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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Bresson’s “Four Nights of A Dreamer” Needs a DVD Release

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Robert Bresson’s incandescent masterpiece is still not available on DVD.

OK, enough about genre films and comic book movies. This brief post is really just a placeholder; a reminder that one of the most beautiful and sensuous films of all time still, still, still isn’t available on DVD. There’s a streaming link on Amazon, of reasonable quality, but I’m sorry – that’s simply not good enough. A Criterion DVD is definitely in order, especially since nearly every other Bresson film in the director’s long career is readily available in either a US or European version, with English subtitles. But it seems unlikely that this will happen.

As writer Michael Brooke describes the film’s enigmatic plot on IMDb, “The ‘dreamer’ is Jacques, a young painter, who by chance runs into Marthe as she’s contemplating suicide on the Pont-Neuf in Paris. They talk, and agree to see each other again the next night. Gradually, he discovers that her lover promised to meet her on the bridge that night, and he failed to turn up. Over the next couple of nights, Jacques falls in love with her – but on the fourth night her original lover returns . . .” – and what happens then, I’ll leave for you to discover.

The Amazon streaming version gives only a hint of the film’s stunning pictorial splendor, and it’s a shame to see such a beautiful film held hostage by what I can only presume are rights problems. A Japanese Blu-ray of the film, with Japanese subtitles only, emerged about a year ago, but almost immediately sold out. What makes the whole thing even weirder is that Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the same story, White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is easily available in an excellent transfer.

But such are the vicissitudes of fate – here’s a film that I saw in 35mm format when it first came out, and never forgot, but once again, as with so many glorious masterpieces of the cinema, now you see it, now you can’t. In the meantime, here’s a superb interview with Bresson on his last film, L’Argent – enjoy this, and perhaps in the future we’ll get to see Four Nights of A Dreamer in its proper form. I first wrote about this film in 2012 – nothing has changed since then.

Just another film that needs – desperately – a DVD release – right now.

Cutting The Cord – or Not?

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Christopher Elliott just interviewed me for his syndicated column on “cutting the cord” on cable television.

While Elliott doesn’t recommend cutting the cord on cable for everyone, I’ve found it a very useful way to reduce stress, and increase personal time by simpy doing away with television altogether. As Elliott wrote, “when Wheeler Winston Dixon’s cable bills rose to more than $100 a month, thanks to bundling, he looked around and found no other viable cable options.

‘There was no alternative, other than satellite, and all they offered was an introductory offer that would reset to roughly the same rate after a few months,’ says Dixon, a college professor in Lincoln, Nebraska. Finally, he decided to cut the cord. ‘We listen to more music, read more books, take more walks, and have a much happier life,’ he says. When he wants to watch TV, he streams video from Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube and other alternative sources. Problem solved!”

Read the rest of Elliott’s column by clicking here – personally, I’d recommend it!

The Hidden Benefits of Television

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

A Canadian man stashed $100,000 in a television set, and then forgot all about it.

As CTV (Canadian Television Network) reported, ‘more than $100,000 in cash was found inside an old television that was being processed at a recycling plant in Barrie, Ont., and police say the money was a man’s lost inheritance. The shocking discovery was made by an employee, who uncovered a cash box inside the TV as it was dismantled. The recycling company then contacted police.

‘There was like, four stacks of $50 bills, and I knew it was a large amount of money,’ Rick Deschamps, general manager [of the recycling plant] told CTV Barrie. Inside the cash box were documents that helped lead police to the money’s rightful owner: a 68-year-old man from Bolsover, Ont.

When investigators spoke with the man, he told them that he stored the money inside the television about 30 years ago. The plan was to pass along the money to family members as an inheritance.

That is, until he forgot about the cash and gave the TV to a family friend.

The recycling company has praised the employee for her honesty. ‘She’s representative of all our employees and it’s what we stand for and this kind of behavior is really what we would expect from everyone here,’ said Lew Coffin, GEEP vice president of operations.

Now that the owner has his money back, police offered him a word of advice. ‘Hopefully he’s put it in a savings account now,’ Barrie Police Constable Nicole Rodgers said.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see a news video on this story. Amazing!

The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined – by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

The HearteartH 2016 International Videoart Project

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Here’s a great chance to see some bleeding edge video art- work you can’t see anyplace else.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s videos The Gaia Triptych and Human Scale are being screened as part of the HearteartH 2016 International Videoart Project, curated by Sonia Armaniaco and Maria Korporal, at the website <www.visualcontainer.tv>, January 13 – February 15, 2017. You can see the entire program – which runs several hours – by clicking here, or on the image above.

As the group’s website notes, “HearteartH is a collective project for artists and media makers ideated by video artists Sonia Armaniaco and Maria Korporal. The concept took life from these two interlocking words: HEART and EARTH. The strong symbolism of the two words, which are inevitably associated with life, has a strong pull. One is drawn into it. In the almost fateful dependence of these terms of one another, they seem inextricably linked together, even permanently, forever.

The assembly of Heart and Earth in the title, in one word, follows this substantive consequence. The nearly identical letters gives the impression of an anagram, and so the title gets something of a magic spell from which we cannot escape. Due to the large H at the beginning and end of the word, the title sounds as a breath. Heartearth is so an unlimited ongoing project, as well as the topic has no end, ‘life goes on’, ‘the earth continues to rotate.’ In this doubling of the word is a power that can give life.

As Life is always looking for additions and adjustments, Art as well has the force to open new viewpoints and new feelings about this peculiar theme; Art which is so close and yet so far away, and which can be so beautiful and at the same time frightening. Or Art could provide an opportunity to think about it.”

Videos In The Program:

Alessandra Arnò: Earth, 3:14
Alessandro Amaducci: Bloodstream, 7:15
Alessandro Amaducci: A Tell-Tale Heart, 3:31
Abdoul-Ganiou Dermani: “Ega” (Money), 1:36.
Aliénor Vallet: Horizon Vert Azur (Green Azure Horizon), 5:00.
Andrew Payne: Moon and cloud movements 3 , 1:00.
Angiola Bonanni: Love Woes, 12:05.
Annique Delphine: Plethora, 3:21.
Barbara Brugola: Lapse of View, 3:19.
Barbara Wolters: Intervention, 2:58.
Brian Kane: Being Human: Al Design, 2:42.
Bunker Media: Earth, 2:10
claRa apaRicio yoldi: Zoom in, 3:19.
Damira Piližota: Hurry, 1:03.
Daniel Ivan: Haiku, 5:05.
Eija Temisevä: Searching for Sense, 4:58.
Eija Temisevä: Vitality of a tree, 3:15.
Eleonora Manca: METAMOR(pH), 4:11.
Eleonora Manca: I Sing The Body Electric_Psyché, 1:26.
Erick Tapia: TERRITORIUM, 3:25.
Florent Texier: Les Vapeurs (The Steams), 2:11.
Fran Orallo: Vulcano, 4:08.
Fran Orallo: Beats, 4:30.
Gaetano Maria Mastrocinque: Argille, 5:48.
Gisela Weimann: Welt in Flammen – World in Flames – Monde en Flammes, 11:37.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Virtual Gallery – The Gaia Triptych, 1:14.
Heli Ström: Refuge, 3:00.
Irina Gabiani: Neither a beginning nor an end, 1:40.
Irina Gabiani: I don’t think you can, 3:43.
Isabelle Hayeur: Pulse, 3:00.
JfR (Jean-Francois Réveillard): BREATH, 2:00.
Johanna Speidel: The Mirror, 5:26.
Jukka-Pekka Jalovaara: K.E.R.O.S.E.N.E poems from the planet, 7:08.
Kim Dotty Hachmann & Ginny Sykes: Healing Grounds, 3:38.
Larry Wang: All is Serene, 1:18.
Larry Wang: BARCODE, 2:17.
Laura Focarazzo: Hunting, 6:15.
Lino Strangis: Metaphysical Orogeny, 7:44.
Lotte Geeven: The sound of the earth, 1:14.
Maria Koehne: Standing Still, 5:44.
Maria (Felix) Korporal: Underwater Desert, 2:35.
Mariangela Ferraris aka MaryMee: .flow, 00:59.
Mariangela Ferraris aka MaryMee: 01.Hello World!, 01:49.
Mariel Gottwick: Meine Weltshow, 8:00.
Miriam Dessì: Fertilia, 4:59.
Mr. Armtone: Mistabishi – Druggers End (Mr. Armtone Video-Edit), 3:24.
Murat Sayginer: Volans, 2:33.
Myriam Thyes: Global Vulva, 6:20.
Paolo Bandinu: No Country, 2:21.
Pèninsolar: Under The Hanoi Monorail, 4:47.
s-ara (Sandra Araújo): Rio-me porque és da aldeia e vieste de burro ao baile, 2:53.
Sandra Becker 01: pachamama4.0, 3:11.
Reelvision: acqua vitae, 2:37.
Sarah Wölker: eNe mEne mIlchzahN, 5:22.
Shivkumar K V: one good cause…, 2:47.
Sonia Laura Armaniaco aka §vonica: GAIA, 3:49.
Sonia Laura Armaniaco aka §vonica: no more UPGRADE , 7:57.
Stephan Groß: Die Liebe in den Zeiten der EU (Love in the time of the EU), 5:57.
Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek: Heart of RootsEarth of Fruits, 2:47.
Sylviatoyindustries (Sylvia Toy St. Louis): VOICE: A Fly-by on Lyssa’s Maiden Voyage (festival cutting 2), 0:42.
Takehito Etani: Transparent Footprints of Invisible Giants / San Francisco Chapter, 3:27.
TinyarVisuals (Tina Sulc): Illusion of Hydrosphere, 2:52.
Tiziano Bellomi: Winter 2015/2016, 0:51.
Tom Albrecht: Eivergrabung, 3:56.
Vladislav Solovjov: Home, 1:13.
Wheeler Winston Dixon: Human Scale, 4:21.
ydl (Yannick Dangin Leconte): Propagande, 4:44.

Read more about the collective and their work by clicking here: much better than average television!

Twin Peaks is Coming Back – Lynch to Direct Entire Series

Monday, January 9th, 2017

David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks is coming back for a full season on Showtime.

As James Hibberd wrote in Entertainment Weekly just a few hours ago, “Showtime just surprised the Television Critics Association with a David Lynch press conference for its upcoming revival of Twin Peaks. The reclusive Lynch is directing all 18 hours of the limited series.

The resulting 15-minute Q&A was a rapid-fire flinging of questions from the ballroom of reporters who received Lynch’s maddeningly vague, occasionally illuminating, and sometimes hilariously brief responses.

How does this compare to your other projects, and what should fans expect?

First, it was just the same as all the others. I see it as a film. A film in parts is what people will experience. It was a joyful, fantastic trip with this great crew and cast . . . This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are met when they hopefully see the thing.

What’s your process of working with co-writer Mark Frost?

Well, in the beginning, many years ago, Mark and I were as if lost in the wilderness, as it always is in the beginning. Then we seemed to find a mountain and began to climb, and when we rounded the mountain, we entered a deep forest, and going through the forest for a time the trees began to thin, and then coming out of the forest we discovered a small town of Twin Peaks. We got to know the people of Twin Peaks and got to know this mystery. … We discovered this world. And within this world there are other worlds. That’s how it started.

What makes Mark a good co-writer for you?

Mark is very smart. We’re both strong, but both different. We bring to the table different things, but we each understand the other thing. It’s just a good combo for Twin Peaks.

So what’s your process then?

We work together on Skype. Mark lives in Ohio. I live in Hollywood, and we Skype and write together.

What have you been thinking about Twin Peaks over the years?

I’ve often wondered about this beautiful world and characters. Mark asked if I wanted to go back to this world. That’s what got us going again for this one.

What did you appreciate about the original series?

I’ll tell you what I loved: The pilot of Twin Peaks. That for me set the tone. That made the world and the characters for me. I felt really good about that. I just fell into deep, deep love…

You can read the entire interview here – the series premieres this coming May, 2017.

The Four Just Men – Classic British Television

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Long before the current era of superheroes, The Four Just Men were way ahead of the curve.

The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.

As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.

They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.

The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.

At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”

This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.

Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.

As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.

See the intro to the series, as well as some episodes, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Mozart in The Jungle

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Since I have abandoned traditional television, this is a delightful web series worth your attention.

Amazon Studios just keeps getting better and better. They have a pilot right now online for The Last Tycoon, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, which is quite compelling – which was recently green lit for a series – and other remarkably well-produced series, of such as their two seasons, with a third in the offing of Mozart in The Jungle, which deals with the world of classical music in the 21st century era. It’s a time in history when if one wants to dedicate one’s self to the arts, it’s akin to taking a lifetime vow of poverty in pursuit of beauty.

As the press release for the book on which the series is based notes, in part, “In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

In a book that inspired the Amazon original series starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician, from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene . . .

Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. These are working-class musicians who schlep across the city between low-paying gigs, without health-care benefits or retirement plans―a stark contrast to the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars.”

The series itself is a lot less hard-edged, and centers around Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo De Souza, a tempestuous Maestro who’s been brought in to help an ailing New York symphony orchestra regain its former greatness. Malcolm McDowell as Thomas Pembridge, the outgoing conductor, and Bernadette Peters as Gloria Windsor, the fundraiser who tries to keep the orchestra above water are both excellent in their roles, and Lola Kirke as Hailey Rutledge, the ostensible stand in for author Blair Tindall, shines in her role as a young, ambition oboist whose dream is to get a permanent gig with with the orchestra.

Billed as a comedy, and blessedly free of a laugh track, Mozart in the Jungle sometimes strays into darker territory, but it’s a real and distinct pleasure to hear so much classical music played so beautifully in a contemporary, one-camera sitcom, which is obviously made with loving care and a real attention to detail. You can stream the series on Amazon – two whole seasons, with half-hour episodes – and in an era dominated by serial killers and ultra-violence on both the web and in theaters, it’s a relief to view something more thoughtful, more passionate, and much more optimistic about life.

Mozart in The Jungle – definitely worth checking out.

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.'” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Classic TV Series “The Defenders” Comes to DVD At Last

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

The Defenders, one of the most important drama series of the 1960s, finally gets a DVD release.

Completely forgotten today by most, this stunning series racked up 132 episodes over a four year on CBS, and starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father and son legal team that specialized in handling “difficult” cases. Unlike most courtroom dramas of the era, such as the wildly popular CBS legal procedural Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr in the title role,

The Defenders was never really about the law unto itself – it was more concerned with social justice, and used the courtroom setting as way of opening up a discussion on a wide variety of issues of the day. From September 16, 1961 – May 13, 1965, each week The Defenders tackled subjects no other series of the era would touch. During its run, The Defenders won 13 Emmy Awards (including three in a row for Outstanding Drama Series) and received an additional seven nominations.

As historian Mark Alvey wrote, in part, in The Encyclopedia of Television, “The Defenders was American television’s seminal legal drama, and perhaps the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen. The series boasted a direct lineage to the age of live television drama, but also possessed a concern for topical issues and a penchant for social comment.

With its contemporary premise and its serious tone, The Defenders established the model for a spate of social-issue programs that followed in the early sixties, marking a trend toward dramatic shows centered on non-violent, professional ‘heroes’ (doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians).

The series had its origins in a 1957 Studio One production entitled The Defender, written by Reginald Rose, one of the most prominent writers from the age of live anthology dramas. Having collaborated with Rose on the original two-part Defender teleplay and other productions, veteran anthology producer Herbert Brodkin teamed again with the writer to oversee the series.

The Defenders’ creators went against the overwhelming tide of Hollywood-based programs, following the tradition of the live anthologies–and the more recent police drama Naked City–by mounting their show in New York. Although The Defenders was primarily a studio-bound operation, with minimal location shooting, its success proved to be a key contributor to a small renaissance in New York-based production in the early 1960s.

The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed). As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, ‘the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a “who-done-it” that simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits.’

Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes.

The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, ‘no-knock’ search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the ‘poisoned fruit doctrine’ (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.

As a serious courtroom drama, The Defenders series meshed well with network aims for prestige in the early sixties in the wake of the quiz show scandals and charges of creeping mediocrity in TV fare. The dramatic arena of the courtroom and the legal system allowed for suspense without violence, and the avoidance of formula plots characteristic of traditional crime and adventure drama.

With consistently strong ratings and a spate of awards unmatched by any other series of its day, The Defenders proved that controversy and topicality were not necessarily uncommercial. The series was in the works well before FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s 1961 ‘vast wasteland’ speech, but there is little doubt that the new Minow-inspired regulatory atmosphere augured well for the rise of such programming.

The show’s success supported the development of a number of social-issue and political dramas in the following years, notably Slattery’s People and East Side, West Side, and gave further impetus to a shift in network programming from action-adventure to character drama. But most significant of all, it grappled with larger ethical and political questions, pulling social problems and political debate to center stage, presenting a consistent, ongoing and sometimes critical examination of contemporary issues and social morality.

In one episode (written by Rose) a judge takes the elder Preston to task for invoking the social roots of his clients’ acts as part of his defense: ‘The courtroom is not the place to explore the questions of society.’ Lawrence Preston responds: ‘It is for me.’ So was the television courtroom, for Reginald Rose and the writers of The Defenders.”

Finally, the first season of this indispensable television series is being released on DVD; among the guest stars in the 32 episodes included in the eight disc set are Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Ossie Davis, Richard Thomas, Frank Gorshin, Eva Gabor, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Martin Sheen, Julie Newmar, and many more.

There’s also a slew of extras, including The Studio One Presentation Of The Defender (1957) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Steve McQueen And William Shatner; the pilot episode for the series, as well as interviews with associate producer Bob Markell, writer Larry Cohen, and a 1973 interview with E.G. Marshall on the series.

Well worth watching – and still compelling viewing today, immaculately restored.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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