Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth

"The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth"
Written by John Kneubuhl
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): West and Gordon have their first encounter with the brilliant but evil dwarf, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, along with the doctor's two assistants, the lovely Antoinette and the mute and simple-minded giant, Voltaire. Dr. Loveless is planning to take over California from control of Governor Newton Booth, which the doctor claims rightfully belongs to him through his mother's venerable Ranchero family line.

Trey: So this episode introduces West's most ardent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn.

Jim: Indeed! This episode starts on a foggy, waterfront dock which is always a good sign to me. I tend to prefer the episodes that take place in gaslit cities more than those that take place in actual western towns. 

We jump right into the action with Miguelito Loveless--really more his henchman Voltaire, played by Richard Kiel--subduing a dockworker.  In the past, I’ve written my appreciation of Richard Kiel on this blog but I’ve not discussed Michael Dunn’s performance on Wild Wild West. In short, I’ve always found him to be a perfect mix of Shakespearean elocution and Broadway theatrics. 

The pairing of Kiel and Dunn was only used for a couple of episodes which is a shame. Their physical extremes provided just the right tone of camp for Wild Wild West. I feel like the flavor of the show is diluted when a conventional villain is the focus. 

Trey: Richard Kiel is probably best known to our readers as Jaws in the Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). It's ironic, because this episode, the 6th produced and the 3rd aired, is much more firmly Bondian than the 1st--and much less of a Western.

Jim: The gadget quotient is upped in a way that's Bond-like. Dunn uses an actual pea shooter with a telescopic scope to shoot a super-explosive pellet. Now that I think about it, This is a perfect example of the level of sci-fi technology the show should feature. It’s not really Steampunk, as later commentators have called it, but just a clever, ahistorical use of the items of the time.

Trey: Brisco County, Jr. would do the same thing decades later. Tech that feels like it might have existed, though it didn't.

Jim: A specially designed spy coach is presented in this episode, since the tricked out train couch isn't good for in town. Is this the only time it’s ever used? Anyway, with the ghost of Chekhov looking on, Artemus warns James that he needs to be careful of the arm rest in the coach.

Trey: That will come in handy later! So, West who has sussed out that Greta is an agent of the bad guy,  plays double agent and goes to meet with Loveless. These pretenses at West turning coat never seem to be believed by the villain, nor does West seem to expect them to be believed. It usually seems like both sides are just being polite.

West's arrival interrupts Dr. Loveless in a sparring match, where he shows he’s quite physically formidable (which is the point of this villain introduction cliche), at least when he has his cane. This doesn’t really bear out in the rest of the episode or in his other appearances, as I recall.

Jim: We get a more consistent Loveless bit soon after. Loveless sings "Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie," while accompanied by harpsichordist, Antionette. Antionette is played by Phoebe Dorin, who had performed with Dunn in an off-Broadway show, Two by Saroyan

Trey: They get a song every episode he appears in, or nearly. So, Loveless wants to keep the super-explosive from the hands of the U.S. government, because he wants to use it to make terrorist demands to the governor of California.

Jim: He wants to build a refuge for disadvantaged children in the “worthless” desert of California. Apparently, this land belonged to his family, which might explain some of his fortune, but it was stolen from them by the the Spanish government at some point, and then it ultimately became a U.S. state. This, coupled with his name and cultured tastes, suggest Loveless is of Spanish descent, perhaps even aristocracy.

Trey: Like many a super-villain, Loveless' morality is sort of incoherent. He has ostensibly a noble goal but horrible means, and a streak of sociopathy that makes his noble goal hard to believe.

West, of course, double-crosses Loveless and exposes the plan to the Governor of California, who doesn't believe it really (as well he might not!).

Jim: West is waylaid on his own coach by three goons, but he dispatches them using the hidden features of the coach--one of which is a spring powered ejector seat! Still, Voltaire manages to capture West.

Trey: Now we come to the deathtrap portion of our episode, but before that, Loveless shows off his invention prototypes...

Jim: TV, penicillin, the automobile and the airplane.

Trey: West is weirdly unimpressed with any of this. Maybe he doesn't believe it? Anyway, into a trapdoor and an automatic gibbet cage. Loveless leaves to come back and torture him later. When will these guys ever learn? With the help of a gadget and the smitten Greta, West escapes to confront Loveless in a clock tower full of explosives.

Jim: A bit of acrobatics in a clock tower allows Conrad to once again demonstrate his own formidable athletic skills. Loveless seems unafraid to be on site when the bomb in the tower is detonated. 

Trey: He's a madman, I guess. He throws a tantrum like a toddler when he's defeated, though.

John Kneubuhl wrote this episode and goes on to script most of Loveless’ other appearances. I guess he knew a good idea when he found it! He wrote 8 episodes of Wild Wild West in all, though not all with Loveless. He also wrote the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” although he did not receive on-screen credit for the aired  version.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: Night of the Inferno

"Night of the Inferno"
Written by Gilbert Ralston
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): Posing as a rich eastern "dude" traveling west in his own private railway car, Jim goes to the New Mexico Territory to track down General Juan Manolo, who is trying to take over the region.

Trey: So this episode, at least, gives West a cover story. In a way, sort of two cover stories.

Jim: Yeah, we meet James West as he's being escorted in handcuffs, as a prisoner of the army. The reason for this is to provide a cover so Jim can meet with the President, but it's mostly a viewer hook. Then Grant (played by James Gregory) introduces Jim to the idea of his undercover identity as a rich dandy traveling the US in his own lavish coach car. Jim likes this idea and when next we see him, he seems well at home in his coach, down to knowing the names of hidden carrier pigeons. He also seems very well acquainted with Artemus. So, presumably, this is not their first mission, but some time may have gone by since we last saw them together at the previous train depot. Neither Artie or Jim remark on the luxury stylings of the coach.

Trey: And this never comes up again. Mostly, West seems to be recognized and his dandyish attire--purple bolero jacket and all--is just the way he dresses. I kind of like this explanation, but repeating it every episode might have been a chore.

I should also note that the two explain the workings of the hidden guns and explosive cue ball. All this will be used later.

Jim: A word on Robert Conrad's acting. Series writers often expressed some angst that Conrad was a bit wooden or delivered all his lines the same, I believe. On that, I would say, such a show doesn't need two Falstaffs, but rather a Romero and a Mercutio. As such, Conrad and Martin fit the bill quite well.

Trey: I always felt there was an archness to Conrad's delivery. He's a spy playing a game, where most of the time both sides know it's a game. He's never trying to deceive, just trying to be coolest in any exchange. It reminds me of more than one Bond actor.

The central concept of this episode is that somehow the border situation is so difficult that the U.S. Army can't go in to squash these raids but instead has to send in West and Gordon to the town of Quemada to stop Manolo--assassinate him, if he can't capture him. This reticence to act seems more Cold War than 1870s. It will be interesting to see how Mexico and it's relationship to the U.S. is portrayed through the lens of the era in which the show airs as we go forward.

Jim: So in Quemada, we meet the amazing Victor Buono, best known as King Tut from the Batman tv series, as Wing Fat, the Asian import shop owner, who is more than he seems. Jim remarks that he's "the biggest Chinese" he's ever seen, which may be foreshadowing.

Trey: Buono is great. It's unfortunate this episode has him in yellowface and (spoilers) brownface. But we'll get to that last part in the bit.

Jim: Wing Fat directs West to the "love interest of the week," Lydia Monteran played by the captivating Suzanne Pleshette, famous as Bob Newhart's wife on 1970's The Bob Newhart Show and from Support Your Local Gunfighter. Monteran operates a gambling establishment in a casa on the hill, and she has history with West. He arrested her before!

Trey: Not a willing source of information on Manolo, yet. West and Gordon are forced to do some snooping in the crypt beneath the house and find stores of gunpowder and weapons. West confronts Monteran about this, but she is genuinely unaware. It's all the doings of General Cassinello, who makes his appearance. He ruffs West up a bit, but no fancy death-trap like we will get later in the series.

We think he's Juan Manolo at first (he even seems to appear as Manolo in a montage during the early exposition) but he's a stand-in, though it takes a while before West finds this out.

Jim: Nehemiah Pershoff plays the General. For whatever reason, Pershoff never really broke big in Hollywood, but he is, by far, the best actor in this episode (excluding Martin.) He was a staple of 60’s and 70’s television with tremendous range. For proof of that, one need only review his standout performance on Hawaii Five-0 in the episode "Will The Real Mr. Wrinkled Please Die."

Trey: Well, the General turns out just to be another stooge. West destroys the house and munitions, and just when our heroes seem free and clear, the real boss reveals himself--and it's Wing Fat! Or Juan Manolo.

Jim: Oddly, Buono never drops his Charlie Chanish articulation, even after he reveals himself as Manolo.

Trey: This was odd to me, too. He even gives the Mandarin pronunciation of "Juan Manolo" for some reason. I couldn’t figure if they were trying to tell us that Wing Fat was the real identity and Manolo a fiction.

Jim: We don't find out the truth until West and Manolo have a game of billiards. True to rules of drama, the trick cue ball and pool stick is used to dispatch Manolo.

Trey: And we discover that Manolo's Asian mastermind disguise was just a disguise. Manolo is the real identity. When West asks for the reasons for the subterfuge he replies, "Who would suspect a Chinese merchant of being a leader of armies?"

Strangely, a mastermind bent on hiding his identity taunts West with his dying breath that no one will know of his victory. West replies it doesn't matter. Espionage and spycraft is nodded at here, at least. I doubt we'll get many more such discussions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Entering the Wild Wild West

In 1964, the British Invasion began transforming American pop music, but the influence of a much better groomed Brit was also been felt on television and in film. The first two James Bond movies had been hits both in the UK and the U.S., and the third, Goldfinger, which would arrive that year, would unleash a veritable spy-fi craze.

The Man from UNCLE debuted in the fall of 1964 on NBC. In the 1965 season, it was joined on NBC by I Spy, and on ABC, detective show Burke's Law transformed into Amos Burke, Secret Agent for its final season. CBS unveiled Wild Wild West.

Michael Garrison, the creator of WWW, had been early to catch on to spy-fi's appeal. He and a partner had bought the rights to James Bond and tried unsuccessfully to get studios interest in a film in 1955. In the mid-60s he had another idea. he pitched CBS a show with the high concept: "James Bond on horseback."

While Westerns were not as prominent on TV in the U.S. has they had been in the late '50s, there were 13 on the air in 1965. Combining the old standby with latest fad makes a lot of sense from a ratings perspective.

From any other perspective, it's a bit weird.

The spy-fi was an outgrowth of its early Cold War environment. The pulp hero who traditionally worked alone or maybe with a team became the representative of some government agency. While spycraft was a completely different beast in the 19th Century, to meet the expectations of its audience, James West's world had to look more like a funhouse mirror version of the 1960s, as reflected in the Bond films. West's Secret Service acts more like UNCLE or Bond's fictional MI6, than the fledgling organization of historical 1865. West doesn't spend much time chasing counterfeiters.

Spy-Fi also relies a lot on gadgets. This makes connects it to science fiction, but the gadgets tend to have a higher degree of verisimilitude (even when utterly implausible), so that it doesn't read as such to the audience. Gadgets in James West's hands are a different matter. Often, even the most rudimentary glosses of their function require reference to technologies or scientific theories that didn't exist in his time. The same gadget in West's hands is inherently more fantastical than in Bond's.

From the Western angle, the requirements of Spy-Fi necessitate more urban settings, or at least more civilized ones ,than might be typical for horse opera. West can spend little time in austere landscapes (which is good for a tv budget, admittedly), and can't consort with as many frontier-types as might be usual. It is perhaps more 19th Century, than genre Western.

My feeling is that Wild Wild West is at its best when it embraces these contradictions, rides right through basic genre conflicts, and dives into unreality and fantasy. The more James West's adventures seem to fit aesthetically with the voyages of the starship Enterprise or the crimefighting exploits of the Dynamic Duo (to name two contemporaneous shows), versus the dust-colored world of Gunsmoke or the comparatively mundane action on I Spy, the better it is.

So in coming installments, we're going to take a look at the series to see if that bears out!


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