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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.

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link here, or on the image above.

Glenn Erickson on Cy Endfield’s Try And Get Me!

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Cy Endfield’s noir classic Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury) finally gets a DVD release.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant writes in a guest post on Steve Eifert’s excellent site Noir of The Week, “1950’s Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release [was] a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. [Thankfully, the film has just now been released in a superb transfer by Olive Films, which makes a business of rescuing lost classics before it's too late - so check it out.]

It’s both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM’s 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn. Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child.

Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: ‘Getting any other offers lately?’ Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man.

Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine’s apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark, in one of his finest roles) can’t hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal; he knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here, or on the image above – it’s must see viewing!

The Purge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

I have a new essay on James DeMonaco’s film The Purge in Film International this morning.

As I write, in part, “As H. Rap Brown once famously observed, ‘violence is as American as cherry pie,’ and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) offers ample proof of this fact. You want to take it simply as a thriller – fine. But there’s much more on offer here than genre filmmaking. The Purge is seriously thought out, precise in its inverted logic, and taps in neatly to the current trends of endless outbursts of violence, grotesque displays of consumption, and the stratification of society as a whole.

DeMonaco, who previously helmed the indifferent remake of John Carpenter’s superb 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), here returns to much the same story, but with considerably greater success: a group of people are holed up in an insolated location, giving shelter to a complete stranger, while a band of well armed, murderous hooligans tries to break in and kill everyone.  This is his breakthrough film, and he squeezes every last drop of irony and withering social criticism out of it.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

In The National News

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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