Archive for May 16th, 2018


By Stephen Mullen

Gunsmoke was the first and last – the first (or almost the first) western for grownups on TV; and very nearly the last western of any kind of TV. Lasting 20 years will do that – you’re first, you outlast your peers, and sometimes your entire genre. When it came on TV, it led to a flood of similar shows – The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, many others – that shared its grown up approach the western, and its artistic values, and serving, as it did, as a launching ground for many significant actors and directors. It stayed on TV all those years because it was a very fine show – begun as a serious show, and taken seriously, with quality writing, a fantastic cast, solid production values, and consistently fine craft. They brought in first rate guest stars, they brought in first rate directors, they gave them first rate scripts – 635 episodes worth (though I suppose not all 635 were first rate; I can point you to some stinkers) – it changed through the years, but it was always watchable.

I watched it, of course, when I was a kid, both the reruns and the new ones. I didn’t care if it had been on forever; I didn’t really know it had been on that long until people started talking about it. I never saw any of the black and white shows until a long time after – they weren’t the ones in reruns. It didn’t matter. It was probably my favorite show when I was a kid, maybe right up to the time it went off the air, maybe beyond. (And not just the show: I read the books too – over and over, in fact; I liked Gunsmoke.) I liked all westerns – Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Big Valley, especially – but even then, I could tell Gunsmoke had an edge on them. I could tell it was more serious – it had action and excitement, good guys and bad guys, but it had characters too, who had depth, and breadth. More than that, maybe (since Bonanza and Big Valley were also strong on character), it had stories that were deeper and smarter than those other shows. I couldn’t have described the difference then, and barely can now, but it’s there – maybe it had something to do with the stakes – on Gunsmoke things seemed to matter a bit more.

It was designed that way. It was created for radio, and conceived as a hard-boiled western, explicitly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (inspired by the Philip Marlowe radio show, in fact) – you can hear it in the early shows. Robbery, murder, lynch mobs, venal newspapermen gloating about circulation and Doc Adams angling for more autopsies, Matt accused of having an affair, and an innocent little boy who turns out to be the killer, and William Conrad as Dillon narrating and ruminating (in the best Raymond Chandler style) about how awful human beings really are. And that’s just the first episode! (Here it is, on YouTube: “Billy the Kid”). The darkness didn’t entirely carry over to the TV version, a couple years later – but there’s plenty of it there. The first show has Matt soliloquizing on Boot Hill about the “Gomorrah of the Plains”, keeps a good dose of his bitterness and sarcasm, and his strong sense of isolation (walking away alone as he does), in a story with a cold blooded killer, who just wants to be left alone. (You can see it here: “Matt Gets It”, complete with John Wayne telling the audience that this show was going to last a while.) Chandler’s influence is still there – Matt loses a gun fight in that first show, and when he recovers, has to go back to try again – that’s pretty much standard procedure for a Hammett or Chandler character. And Matt has to outsmart the gunslinger – another bit you see in those classic detective stories. Marlowe would be proud.

As the show evolved, some of that fell away. Even on the radio, the characters had softened – Doc Adams, say, is a pretty nasty piece of work in those early shows. The ensemble, the relationships among the characters became more important, and anchored the show through those 20 years – but it still maintained the grown up approach. The material is dark, full of violence and cruelty, but its maturity is also in the complexity of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. Heroes fail – they can be selfish and unpleasant like the doctor sometimes, physically damaged like Chester, morally compromised like Miss Kitty might be. And the villains are seldom simplistic – they have reasons for what they do; they can be charming, some can be plaintive. If someone starts threatening bar girls, you can bet he lost a daughter or granddaughter somewhere along the line. Many episodes work in multiple foils for Matt Dillon, putting him between a couple hard bitten killers, or a couple aggrieved families – everyone with their reasons. And in those early shows, he fails as often as not – at least, fails to stop other people from massacring each other, or ends up killing people he tried very hard not to have to kill. He’s there to keep the peace, but there isn’t a lot of peace to keep.

This aspect is more pronounced in the early years – by the end, Matt and his friends were pretty well ascended to godhood, the villains tended to be a bit more simplistic, and the guest stars were usually a bit more obviously on the good or evil side. But it never went away completely. It evolved out of the noirish style of the early shows, into something else, though something still rooted in adult problems and complex behavior. The evolotution is reflected in Matt himself – the angry, brooding, tarnished hero of the radio show and early TV gave way to a stoic, strong hero, one who passes through the mire without being soiled. That’s not criticism – it’s just different, more Gary Cooper, less Bogie, if that makes sense. That element took over pretty quickly, I suppose – looking at James Arness, you couldn’t quite picture him as anything other than a strong silent type – if he had stayed bitter and cracked, he would have been terrifying – John Wayne in The Searchers, maybe, something more disturbing than any villain could be. This change didn’t hurt the show – it made Matt into a central hub for the rest of the show to revolve around. It made the dynamics of the cast, the strengths of the guest stars, and the stories themselves shine, with Dillon as anchor, and often as a kind of light that illuminates the nature of others.


Gunsmoke lasted a long time, surviving many changes to the technology and form of television. It moved from radio to TV, first as a half hour show, later as an hour. In the mid-60s, it switched to color. It changed through the years, but generally maintained its quality – though it’s hard to miss how much better it was earlier. That’s something I learned late – the color shows were the ones in syndication, in the early 70s, and onward – that’s what I saw when I was 10, what I watched now and then through the 80s and 90s – it’s what I knew. They were fine shows – they made me think I had good taste when I was 10… But then I saw the black and white episodes. They were a revelation. The half hour shows are superb – tight, efficient little morality plays that never really preach, great looking, with sharp, memorable characters, and even then, a cool mix of action, drama, comedy. They were great shows – but I think the show really blossomed with the hour long format.

They had room. Even now, watching the half hour shows, they can go by a bit too quickly – they don’t get the chance to linger and develop – and it’s the lingering and development that made Gunsmoke so good. The hour long episodes have everything: well developed stories, with characters who have time to evolve in the course of the show, to work out multiple relationships. It feels as though every black and white hour long show I remember was some kind of trip – maybe those shows were aired more often; maybe they’re the ones I remember best. But there are good reasons why journeys are a staple of story telling (and most definitely of westerns) – a chance to put a number of characters in a situation and let it stew. Those shows end up being some of the best hour long shows ever made for TV.


The black and white episodes have another advantage – they look fantastic. The sets, costumes, props are all very well chosen – and in the black and white episodes,they look right. They look beat up, shabbier, dirtier; cabins and houses and street and fields look like hard places to live – they look real. The color shows lost some of this. Color, I suspect, shows up how clean the sets and clothes are; even artfully mistreated props, like Festus’ costumes, look a bit too artfully messed up. Did they get more conventional later? does black and white indicate grime and wear better? Maybe. But part of it, I think, is that the later shows fell out of step with western movies. The early Gunsmokes were contemporary with films like Anthony Mann’s westerns, Budd Boetticher’s, mature films by Hawks and Ford, classics like Shane and High Noon. TV couldn’t match the production values of top of the line films – but they could match their look. (And low budget westerns thrived in those days as well – filmmakers knew how to make westerns look good no matter what the budget.) But western films evolved between 1955 and 1970, evolved as much as any genre did. Content restrictions disappeared – you could show far more, and what seemed dark on TV in 1955 looked old fashioned next to The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Films brought in outside influences – Japanese films; European films. The style became more extreme; the look became grittier, grimier. Gunsmoke in the 70s didn’t look at all like contemporary westerns (at least not the best of them.) It’s a jarring effect: it makes everything, in the later shows, look clean, antiseptic, in ways the older ones never dd. By 1975, it was the last western on TV, maybe not that bad a show, but somehow it felt old, rote, even compared to what you expected to see in a western. And so it went, and that was that.

But it had a magnificent run. It set off a run of serious western shows; it has had an influence beyond. Matt Dillon is an icon – but so are others, particularly Doc. (I offer Star Trek’s Bones as evidence; heck – I could offer Brad Dourif, on Deadwood, riffing on Doc, maybe more the early radio Doc, but still.) The cast and characters of the show were, in fact, fantastic. Arness, Stone, Blake and both Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis – great actors playing fascinating characters, that the writers seemed to understand. Coming off writing about Get Smart, a show that gave in to ratings desperation at the end, do you know how refreshing it is to see a male and female lead not ever get together? At least not marry (though Matt seemed to know where her room was located in the early shows…) – how many long running shows were able to keep that discipline? The main cast is matched by the guests, often as not – what a pleasure it is to watch someone like Warren Oates or Bruce Dern come in and chew up the scenery. Now – this was common enough practice in those days – a good many of those serious westerns did the same thing – brought on special guests; gave up and coming directors the chance to work. But they did it well on Gunsmoke.


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 © 2018 by James Clark

 As we begin to touch upon the films of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), we have to bring to the mix our recent encounters with the puzzles of Kelly Reichardt as struck by that dark horse, Abbas Kiarostami. The worst step we could take here would be to situate the work at hand (and all the others by him) as one more mid-twentieth century filmic testimony that the foundations of world history cannot effectively support modern sensibility. Major experts of that persuasion—Robert Bresson (1901-1999), Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), Federico Fellini (1920-1993) and Jacques Demy (1931-1990)—portray diverse investigators coming upon dead ends, their endeavors amounting to stark confusion. Amongst the artists persevering with this matter at that time, dramatic bite and charm loom large. Bergman, it seems to me, finds that those focuses waylay discoveries which need to be entered upon. There is no doubt that whereas those 60’s renegades cited (and others not cited, in being only half-committed) were, to a man, experts of modes of cool, Bergman’s deliveries undercut that blithe wit, that optical chic, seeming to define skeptical contemporality.

One of the factors drawing me to begin this series with Through a Glass Darkly (1961)—the title being drawn from a biblical passage and thus further suspect in the eyes of the hasty cool—was its undertow of off-season Baltic Sea astringent sensuousness, quietly exploding the last-minute-buy fabulousness supposedly compromising any roster of self-assertive talking heads. (The marginalization of Lucy, the dog, in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy [2008] and Lucy, the dog, in her Old Joy [2006] looks to what has been out there quite a while in the offerings of Bergman.) Much can be said about the staginess of Through a Glass Darkly, and the helmsman’s being as absorbed by stage theatre as by film work. But I think the case can be made that what at first blush seems ponderous is in fact a course of phenomena light as a feather and bidding to steal our heart away.

Whereas Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994) and Night Moves (2013) get around to an antithesis clashing with the derangement of the protagonists rather late in the proceedings, our film today leads with the better half, characteristically inflected. We have a pan-shot aerial-view of the sea in heavy mist, giving on to silvery, rolling waves which appear to be undergoing some form of coagulation. The progress of the flight culminates in shimmering waters and wafting white clouds. (The black and white format conspires in placing in relief the kinetic and resolved aspects.) Our first glimpse of the four protagonists follows that atmospheric proposal, in a most unusual way. The aerial perspective has come closer to the surface, enough to reveal the four of them wading ashore in a simulation of the evolution of Homo Sapiens, recalling the airward club in Space Odyssey. The happy patter of their beach vacation offers a sharp contrast to the pristine outset—a way of recognizing that human sentience tends to squander its comprehensive dimension. The four landward bathers present a holiday tone, one of the three men remarking that whatever strikes Karin’s fancy should be satisfied. Although the protocol slips from there, to (with a boat trip in the offing and chilly Swedish weather, “If Hemingway can do it, so can we…”), the point to absorb is that this is a family gathering very able to keep on the sunny side. There will be darkness soon—though the date and latitude afford a midnight sun—but not the kind of terminal collapse dominating the dialogue. Karin’s self-adoring husband, Martin, whom we will soon learn to be a self-important physician, and whom, while berating her father, David, a well-known novelist losing whatever magic he once commanded, proudly declares, “Fortunately, I’m not very complex,” characteristically underestimates the cocktail of destruction he and his friends represent. It is he who has concluded and acted by having her go through a stint of electric shock therapy—along the hysterical lines of his diagnosis of David (“You are a craven coward”)—that Karin’s malaise means schizophrenia and a future of helplessness, leading her, in the film’s first passages, to demonstrate her inconvenient equilibrium and joie de vivre. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It would be difficult to fathom any baby boomer male identifying any television property seen with more regularity in the 60’s than the re-runs of The Adventures of Superman, which never left the air in those impressionable years, and for most was the superhero property that predated all the rest.  While arguably eclipsed in overall popularity by the mid-60’s camp classic Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, there are many genre fans who preferred the way the crime dominated show played it straight and the never ending fascination for the lead actor George Reeve, whose controversial death at age 45 in 1959 has been the subject of continued theories and even a feature length film.  Even during Superman’s re-runs, many of us were as intrigued by the real life actor than we were by the two characters he so compellingly portrayed, one with the big S on his chest and the emblematic cape and the other a be-speckled, mild-mannered reporter, whose transformation was accomplished in minimalist terms that defied rational.  As kids we thought, heck if Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen never caught on why should we question the fantasy we wanted so much to believe.  And for the most ardent fans of the series, the first of the Reeves to play one of the most famous of all television and movie characters was the one remembered most fondly, the one who set the bar for all others, every bit as irreplaceable as Johnny Weissmuller, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in their most famous roles.

Still there were other players who help to forge the dramatic chemistry that made the series fly as high as its famed character when crisscrossing Metropolis to rescue those in peril.  As Clark Kent, Reeves was reserved to a fault, always absorbing taunts from gruff Daily Planet Editor Perry White, but always seemingly in the right place at the right time and able to wiggle out of every pickle, if often by seconds.  The smiling Kent seemed to derive plenty of satisfaction from knowing a secret nobody else does. Lois Lane had a crush on him, though her own character was played by two women who approached the role differently.  The spunky Phyllis Coates is no-nonsense and often tries her hand on beating back the bad guys.  She is basically humorless, but her replacement Noel Neill brought the missing ingredient with a great deal of warmth factored in.  As cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson’s naivete is campy and provides the show with some of its humorous elements. (more…)

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