but the Hatter’s moll Lisa is a new type of female villain. Given her penchant for cheering the malcontent with all sorts of mod-sounding phrases—my favorite being where Lisa calls the supervillain a “pixie”—Lisa seems like an upscale type of thrill-seeker, a lady who turns to crime out of boredom rather than greed.

Another original element in Hoffman’s script is the Mad Hatter’s chief weapon. At his bidding, the top of the Hatter’s top hat pops open, and a pair of mechanical eyes spring forth, zapping anyone in range with a mesmerizing ray. This device comes in handy as the Hatter and his two thugs move about Gotham, easily knocking out the twelve jurors and spiriting them away for later ransom. (Hoffman does not explain why it takes either the main heroes or the police so long to figure out why the Hatter picks on these particular targets, nor why no one bothers to try heading off the villain until the second part of the episode.) The “Super Instant Mesmerizer” manages the achievement of seeming at once silly and creepy, though it’s not nearly as creepy as its user.

Alfred gets some extended business when the Duo send him to plant a bug on the last of the Hatter’s targeted jurors, but the butler’s contribution is rather bland this time round. The Mad Hatter’s money-making ploy has something to do with ransoming the collected headgear of all the American presidents, and though that doesn’t sound like a great plot, at least it does bring him back to his obsession with hats. The big end fight-scene is another standout battle for the series, thanks to the hat-factory set—implicitly a tribute to the many infernal machines seen throughout the classic years of American action-serials.

Curiously, though Hoffman did not write “Zelda the Great,” there’s an early line of dialogue in which Bruce Wayne extols the virtues of a sculptor named “Carnado.” Since this was the name of the character who was gender-switched to become the less-than-great Zelda, one must assume that Hoffman’s use of the name comprised some sort of in-joke, though after all these years, the point of the joke will never be known.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Writer Fred De Gorter achieves the signal honor of being the first scripter on BATMAN ’66 to pen an episode not directly based on a comic-book story. However, “Riddle” borrows a few motifs from Semple’s debut script, “Hi Diddle Riddle.” In the earlier story, Riddler hung out with the Molehill Mob, who retreated to Gotham’s sewers to avoid the law, and this time, without missing a beat, Riddler has a similarly themed gang of henchmen, the River Rats. He does eschew the motif of the super-sexy moll, as the only female member of the gang is an annoyingly chirpy youth named Mousey, so she seems less likely to be Riddler’s squeeze than just a criminal thrill-seeker. In the debut episode, Riddler involved himself wth a foreign diplomat to commit his big score. Here, the Prince of Puzzlers preys upon King Boris, ruler of a small Euro-principality, but only so that he cnn use the unwitting king as a dupe. And once again, Riddler seeks to ace Batman and Robin before undertaking his main plot. After leading the Duo hither and yon with his riddles, the villain finally traps them, and puts them both in a deathtrap. Yet, despite how important their deaths are to him, this also marks the first time that a villain simply walks off, rather than watching the heroes perish. Not only does this make it easier for the heroes to escape through the use of Batman’s utility belt—which Riddler didn’t have the foresight to remove—the villain then operates under the delusion that his greatest adversaries are dead.

Riddler’s main plot involes extorting money from Gotham by threatening to blow up their version of the Statue of Liberty. This dull scheme is made even direr by Riddler’s use of one of his henchmen to dress up like Batman in order to foment the ransom-payment. This ploy might not have been so ghastly, except that the henchman is so bad in the role that even the dunderheaded Commissioner Gordon notices the imposture. There’s not much campy content and the final fight-scene is ordinary. The episode’s only distinction is that it gives Frank Gorshin some choice scenes in which he gives voice to the supervillain’s manic energy.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Zelda is a curious concoction, given that she’s based on a Batman-villain whom even the most fervent Bat-fans really didn’t care about. I suspect that writer Lorenzo Semple or one of the producers wanted to find a role for actress Anne Baxter—who would later play another villain in the show’s third season— but that they wanted a role that didn’t require a lot of makeup or costuming.

Aside from a gender-switch, Zelda is a fairly faithful adaptation of a minor Bat-foe from the John Broome story “Batman’s Inescapable Doom-Trap” (DETECTIVE COMICS #276). Zelda’s male analogue is Carnado, a prominent stage performer and escape artist. However, Carnado possesses no ability to devise his own escape-stunts, and he depends entirely on an engineer, Eivol Ekdal, to make them. But Ekdal puts a high price on his phony death-traps, requiring $100,000 apiece. Given that Carnado isn’t rich, for years he’s been committing robberies to pay for Ekdal’s designs, though Carnado is scrupulous enough that he never steals more than the amount he needs.

This time, Ekdal—who conveniently has a shop in Gotham City—unveils his newest invention: a death-trap from which even he, the creator, cannot devise an escape. Carnado understandably replies that this will do him little good in his performances. Ekdal then proclaims that the two of them will lure the World’s Greatest Escape Artist—a certain Gotham crimefighter—into the trap, in order to watch how he escapes it—and then have Batman assassinated to protect themselves. Carnado, not willing to quit show biz, agrees to the scheme. Without dwelling on details, Batman successfully escapes both the trap and the assassination, after which Carnado and Ekdal are captured.

Once again, a Bat-show writer—Lorenzo Semple again-- is obliged to expand on a simply plotted original story. For the first scenes of the first part, Zelda’s relationship with her engineer-ally Ekdal follows Broome’s story closely, though Batman deduces early on that the $100,000 thief is a woman, thanks to her leaving behind traces of perfume. But since he can’t locate the thief, Batman resorts to a ruse to flush her out, circulating the false info that the stolen money was counterfeit. Ekdal and Zelda both believe the ruse, and Ekdal requires Zelda to make another heist. Batman and Robin seek to lay a trap at a jewelry-store, where a fabulous emerald is on display. But though Zelda doesn’t see through the counterfeit-ruse, her woman’s intuition warns her of a setup. Though she makes a sort of illusory appearance at the store, Zelda chooses a different source of revenue: kidnapping Harriet Cooper, aunt to the ward of wealthy Bruce Wayne.
The episode’s first part ends with Aunt Harriet wearing a straight jacket and being dangled above a fire-pit, while Zelda sits to one side, indifferent to the old woman’s distress.

In the second part, Robin and Bruce Wayne rush to televise a plea to the kidnapper, revealing the duplicity of the counterfeit-hoax. Zelda, advised that she no longer needs the ransom, shows her softer side by releasing Aunt Harriet sans ransom. Ekdal accepts Zelda’s ill-gotten gains as payment for the doom-trap, but before the two crooks can lure the crimefighters to their lair, the heroes find their way to Ekdal’s hideout by other means, partly due to Zelda’s careless appearance at the jewelry store. Two gangsters lie in wait, ready to gun down the Duo when and if they break out of the trap. However, even when the heroes burst free, Zelda has a last-minute change of heart, and warns Batman and Robin. They survive, the crooks don’t (two more of the rare real deaths on the show), and Ekdal and Zelda go to jail. In a coda, Bruce Wayne visits Zelda in prison, and promises that when she’s released he’ll help her get a job as a children’s entertainer. Her enthusiastic agreement comprises the episode’s campiest moment.

Zelda’s actions and character traits are wildly inconsistent, but these lapses aren’t what makes her the BATMAN show’s first bad villain. Despite her supposed gifts of illusionism, Zelda is a singularly unimaginative creation, even allowing that the original template was not much better. In an early scene Robin wonders if the unidentified female fiend might be Catwoman, apparently just because villainesses were a rarity in the Bat-cosmos. Zelda is so bland that she’s not only leagues beneath Catwoman, she’s not even on the same level with Baxter’s later creation Olga of the Cossacks. Jack Kruschen plays the “mad Albanian” Ekdal with a bit more flair, and the episode might’ve been better had he been the main heavy—but probably not by much.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Without BATMAN ’66, it’s unlikely that the villain known as Mister Freeze would have become a celebrated member of Batman’s most prominent rogues. Prior to the TV show, the chilly criminal had only appeared once, in a Bill Finger story, “The Ice Crimes of Mister Zero” (BATMAN #121, 1959). This one-shot evildoer was so named because he’d experienced a lab accident, by virtue of which he could only live in sub-zero temperatures. With that meager motivation, Mister Zero embarked on a career in crime, using both a freeze-ray and a heat-ray to create havoc during holdups. (In the comics, the character mostly ceases to use the heat-ray after his first appearance, and as memory serves his TV-namesake only uses the heat-weapon in his first appearance, adapting Finger’s “Ice Crimes.”) Writer Max Hodge penned “Instant Freeze,” and he may be responsible for creating the new cognomen Mister Freeze. Oddly a DC comic book from 1957, BLACKHAWK #117, cover-features a supervillain with that name. However, I don’t know how likely it is that a writer for the Bat-show would have been perusing any comic books that didn’t have Batman in them.

The Finger story contributes some basic motifs to “Instant Freeze.” In addition to his specialized weapons, Mister Zero’s refrigerated hideout also sports what the TV show calls “hot paths,” zones of normal temperature where ordinary humans can escape the hideout’s freezing cold. This concept, barely exploited in the original story, gets considerable expansion by Hodge. The TV scribe also invents the idea that Batman is indirectly responsible for making Freeze (George Sanders) into a frosty freak, which gives the narrative much more emotional resonance. Hodge also throws in an amusing scene in which the crafty criminal seeks to confuse the crimefighters by unleashing doppelgangers of both himself and Batman on Gotham City, thus resulting in a confusing fight-scene between the heroes and the poseurs.

The short original story also includes a scene in which Zero and his henchmen pull off a robbery using an ice-truck that ostensibly delivers frozen meat, and Hodge works this incident in as well. However, Hodge expands the character of Zero’s robbery victim, making her into an American woman made royalty by marriage a la Grace Kelly, and one of her concerns, participation in a Gotham baseball game, serves as a bridge to Mister Freeze's primary plot. Throughout the episode Freeze steals priceless diamonds, allegedly to pay for his expensive criminal lifestyle, with Batman and Robin connecting the gems with the underworld slang for them: “ice.” But Freeze is most concerned with a player on the baseball diamond, and though he also sports the jewel-like name of Diamante, his name is less important than the character's calculated resemblance to classic ballplayer Joe Dimaggio. Despite his robberies, Freeze’s main plot is to kill Batman and Robin after toying with them for a while. He almost kills them prematurely with his freeze-weapon. Yet the Duo are for once saved by forces outside themselves, this time through the offices of the police department and the local hospital (staffed by a doctor named “Vince,” with a strong resemblance to Vince Edwards, the star of medical show “Ben Casey”).

Once the heroes are back in action, Freeze returns to his original plot, kidnapping Diamante and forcing Batman to surrender himself in exchange. Though Freeze doesn’t seem all that interested in the Boy Wonder, Robin manages to infiltrate the villain’s sanctum, at which point both are, for a time at least, immobilized by the frigid fiend’s mastery of subzero temperatures. Freeze displays more calculated sadism than many Bat-villains, allowing the heroes to dine with him (on baked Alaska, naturally) before exposing them to more temperature-tortures. Despite the presence of campy moments here and there, one decidedly non-campy scene begins with Freeze imprisoning the Duo in a hot path too narrow for both of them, at which point each of the heroes seeks to sacrifice himself for the other. This moment is slightly nullified by the revelation that Batman has taken a special potion to immunize himself to the freezing cold, so that some of his sufferings have been faked for Freeze’s benefit. Nevertheless, though Freeze is sidelined by his vulnerability, the heroes get a good workout with his henchmen.

I’ve yet to encounter a fan-writer who didn’t think that George Sanders’ heavily Teutonic rendering provided the best version of the character. That said, Sanders probably couldn’t have done much with the two later scripts, both of which return Freeze to the status he held as “Mister Zero”—that of a minor gimmick-villain. The reboot of the character for BATMAN THE ANIMATED ADVENTURES has for the most part become the go-to version of the cold-hearted crook.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

The script for Cesar Romero’s debut as the Crown Prince of Crime comes from the penn of Robert (son of producer William) Dozier. Robert Dozier apparently liked the “universal language” bromide that Semple had Bruce Wayne toss at Dick Grayson at the beginning of “Fine Feathered Finks,” since Dozier more or less re-uses the same schtick.

Most of “Wild” follows the pattern of a 1952 Bat-tale by David Reed, “The Joker’s Utility Belt,” though the episode’s opening is all-original. The Joker receives permissive treatment by Warden Crichton (who debuted in the previous episode), and the “Chaplain of Chicanery” (as the script calls him) breaks out of stir with the help of a giant jack-in-the-box spring.

After the Duo confer with the always-harried Commissioner Gordon, the heroes figure out that the Joker’s next target is a museum whose display on great comedians failed to acknowledge the Joker’s contributions to comedy. In the comics-story, the Joker and his thugs simply invade the museum after-hours, but Dozier plays up the situation, as the heroes deduce that the Murderous Mountebank doesn’t plan to break in, since he and his thugs have always smuggled themselves in, so that they can “break out” at their leisure. In the fight between heroes and villains, the Joker temporarily prevails, but Batman wins freedom for himself and Robin by hurling a gas-weapon from his utility belt. Joker escapes, but swears to outdo his enemy. Later, he comes up with his own utility belt, which contains assorted joke-related weapons, which he shows off to his moll Queenie (definitely not in the comic-book tale). The Hateful Harlequin’s dialogue with his moll leads him to conceive of his next grand scheme—which, unfortunately, is probably the weakest aspect of Dozier’s script, and one not present in the Reed original.

In “Utility Belt” Joker attempts to rob an opera performing “Pagliacci,” but the setting is incidental, since the only purpose of the scene is to show the villain thwarting the cops with his new arsenal of weapons. Dozier builds up the opera-scene by having Batman and Robin storm the scene, only to be captured by Joker’s thugs. The cliffhanger consists of the villain threatening to unmask the heroes on national television, and in retrospect this threat of exposure proves more resonant than many of the death-traps. The heroes break free but Joker escapes again. In the comics-tale the villain’s next plot is to rob wealthy art-collector Laughwell, and Dozier expands this germ to include a humorous grammar-lesson from butler Alfred—the first of many moments of dry wit from the excellent Alan Napier. The Laughwell robbery duplicates a scene in the comic, in which Joker manages to slip a copy of his own nefarious belt onto Batman’s body, so as to further confound the heroes’ attempt to stop the thieves. Naturally, the comic-book story does not make any witty references to “hitting below the belt.”

The final act involves Joker capturing Batman and Robin at a ship-christening, which action follows that of the comics-tale. However, Dozier introduces the idea that the villain tries to blackmail the authorities with the Duo’s lives, and the ransom Joker wants is—the ownership of an ocean-liner? True, not all of Joker’s thefts have to make sense, and Romero certainly sells the idea of the fiend as being above “mere petty pilfering.” But one can’t help but wonder what use a fugitive criminal would have for an ocean-liner, and I suspect Dozier just threw in this waggish motive as a lark. The episode does conclude with one of the show’s best fight-scenes, though, and with a comical scene in which Queenie tries to seduce straight-arrow Batman, who calls her a “poor, deluded creature.”

Dozier also puts across one of the better camp-touches of the first season. At a point when the Dynamic Duo seem helpless to prevent Joker’s crime-wave, a TV newsman relates a sentimental tale of his eight-year-old son praying for Batman and Robin. Later, after the heroes’ triumph, the same newsman references the famous “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” essay by claiming that he told his son, “There is a Batman.” This represents one of the best-realized examples of the show’s camp aesthetic, playing most of the story straight but throwing in little undertones of mockery.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Lorenzo Semple followed his debut episode with “Fine Feathered Finks,” adapting an original tale by comics-writer Ed Herron, “Partners in Plunder” (BATMAN #169, 1965). “Finks”—which is the punny name by which the episode’s villain addresses his bird-named henchmen-- is not nearly as inventive as “Hi Diddle Riddle.” Both the original story and the TV-adaptation have just one bolt in their respective quivers: the idea that the felonious Penguin decides to use Batman’s own knowledge of the villain’s modus operandi to the Penguin’s benefit. In effect, instead of setting a thief to catch a thief, Penguin sets a cop to scheme for a thief.

Like the Riddler, the Penguin hadn’t seen on a regular basis in Bat-comics in the years before “Plunder” appeared, so the comics-tale was something of a revival of the villain’s fortunes. “Finks,” though, did more for the villain’s career than any single story did, given that Burgess Meredith’s incarnation of the character made him an indelible presence in the Bat-mythos, even as Frank Gorshin did with the Riddler and Julie Newmar would do with the Catwoman. In the comics the Penguin could be played as sinister or as comical by turns, but Meredith brings the two together, capturing the odd-looking criminal’s sense of strutting self-importance.

The original and the adaptation differ only in details. As in the comic, the episode starts with the Penguin’s thugs distributing umbrellas that shoot off startling but harmless fireworks-effects. Batman and Robin, puzzled that these displays were not used for the commission of crimes, ferret out the Birdman Bandit, who’s now opened an umbrella-making factory. As in the comics-story, Penguin denies knowing anything about the freaky umbrellas, and the heroes let him off, since a charge of malicious mischief wouldn’t have made for a very exciting tale. Penguin then gives the heroes a really big clue, dropping a huge umbrella in the city streets, with a smaller umbrella attached. The crusaders examine the small umbrella in detail, little suspecting that there’s a hidden microphone in the handle (an oversight that works a little better in Herron’s version). Penguin, listening in on the conversation of the crimefighters, hears them construct his next crime, based on their past knowledge of his methods. Once they’ve planned his plot for him, Penguin then arranges for counter-measures against their defenses.

Before the Big Caper is launched, though, Semple’s Batman takes an additional measure, attempting to bug Penguin’s umbrella shop. Rather rashly, Batman goes on this errand without assuming any disguise, despite the fact that Bruce Wayne is an avowed celebrity. Penguin, upon capturing and subduing the intruder, doesn’t precisely recognize Wayne, though he thinks the face seems familiar. Semple writes an absurd line in which Penguin imagines that the attempted bugger must be working for an umbrella-making rival. Wouldn’t it be more likely that the spy was a police plant? But then, had the villain’s thoughts gone in that direction, he probably would not consigned the spy to a fiery death, the first of the show’s many cliffhanger death-traps. Said trap may have been derived from the comics-tale “The Joker’s Utility-Belt,” which also includes a conveyor belt leading to a fiery furnace. This story might’ve been on the head writer’s mind since it was going to be the show’s very next adaptation, in “The Joker is Wild.”

In the comics-story, the Penguin successfully steals an artifact from a museum, but the heroes get it back and capture him. In “Finks,” the artifact is mentioned, but the crusaders conceive the idea that Penguin’s real ploy is to abduct a high-dollar film actress. This proved a superior choice on Semple’s part, since this idea gave him the chance to take shots at Hollywood narcissism and money-hunger. Indeed, Semple works in more bird-names than Herron’s story, since Miss Robbins’s bosses include functionaries with names like Jay and Eagle. (I’m rather surprised the writer didn’t give the actress some avian appellation that didn’t duplicate that of the Boy Wonder, though.) Batman and Robin fail to prevent the actress’s abduction, and Penguin successfully gets a big ransom. However, by that time, Batman has figured out that the Penguin’s been bugging his exchanges with Robin. So they spring a trap, and after another big fight-scene, the Baleful Bird and his feathered finks end up caged.

Like “Hi Diddle Riddle,” “Finks” is rather light on campy touches. The best one appears at the show’s conclusion, where Bruce Wayne meets Dawn Robbins at a party. Another character informs Wayne that the actress has fallen hopelessly in love with her caped savior Batman, despite having met him only once—when he actually failed to save her from abduction. The episode ends without mentioning that the only thing the heroes saved was the film studio’s money, since Semple seems to be going for a mood in which Robbins’s amour fou is at once pathetic and humorous.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

(NOTE: In reviewing any stories in the 1966-68 Batman series that consist of two or three episodes, I’ll reference those narratives only with the title of the first episode. Usually the ensuing titles of the later episodes consisted of puns too lame even for me to bother with.)

The character of the Riddler proved an appropriate choice for introducing non-fan audiences to the camped-up adventures of Batman and Robin, The dominant structure of the weekly show consisted of two interconnected episodes airing over two nights. This pattern was roughly modeled upon the suspense-building stratagem of cinema’s multi-chapter serials, which like the teleseries usually depended on putting a character or characters in physical danger. Riddles, too, are almost always two-part structures. One half sets up a bizarre situation with no obvious logical solution, and the riddle-listener’s suspense about the situation is dispelled when the solution, however illogical, is presented.
The uninitiated viewer also benefited from the use of the Riddler to introduce the world of the illogic of superhero comics, wherein costumed criminals deliberately leave clues so that costumed heroes can hunt them down. Batman views the Riddler’s compulsion in particular to be “artistic” in nature, though many of the other supercrooks on the show suffered from the same habit, and most villains are driven less by the prospect of gain than by the desire to outwit, defeat and destroy the Dynamic Duo.

Head writer Lorenzo Semple contributed the script to “Hi Diddle Riddle,” using for his template an original Gardner Fox comic book story, “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler’ (BATMAN #171, 1965). At the time of the story’s publication, the Riddler was not one of the Duo’s more seasoned foes, having only appeared twice in the 1940s. But the antic nature of the character may well have appealed to showrunners trying to pursue a two-tier approach to audiences: luring in kids with slam-bang superhero thrills and grabbing adults with touches of comical campiness.

“Ruse” is only a fair Batman-story. The Riddler, newly released from a stint in prison, immediately plots to return to his criminal career. However, before making his move, he pretends to have reformed, and plays mind-games with the heroes as they keep tabs on him. The cleverest scene in Fox’s tale shows the Riddler apparently robbing a museum-owner by holding a gun on him. When the heroes corral the Prince of Puzzlers, he humiliates them by revealing that the pistol is really just a cigarette lighter. Semple takes this scene and ups the ante: after Batman and Robin assault the Riddler, he files a million-dollar lawsuit against them. Thus Semple’s crimefighters are subtly ironized by being made vulnerable to legal chicanery.

Other divergences are less noteworthy. The Riddler has no female accomplice in the comics-story, much less a moll with the transparent name of “Molly.” In the original tale, the Molehill Mob don’t work for the Riddler, but are a separate gang of thieves whom the Riddler betrays as evidence of his good citizenship. More importantly, Fox’s Riddler doesn’t show any interest in killing his foes, while the Semple version designs a Machiavallian scheme to both pull off a big robbery and to kill his recurring enemies.

One thread in the villain’s labyrinthine scheme starts off with Riddler pulling what seems to be a simple prank at a function at a foreign embassy in Gotham, but this plot doesn’t see fruition until the story’s second part. A more prominent thread involves Riddler luring the duo to a go-go club, where Robin can’t enter due to his age. Inside the club Batman briefly dances “the Batusi”—one of the few times the show threatens to descend into burlesque rather than sticking to the camp aesthetic—and then gets doped by the contrivance of Molly. Outside the club, Riddler takes Robin prisoner, but this too is part of the plan to kill Batman.

I’m not sure even most kids in the audience, much less adults, would have bought that Molly, played by the curvaceous Jill St. John, could pull off a masquerade as the Boy Wonder. The masquerade works a little better the other way—teen boys played the roles of women in Shakespeare’s theater—but even if one believed that Riddler created a perfect Robin-mask and flawless Robin-costume for Molly to wear, how would she manage to feign having a man’s beefier arms? (Naturally, Molly-in-Robin-gear is always played not by St. John but by Burt Ward.) But the overall suspense of the narrative isn’t hurt by these niggling considerations. Batman does see through the disguise, though not for the reasons I’ve mentioned, and he even takes the phony Boy Wonder to the Batcave for their reckoning. The hero disarms the murderous moll in advance, and to juice up the life-and-death stakes of the narrative, Molly perishes by accident, making her one of a very small handful of true fatalities in the show’s three seasons.

Batman then tracks down the Riddler’s lair, but though he liberates the captive Robin, the villain escapes, albeit leaving behind another telltale riddle. The Riddler’s big score in the Semple story is far more impressive than the one in the Fox original. This approach is reflected in the show’s first big fight-scene, completing with all the ZAPS and POWS which conveyed excitement to kids and absurdity to adults (the latter reflected in the almost endless string of essays about comic books that worked ZAP and POW into the essay-titles). But aside from the sound effects, the fight-scenes were generally played straight, so that the kids—and maybe some adults—could luxuriate in the spectacle of pretend-violence.

For Frank Gorshin, the Riddler would become his defining role, and he invests it with a creepy, obsessive quality. Adam West and Burt Ward prove letter-perfect in both of their respective dual roles from the first scene to the last, though for this episode alone Adam West seems to be suffering from a bad case of five-o’-clock shadow. I’m sure some critics have turned cartwheels over the gender-bending nuance of Molly’s Robin-masquerade. Frankly, if it’s the thrill of gender fluidity a critic wants, he’d be better off watching any production of “As You Like It.”

Sunday, July 26, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

At its best, the British AVENGERS series was one of the more piquant of the “superspy” TV shows of the sixties. Though the James Bond craze certainly influenced the series in the course of its development, the program slightly predated said craze, having had its first episodes the year before the first Bond film appeared in 1962. Of course Ian Fleming’s books had been in print since 1953, but the few surviving episodes from THE AVENGERS’ first season don'tt seem to have much in common with the prose-fiction Bond. In the first season John Steed (Patrick MacNee) as some sort of vague agent working on behalf of Great Britain. After the actor playing Steed's first-season partner departed the show, Steed was partnered with a succession of helpers, most of whom were, to re-use an old phrase, “talented amateurs.” Whereas Bond occasionally allied himself to amateurs in a given novel, the idea of having an agent regularly team with a non-professional is, if not wholly original, modeled upon some other influence than that of Fleming’s creation.

Without discounting the virtues of the second and third seasons, wherein Steed was most often teamed up with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), the producers of the show seemed to hit their stride with the fourth and fifth seasons, a.k.a. “The Emma Peel Years.” THE AVENGERS had always an escapist show, immune to the vicissitudes of real life, but during these two seasons—including the show’s season in color—the plots made greater uses of science-fiction tropes, possibly reflecting the emphasis of such content in the Bond movies. And while Steed continued to dress conservatively, Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) arguably became the epitome of Mod London, usually attired in a variety of sporty outfits, not least form-fitting bodysuits. Most of the episodes in the Emma Peel Years were well-crafted adventure-tales in which someone-- Steed, Emma or a victim under their protection-- suffered the affliction of bizarre schemes, often involving “mind game” techniques.

Most of these episodes, though, can’t be said to have much mythicity, perhaps because they maintained a consistent tongue-in-cheek attitude. “The House That Jack Built,” however, manages to use both SF-tropes and the mind-game trope to bring forth greater symbolic resonance.

The episode opens with an incident that takes place weeks if not months before the main story, though this isn’t immediately clear. Escaped convict Burton, fleeing prison guards and hunting-dogs, enters a seemingly deserted mansion. Inside, he’s apparently attacked by a lion—and then the main story begins.

Emma drops by Steed’s flat, explaining that she’s going out to the country to see the mansion of her Uncle Jack. She doesn’t remember meeting such an uncle, but since she received a letter about a legacy from her solicitor, she drives down to check out the house she’s inherited. Once she’s gone, though, Steed—who was busy developing photographs—notices that his prints all seem to have been damaged as by radiation, apparently from the keys given Emma by the solicitor. Steed phones the solicitor, who denies having sent either letter or keys, and who doesn’t believe Emma had an Uncle Jack. The regular viewer would expect Steed to dash after Emma to investigate, but since the writer wanted more complication, the agent calls an ally to intercept Emma. (Maybe he was already in the area?) The agent, disguised as a scoutmaster, does manage to bum a ride with Emma, getting out when she arrives at Uncle Jack’s mansion. The script supplies a flimsy reason as to why the guy doesn’t explain the reason for his surveillance, but clearly the real reason was to give the audience a little extra uncertainty.

Once Emma uses her keys to enter the mansion, she’s well and truly trapped when the doors seal her in. Further, she enters a room containing nothing but a terminal with a revolving object that hums rhythmically as it spins. Having got there, Emma can’t seem to get away from the room, as every door keeps leading her to the same unnerving sight. The talented amateur eventually works out that the rooms are revolving to bring her back to the same location, and this knowledge allows her to find her way to other levels in the mansion. (She also encounters the lion, a manufactured illusion.)

She’s attacked by the convict Burton. After beating him down, she realizes that he was caught in the trap meant for her, and that he’s gone mad from his long imprisonment. Appropriately, though he doesn’t know the name of the phony uncle, he keeps repeating verses from the nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.” Though he too apparently got out of the revolving room somehow, the experience has broken him, and the verses are his way of coping with the endless recursiveness of his experience.

A voice, apparently that of Emma’s antagonist, leads her further into the room that controls the house’s mechanisms, but she finds that she can’t damage any of the apparatus. Eventually Emma learns that the voice is that of the master computer, and the computer’s builder is an old enemy, Professor Keller. Keller himself has died, but he’s left a pre-recorded speech to inform Emma of his triumph. Years ago, when Emma was the head of her father;s industrial concern, she dismissed Keller from his position. Keller advocated the superiority of machine to man, and the elimination of workers from all industry—which did not go over well with humanist Emma. Like many mad scientists before him, Keller decides to prove his theories with an object lesson: building a computerized house designed to keep Emma alive but imprisoned, to impress on her the superiority of the machine. Eventually, the computer explains, she’s expected to kill herself with a suicide booth. Burton hears this, and immediately avails himself of the booth.

Before Steed arrives on the scene, Emma proves the superiority of human wit to a programmed device. Thanks to Burton having brought a shotgun and shells in with him, she uses gunpowder from one of the shells to booby-trap her access-key, so that it enters the more delicate interior of the computer and short-circuits everything. She then saunters forth, greeting Steed in such a way as to mock his chivalrous rescue-attempt: “What happened to the shining armor?” To be sure, there had been, and would continue to be, episodes where Steed pulled Emma’s chestnuts from the fire. But given that this episode’s threat was based on an incident from her past, it was quite appropriate for her to save herself here, since this would disprove Keller’s anti-humanist theory.

The only downside of the episode is that, though the Emma Years were usually marked by well-crafted hand-to-hand fights, neither of the heroes has a chance to show off their physical skills. But it’s still refreshing to see a story that relates a little more to some of the dilemmas raised by the “rise of the machines.”

Monday, July 20, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological. metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

This film is one of the three I’ve held off reviewing for the past ten years because it, like the 1933 MUMMY and the 1940 THIEF OF BAGHDAD, prove so rich that it’s hard to sum any of them up in a blogpost. But I’ve finally broken that particular conceptual logjam with THE WOLF MAN.

Many reviews start off by praising the inventiveness of Curt Siodmak’s script, or less frequently, the direction by George Waggner. However, I’ll start off by praising Siodmak’s unheralded collaborators, the “studio heads” at Universal. An early Siodmak script for WOLF MAN posited the idea that the protagonist (Lon Chaney Jr.) would one Larry Gill, an American visitor to a town in Wales who became afflicted by werewolfism. Someone over Siodmak, however, insisted that Larry’s character should be related to Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). By imposing this requirement upon Siodmak, the unknown stidio boss (or bosses) forced the writer to dig deeper than he might have otherwise, crafting THE WOLF MAN into one of the best “family romances” in cinema.

In addition, WOLF MAN is arguably the most “bookish” of the classic Universals, and not just because the film begins with a close-shot on a book-page explaining the concept of lycanthropy. To my knowledge Siodmak never discussed what sort of books he was reading at the time he wrote WOLF MAN, but the script is far more conscious about providing a rationale for lycanthropic disease, whereas Universal’s earlier venture on the subject, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, was content to attribute the affliction to a rare flower. Roughly the first half of WOLF MAN is constructed so as to continually question whether or not Larry Talbot, or anyone, can genuinely transform into a werewolf. Even the transformation of Bela, the gypsy who transmits the affliction to Larry, is depicted in such a way as to create doubt. By the time that the Wolf Man makes an indubitable appearance on-screen, all the rationalistic arguments for dismissing superstition have been mustered in full force, and they continue to guide the lives of most of the characters, particularly Sir John, until he himself sees the validation of pagan superstition at the tragic conclusion.

Though I used the term ‘family romance” above, I disagree with James Twitchell and all other critics who have attempted to impose a Freudian reading on the film. It’s closer to Adler and his concept of compensation, particularly the sort arising from sibling rivalry—and though Siodmak might never have read Adler, the writer apparently experienced in real life some of the same sibling competition that the psychologist did. Siodmak probably was generally aware of the way Freud had applied psychological theory to ancient myth and legend, though, and thus Freud may have influenced the author’s psychologized reworking of werewolf folklore.

Sibling conflict is only dimly suggested in the film’s first scenes. Sir John’s elder son has perished in a hunting-accident, and this apparently obliges the lord of the Welsh village to summon his younger son Larry to Talbot Castle. When they meet, Larry and Sir John circuitously discuss the argument that caused Larry to emigrate to America for many years. (In theory this explains Chaney’s strong American accent, though to be sure a lot of the Welsh residents don’t sound all that British.) There’s a charming attempt at father-son dialogue, though it doesn’t quite conceal the fact that Sir John has mended fences not purely out of paternal love, but because he needs a successor to become the new lord of the estate when John, the old lord, inevitably passes.

Aside from Larry’s conflicted feelings toward his father and his late older brother (his mother is never even alluded to), the audience knows nothing about him except that he became an engineer in America. He’s thus an “innocent abroad,” a blank American doomed to be confounded by the complicated social rituals of Old Europe. His technical expertise leads him to set up a telescope for the study of the heavens, but he uses it for earthly pursuits, accidentally peeping into the window of one of his “subjects” in the village outside the castle. The beauty of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) leads Larry to go girl-hunting at the antiques shop Gwen runs with her father. Gwen, in the midst of fending off Larry’s wolfish advances, brings up the topic of werewolves in reference to the walking-stick she eventually sells him—though she’s far from the only inhabitant of the town who knows the lore, since Sir John quotes Siodmak’s original “were-verse” in the next scene.

To my knowledge it’s never discussed just why the residents of this Welsh town should be so conversant in werewolf lore, given that there aren’t any wolves around. (When Gwen first hears the howl of Wolf-Bela, she says, “Never heard anything like it before.”) But Siodmak, intentionally or not, provides a rationale for this as well. Just as the first Larry-Gwen scene winds up, as the two of them witness Maleva’s wagon arrive in town. Gwen mentions that the gypsies show up every autumn—just like the “autumn moon”—and so it may fairly hazarded that the gypsies, who know wolves well, have transmitted some of their folktales to this corner of Wales-- though it seems that this is the first time gypsy Bela loses his control of his personal demon, at least in Wales.

The WOLF MAN script implies that the moon has less to do with werewolfism than with the season, which happens to be the one in which “the wolfbane blooms.” When Larry talks Gwen into attending a fortune-telling at the gypsy caravan, Gwen brings along a little reinforcement in the form of local girl-buddy Jenny. Jenny in turn decides to take a cutting of wolfbane into her reading—and, like the rare flower in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, this bloom seems not to repel werewolves, but to encourage them. When Bela sees the wolfbane in his presence, he casts it to the ground, and immediately thereafter sees the fatal pentagram in Jenny’s palm.

Wolf-Bela’s slaying of Jenny prompts Larry to kill the werewolf with his silver-handled cane. In death Bela passes his curse on to Larry-- though considerable time elapses before there’s any transformation, and when it happens, it’s not because of the presence of wolfbane. Rather, Larry’s transformation seems to be triggered by societal rejection. After Larry kills the wolf, the authorities find only the body of a dead gypsy—and even Larry’s bite-wound conveniently disappears, as if to keep the baffled heir from corroborating his experience. The local authorities are happy to write off the gypsy’s death as an unfortunate accident—not unlike the one that took the life of Larry’s brother—in order to please Sir John. But the mother of Jenny is angry with Larry and Gwen for having indirectly caused Jenny’s death, implying that something improper transpired between the two of them.

To be sure, there’s some justice in this verdict, Gwen happens to be engaged to local man Frank, whom she’s known all her life. She does agree to go on a de facto date with Larry, without telling him in advance that she’s affianced. To her, Larry presents the attraction of the forbidden, the wolf that tries to seduce Little Red Riding Hood. What might have been a casual flirtation becomes an amour fou once both Gwen and Larry are accused together-- though of course Larry bears the greater burden, since he’s also accused of committing a murder that he doesn’t remember. Even Frank’s dog apparently reacts to the wrongness in Larry, the same way Bela’s horse reacted to the gypsy’s transformation.

The only one in the village who fully believes Larry is Maleva, Bela’s mother, who mourns her son with stoic resignation to the will of fate. The first full one-on-one encounter between Larry and Maleva takes place at the gypsy camp, after Larry is shown up by Gwen’s fiancée. The scene remains resonant for many viewers for the way Maleva lays out the lore of lycanthropy for the half-convinced American. But it’s also a great “mirror scene.” Just as Larry’s first encounter with Gwen was framed in terms of monetary exchange, Larry initially rejects Maleva’s approach without really realizing it’s her, assuming she’s just some gypsy trying to sell him some hokum. By the time she’s finished, he’s willing to buy from her the pentagram-shaped charm that supposedly prevents the transformation. For all that we see of the charm’s effects, it might be no more than a subterfuge to ally Larry’s growing distress. Maleva asks only one payment: to see the wound her son left in Larry’s flesh, which has by this time apparently come back, in all its pentagram-shaped glory. (Assuming Doctor Lloyd saw the recrudescent wound, he probably wrote it off as a manifestation of hysteria.)

Then, in yet a third economic exchange, Larry then meets Gwen alone, and gives her the charm on the theory that it can protect her. It’s a gift, but Gwen “ups the ante” by giving Larry a penny in exchange, a tacit invitation for him to kiss her. Just as he does, the gypsies break camp on Maleva’s order—apparently she doesn’t have that much faith in the charm herself—and Gwen flees. Then Larry experiences his first actual transformation, and commits his first murder as the Wolf Man. His guilt is such that he can’t even stand to attend church. He tries to relate his fear of lycanthropy to both his father and his doctor, but both of them take refuge in rationalistic explanations. Doctor Lloyd introduces the idea that “mass hypnosis” might influence a man into thinking he’s become an inhuman thing, and thus both the Welsh villagers and the gypsies might be seen as having thrust their beliefs upon the innocent American outsider. On the next night Larry transforms again, and almost gets exposed for all to see, but Maleva is able to temporarily lift his curse, so that he manages to escape.

This experience is finally enough for Larry to decide he has to leave, but he makes the mistake of returning to the castle. Sir John won’t countenance his son shirking his duty to the family, so he ties Larry to a chair, thinking that Larry will come to his senses when the local hunters finally destroy the murderous animal. This proves to be the ultimate act of bad faith on Sir John’s part-- though Larry, anxious to prevent himself from killing again, insists that his father take the deadly silver cane when he goes out.

This summary can’t begin to cover all the great acting scenes in WOLF MAN, particularly the encounter between Sir John and Maleva, as she upbraids him for failing his son. None of Siodmak’s other American flms, even superior ones like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, even come close to equaling the verbal poetry of THE WOLF MAN. Waggner’s skillful direction and Hans Salter’s moving score contribute, but Siodmak remains the primary architect of this lycanthropic myth, even if he did need a little help from an unknown studio head to find his muse.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

Reportedly neither Alan Moore nor Kevin O’Neill cared for this big-budget rendition of their same-name graphic novel franchise. There are probably any number of points on which the film could be justly criticized. One unjustifiable complaint, though, would be that the adaptation did not follow the original. After all, all of the characters that Moore and O’Neill pastiched for their concept—Allan Quatermain, Mina (DRACULA) Murray, Jekyll-and-Hyde, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man—were substantially revised from their original models.

When I first saw this film—directed by Steven Norrington from a script by comic-book scribe James Rohinson-- I didn’t really mind the very different takes on Mina Murray (Peta Wilson) and the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), one transformed into a full-fledged vampire queen and the other into a petty thief who simply acquired the invisibility formula from the original inventor. The film’s versions of Quatermain (Sean Connery), Jekyll-Hyde (Jason Flemyng) and Nemo (Nseeruddin Shah) remained largely faithful to the comics-incarnations, at least in terms of what their physical abilities. However, I couldn’t stand the re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) as an invulnerable immortal (because his magic portrait now protects from physical harm as well as aging), nor Twain’s Tom Sawyer (Shane West) as a turn-of-the-century American G-man. On my re-viewing, the Sawyer character remained just as annoying, but the Gray character gained merit, thanks to Townsend’s excellent execution of that rare hero-type, “the Tough Fop.”

The basic situation remains the same as in the graphic novel: it’s 1899, and the British government assembles a task force of “extraordinary gentlemen” to take down threats to the Empire. In contrast to the first graphic novel, the threat is a masked mastermind known as “the Fantom”—a spelling that may allude less to the Phantom of the Opera and more to the lesser-known French supercriminal Fantomas. The Fantom and his servants are plotting to sow disunity amid the European countries and so foment a World War. However, the Fantom’s mask conceals of the most famous supervillains, and one whose name was invoked in the Moore-O’Neill series—though the film’s script doesn’t get much mileage out of that particular bit of pop mythology.

To be sure, Moore and O’Neill’s creation is the better pastiche of pop-culture characters, though this is partly because the comics-medium is better suited to exploiting a multitude of multi-layered references to both fiction and history. A two-hour movie, particularly one aimed at action-junkies, could not, with the best will in the world, have captured the density of the original franchise. That said, whereas in the comics the group is genuinely assembled to serve as England’s proto-superhero squad, in this LEAGUE there’s a secret agenda behind the team’s formation. That agenda isn’t strikingly original, but it does add some needed drama to the plot.

The exigencies of the main plot don’t allow for much character interaction on the part of the principals, with the exception of Gray and Murray, who enjoyed some torrid past together. Aged Quatermain functions as the “Professor X” of the super-group, but he doesn’t play well with the other members (Connery said he took the role without really understanding the script). There’s a forced attempt to forge a surrogate father-son relationship between Quatermain and Sawyer, and Skinner the Invisible Crook gets on everyone’s nerves, but LEAGUE will never be on the top of any lists for “quarreling superhero team movies.”

In the final analysis, the movie delivers on its main point of appeal: expensive feature-film action. The team’s assignment is nothing but a device to get the ball rolling, just like similar plot-contrivances in most James Bond flicks, and Norrington does pull together a lot of well-staged fight-scenes without seeming to repeat himself—which is a skill a lot of MCU movies could stand to learn. Connery, who retired after acrimonious experiences on the LEAGUE set, nevertheless acquits himself well in the splashy battle-scenes, and Jason Flemyng, the “muscle” of the group, projects the powerful aspect of Hyde so well that the rubber mecha-suit he wears in the role comes off better than it would’ve with a lesser actor.

There’s a very mild anti-imperial theme in the movie, but LEAGUE precedes the hyper-politicization of the superhero film—which might be its single best feature.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

For many fans, X3 is the one where 20th-Century Fox’s X-Men franchise took its first seriously wrong turn, and lost most of the mojo that had been established with the first two films. But upon re-watching X2 recently, I get the sense that everything wrong with Bret Ratner’s take on the mixed-up mutants rose organically out of what Bryan Singer had wrought.

As I noted in my review of X2, one of the biggest problems with the X-Men movies was that it proved difficult for expensive movies, produced over the course of two or more years, to follow the example charted by the Marvel comic book. The comic, coming out once a month, could take full advantage of using what might be termed a “shifting ensemble.” To misquote Dorothy Gale, characters could “come and go quickly” in a monthly comic. Yet at the same time, there was much more narrative space to deal with the reasons for their coming and going, or even for their switching from heroes to villains (or vice versa). Television episodes are able to deal with similar developments, but as yet no one has managed to handle shifting ensembles within the venue of expensive feature films.

Consider, for instance, Singer’s handling of Marvel’s character “Rogue.” Singer and his writers opted to excise her complicated history, which was pretty much inevitable. In place of her being a sassy Southern brawler, she became more empathetic but lost any power to speak of. Rogue worked well to add a layer of sensitivity in the first X-movie, which in turn helped sell non-fans to the character of Wolverine. However, in both X2 and X3 Rogue really has nothing to contribute except for some soppy romance with the Iceman character. In essence, Singer used the character for a particular effect in one movie, and then didn’t have any way of integrating her within the serial concept.

In terms of plot, Singer also foreshadowed one of the concerns of X3. By having Jean Grey perish at the end of X2, X3 was constrained to follow up that thread. Wikipedia acknowledges that Singer, before departing the X-franchise to chase flying Kryptonians, roughed out a plot centering upon Jean’s rebirth, one that would have partly involved the character of the White Queen. Possibly, had Ratner and new writers Simon Wincberg and Zak Penn chosen to focus on this idea, X3 would have been more salutary.

Unfortunately one other concept went into the script-mill. Joss Whedon was considered as a director for the third film, and a continuity he wrote for Marvel, “the Cure,” was duly optioned by Fox as a possible script-source. It would seem that, rather than dispensing with the Cure plotline, Wincberg and Penn chose to make that the “A plot” for X3, thus demoting the resurrection of Jean Grey to a “B” plotline. Even admitting that the writers try mightily to make the two concepts meld, the parts are never more than parts, failing to cohere into a greater whole.

The philosophical question posed by the Cure plotline is fairly rudimentary: on the level of “if you knew you could live your life again without Problem X, would you do it?” Purely in terms of the movie franchise, one might see as a rough development from the quotable quote of X2: “Have you ever considered not being a mutant?” In both Whedon’s comics-script and the completed X3, a scientist invents an across-the-board cure for the state of mutant-hood. Such a cure is tempting to those mutants who are inconvenienced by their abilities, such as Rogue, who can’t even touch her boyfriend without draining his energy and imperiling his life.

In X3, the threat to the existence of the mutant species incenses Magneto, prophet of “homo superior” separatism, and he leads his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in a quest to capture the source of the Cure—which, to further complicated things, is a mutant with the ability to neutralize powers. The Magneto-plotline was also all but inevitable considering that the Brotherhood had played such major roles in the first two films, even if one member, Mystique, was sidelined, while new members Callisto and Juggernaut joined the gang. Still, the use of Magneto as a dimestore Mephistopheles, tempting the reborn Jean Grey to use her powers for selfish ends, comes off as nothing more than a failed attempt to integrate the two plot-threads. In the end, the battle of heroes and villains over access to the Cure is just another Hitchcockian whatsis, and the audience has no real reason to care about what the Cure means, or human-mutant relations, or much of anything.

To cite yet another inevitability, it was a given that the extremely involved underpinnings of Marvel’s “Phoenix Saga” could never have been reproduced for a stand-alone film. I give credit to the writers for trying to foreground Jean’s rebirth in the nature of her mutant powers. The very reason she can come back from her death in X2 stems from the fact that her tremendous psychic abilities arise from the subconscious mind (a shout-out to FORBIDDEN PLANET, perhaps?) Yet the scenes in which the X-Men seek to grapple with their comrade’s return from death are uninspired in the extreme. Apparently James Marsden was not available for the full shoot, as Singer had co-opted his services for SUPERMAN RETURNS, and so Wincberg and Penn were obliged to simply kill him off, which event gets even less resonant treatment than the matter of Jean’s resurrection. Because the Jackman version of Wolverine was in love with Jean, he has to do the heavy lifting in the Jean Grey B-plot, and the others are just not really that involved.

Storm gets more substantial usage here than in the previous two films, and Iceman is better used than he was in X2, but on the whole “characters come and go” with nearly no setup as to why the audience should care about them. Versions of Colossus, the Beast, Shadowcat and the Angel all appear on stage and execute their parts, as if to please hardcore fans panting for their inclusion. But precisely because the characters appear so mechanically, Fox sacrificed any chance to make them viable parts of the franchise. There are certainly some nice character-moments here and there, particularly those between Jean and her mentor Professor X, and some of the battle-scenes are good fun, if not especially compelling. But again—a lot of nice individual parts don’t make a good movie.

The best thing one can say about X3 is probably that, even if it marked the start of the downward spiral, it’s nowhere near the spiral’s bottom.




Given that Gunnar Helstrom’s NAME looks every bit like your typical low-budget horror-thriller, I was surprised to find out via the Net that Gary Crutcher’s script was briefly considered as a directorial project by both Roman Polanski and Rock Hudson. Thanks to the stunning cinematography of Vilmos Zigmond, NAME looks better than many more expensive films, though the peculiar title-- never really explained by anything in the story—inevitably suggests the down-and-dirty world of exploitation movies.

NAME is something of a cross between a forties film noir and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Viewpoint character Sym (Jack Lord) is a Hungarian immigrant who, for reasons not disclosed, finds himself hiking through the deserts of the American Southwest. The viewer never knows much about Sym’s past, except that he lived through violent turmoil in his native land, which may be a key reason for his becoming a rootless wanderer.

His wandering comes to an end when an attractive brunette named Mickey (Susan Strasberg) drives by in her car and gives him a lift. After explaining that there are no lodgings in the nearest town, Mickey invites Sym to spend the night at her place of residence, a last-chance gas station in the wilderness, subsisting on the commerce of tourists who pass through but never stop. Mickey shares her dwelling with her mother, portly Mrs. Terry, and her sisters Diz and Nan. The materfamilias is friendly enough to the newcomer, but Diz gives Sym static, while Nan, a high-schooler newly expelled from school, signals eccentric flightiness. Sym is confident that Mickey didn’t just pick him up out of Christian charity, and when they’re alone, he makes a pass. Mickey refuses and leaves Sym flat, so to speak. Sym returns to his designated bunk and finds a rattlesnake in his blanket. Is it one of the ones the family keeps as pets, along with a cage full of tarantulas? Sym doesn’t wait to ask questions, he just takes to the road.

However, someone at the station doesn’t appreciate his secret leavetaking, for while he’s walking along a car comes along and slams the Hungarian off the road. Some Samaritan finds his broken body and takes him into town to be doctored. During Sym’s slow recovery the local sheriff takes the victim’s statement. The lawman also mentions that the Terrys have been involved in other fatalities, though none can proven to be homicides. So what does this rootless wanderer do with this information?

Why, he does what all doomed noir protagonists do: he “runs to death,” as the poem has it. He hoofs his way back to the filling station, suddenly wanting to see Mickey again. He first encounters Diz instead, who tries to get him to make love to her instead. When the besotted Romeo decides to be true to his first choice, Diz references the family’s weird history, during which their father committed suicide after beating the sisters’ mother.

Mickey welcomes Sym as if there had been no difficulties between them, and on the surface everyone seems reconciled to their being engaged. But perhaps Sym is half in love with easeful death, he can’t help picking at the family tragedy. The film’s big reveal, resembling that of PSYCHO but with an opposite meaning, is that Mother is actually Father in drag. Far from being an abusive drunk, Mr. Terry was a sensitive artist who couldn’t deal with his wife’s catting around—and one of the girls, her Electra complex on full display, kills her evil mother. Yet, despite the fact that Mr. Terry seeks to replace the girls’ maternal influence, it would seem that the mother’s corruption breeds true. In one way or another, Diz, Nan and Mickey are all psycho girls, and the film ends on the implication that Sym will meet the fate he secretly covets.

To be sure, the Crutcher script only suggests these psychological complexities, but at the very least, it should be evident that NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL isn’t sedulously imitating any single narrative. Most of Helstrom’s other directorial work in America consisted of TV episodes, but Crutcher has other interesting writing-credits: the wacky action-comedy SUPERCHICK and the snake-horror flick STANLEY.



The main point of interest in this creaky “old dark house” mystery appears in the family dynamics underlying the mystery’s solution. Ergo, SPOILERS all around.

Rich Mr. Eartlton has passed away, and his family gathers at the family manse for a reading of the will. Family members in attendance are Earlton’s invalid brother Robert and the dead man’s daughter Ruth, who brings along her fiancée, Doctor Clayton. There are also two creepy retainers, Mrs. Krug and her grown son Hanns, played by Lugosi-esque élan by Mischa Auer. The will is read, and Ruth inherits most of the estate, though in the event of her death, Uncle Robert inherits. As for the servants, they both get a miniscule sinecure. But there’s one part of the estate not much discussed, for the late Earlton was some sort of scientist with an interest in evolution—which explains why there’s a big ape caged down in the mansion’s cellar. (This is the “monster” of the title, an anthropoid named Yogi, who looks too big to be a chimpanzee yet too small for a gorilla.)

After the will’s been read—at night, as is so often the case in old dark house movies—everyone—the family members, the servants, and Doctor Clayton’s comical Negro manservant Exodus—goes to bed at at the mansion. In Ruth’s room, she’s awakened from sleep by a hairy-looking hand, snaking out of a wall-panel to threaten her. Yogi the Ape appears to be still locked in his cage, though Hanns claims that the creature once displayed the ability to pick the lock and get out. Poor invalid Uncle Robert, who dotes on his niece in every scene they’re in together, believes that Ruth just had a bad dream. Then, to ease Ruth’s nerves, Mrs. Krug exchanges beds with the young woman—and the hairy hand comes forth onec more, strangling her.

Despite the title, though, the ape never “walks” out of his cage, so there are no uncanny “astounding animals” here. Rather, the owner of the ape-hand—simulated with the use of a furry glove—is, unsurprisingly, creepy Hanns. He’s actually the bastard son of Uncle Robert, who apparently had a fling with the late Mrs. Krug. The two men conspired to kill Ruth and blame Yogi for the crime, after which they would share the inheritance. However, Hanns is more than a little pissed that his father’s grand plan resulted in Hanns killing his own mother. So Hanns strangles Daddy Robert as well, and then decides to go for broke by dragging his cousin down to the cellar. He whips the ape several times, trying to make it mad enough that when he releases it, it’ll kill Ruth. But Hanns gets too close to the cage, and Yogi proves he’s smarter than the average caged ape. The other characters show up to rescue Ruth, and virtue is rewarded.

While the acting and direction is just fair at best, the rather lurid content distinguishes MONSTER from the run-of-the-mill old dark house flick. The film ends with the comic relief making a standard racist joke of the day, about how he had an uncle who resembled Yogi—but if anything, there's more likeness between Yogi and Hanns.

A number of the players had credits stretching back to the silents, as with director Frank Strayer, though these days his handful of horror films remain his claim to fame, particularly the Lionel Atwill film THE VAMPIRE BAT. Sheldon Lewis, a.k.a. Uncle Robert, had the distinction of playing not one but two of the masterminds defeated by serial queen Pearl White: the Clutching Hand and the Iron Claw. (Both silent serials were later remade in the sound era, and have been reviewed here and here.) Rex Lease (Clayton), Mischa Auer (Hanns) and Willie Best (Exodus) all made their respective marks a bit later, Lease scoring largely with westerns and Auer giving up “heavies” like Hanns in favor of goofy comical types following his success in the 1936 MY MAN GODFREY.

As for Willie Best—regrettably billed with the insulting epithet “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” at this point in his career—he spent most of his career playing frightened Negroes. His character Exodus is not the worst of the lot—at least he speaks relatively well and he briefly carries a gun to defend himself against the ape. I was tempted to believe that his name might be as much an insult as his billing, since the Biblical Exodus was all about the freeing of Jewish slaves. However, it’s probably more likely that the name was meant to signify the character’s constant desire to make an “exodus” away from any place of potential danger.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Having received a comment about defining the terms herein, I see there's no single page that really covers them all, so here goes:

Like the header says, my first priority is to talk about how the elements of various types of shows tend to fall into one of three phenomenalities: naturalistic, uncanny, and marvelous. I recently conceived of them as three concentric circles. The innermost circle is the sphere of everything we pattern directly on perceived reality, both in cognitive and affective terms. The midmost circle is about the same size, because it reproduces all the same cognitive patterns, but the affective patterns suggest the larger-than-life without actually violating the limitations on what the audience dominantly believes to be naturalistically possible. The third circle, the marvelous, is actually as close as we can get to an infinitely expanding sphere, since the creators of the marvelous combine cognitive and affective patterns both from perceived reality and from conceived reality.

Mythicity denotes how well each story deals with symbolic discourse. I distinguish four levels-- poor, fair, good and the very rare superior (BLADE RUNNER, for example).

What I term the Fryean mythoi are four patterns of storytelling I adapted from the works of Northrop Frye, and these are based on what sort of conflict is most important to the story: that of the adventure, the drama, the comedy and the irony. Again, almost impossible to sum up without reference to the other blog.

Having heard that Joseph Campbell's heirs might be a bit on the litigious side, I might someday have to drop the references to his work. But to me his best insight stems from his "four functions," which were meant to address the types of knowledge encoded in myths: cosmological (dealing with physical reality), metaphysical (dealing with whatever is believed to underlie physical reality), psychological (dealing with the individual's internal dynamics), and sociological (dealing with the dynamics of the society). I've termed all of these "epistemological patterns" because they deal with analyzing the nature of knowledge in fiction-- which is, to be sure, not homologous with the nature of knowledge in philosophy and other forms of alleged non-fiction. In some ways I think the insight might be even more relevant to literature than to religion, myth and folklore, but since Campbell didn't choose to devote much attention to literature I decided to apply his criteria here for the sake of an experiment-- even if it means I can't ever reproduce the experiment, say in book-form.

Monday, July 13, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Due to the DC Comics character, this Phillipines-lensed oddity often circulated under other names, most often sold to TV as THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL. I choose to review it with the name I saw it under, not least because one of the film’s best features is a bouncy little theme song with the same title.

To be sure, one can count those “best features” on the fingers of one hand. I suspect the screenwriter had seen at least one of the two “Sumuru” movies then extant, since the ruler of the wonder women not only sports a similar name, “Doctor Tsu,” but also has her own private island from which she operates her all-girl army. But in one sense Tsu (former A-lister Nancy Kwan) resembles Sumuru less than the many cinematic incarnations of Doctor Moreau. She pays her bills by having her girls abduct prominent athletes, whose organs she transplants to wealthy recipients. But Tsu’s true passion appears to be coming up with all sorts of freakish Frankensteinian abhumans. If she plans to conquer the world, she hides it well.

Tsu’s girl commandos—always dressed in form-flattering costumes—evince the attitude of classic supervillains: when you want to kidnap someone, do it out in the open so that you’ll be able to stomp any cops or public-spirited citizens who try to interfere. Such scenes might have been more appealing, had the dimestore production given the actresses any lessons in good fake-fighting. When I saw the film in my twenties, I thought the stuntwork was pretty good, but now most of the action-scenes look pretty phony, even from Roberta Collins, the girl who beat Pam Grier in THE BIG DOLL HOJSE. Still, the general hottitude of the women does inspire a certain amount of “wonder” anyway.

Insurance investigator Harben (a dreary Ross Hagen) comes to the Phillipines looking for a missing jai alai player. Probably if Tsu’s agents had just stayed away from him, he would have chased his tail from then on, but Tsu sends one of her lady assassins, Linda (Maria d’Aragone) to seduce and kill Harben. Linda succeeds at the first, but though she and Harben have a good cheap fight, Linda finally has to run. Harben is captured and taken to “Transplant Island” by other members of the seduction squad. There, in addition to showing off her vivisected victims, Tsu has “brain sex” with Harben. This comedic scene is probably the film’s highlight, in that Tsu gets mildly stimulated by the experience while Harben dissolves into a figurative puddle—though neither has touched the other’s body.

Tsu makes her main mistake by trying to punish Linda for her failure, for Linda foments a rebellion against Tsu, setting free both Harben and the monster-men. Yet Tsu escapes the forces of the law despite the ruination of her island-enclave, and in a coda, the triumphant hero loses out to the empowerment of women. In addition to this rare turnaround ending, WONDER WOMEN’s only noteworthy aspect is that it’s one of the few times that a starring Asian villain was actually played by someone of Asian ancestry.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological. sociological*

The cleverest thing about Michael Crichton’s original screenplay for WESTWORLD is the name the author gives to the corporation that constructs all the android-populated tourist traps: “Delos.” The script never comments on the name, which is identical to that of the floating island where the Greek gods Apollo and Artemis are born, but it’s hard to believe Crichton didn’t have an agenda in using that particular name. This Delos, rather than giving birth to gods, gives birth to sophisticated androids, whose sole purpose is to act out violent or salacious scenarios for the entertainment of visitors. Since all of these encounters take place in pseudo-historical venues—Medieval World, Roman World, and Western World—in effect the human beings act the part of “gods” to the androids, “killing them for their sport.”

Even before HBO patterned a successful streaming series after Crichton’s concept, WESTWORLD enjoyed a certain iconic stature in science fiction cinema. It was, like the majority of pre-STAR WARS sci-fi, a cautionary tale, but Crichton’s script is a little vague about what he’s cautioning the audience against. In 1973 there had been no shortage of sci-fi films tasking man with his “inhumanity to inhumans,” but WESTWORLD doesn’t seem concerned with the ethical problems of the sufferings of androids. Nor does Crichton indict either the two main protagonists, Martin (Richard Benjamin) and Blane (James Brolin), or even the less attractive visitors seen at the film’s beginning. They aren’t seen as horrid brutes either because they screw lady androids or because they shoot down the Gunslinger Android (Yul Brynner, costumed just as the actor was in 1960’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). Their actions aren’t critiqued, any more than most movies would critique moviegoers for attending films about sex and violence.

The main attraction of WESTWORLD seems to be that of facing protagonists with what seems to be a phony challenge, and then forcing them to deal with the real thing. The Delos technicians are never completely sure as to what makes the androids usurp their usual program, so that the females refuse the guests sex and the males start killing both guests and technicians. Crichton probably knew that his audience would assume that, on some level, the androids were just sick of playing the fall guys all the time, so he chose not to gild the lily.

Like many films of the time, though, WESTWORLD takes its time to present the challenge. For about half the film, Martin and Blane entertain themselves enacting such rituals of Western manhood as the bar-fight and the jailbreak, but always with the confidence that they can’t really get hurt. A minor incident—an android rattlesnake biting Blane-- heralds the revolt of the androids in general, and shortly thereafter, Blane meets the Gunslinger Android, who outdraws and kills the unfortunate guest. Martin is thus obliged to run from the implacable robot until he finds a way to turn the tables on his pursuer. Oddly, even the violent dispatching of the robot has a muted quality, allowing Martin no particular glory from his accomplishment. (The immolation of the Gunslinger is succeeded by a curious scene in which Martin mistakes a female android for a human guest and accidentally “kills” her by giving her some water.)

Crichton’s debut as a film-director turns out to be a good journeyman job, but he was probably better served by concentrating on best selling fiction. Arguably, by 1973 westerns had started to decline both in film and on television, though it would take another decade for the decline to become obvious. WESTWORLD anticipates the way that fantasy-related genres would for the most part sideline the western genre, and so that might explain the iconic appeal of having Yul Brynner reproduce the image of a critically lauded western hero in science-fiction terms, taking the form of a mechanical murderer. That said, WESTWORLD isn’t rejecting the western genre in order to champion any deep fantasy-visions. Crichton’s structure is purely reactive in nature, and feels a bit like a cribbing from Rod Serling, but without a moral message. He continued his profitable association with cinema up to his death in 2008, but surely his most profitable cinema-franchise was JURASSIC PARK. In part this was a variation on WESTWORLD, but melded for cinematic purposes with the wonder-inducing priorities of Steven Spielberg, one of the many talents who promoted fantasy so ably that the noble western ended up on Boot Hill.