Saturday, August 29, 2020

A PAGE TELLING HOW TEN BECAME TWELVE

So I just spent the whole afternoon purging this blog of the tags for both the naturalistic and uncanny forms of the former trope-category "outre outfits, skills and devices." In their place, I've substituted six separate categories, respectively the naturalistic and uncanny forms of "outre outfits," "superlative skills," and "diabolical devices."

Over the years, I began to become dissatisfied with this portmanteau category. I've done it with other categories when I thought there was a necessary connection between at least two trope-subtypes. For instant, the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ is a dream in the mind of a focal character, while the movie of PRINCESS BRIDE is a fictitious story that never pretend to be anything but such. Yet both the "delirious dream" and the "fallacious figment" work on the spectator in the same manner, IMO-- both in the uncanny and naturalistic modes.

I know exactly why, when I formulated the ten tropes back in 2009, I *thought* there was a necessary connection between uncanny and naturalistic versions of "outre outfits, skills, and devices." I saw them all as projections of a given character's power, and I'm sure two of my main models were Batman and Tarzan. The first is defined by what I now call "an outre outfit" and "diabolical devices," whereas the latter is defined by "an outre outfit" and "superlative skills." If I gave it enough thought I could probably think of a character defined by all three as well.

However, the awkwardness of linking the three tropes together is that it can be difficult to sort out which ones are being indicated. For instance, Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum" is all about a diabolical device, and that device defined the power of its villainous makers, what Poe calls "the black-robed judges," though these characters are never seen, only spoken of. And given that the compound contraption of "pit-and-pendulum" is all that defines them, it seemed increasingly inaccurate to associate such characters with characters that sported unusual attire or skills.

And that's how my ten tropes morphed into twelve. I don't intend to correct any of the earlier reviews that used phrases like "outre skills" or "outre devices," but will just move forward from now on.

Friday, August 28, 2020

ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


CYCLOPS was the first of two Maciste films in which the hero keeps his real name, even in the English dubbing, but is called “Atlas” only in the title. I reviewed the other one here.

This is one of the more overtly “mythological” of the Maciste films, not to mention its having a somewhat better than average budget. According to an introductory crawl, the story takes place “centuries” after heroic Ulysses’ conflicts with the witch Circe and the cannibal cyclops Polyphemus. In the epic poem the sorceress and the monster have nothing in common but Ulysses, and the hero actually departs Circe’s island on relatively friendly terms. However, the movie claims that a curse was passed down to the descendants of Ulysses’s two enemies, obliging these descendants to seek revenge on the line of Ulysses. Apparently Ulysses’s line has prospered until the movie’s time, at which point Queen Capys (Cuban-born beauty Chelo Alonso) sends an army to besiege the city where Ulysses’s last descendants rule. The city is duly sacked and its king slain by Capys’ general Iphitos, but the soldiers can’t find either Queen Penope (like “Penelope,” I suppose) or her never-named baby. (The rugrat would later grow to become none other than famed male supermodel Fabio). A servant takes the baby into the wilderness, while Penope hides in plain sight by masquerading as one of the women abducted and taken to Capys’s city.

Capys plans to end the curse’s hold on her by feeding the last spawn of Ulysses to the unnamed cyclops descendant of Polyphemus. She keeps the big one-eyed critter in a pit under her city, which makes him seem not a little like a Minotaur. Despite her contemplating this dastardly deed, Capys doesn’t particularly want to be an evil queen; she just wants to be finished with her enslavement to Circe’s obligation. (Note: though in archaic mythology “Capys” is usually a man’s name, the writer showed a little mythic creativity, since both “Capys” and “Circe” can mean “hawk.”)

Ever-wandering Maciste (Gordon Mitchell) stumbles across the servant and the babe and immediately decides to right all the wrongs. He chances across Capys, praying in a temple for guidance, and she falls hard for him. He later wanders to the city, gets in some fights with soldiers, suffers the torment of a deathtrap, and finally gets succored by Capys. Maciste shows no interest in Capys, though he does sweet-talk her a little for the sake of his mission. Iphitos, though, figures out that the big hulk is an enemy, and with the help of a black bodybuilder (whose build is heavier than that of Mitchell), Iphitos drugs Maciste and finds out the location of the hidden child. Though Capys is losing her enthusiasm for the sacrifice, Iphitos, who loves her, wants to give the child and its mother to the Cyclops to end the queen’s torment. Eventually Maciste must seek to rescue the innocents from the cannibal monster—filmed so as to make him look twice as tall as the hero—and liberating the city from the villains.

CYCLOPS has no shortage of muscleman-stunts. Maciste fights both a lion and the African muscle-guy, and rows a huge ship across the ocean all by himself—but the first two stunts are spoiled by listless direction. The standout stunt is yet another one of those tug-o-war scenarios, but this time the hero is forced to stand on planks over a pit of lions, with ropes tied to each of his wrists—and on the other end of each rope, a gang of muscle-guys competes, trying to pull Maciste off his perch and into the pit. In an imaginative touch, one gang of guys is composed only of black men, and the other, only of white men.

Mitchell acquits himself well enough during the stunts, but otherwise he makes a very bland Maciste. Alonso’s Capys is one of her best roles, and one almost wishes her character had been allowed to reform—even though she’s possibly eliminated because wandering Maciste could never be tied down.

STEEL DAWN (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*






In contrast to many “Mad Max” imitators, STEEL DAWN is ably filmed and displays an impressive budget. However, simple competence is often not enough, which may be the reason the movie flopped in theaters, even though star Patrick Swayze had just gained major credits from his role in DIRTY DANCIN’.

STEEL DAWN looks as if someone, be it director Lance Hool or writer Doug Lefler, studied the first “Mad Max” film (the one without all the hyperkinetic stunts) and crossbred it with 1953’s SHANE. Swayze’s tight-lipped hero Nomad has a mysterious, tortured past, but he puts aside his loner status to defend a small farming-community from a greedy land baron (Anthony Zerbe).

In SHANE, Alad Ladd’s loner-hero takes shelter with three defenseless farmers: a man, his wife, and their young boy. DAWN keeps the young boy to register wide-eyed admiration of the stoic fighting-man, but now there’s no husband, for the boy’s mother Kasha (played by Swayze’s real-life wife Lisa Niemi) is a widow. There’s a loose husband-surrogate in Tark, a tough Meridian guy who hopes to get in good with Kasha, but though Tark’s duly humiliated by Nomad’s heroic superiority, he doesn’t complicate the potential Nomad-Kasha romance.

Some early scenes also present a subplot-conflict: Nomad’s martial mentor is murdered by foul means. By sheer dumb luck the assassin just happens to be working for Zerbe’s character, allowing for Nomad to take care of both plot-concerns at once.

Swayze handles the martial arts battles and the swordfighting with aplomb, but his character remains a cipher, as do all of the other characters despite the participation of professionals like Zerbe and Brion James. Further, the original story of SHANE ended with the hero leaving the community he saves in part because he’s in love with the farmer’s wife, a married woman. DAWN keeps the same ending, but because Kasha’s a widow, there’s no inherent reason for Nomad to take his leave.

Both script and direction are simply pedestrian, except for one promising scene at the opening. Nomad is seen out in the desert, meditating by standing on his head. Three raiders—apparently post-apocalyptic mutants, though the script doesn’t say so—tunnel through the desert sands to attack the solitary traveler. If the rest of the film had measured up to the lively whimsy of this scene, Hool and Lefler might have produced something as good as the 1979 George Miller original.

DRAGONHEART 3 (2015), DRAGONHEART: HEARTFIRE (2017)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*


There’s no shortage of film-fans who prize franchise-sequels—BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, TERMINATOR 2-- equal to or better than the film that started the franchise. I’m not aware, though, of many “second sequel” films that have earned such accolades.

DRAGONHEART 3 isn’t any sort of bold new re-thinking of the premises of the previous two films, and its story would’ve been difficult to envision without the previous stories in the series. It’s just a good formula-film that executes its premise better than the first two entries. As I noted in my review of the other films, the first DRAGONHEART suffers from a clumsy sort of humor, loosely modeled on the 1971 film SKIN GAME, while the first sequel proves overly juvenile in tone.

Both of those films took place in a vague period of medieval England. Director Colin Teague and writer Matthew Feitshans anchor their prequel of the franchise in ninth-century Britain, some centuries after Roman rule. Though the Romans are gone, they’ve left behind such markers as Hadrian’s Wall, a dividing-point between the northerly lands of the savage Pict tribes and the lands to the immediate south, inhabited by more outwardly sophisticated Britons. In addition to the southerners having been schooled in the ways of the Romans and of the knightly traditions of Arthur’s Camelot, this fantasy-history includes a race of intelligent dragons from the stars. Rather than being opposed to humankind as one sees in most archaic knight-tales, these star-dragons acted as tutelary spirits to Arthurian knights, even instilling in the early warriors the code of honor.

Main hero Gareth, an orphan of low estate comparable to Geoff in the second film, has labored for years in service as a knight’s squire, hoping to attain the status of valorous knighthood. But the code of knighthood has fallen on hard times, and the warriors that man the wall against the hostile Picts consider it their due to extort huge sums from the humble peasants. Though Gareth dearly wants to become a knight, he protests this inequity. The garrison’s cruel commander casts Gareth out of the compound into the northern wilderness, challenging the young squire to come back with some treasure to prove his worth.

While Gareth forages in the wilderness, a meteor crashes to Earth. Out of the meteor springs a huge dragon, and Gareth observes that within the remnants of the meteor are nine eggs of gold. A troop of Picts show up and attack the dragon, and Gareth briefly considers harvesting an egg for his own purposes. A Pict shoots Gareth with an arrow, but the dragon thinks that the young knight has protected the egg. The dragon, later named Drago, resuscitates Gareth by transferring a portion of Drago’s heart into the youth’s chest.

However, the Pict tribe has a sorcerer, Brude. He casts a spell that nullifies Drago’s power, except when the moon is high, at which point Brude can force Drago to serve him in destroying the southern Britons and their wall. Drago’s primary concern is to protect the eggs of the unborn dragons, and because of the sympathy between him and the knight, Gareth agrees to help Drago protect the eggs. The knight receives further aid from two friends he makes in the northern wilds: Pictish warrior-princess Rhonu, who bears a grudge against Brude, and aspiring Druid magician Lorne, who provides some of the comedy-relief (though, to be fair, Gareth is sometimes the butt of Drago’s humor).

There are some fuzzy parts in the script. It’s not that clear as to why Drago came to Earth with his brood, since he and his kind haven’t been there for centuries, nor why he possesses the ability to teach Gareth a skill called “shadow-jumping,” which involves teleportation from one shadowed area to another. Still, the story is admirably consistent to its theme: that Gareth must find some middle way between the unreasoning aggression of both northerners and southerners. Naturally, meeting a comely Pictish warrior-woman does a lot to humanize Gareth’s beliefs about the Picts, though the script doesn’t overplay the romance at the expense of the main plot. And though the theme is mostly about humans getting along, Drago had a much more interesting personality than either of his predecessors, perhaps because he mirrors the ideals of knighthood to which Gareth aspires.

The film’s only flaw is that, like a lot of second sequels, the budget doesn’t allow for heavy FX, so Drago doesn’t actually do all that much, even in the climactic battle.



Unfortunately, though DRAGONHEART: BATTLE FOR THE HEARTFIRE is set in the same prequel-era, creative lightning did not strike a second time for writer Matthew Feitshans, nor for the new director or the new cast of characters.

Two generations have ensued since Gareth and his wife Rhonu united the northern and southern kingdoms of their corner of Great Britain. With the assistance of Drago—the dragon to whom Gareth bonded in the previous film, now voiced by Patrick Stewart—the king and queen have managed to bring about the rebirth of dragons. Not much is said about the restoration of an Arthurian knightly code, and one never sees any other dragons but Drago. However, the bonding of human and dragon is still fraught with peril. At the film’s statt, Rhonu has perished years ago after her dragon died, and now Gareth is at death’s door. Drago expects to perish when Gareth does, and is surprised when the king dies and he Drago yet survives.

Drago realizes that he still has a bond with a human; one of Gareth’s grandchildren. Gareth and Rhonu had a son, Walter, who fled court life and chose to live the life of a peasant. He married some unknown woman, who bore him twins, male Edric and female Meghan. Neither twin is aware of their kinship with Gareth, but both have a smattering of scales on their bodies, as well as unusual powers—Edric is as strong as four men, and Meghan can control (but not create) any form of fire. After Walter’s death, the siblings separated. Drago uses the bond to locate Edric, and though Edric repudiates the bond, he doesn’t reject the revelation that he’s now the king of this part of England.

Meghan, living in the lands of the Vikings, hears about her brother’s good fortune and invades England with a small army, led by Thorgrim. (Dina de Laurentis, daughter of the more famous Dino and sister of HEARTFIRE’s producer Raffaela, has a small part as one of the Vikings.) Meghan asserts that as Gareth’s granddaughter she has equal claim to the throne, and when she first meets Drago, she steals from him the Heartfire. In contrast to the exchange of hearts seen in the other films, this theft robs Drago of his flame-powers, and imperils his survival as well. Meghan’s enhanced power allows her to take over and to exile Edric. She then begins her rule, attempting, among other things, to empower women legally and martially.

After various complications, Edric sneaks back into the kingdom, hoping to save Drago’s life by stealing back the Heartfire. The siblings fight, and the Vikings turn against Meghan. Drago swoops in and saves the twins from death, but he, now acting as reluctant parent to the duo, becomes aggravated by their constant squabbling. He sets them down in the forest and challenges them to fight it out. It’s not much of a fight despite their respective super-powers, since despite their enmity neither one really wants to hurt the other one. Some family secrets are revealed, and the two youths at last join forces to kick out the Vikings and rule the kingdom wisely—though during the conflict Drago meets his maker.

The previous entry in the series took strength from being based in the history, however fictionalized, of conflicts between two tribes of Britons. This time, the kingdom is just a backdrop, and the invading Vikings could be Mongolians for all their identity matters to the story. DRAGONHEART 3 was about Gareth and Rhonu bringing their ethnic identities together in order to forge a stronger England. Edric and Meghan are never more than bickering siblings, weakly characterized and given a patchwork backstory.

Writer Feitshans might have done something better. Since he wanted the bonding to skip a generation, apparently he decided to expend as little effort as possible upon Gareth’s son Walter. The script gives him no solid reason for fleeing the lap of luxury to live as a peasant; the viewer is only told that he didn’t like the kingly life. Feitshans might’ve crafted a situation in which he rejected the world of kingship and dragon-magic specifically because the dragon’s death killed Rhonu’s mother. But this avenue remains closed.

One hears nothing of the mother of Edric and Meghan; she’s just the vehicle to bring the siblings into the world. Clearly the scripter got rid of the mother quickly, in order to focus on Walter, even though he remains a vague character at best. He’s appalled by the twins’ strange powers and becomes something of a tyrant to them, which leads to a clumsy “family secret”—Edric thinks Meghan killed their father with her powers, but someone else is the guilty party. Even this bit of melodrama is botched, since the characters of the siblings are so flat and uninvolving. The best I can say of the two lead actors is that they fit the bland characters perfectly. Whether the franchise can come back from this low point is anyone’s guess.       


Sunday, August 23, 2020

CAT PEOPLE (1942)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological, psychological*


The works produced by Val Lewton have been so fulsomely praised that I tend to think some of his movies have been overrated. However, I can’t say that of the film that launched Lewton’s commercial success, CAT PEOPLE.

Reportedly Lewton’s bosses at RKO merely wanted the producer to come up with something to poach off the 1941 box-office of Universal’s WOLF MAN. There’s no way to know how dutifully writer DeWitt Bodeen studied the Curt Siodmak script for WOLF MAN, but it seems likely that he chose to build on Siodmak’s general approach. The earlier film sets up the viewer to believe that werewolf-transformations are real as soon as Bela Lugosi implicitly turns into a wolf. Yet, throughout much of the film, Siodmak carefully builds up the conflicting emotions of the characters as they strive to cope with their encounter with the impossible. Bodeen approaches CAT PEOPLE in a similar manner, but avoids confirming that woman-to-cat transformations are possible until the end of the film.

Bodeen also reverses Siodmak’s “fish out of water” situation vis-à-vis the protagonist. Larry Talbot, the quintessential “ordinary Joe” American, finds himself overwhelmed by the weird beliefs of pagan Europe, as represented by the gypsies and transmitted through the Christian residents of a Welch town. Here, the protagonist is Serbian-born Irena, who has emigrated to America, living there for years without making any friends or becoming in any way Americanized. A chance encounter at a zoo brings her friendship with, and later marriage to, an “ordinary Joe” named Oliver. Like Irena, Oliver seems curiously frozen and devoid of real history, marking himself as an “American innocent” when he claims, “I’ve just never been unhappy.” Indeed, without even realizing it, he has a “work-wife” relationship with co-worker Alice, and she’s evidently been comfortable enough with that status that she’s never tried any womanly wiles upon Oliver. But Irena moves Oliver to new levels of emotion, and thus the two are married—though the script tiptoes around the implication that they are husband and wife in name only.

Irena’s sexual reticence traces back to her roots in Serbia, which boasts a distant pagan heritage overruled by more recent Christian conquest. When Oliver first visits Irena’s apartment, he’s stricken by a Serbian sculpture, showing a panther being speared to death by a Christian warlord named King John. Irena explains that in some towns, pagan practices went on, including that of human beings changing into feral cat-creatures. Irena, apparently as ambivalent about Oliver as she is about her adopted country, nurtures the belief that if she has sex with a man, she may turn into a panther and kill him.

During the early months of marriage, Oliver becomes less and less reconciled to his exotic wife’s peculiarities, and Alice finally professes her love to him, implicitly wanting to compete with Irena at last. Thus Oliver consults a psychiatrist recommended by Alice, one Doctor Judd. Irena consents to being psychoanalyzed by Judd, but she does not like him, noticing that he bears a coincidental resemblance to Serbian King John, slayer of “cat people.” For most of the film, the viewer never sees any direct confirmation of Irena’s superstition, though Irena does have a brief encounter with a strange woman who seems to know her, even though the stranger never appears again. The viewer soon learns that Doctor Judd is not a selfless representative of his profession, but his ulterior plans lead him to re-enact the battle of King John and the panther—but to Judd’s detriment, since only here does one see the superstition confirmed.

Many critics have claimed that the indirect Lewton approach proves scarier than the direct approach of most Universal horror-films. I find CAT PEOPLE psychologically interesting, but not frightening, even in the vaunted “swimming pool” scene. But the film does deserve its reputation for attempting a new approach in American horror cinema.

BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS (2008)



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



This Bat-anthology, with scripts from American authors and Japanese animation, proves once again that quantity is generally not superior to quality. In the space of ninety minutes, the producers sought to squeeze six stories—some of which are close to being vignettes. Possibly due to the constrictions of time, five of the six stories lack strong resolutions.

“Have I Got a Story to Tell You” consists of three street-kids who all claim to have witnessed Batman in action. Given that an episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES already plowed this shallow ground, this one is the most disposable.

“Crossfire” starts out well, from the POV of two experienced Gotham cops assigned to convey a prisoner to another location. One cop abhors Batman as a vigilante, while his partner is more ambivalent, unsure of the crusader’s motives but believing that the city has markedly improved from his influence. During the prisoner transport the cops get compromised by a pair of gangs. Batman rescues the officers, and—I guess that solves the problem?

“Field Test” involves Batman testing a Lucius Fox invention that deflects bullets, but the device doesn’t work to best effect during the hero’s next crime-busting operation.

“In Darkness Dwells” attempts to stuff two famous Bat-villains into one tale, even to the extent of rewriting Killer Croc’s origin to involve the Scarecrow. Batman, on the trail of an abducted Cardinal, descends to Gotham’s sewers to rescue the holy man from the Diabolical Duo. The re-designs of the two villains are poor and the action is incoherent.

“Deadshot” features Batman seeking to prevent the titular master assassin from claiming another victim. The only bright moment is a snatch of dialogue in which Batman, despite his distaste for guns, admits that he can understand the attraction of such weapons.

Only “Working Through Pain” has both a strong premise and resolution. Batman, suffering from a gunshot-wound while waiting for Alfred to rescue him, flashes back to an early period in his preparations for a crime-fighting career. As Bruce Wayne the hero journeys to India to learn the fakirs’ secrets of pain control. The fakirs refuse to teach him, but Wayne meets a young woman with the non-Indian name of Cassandra who persuaded the fakirs to teach her their secrets, and who accepts Wayne as a student. Cassandra, who has her own tale of tragedy, has an almost psychic awareness of the emotional pain Wayne seeks to master in addition to making preparations for the violent life of a crime-fighter. When some rowdy youths attack Cassandra, Wayne whips their butts in the video’s best fight-scene. This altercation, for vague reasons, spells the end of Wayne’s tutelage by Cassandra, who opines that his emotional pain is too deep for either her or him to banish. The story’s only flaw is a rather pat ending.

Though Kevin Conroy again voices the crusader as he did in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, the anthology’s vision of Batman does not follow the earlier teleseries in showing the hero as capable of humor and compassion. These are hardboiled crime stories with an obsessed vigilante-hero, which is certainly a viable element in the Batman universe—but not one that receives good treatment here. Only “Working Through Pain” adds an interesting concept to the overall mythos, but that one tale is not enough to give the whole anthology more than a “fair” mythicity rating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)



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



In my review of the first FANTOMAS book, I gave the novel a rating of high mythicity. However, this was less because of the character of Fantomas than in response to the way other characters reacted to his criminal capers. Based on the first book, and on the handful of films I’ve seen, I don’t really see that particular supercrook’s appeal.

I have not read any of the original DIABOLIK comics, but the 1968 film-adaptation—at least partially based on original comics-stories—is a very different story. Of all the European feature-films that either adapted comics-features or just flirted with elements of the medium, DANGER DIABOLIK is the most successful.

It’s also one of the most successful films by director Mario Bava, who’s also credited as a scriptwriter on the project. Bava’s excellent design-sense wasn’t always matched by the scripts he either wrote or inherited. But even though DANGER was derived from three separate Diabolik stories—the film’s script never seems choppy or forced. I surmise that Bava, or someone else involved with the script, chose to use stories with a common theme: the attraction of money.

Of course, all films about thieves, gentlemanly or otherwise, involve money as a goal. DANGER, however, invokes “money as a myth.” Diabolik (John Philip Law) flies in the face of the thief who tries to avoid detection by committing at least some crimes in a cowl and bodysuit—but he never seems motivated merely by sheer gain. After Diabolik’s first crime, when he rips off a shipment of cash, he takes the loot to his underwater hideout. Then he and his cohort/girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell) spread all of the bills onto a bed and make love amid them. It’s the adults’ version of Uncle Scrooge swimming through his horde of coins and cash, and there’s no mention as to what either Diabolik or Eva will use the cash for—if indeed they use it for anything but lovemaking.


One interesting consequence of Diabolik’s scandalous success is that his nemesis Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) receives extraordinary powers to bring the master thief to justice. This power allows Ginko to put pressure on real, hardened criminals, so that he can extort one of the worst, Valmont (Adolfo Celi), into capturing Diabolik. The gangster uses his contacts to find and capture Eva, the better to maneuver Diabolik to his demise. However, in a dramatic turnabout Diabolik forces Valmont to come with him in rescuing Eva. Valmont tries to escape, but even when Diabolik shoots the evildoer, the master thief works money into the equation—for he shoots Valmont full of stolen emeralds, and later harvests the loot from the crook’s dead body.

DANGER is replete with other fine set-pieces, to say nothing of sporting one of composer Ennio Morricone’s best scores. But nothing surpasses the ending, in which the forces of law and order appear to triumph, and Diabolik is apparently entombed in a deluge of liquid gold. Yet the film promises that the apparently dead thief will rise and rob again—and though there were no Diabolik sequels, the character remains as alive as the viewer’s fantasy of stealing with the utmost style.

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*



SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

FOUR FLIES is commonly deemed the third of Dario Argento’s “animal triliogy.” There’s no small irony in the fact that actual animals are not important to any of the stories. There is a bird in BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, but the actual creature is only important as a mnemonic device. There’s no feline in CAT O’NINE TAILS, and the idea of a multi-thonged whip is just a metaphor for the story’s complications. Similarly, the “four flies” also don’t come on stage: they exist only as an image concocted to make sense of chaos.

In my review of CAT O’NINE TAILS, I opined that Argento might have been aiming for a more upscale, less ultraviolent type of thriller than he’d executed in PLUMAGE. FLIES, though, feels like a return to the heavy violence and meandering storylines of classic giallo. Certainly Argento and co-scripters Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti pay a lot more attention to the killer’s motivations here than the scripters did in CAT. For good measure FLIES seems to be recycling many of Argento’s story-tropes from the previous two films: insanity spawned by violent trauma, incestuous encounters, and weird societal outliers who may or may not help the hero triumph.

To be sure, one thing Argento does not recycle from PLUMAGE is a likable hero. Roberto is a drummer for a professional band in Rome, married to a relatively wealthy woman, Nina. Roberto doesn’t seem to have any serious problems in life, but suddenly he notices a strange man watching him during practice, or following him in the streets. One night he overtakes the stranger and demands an explanation. The man draws a knife, and Roberto attacks. In the scuffle the stranger is apparently dealt a fatal wound, and before Roberto can think what to do, a second mysterious stranger, face concealed by a doll-mask, takes a photo of the homicide. Later, Roberto and Nina start receiving letters harassing Roberto, threatening to reveal the crime, though no blackmail money is demanded. Roberto absolutely refuses to go to the police, fearing that he’ll be put away for manslaughter, particularly after local newspapers have carried the story of the man’s death.



Though in theory Roberto might seem sympathetic given all of these ordeals, he comes off as petty and self-concerned. He’s certainly not remorseful about a man’s death; he’s just scared of being punished for it. He’s so freaked out by the fear of retaliation that after a friend at a party tells a tale about a criminal getting his head chopped off by an executioner, Roberto keeps visualizing the execution in dreams. Further, Roberto doesn’t appear to be very smart. Given that his meeting with the pesky stranger was being watched by a person ready with a camera, a reasonably intelligent individual might suspect a set-up. But although Roberto hires a detective to find the quasi-blackmailer, at no time does he wonder if the manslaughter might’ve been phony.

The viewer learns this in jig time, though. One of the maids in Roberto’s household figures out the blackmailer’s identity and tries a little blackmail of her own, which paves the way to her death. Later it’s revealed that the supposedly dead stranger is still alive, though Argento never explains how the newspaper-reports were faked. The faker complains to his employer about getting involved in a murder, so Phony Corpse soon becomes Real Corpse. The detective—a particularly flouncy gay fellow, but relatively good at his job—learns some clues about the villain, but not in time to save himself. Nina, distraught over the threats, leaves, and her cousin Dalia moves into the house. Roberto easily seduces Dalia, which shows another of his character-flaws, but as soon as Argento raises the possibility that the cousin may be the plotter, she too gets the axe.

Given that the script doesn't provide other suspects, process of elimination leaves only the distraught wife, who fills in the blank for “insanity brought on by trauma.” In Nina’s case, her father abused in one way or another, causing her to spend some time in a loony bin. But he still left her all of his money when he died, and she apparently decided to marry a man she considered to be just like her father, so that she could torment and execute him. This contrived psychology doesn’t make much more sense than the significance of the “four flies,” which is supposedly an image recorded on the corneas of one of Nina’s victims. Still, just because Argento brings so much perversity into his schema, I give FOUR FLIES’ mythicity as high a rating as that of PLUMAGE, if only for the synchronicity-like significance given to Roberto’s execution-dream at the conclusion.

Many reviews complain about Argento’s use of humor here, and while I didn’t find much of it funny, it didn’t bother me in most cases. The one big exception is the distracting presence of huge Bud Spenser as one of Roberto’s confidantes. The actor might have been able to put across a credible character had he been given one by the script. But Spenser’s character is inserted so clumsily that one can’t help suspecting he’s just there to appeal to the actor’s fans.

ALL-STAR SUPERMAN (2011)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, sociological*



In 2005-08 Grant Morrison, in collaboration with artist Frank Quitely, authored a twelve-issue Superman series, ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Though the name may have been suggested by one of DC Comics’ most notable Golden Age anthology-titles, ALL STAR COMICS, there may also be some knowing irony on Morrison’s part. Though the comic-book series is very episodic—seeming to be an amalgam of “Grant Morrison’s Favorite Superman-Concepts”—the overall arc is concerned with Superman’s conflict with the very star that gives him most of his super-powers.

Writer Dwayne McDuffie prunes away any of the comic-book narrative that doesn’t contribute to the OAV’s story—which, incidentally, means eliminating my favorite segment, BEING BIZARRO. But the omissions are to the overall narrative’s benefit. The setup is that Superman’s most persistent enemy Lex Luthor finally succeeds in dooming his Kryptonian antagonist, poisoning the hero through his connection with Earth’s sun. The film, like the comic, is a little vague about how Luthor brings this doom about, though it has something to do with his having contacted an alien being, Solaris, who desires to get rid of Earth’s sun and take its place at the center of the system. However, the method is not as important as the effect: what does the world’s greatest hero do when he’s convinced his death is inevitable?

Revealing his identity to Lois Lane, of course, tops the list, though as in the comic the romance of Lois and Superman is not especially compelling. A little more levity comes in when two super-suitors from the future, Atlas and Samson, arrive to court Lois, much to the hero’s chagrin. That said, Superman’s main mission is that of finding out what Luthor did and what the villain’s long-range plans are, once his old nemesis is no longer a threat. The film’s strongest section has Clark Kent visit Luthor in prison, which allows the viewer to see how narcissistic Luthor’s personality is. At times, the film,like the original comic, strains to sell the hero as the opposite: the true-blue boy scout who would never consider peeping on a woman with X-ray vision. Yet toward the end of the series—and the cartoon—the viewer is given a plausible reason as to why Superman is so incredibly good-hearted.

Even before the highly publicized “Death of Superman” storyline, there had many DC stories which presented readers Superman as dead or dying. Most such stories sought to capitalize on the incongruity of seeing the world’s most powerful hero reduced to common mortality. I tend to think that Morrison wished to do his own unique take on heroic mortality, and thus both series and cartoon end ambiguously: Superman disappears into the sun, but Lois promises that he’ll return once he’s done “fixing” it. Thus Morrison’s Superman remains a myth even after being rendered mortal.

I’m not sure how possible it would be to translate Frank Quitely’s somewhat decadent art-style to an animated OAV, so I don’t fault the animators for largely taking a more basic storytelling stance, while only using a few visual “Quitely quotes.”



Sunday, August 16, 2020

BATMAN: “THE CAT’S MEOW” (1966)



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


Here, courtesy of Stanley Ralph Ross once more, we have the first episode in which Catwoman is infatuated with Batman from the start, and he with her—which is how things started out with the duo in the comics.


“Meow” provides a textbook example as to the proper use of science-fiction doohickies in a BATMAN episode. The Princess of Plunder somehow obtains a device which can steal people’s voices—and though Ross is not consistent about the device’s nature, the voice-stealer requires much less suspension of disbelief than the Joker’s time-stopping box. Catwoman also seems to be using a lot of sound-related weapons throughout the episode, but their presence doesn’t seem obtrusive.

As with many super-crooks, Catwoman can’t resist showing off how smart she is. She’s released on parole, and pretends to have formed a singing-group with her henchmen and henchgirl, just to help her get intel on the arrival of famed English duo Chad and Jeremy. Then she promptly queers the whole deal by stealing Commissioner Gordon’s voice over the phone after he reveals to her the location of the singers—BEFORE she’s had her chance to ambush them. Though Chad and Jeremy are supposed to stay at Wayne Manor—making for some comic interactions with dithery Aunt Harriet—the villainess’s precipitate actions insure that she never has the chance to attack them at Wayne Manor. So she uses the voice-stealer to swipe the duo’s dulcet tones during one of her performances—which she could have done a lot more easily, had she not broadcast her intentions.

Of course, had she played it cool, she might not have had the chance to lure the Dynamic Duo into one of their best deathtraps: a gigantic echo-chamber, designed to reduce their brains to mush. It’s the perfect deathtrap for a villainess who really wants her nemesis alive and kicking, and the narration has fun with the idea that both Batman and Robin will be turned into love-slaves, respectively, by Catwoman and her henchgirl Eenie.

West and Newmar milked the “will-they-won’t they” vibe for all it was worth, and this may be the aspect of the comic book mythology that non-fans remember best. Here, and in the remaining Newmar episodes, Batman and Catwoman become embodiments of lawfulness and criminality, opposites that eternally attract one another. And, in contradiction of the usual narration, “the best was yet to come.”

BATMAN: “THE PENGUIN’S NEST” (1966)




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

Though “Hizzoner the Penguin” is the best Penguui script, “Penguin’s Nest” boasts the best Burgess Meredith performance. Meredith captured perfectly the Bird-Bandit’s enormous ego, and thus “Nest” is full of scenes in which he has his plans thwarted, resulting in numerous slow burns and squawking rants.

Once again the pompous bird has insinuated himself into high society, having managed to launch an expensive haute cuisine restaurant. Then the criminal genius makes what seems to be a dumb move: lifting a jeweled bracelet from Harriet Cooper’s wrist, right in front of her relations, as well as Gordon and O’Hara.


Bruce/Batman quickly deduces that, since the Penguii is not a clumsy crook, he must have a special reason for wanting to be sentenced to the state penitentiary. The reason, when revealed, is rather a thin reed on which Lorenzo Semple hangs all of Penguin’s other machinations. However, in this case I can forgive the thin plot, simply because the Penguin gets so many good scenes of frustration and fiendish counter-plotting. As Batman, Adam West gets to constantly counter Meredith’s furious complaints with dru wit—the climax being when he incarcerates Penguin not in the state pen, but in the city jail for a misdemeanor. “Think upon your petty sins, you bush-league bird!”

However, Batman’s jibe forces Penguin to up his game. Not only does he escape jail with Chief O’Hara as hostage, the wily bird sets up a double-deathtrap: a machine-gun ambush for the Dynamic Duo and death by electrocution for the Chief. Semple resorts to phony science to preserve the chief’s life, but it’s such a lively outcome that one can’t much complain.

Though Batman can’t prevent Penguin from being arraigned on serious charges this time, the villain comes up with a cockeyed defense of his actions, and a soft-headed judge lets him go free—much to the villain’s disgust. Semple also pokes fun at liberal do-gooder Warden Crichton, and Batman comes this close to telling him what a permissive dolt he is.

Sadly, the episode is then compromised with another needless insertion of Detective Alfred, who tries to pose as a criminal forger despite the fact that Penguin encountered Alfred back in “Fine Finny Fiends.” Penguin recognizes the butler, kayos him, and then comes up with a goofy plan to extort money from Bruce Wayne by baking his butler into a giant pie. By this time, it’s not even certain that Penguin is still attempting to get himself jailed, but it provides another excuse to use the Wayne Manor set, which is where Penguin and his goons are defeated. However, Bruce Wayne makes certain that when Penguin goes into stir, his grand plan for a prison hookup will come to naught.

Penguin’s moll Chickadee deserves mention as one of the most vicious henchwomen in BATMAN '66. Not only does she take a pot-shot at the Dynamic Duo, she threatens both Chief O’Hara and Aunt Harriet with her pistol before the redoubtable Harriet conks her. Perhaps needless to say, Batman doesn’t bother to give Chickadee a lecture on female decorum.


BATMAN: “COME BACK, SHAME” (1966)




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



It’s Stanley Ralph Ross up to “bat” once more, and he presents Bat-viewers with yet another sophomoric villain, the western-themed owlhoot “Shame.” Any viewers who didn’t guess that the villain’s name spoofed that of the hero of the 1954 western “Shane” would be clued in by the way Ross tediously spoofs the film’s signature line “Come back, Shane” throughout the episode.

Neither Shame nor any of his henchpeople have any particular reason for affecting a western theme, though early in the episode Batman credits the villain with a “bravado” like that of old-time outlaws. (However, the same could be said about most Bat-villains.) Like Riddler and Penguin, Shame has a case of Batmobile-envy, since in a previous outing Batman outraced Shame with the Batmobile’s superior engines. Thus one of Shane’s main aims in the episode is to build a better Batmobile—though this project doesn’t really have much effect on his big score: that of ripping off a herd of priceless breed cattle.

In order to put across a western vraisemblance, Shame makes his hideout in a defunct film studio, with a standing western set. While Shame and his men attempt to make their super-car, they meet an eight-year-old boy, Andy, who dresses as a cowboy but gets a disconcerting taste of real-life outlaws. After Shame swipes the boy’s radio, Andy spends a lot of time wandering around crying, “Come back, Shame”-- and though this routine gets old fast, Ross does make it pay off a little at the end, when Andy forswears cowboy-fantasies in favor of Batman-style superheroes.


Though the episode is slackly plotted, it does have a number of pluses, beginning with Cliff Robertson’s ornery perf as the guest villain. In the first fight-scene, when the heroes square off against Shame, his two henchmen and his henchwoman Okie Annie, Shame describes them as “three-and-a-half against two.” However, it’s the “half,” Okie Annie, who knocks out the crimefighters by dropping a chandelier on them: a rare feat of direct violence for a female character on this show. Both this fight and the concluding one get better-than-average choreography, possibly because western films were so famous for elaborate fisticuffs. The latter fight features an exchange in which the audience laughs with Batman rather than at him. Laughing Leo, a cheery car-saleman who’s been working with Shame, tries to avoid being hit with the old standby, “You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses, would you?” Batman astutely points out that Leo’s not wearing glasses, slugs him, and adds the insult, “Laugh that one off, Leo!”

“Come Back” is at best a mixed bag, but Shame did indeed come back for one more duel with the Caped Crusaders, though not until the third season.



BATMAN: “MARSHA, QUEEN OF DIAMONDS” (1966)



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




In Stanford Sherman’s creation of original villain “Marsha,” we see a harbinger of the out of-control silliness that would dominate the third season. I noted that Ma Parker was invented to play to Shelley Winters’ acting-strengths, but at least she played the role, however minor, with verve. The Queen of Diamonds was apparently designed to play to the sultry qualities Carolyn Jones brought to her most famous role, “Morticia” on TV’s ADDAMS FAMILY. But Morticia had style, and Marsha is just a bundle of man-killing clichés.

It’s unclear from the outset whether Marsha is a known criminal, or merely a celebrity known to be obsessed with diamonds (a “diamond-dizzy dame,” one cop calls her). The police set up a cordon around a diamond exchange as if they think she’s going to rob it. But when she strolls in with Chief O’Hara on her arm, no one tries to arrest her for taking a priceless diamond. Though she apparently has a reputation for enslaving men, neither of the main heroes seem to know anything about the way she does so, and she easily enthralls Commissioner Gordon as well, keeping him, O’Hara and some other victims in her vaguely Eastern habitat.


Batman and Robin pay a call on Marsha, and the villainess reveals her secret: darts infused with love-potion. She uses one on Batman, who almost becomes as ensorcelled as the other men, but he overcomes the potion by strength of will alone. However, while Batman and Robin fight Marsha’s gang of Turkish-themed servitors (including an imperturbable Woody Strode), Marsha manages to infect Robin, and he becomes her instant slave. Batman finds out that Marsha has a fierce, Goldfinger-like desire for all the diamonds in the world, and that she wants the big industrial diamond that powers Batman’s Bat-computer. Even for the sake of Robin, Batman won’t grant Marsha access to the Batcave, from which he’s supposedly forbidden all visitors (quite forgetting Commissioner Gordon’s little sojourn in “Death in Slow Motion”). Marsha then ups the ante by inducing Batman into marrying her—and for once, the brilliant crimefigihter can’t figure a way to escape the “deathtrap” of wedded bliss. Only a clever ploy by Aunt Harrier and Alfred saves the crusader from the matrimonial meance.

Temporarily free of Marsha’s demands, Batman manages to infiltrate her hideout and de-program Robin. Why didn’t he do that before? Who knows? All this folderol is bad enough, but as icing on this foul confection, it’s revealed that Marsha doesn’t even make her own concoctions, but gets them from her aunt Hilda, a crazy old chemist who dresses like, and believes herself to be, a witch. Hilda also tries several times during the episode to turn the heroes into mice or toads, and she’s persistently unsuccessful, just as the script is unsuccessful in getting any laughs from Hilda.

Still, Estelle Winwood gives the slight role of Hilda her all, which is more than one can say of Carolyn Jones. Apparently the basic idea behind Marsha was that of the femme fatale who could mesmerize men with the mere promise of sex, even without giving up anything. But Jones, though attractive, had no such entrancing qualities, and her character’s hauteur is no substitute for actual sex appeal. Regrettably, the character wasn’t consigned to the bin of one-shot opponents, but actually made a return appearance.

BATMAN: “THE IMPRACTICAL JOKER” (1966)



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


The best one can say about Thompson and Hoffman’s script for “The Impractical Joker” is that Cesar Romero gives one of his most vivacious performances as the Joker—though he doesn’t exactly get any competition from anyone else.

For some reason, the villain decides to become obsessed with keys—largely because he now has a bizarre key-operated device with weird properties. The scripters move the goalposts several times in the story. Does the device merely hypnotize people, as when the Joker immobilizes Batman and Robin by turning the key? Or can it actually change the flow of time, causing people to “run backward” in time or even making Joker’s moll Cornelia turn into a little girl?

While the concept of Batman in any medium is not innately hostile to the tropes of science fiction and fantasy, the Joker’s magic box is far too far-out to fit an earthbound program like BATMAN. At no time is it convincing that the Joker, at home with joy-buzzers and trick streamers, could come up with such a bizarre technological innovation, even if the script suggests that he cobbled it together by accident. Moreover, the box’s existence takes up all the narrative oxygen. Eventually the viewer finds out that Joker’s main plot is to introduce a hallucinogen into Gotham’s reservoir, but by that time, who cares?


This time Batman and Robin get separate deathtraps, and they’re both big and colorful—though Batman escapes his trap thanks to the villain’s usual short-sightedness about removing his utility belt. Joker doesn’t hang around to watch the executions, but this time he does leave his minions behind, resulting in a good fight when the Cowled Crusader has to battle all three stooges by himself. There’s also a funny moment in which Bruce and Dick tune in “The Green Hornet” in a blatant bit of cross-promotion, and moll Cornelia stands out from the pack by constantly preening in a mirror. Joker’s memorable response: “Vanity is a waste of time. I never look at myself.”

But even the agonies of the magic box are mild next to the torture of watching Alan Napier attempt broad humor. Evidently behind the scenes he was stumping for the chance to do something more than play faithful Alfred, so the writers obliged by giving the butler a lookalike cousin, “Eggy,” who happens to be the security guard at the Gotham waterworks, and whom Alfred impersonates to stymie the villain. In the first season, Alfred’s few outings as a detective proved relatively restrained. But every moment of Napier’s attempt to be broadly comical feels like it takes an hour—so that Napier, even more than the scripters, is guilty of wasting the viewers’ precious time.

BATMAN: “GREEN ICE” (1966)




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




“The Devil’s Fingers” and “Hizzoner the Penguin” provided the second season’s high points. There were one or two above-average episodes to come, but there were more episodes that were mediocre or pointlessly absurd.

“Green Ice,” Max Hodge’s second outing with Mister Freeze, proves one of the mediocre ones. Though the actor who plays Freeze is no longer the same, Hodge’s script does make a few attempts to give the icy evildoer some of the same traits seen in “Instant Freeze.” The first Mister Freeze wanted to put the Dynamic Duo through a series of defeats before killing them, and one strategy included the creation of mass confusion by unleashing doubles of Batman and of Mister Freeze upon Gotham. This time, the most interesting aspect of Freeze’s scheme is that he seeks to sully Batman’s reputation. One part of the scheme involves persuading the gullible Gotham press that Freeze is paying off Batman to gain immunity, and in another angle, Freeze has impostor-versions of Batman and Robin show up at a swanky party (at Wayne Manor, no less), so that the “heroes” seem to be deliberately incompetent. Once again, many Gothamites are seen as being all too eager to turn upon the heroes, even though Batman is almost saintly in his forbearance toward the yellow-dog journalists.

Freeze’s big score, however, is more or less tossed into the episode’s second part, in that he threatens to send all of Gotham back into the ice age. Though the viewer does see the villain turn Commissioner Gordon’s office into an icebox, nearly extirpating both Gordon and O’Hara, the episode never gets around to demonstrating that the cool cruel criminal can actually carry out his threat. In a similarly unsatisfying B-plot, Freeze also kidnaps beauty queen Miss Iceland with a harebrained scheme about makig her into “Mrs. Freeze.” Despite the fact that Freeze was changed by a sudden immersion in dangerous chemicals, for some reason he seems to believe that he can gradually convert Miss Iceland into a being like himself by gradually exposing her to greater degrees of cold. Although the beauty queen is given a modicum of courage, repeatedly telling the villain to return to his frozen hell, the B-plot isn’t any more compelling than the A-plot.



Otto Preminger replaced George Sanders in the role of the frosty fiend. Bald-headed, huge-eyebrowed Preminger is the most imposing of the three actors to play Freeze on the series, but the actor performs the part as if he thinks everything is a big joke, lacking any of the emotional tone of Sanders’ rendition. And whoever thought it was a good idea for Freeze to repeatedly claim that everything happening was “Wild” was wildly mistaken, since the catchphrase makes Freeze sound like a looney bird.

The episode’s best camp moment appears when a little boy, convinced that Batman has turned bad, stands in front of a Batman-portrait and says, “Boo, Batman.” Bruce and Dick happen to be present, and Bruce aggrievedly claims that nothing in the world ever hurt him as much as “that little boy’s boo.”

BATMAN: “HIZZONER THE PENGUIN” (1966)



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



Stanford Sherman’s script for “Hizzoner the Penguin” provided the strongest story for the Birdman Bandit in the show’s three seasons—though, very atypically, the master crook doesn’t have a hidden agenda. It’s as if Penguin, having observed how easy it was to fool Gothamites into believing he’d reformed in “The Penguin Goes Straight,” decided to apply that lesson to his foray into politics. As he tells the Dynamic Duo, “I can use all of my lowest, slurpiest tricks—and they’re all legal!”

Everything in the episode takes this broad approach to political satire, but Sherman’s script is clever enough to keep from repeating its barbs. As in “Penguin Goes Straight,” the Avaricious Avian has his confederates pretend to commit crimes, which he then foils—and the Gotham public eats the whole show up. After Penguin declares his candidacy for city mayor, the beleagured Mayor Lindseed asks the Commissioner to summon Batman—for the mayor feels that only Batman can best the villain at the voting-booth. After many modest blushes, the hero agrees to enter the political arena.

The sober-sided crusader attempts to run a clean campaign devoted to “the issues,” while Penguin relies on lots of ballyhoo, giving out free campaign and engaging the service of pretty girl performers (including the famed ecdysiast Little Egypt). Both campaigns use the services of three pollsters who generally tell each candidate whatever he wants to hear, and who carry briefcases that show their two-faced nature, with each briefcase reading one candidate’s name on one side, and his opponent’s on the other. (Near the episode’s end, they reflect that although they’ve washed out as pollsters, “we can still get jobs rating TV shows!”


Vile villain that he is, Penguin wants to be rid of the Duo more permanently. Thus a gang of his henchmen pretend to be a fraternal order who want to hear Batman speak, and when the crusaders show up, they get ambushed and stuck in a deathtrap. To twist the knife, Penguin shows up, but pretends to be a good citizen, waddling off to summon the police. However, the henchmen have no reason not to watch the heroes get dipped in an acid-bath, so their absence at the beginning of the second part is less explicable. But because they’re absent, it’s easier for Batman-- who happens to be wearing an acid-proof costume—to slip into the acid bath while shielding his face, and to free himself and Robin.

The highlight of the campaign is a witty parody of political conventions and the reporting thereon. During the candidates’ debate, they’re told that a large gang of thieves has attempted to hold up a jewel convention. Batman, Robin and Penguin charge into the building, but the heroes get the worst of it while Penguin looks golden, thanks to the fact that all of the thugs are on his payroll. During the battle, the reporters keep score of each candidate’s successes, all of which make things look good for the villain.

Nevertheless, Batman maintains an ironclad faith in the sensibility of Gotham’s citizens, and once again the Cowled Crusader is proven right. The episode’s only flaw is that Penguin doesn’t really have a backup plan when his primary scheme fails, and so his pathetic attempt to obviate the election results seems uncharacteristic of his intellect.

BATMAN: “THE DEVIL’S FINGERS” (1966)




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



Though Lorenzo Semple’s adaptation of a comic-book story produced one of the series’ worst episodes in “Zelda the Great,” the same writer recycled elements of the earlier script to produce one of the series’ best outings, at least in terms of playing up the camp aesthetic.

As noted in my review of “Zelda,” the titular villain was a performer who turned to crime in order to pay off a secondary villain, who supplied her with the devices she needed for her career. Here, famed pianist Liberace plays famed pianist Chandell, who engineers crimes on the sly in order to pay off his criminal twin brother Harry (also Liberace). Harry is the only one who knows that when Chandell gave a command performance for the President—a performance that made Chandell a celebrity—the pianist had injured his hands, so he used a player piano to fake it.

At the start of the episode, it’s implied that Chandell has paid blackmail to his brother for some time, by having his three henchwomen—Doe, Rei, and Mimi—commit crimes in the cities where he Chandell is playing. In this trope Semple is parodying the tendency of other Bat-villains to broadcast the type of crimes they plan to commit. But whereas the Joker and the Penguin are indelibly associated with their “theme-crimes,” Chandell professes to know nothing of the strange women who follow him around and commit “music-crimes.”

The over-the-top melodrama of the blackmail-plot is further enhanced by Chandell’s plans for ending the relationship by gaining control of the Wayne fortune. Here too one can see some indebtedness to the “Zelda” script. The comic-book story on which “Zelda” was based did not involve Aunt Harriet or anyone comparable, but Semple’s script for the episode worked the venerable dowager into his narrative to provide a cliffhanger ending. This time, Aunt Harriet is far more crucial to the plot—to say nothing of providing actress Madge Blake with something more substantial than fretting over Bruce and Dick.


When Chandell—said to be a “ladies’ man”—meets Aunt Harriet at a benefit, the pernicious pianist perceives that she’s infatuated with him. Thus he lays plans to knock off Bruce and Dick, so that Dick’s aunt will inherit the entire Wayne fortune. However, no one, least of all Aunt Harriet, ever really takes issue with Chandell’s murder-plot.

Semple also de-stablilizes the usual situation by starting off the episode with Bruce Wayne out in the country (hunting muskrats!) while Dick Grayson seems to be having his first-ever date with an age-appropriate young lady. But Bruce just happens to be listening to a recording of Chandell’s command performance—and, though he knows nothing about the criminal goings-on in Gotham, his detection of false notes in Chandell’s performance moves him to return to Gotham and to summon Dick away from his date. Batman and Robin seek to interview Chandell about the robberies, but he directs them to Brother Harry’s piano-roll factory—where the Duo are inevitably overcome by Harry’s thugs (with some help from the henchwomen, who use their feminine wiles to distract the crimefighters during the big fight). Harry then puts the Duo in one of the series’ wildest death-traps: a conveyor-belt leading the bound crusaders into a piano-roll punching-machine. Batman’s method of escape is likewise one of the best, less in terms of probability than of pure absurdity.

Having survived the deathtrap and guessed Chandell’s plans, Batman and Robin fake the deaths of Bruce and Dick, apparently willing to take chances with traumatizing poor Aunt Harriet in order to draw out the villain. Chandell’s relationship with his henchwomen up to this point seems to have been all business, but suddenly the three girls resent Chandell dropping them to turn straight and marry for money, so they kayo him with a sonic bagpipe (also one of the episode’s outstanding gadgets). Harry takes over romancing Aunt Harrier, though his only plan is to ransom her. (Interestingly, this was also the role Aunt Harriet played in “Zelda.”) The amazing aunt-woman deduces Harry’s true identity, since he just can’t be as charming as his brother, but Batman and Robin arrive in time to zap Harry, his henchmen, and the ladies, with the classic line, “And you, you nasty old man! Have a whiff of Bat-gas!”

 The coda shows Aunt Harriet, Bruce and Dick in Commissioner Gordon’s office as she receives a citizen’s award. Semple goes all out with the typical bromides (“And isn’t that what makes America great?”), but he eschews any mention of the old lady’s reaction once she learned her closest relations faked their deaths without telling her. Aunt Harriet’s sentimental infatuation plays equally well as pathos and comedy, and the episode ends with showing Chandell in prison-garb (but with Liberace’s notorious sequins!) as he plays a piano for his former cronies in crime. Harry gets the last word, as Liberace does a really bad Edward G. Robinson impersonation.

I’ve omitted many of Semple’s witty lines and characterizations here, but suffice to say that on its own terms, everything works in this episode. Back in the day, I wasn’t crazy but having a Bat-villain based on Liberace, of whom I knew next to nothing. I did not know—as indeed many of the pianist’s female fans did not—that various fan-magazines had alleged that he was homosexual. In life, Liberace never admitted this sexual proclivity, even after a very public palimony suit. Still, Semple was working in Hollywood, so he probably knew all the rumors. I don’t know to what extent Semple was aware that the art-style known as “camp” was associated with homosexual parody of hetero forms of melodrama. But even if the writer had such awareness, Semple certainly did not load “The Devil’s Fingers” with the sort of references to gayness that many current scholars love to ferret out in pre-Stonewall pop culture.

BATMAN: “AN EGG GROWS IN GOTHAM” (1966)



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


The first appearance of original-to-TV villain Egghead credits the story-idea to Ed Self, and the teleplay to Stanley Ralph Ross. Like most of Ross’s scripts, this one is full of self-conscious, often cornball humor rather than following the light touch of the camp approach.

Though Egghead doesn’t have a backstory as such, he takes on a little more literary life, given that he claims to be the smartest man in the world, though Robin considers the villain second best to his masked mentor. In contrast to many actors who had no experience in playing villains, Vincent Price had specialized in creating various fiends since getting “typed” as a horror-icon in the 1950s, and he had a particular genius for oily, mustache-twiddling villainy that perfectly fit the camp aesthetic pervading BATMAN. Egghead’s bald pate, yellow-and-white outfit, and habit of citing innumerable “egg-scrutiating” egg-puns make him one of the most memorable of the series’ original creations. He’s also the only villain who correctly deduces that Batman is Bruce Wayne, which leads to a trap designed both to kill Batman and to expose his secret.

In addition, Ross also come up with a better-than-average “big score” for the villain, even if it happens to be rooted in a form of chauvinistic humor no longer acceptable. For decades, Americans made jokes about how colonizing Europeans had hoaxed American Indians into ceding the rights to Manhattan for a pittance. Gotham City’s charter is barely more geneous, for the city’s founders gained the land from the local Native Americans in exchange for nine raccoon pelts, to be paid every five years to the tribe. However, by the time of BATMAN, the tribe has dwindled down to just one little Indian, Chief Screaming Chicken (Edward Everett Horton)—and since his tribe was that of the Mohicans, he is (wait for it) “the last of the Mohicans.” The most one can say of the jokes built around Screaming Chicken is that they probably were not intended to be mean-spirited. The writers’ main concern was surely to exploit the idea of Native American ownership of Gotham in order to complicate things for Batman and Robin. And though even Batman is a little hard-nosed about expecting the chief to remain faithful to the letter of the agreement, he does tell Robin a little story about how some citizen committed the faux pas of telling the chief to “go back to his own country.”

Since at the episode’s start Gotham is due to make their payment to Screaming Chicken, Egghead plots to block the payment, partly by offering the chief a better deal. The villain succeeds, and for some time local cops are unable to keep criminals from ravaging the city, contenting themselves with handing out parking-tickets. Egghead also bans the caped crimefighters from the city, but Batman reads the fine print in the charter, revealing that convicted criminals cannot administer Gotham. The crusaders arrive too late to keep Egghead from looting the Gotham Treasury—though the heroes manage to head off the villain by anticipating his need to stock up on eggs.

On a minor note, though Egghead seems to have something going with his henchwoman Miss Bacon, she’s more sophisticated than the average moll, being employed to record the villain’s exploits for posterity. When Batman chastises her, a woman of breeding, for falling in with a criminal, she merely comments, “Just lucky, I guess,”



BATMAN: “THE CLOCK KING’S CRAZY CRIMES” (1966)



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



For comics-fans it would’ve proved gratifying had the one BATMAN ’66 episode co-scripted by a bonafide comics-writer numbered among the best of the series. But such was not the case. In collaboration with writing-partner Charles Sinclair, Bill Finger—unofficially credited as the co-creator of Batman, aswell as of much of Batman’s mythology—only turned out a middling episode of the camped-up character.

The Clcck King, essayed by Walter Slezak, is another in a long line of series-villains who has no particular reason for plotting crimes around a particular theme. All the viewer knows is that in his hideout Clock King surrounds himself with clocks, that he uses clock-devices to commit crimes and that he makes a lof of “time” puns. As it happens, prior to this episode Bill Finger had created at least three “clock-themed” villains for DC Comics—two for Batman tales, and a third for a solo Robin series—but Clock King doesn’t seem based on any comic-book original. Still, since this is a second-season episode, he does get a lot of nifty gadgets to play with—including a giant hourglass that serves as the obligatory deathtrap for the Dynamic Duo.

Script consultant Lorenzo Semple may have encouraged Finger and Sinclair to follow some of the dominant trends of the time, such as the tendency to play up Batman’s celebrity in Gotham, thus mirroring his sudden prominence on the TV screen. Thus “Crimes” includes a draggy scene in which Batman and Robin take a lunch at a burger joint that serves “Batburgers.” Far better, though, is the episode’s spoof of the phenomenon of Pop Art.

Though the artistic movement itself hearkens back to the 1940s, Americans tend to associate it most with such 1960s developments as Lichtenschtein’s appropriation of comics-panels for his paintings. The idea of Pop Art, if not its substance, may have played a minor role in the producers’ decision to spotlight an ironic version of a comic book hero. In “Crimes,” Clock King performs a heist at a traditionally art-gallery, where a news-announcer informs viewers that the gallery has always been devoted to “art that has stood the test of time,” but that the gallery has capitulated to modern sensibilities by holding an exhibition of Pop Art. Clock King enters the gallery, disguised as a well-known Pop Artist, though the fictional artist just happens to bear a striking resemblance to real-life surrealist Salvador Dali. And though Clock King brings in a clock-device designed to immobilize bystanders, he also takes time to mock a painting, showing cartoony versions of Batman and Robin surrounded by melting clocks, also a reference to Dali.


Clock King also becomes one of the many villains to stage a raid on Wayne Manor, which doesn’t have that much impact on the plot but undoubtedly saved the expense of building an extra set. Finger and Sinclair produced a decent enough episode, not one of the series’ best, but certainly not among the worst.

BATMAN: “THE GREATEST MOTHER OF THEM ALL” (1966)



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

The double-entendre implicit in this episode’s primary title is almost the only thing that distinguishes the debut of one-shot villain Ma Parker. As with the Archer, one can’t help but suspect that the Parker character was designed with the flamboyant talents of Shelley Winters in mind—though Winters certainly comes off better playing this role than Art Carney did with his faux Robin Hood.

About six years later, Winters would play a fictionalized version of alleged crime-boss Ma Barker in the 1972 BLOODY MAMA. Many ciime-buffs tend to doubt the FBI’s claim that the old woman was any sort of criminal genius. But the legend had long outlived the reality, and so Henry Slesar concocted “Ma Parker,” whose family consists of three sons and a daughter whom she trains in theft—though, in a weird moment of gender blindness, Parker complains that her daughter is a lousy criminal due to her being just a girl. All of the guys are named after famous criminals—Mad Dog, Pretty Boy, and Machine Gun-- and even the daughter, whose nickname “Legs” would seem to denote her comely limbs, may have been named after male gangster “Legs” Diamond.


Parker is distinctly low-tech in her approach to crime; her biggest gimmick is a smoke-bomb in her motherly bun, and her weapon of choice is an old-fashioned chatter gun. Clearly Slesar was attempting to send up old gangster-flicks in roughly the same way that “Death in Silent Motion” sends up silent movies, but the gangster-motifs in Slesar’s script never add up to anything more than “trope-quotes.” Parker’s big plot involves having the heroes send her and all of her gang to prison, because through some legerdemain, she’s managed to fill the prison with crooks obedient to her will. The idea of using a prison as a base of criminal operations sounds good the first time, but since the scheme unravels pretty quickly after the attempt to off Batman and Robin, it doesn’t seem all that well-thought-out. In a scene where Ma Parker addresses the prison-inmates and lays out her plans, Julie Newmar appears as Catwoman, clad in costume rather than in prison-gear. Since Catwoman has no effect on the story, I imagine that the actress simply had a little extra time to do a quick guest-bit—and so she did.

Twice in the episode, one character or another makes the statement that Ma Parker’s daughter is more dangerous than her brothers. The script never gives evidence of this, since Legs can’t fight, shoot, or even figure things out when the crimefighters play her for a pigeon. Maybe Slesar was thinking of Legs having the power of sex appeal, since in one telling moment, Robin confesses to Batman that he’s found himself ogling the henchgirl’s comely limbs. Indeed, the Boy Wonder even compares Legs’ legs to those of Catwoman. Batman’s response, while cryptic, suggests a touch of resentment that his junior partner would be growing up so fast as to notice the appeal of female villains—particularly one that the Cowled Crusader may now have his sights on.


BATMAN: “THE SPELL OF TUT” (1966)



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


The creators of Tut return for his second outing, a distinct improvement over “The Curse of Tut.” In that episode, the demented would-be pharaoh had a very confused scheme to eliminate the Duo and to take over Gotham City somehow, in part by posing as a rejuvenated mummy. This time, though, Tut has a genuine world-beating plot, again involving the idea of Egyptian resurrection. Tut’s thugs break into a museum but steal nothing but a necklace of amber beads. Batman, however, deduces that the beads contained scarab beeteles, perfectly preserved for centuries—and that the juice in the beetles’ bodies can be used to brew a unique mind-controlling potion. At last Tut has a weapon that could literally reduce Gothamites to the status of worshipping acolytes.

The deathtrap this time round is just fair, and Tut doesn’t even precisely execute it, since Robin, rashly fighting Tut’s gang on his own, blunders into a room where the phony pharaoh keeps a pool full of crocodiles. Batman helps his partner escape, but neither hero can keep Tut from using his potion to take control of such luminaries as Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara. As in the previous King Tut tale, the clever Caped Crusader finds a way to fake being under “the spell of Tut,” and to bring him to justice—just before he once more reverts to normalcy.

Victor Buono appears to have even more fun with Tut than he did before, wailing like a big baby when he thinks his experiment has failed, and then weeping copiously over being forced to kill his precious scarabs to make the potion. Like many villains before him, his comely moll—a lady named “Cleo Patrick”—irks Tut by swooning over Batman again, though this time nothing much comes of Batman’s power over feminine hearts.