John Cassavetes springs forth as a major 1950s talent in these two ‘Primetime Special’ dramatic plays broadcast live on ABC and CBS. Crime in the Streets is the Reginald Rose classic directed by Sidney Lumet; No Right to Kill is a ‘culture for the masses’ adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Cassavetes’ co-stars are Robert Preston, Glenda Farrell, Terry Moore and Robert H. Harris.
Television’s Lost Classics
Volume One John Cassavetes
Crime in the Streets; No Right to Kill
1955-’56 / B&W / 1:33 Kinescope / 2 x 60 min. / Street Date September 11, 2018 / 18.99 (Amazon)
Starring: John Cassavetes, Robert Preston, Glenda Farrell, Mark Rydell, Terry Moore, Robert H. Harris.
Directed by Sidney Lumet and Buzz Kulik
Remember the movie Network, when William Holden’s character says he’s going to write a glowing memoir about his ‘good old days’ in the Golden Era of Live TV in New York? That was in 1975, just fifteen years after the bubble burst, when network TV turned away from live theater in favor of expensive TV shows shot on film and videotape. Frequently referenced but not that often revived, the supposed classics of Live TV drama are remembered now more through their various feature film adaptations, like Marty, Days of Wine and Roses and No Time for Sergeants. In many cases a ‘legendary’ TV performance was eclipsed by the casting of a different actor for the film: how many people are aware of the great work of, say, Nancy Marchand in TV’s Marty? It’s not as frustrating as the fate handed down to Broadway stars now less well known because of movie re-casting.
Although there are other examples, so far the best set of ‘classic’ Live TV greats is a Criterion disc called The Golden Age of Television, which includes Marty, Patterns, No Time for Sergeants, A Wind from the South, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Comedian and Days of Wine and Roses. Just last year, VCI and Jeff Joseph/Sabucat launched a new Blu-ray project called Television’s Lost Classics. Volume One contains two hour-long TV shows starring John Cassavetes. From 1955 comes Crime in the Streets; it’s followed by 1956’s No Right to Kill. Both shows have been remastered from B&W Kinescopes and thus have an ‘unusual’ appearance today. More on that below.
First broadcast on ABC’s ‘The Elgin Hour,’ Crime in the Streets is the original TV production from which came Don Siegel’s memorable 1956 feature film from Allied Artists, which also starred John Cassavetes. The TV production is a simplified affair lacking Siegel’s dramatic editing (its knife-fight rumble was an obvious influence on West Side Story) but just as moving. The title was likely inspired by the newspaper reaction to juvenile delinquency as a simple police problem. Taking the cue of Stewart Stern and Nicholas Ray in Rebel without a Cause, writer Reginald Rose distills the classic ’50s TV drama view of delinquency: products of a hostile environment, teen hoodlums express themselves with violence because they feel hemmed in by poverty, social & class oppression, a ‘rigged system,’ etc. Whatever the merits of this liberal argument, it proved very popular in progressive times. The very capable live TV director is none other than Sidney Lumet, who in 1955 helmed scores of broadcast productions large and small. He only has the one big set to worry about — Frankie’s room, the big street, the candy store — and handles them well.
John Cassavetes had already played in seven or eight TV shows, with leading roles in two or three. In Crime in the Streets he’s Frankie Dane, a teen seething with uncontrollable hatred. Frankie terrorizes his mother (pre-Code veteran Glenda Farrell) and little brother Richie (child actor and future composer Van Dyke Parks), and brutalizes his cohort in the ‘Hornets’ gang, Lou (future director Mark Rydell). The first words out of Frankie’s mouth are “We’re gonna kill him!”, and the whole show concerns Frankie’s plan to murder an elderly neighbor who turned a gang member in to the police.
Cassavetes impressed all with his brooding, vicious portrait of an all-too familiar potential killer. His mother’s despair does nothing, and neither does the nosy counsel of the social worker Ben Wagner (first-billed Robert Preston). Wagner’s attempts to talk Frankie through his rage might influence the boy, but they mostly provide a conduit to explain to confused viewers the modern psychological approach to delinquents: beating them or locking them up no longer work, so let’s try a little understanding. That humanist notion would soon become a painful cliché, making excuses for murderous SOBs and coining painful wishful-thinking catchphrases: “Yes, yes, ten dead and gallons of blood everywhere. But it’s not little Charlie Manson’s problem — it’s OUR problem.”
As expected, the live New York TV drama on view is very theatrical, but Rose’s dialogue works well and the emotions ring true. The show covers all bases by averting disaster through a sentimental breakthrough, which is not overdone. Kid actor Van Dyke Parks’ final plea: “Frankie, I’m your brother!” stings the heart. Anybody watching would think, a) John Cassavetes is a scary guy, and b) he’s got a promising future.
There are no complaints with Sidney Lumet’s direction, except that the set doesn’t cooperate with his chosen visual motif to end segments — Frankie and Ben take long walks away from the camera into an alley, with the idea that they should be disappearing into a vanishing point. This is meant to mirror the final shot, when Ben and Frankie walk away down the sidewalk together. But the alley set is more of a boxed-in area than a corridor, and the TV studio switcher must fade before Frankie or Ben collide with the back wall.
Among the sparse cast are Will Kuluva as the owner of the candy store (was Arthur Laurents watching?) and none other than future Jet David Winters as ‘Glasses,’ a jive-dancing street kid. Hmmm. That means that West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet + Crime in the Streets + The Bowery Boys (for the Jets’ stylized street lingo).
No Right to Kill is the fourth of 34 episodes of the TV series ‘Climax!’ directed by the even busier Buzz Kulik, whose career would stay mainly on TV with some notable theatrical exceptions — Warning Shot, Riot. It’s an inescapably pretentious adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, updated to — where else — the crowded, impoverished streets of lower Manhattan. Writer Victor Wolfson does a creditable job, even if some elements are unduly strained.
In place of a violent, emotionally troubled juvenile delinquent, this time John Cassavetes is a violent, emotionally troubled unemployed writer. Broke and suffering, McCloud whines at his landlady and causes trouble in a bar run by Angelo (Joe Mantell of Marty and Chinatown). He forms a desperate emotional relationship with the barmaid Lisa (established Hollywood actress Terry Moore) even as he criticizes her lack of schooling. Enraged by the greedy, suspicious attitude of a lady pawnbroker, McCloud knifes her to death for no reason at all, and then begins broadcasting his guilt in small ways. Detective Porfear (Robert H. Harris of America America and How to Make a Monster) senses McCloud’s involvement right away. He invites the younger man to his apartment, to discuss the writer’s one published item, which happens to be about Nietzsche’s theory of privileged supermen. McCloud’s inherent guilt becomes apparent almost immediately.
Some TV dramas of the period try to be controversial, but put forward very conventional ideas. From its title forward, No Right to Kill assures viewers of a moral viewpoint. Victor Wolfson’s script works over some overwrought lower-class archetypes (miserly pawnbroker, bar-girl with bad diction, ethnic neighbor, etc.) and then gives both Cassavetes and Harris’s detective some fancy lines to read, which they do well. We can just hear the Climax producers claiming victory, simply for having delivered Great Art to the unwashed masses TV public.
Buzz Kulik’s direction is energetic and complex. The street scenes involve camera moves through dozens of actors walking, sitting, selling, playing; a cocktail party has a nice feel of being within a crowd. As we presume that these shows were performed life, the fluidity of this particular episode is impressive. The usual desperation feeling — will someone blow a line? will a boom mike dip into frame? — just isn’t there. There are many more sets than in Crime in the Streets and a great many more extras with business to perform.
Terry Moore is quite good as the inarticulate girl who drifts away from the unhappy Joe Mantell, claiming that the troubled Cassavetes ‘needs her.’ Cassavetes has no trouble expressing guilty confusion, masked with intellectual arrogance, but I’m not sure Dostoevsky would be applauding the interpretation. There’s never any question that the tragedy’s first commitment is to a law and order mindset.
One detail is a a surprise — it might be unintentional, or perhaps the show was just put together in too much of a rush. The Robert H. Harris character’s invite for McCloud to come to his apartment reads strongly as a gay pickup. There are even a couple of provocative lines of dialogue in the apartment scene. But Harris’s Porfear is supposed to be a New York detective? He lives in a swank pad, and has a butler who answers the door for him.
VCI’s Blu-ray of Television’s Lost Classics Volume One John Cassavetes is a welcome return to oft-discussed but seldom revived TV history. Sabucat’s restoration of both shows is exemplary. We’re treated to all the oddities of Kinescopes, an arrangement by which, as the live shows were broadcast, they were simultaneously filmed off of high-quality TV monitors. The process allowed re-broadcasts as well as the obvious ability to record the shows. Videotape is said to have been introduced in 1956, but I believe it took a couple of years for it to be fully implemented. Because there was more than one 2″ videotape format, earlier Kinescopes are more accessible than some later live shows recorded on the new video machines.
These Kinescopes are of a high quality, but still show some flaws. The field is sometimes not flat — items and people at the edges of the frame change shape or become skinny. The picture occasionally warps in weird ways, and the line structure can become coarse for a second or two. But in both shows we see a good depth of field and good camera work in general. The audio is also uniform and clear.
The presentations show the entire 60-minute broadcast version of both shows, including commercial breaks, sponsor intros and outros. Station and network signage are accomplished with plain flat artwork shot off an easel. One disclaimer says that certain parts of the shows are pre-recorded, but that might just be the filmed title sequences and parts of commercials. The commercials reveal a lot about early television. The ‘Elgin Hour’ is naturally named after its sponsor, a maker of a line of not very impressive-looking watches. Those TV spots are pre-filmed, and likely broadcast on the fly from a telecine setup. The Elgin sales pitch is repetitive, slow, and boring, and make the watches look cheap.
The TV spots for the ‘Climax!’ show look to be broadcast on the fly from another studio set. Actor William Lundigan dishes out reams of happy General Motors sales talk, only faltering once or twice on a set with several cars set up and fully lit. A female model does Vanna White duty as he explains how the windows roll down (!), etc. Each hour-long show gets in four spots, each at least a minute long — at the beginning, at each of two act breaks, and at the end. One show ends with a crazy preview of an upcoming show, with the next week’s actors. Is it on film? Did the actors drop in live, to perform twenty seconds of script lines? It’s difficult to be sure.
Finally, this Volume One presentation finishes with a pretty surprising NSFW extra, a ten-minute blooper reel with edited outtakes from Reginald Rose’s TV show The Defenders, with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, and a later TV show called The Nurses. It must have been a real eye-opener for an all-adult wrap party, for the clips show the actors in stage waits or mugging, ‘reacting’ to bits of striptease, etc.. More surprising are the colorful obscenities that pop up when somebody blows a line, especially actor Marshall. The bloopers use profanity I didn’t know was even that common back then. They must have waited until the wrap party guests had a couple of drinks in them, to spring this reel.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Television’s Lost Classics Volume One John Cassavetes
TV shows: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Blooper Reel
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 30, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson