Greetings all and sundry!
Given the past few weeks to re acclimate in and reacquaint with old memories around a new location. Plus a sudden and pleasant influx of information and discussion of a favorite series of the 1960s. I’ve let my mind roam and eventually nail down some errant thoughts surrounding a proven and long-standing purveyor of the actors’ trade. Who quietly avails himself of a personal Toolbox. And digs deeply or just rummages around its many layers, drawers, nooks and cubbyholes.
Born of at time when venues to test, exercise and slowly hone his skills were many and varied. Stage at first. Transitioning easily to the blossoming outlet of television with many varied, yet memorable roles in classic B&W series, Route 66, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Twilight Zone, Naked City, The Outer Limits, The Defenders, T.H.E. Cat and three episodes of Combat! Plying his craft with a familiar. often gentle touch. Though always keeping a few surprises for special occasions.
Allow me a few moments of your time to shine the spotlight on a pair of lustrous efforts from the Grand Old Man of the acting trade:
Robert Duvall: Two Of His Best!
First seen in the 1962 award winning, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ as Boo Radley. The ostracized, quiet, perhaps challenged protector of children from things that go “Bump!” in the night. Content to keep a distant and wary eye almost out of sight. Until the proper moment arrives, Much has been written and opined of this Classic. Which I would only badly ape. Though, take a look at the tale from Boo’s perspective. Instead of Atticus Fitch’s. And a much richer and darker tome evolves.
Moving the clock forward to April of 1964. And a favorite series and last great hurrah in the realm of Science Fiction, The Outer Limits. And it’s very late in its first season’s episode. The Chameleon. Where an alien spacecraft has landed badly and its two creature crew caught on government cameras in the forested hills west of nowhere. Expecting and fearing the worst. An unnamed agency sends out suited agents to fetch their recently disillusioned, though best infiltration man, Louis Mace (Mr. Duvall) seeking solace in a guitar and tequila inside a shadowy Mexican Cantina.
Mace listens. Nods thoughtfully. Smashes his guitar and uses its bundled strings as a taut garotte (Something I’d never seen before. Or since!) on one agent’s throat. As a tool (And a darn good one!) to get more information from the other. The situation is diffused with the arrival of Mace’s old Control Officer, General Crawford (Henry Brandon). Who takes Mace aside for a for a long talk. First in a government hauler. And later in an underground bunker and science lab.
The alien ship is down. Damaged. And its crew has had a run in with locals Where a chunk of alien flesh is left behind. Crawford’s idea is to play around with DNA (Something easily twenty-five years in the future). Graft the skin to Mace and have him infiltrate the crew, ship. And if need be. Destroy everything and everyone in sight!
Mace is intrigued. Agrees because it’s a challenge. The metamorphosis goes as scheduled, But the results aren’t really what are desired. Mace looks. And sounds a little too much like an alien. The camera in his identification amulet works, But the cover story isn’t the sturdiest and needs work. Mace is up for the task, but upon being found poking around the deserted ship by the returning aliens. Who know. The mission is a wash!
The alarm in Mace’s amulet goes off. Mace grabs a rifle. A standoff ensues, And the pair of aliens (Revealed to be Venusians) make Mace a proposition. Repairs to the ship are completed. They and their race have no interest in war. Or this heavier gravity, backward, mud ball. Come back home with us!
An even more intriguing proposition. Since Mace has no family or next of kin to speak of, And Mace is also aware that if he completes the mission. There’s no guarantee that the procedure can be reversed. And if it is. There will always be another mission
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers’ sake.
Often thought of as a “Monster of The Week” anthology series. One of the great hooks of this series was the writers taking massive leaps in taking topics in their infancy in the 1960s (DNA in this episode. The internet and satellite surveillance in O.B.I.T. And making exceptional Science Fiction fare in the process.
Though only 52 minutes long. And shot on a next to nothing budget in six days. I will easily and confidently put this one episode aside anything cranked out by Hollywood and its over budgeted, effects laden offerings of the past decade. And still come out on top!
The secrets are a script and story by Robert Towne. Perhaps, based on an idea from Harlan Ellison. Perhaps, not. Though treated with maturity and a dash of imagination from its audience. With not a lot of money. Shadows (A favorite topic of mine!) are used strategically throughout. Especially in the recruitment and metamorphosis of Mace. Where fresh soil is begin tilled by veteran hands, Gerd Oswald and Kenneth Peach in charge of cinematography. Getting every penny’s worth of unease, tension, suspense and finally wonderment out of each scene.
Though, it is Robert Duvall masterfully pulling the plow. Underplaying wondrously as he accepts the mission and subjects himself to basically. The unknown. Only to throw a curve ball with a giggling, “You all look weird!” to the General and scientists immediately after the transformation. Creating a cornerstone of opportunity to successfully complete his mission. Or turn the entire concept of the 1950s and 60s “Alien Invasion, USA” subtly on its ear.
If Mr. Duvall’s portrayal of Mace is noted as most memorable and deft in its revelation of future talent and potential. I’ll move the clock forward about a decade and a half. Beyond his deftly calm and underplayed roles in Bullitt, THX 1138, The Godfather, Joe Kidd, The Conversation, The Outfit and The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Where he easily held his own as Watson. To Nicol Williamson’s Holmes.and Sir Laurence Olivier’s Moriarty.
And his louder, more boisterous roles in True Grit, Badge 373, The Killer Elite. And his first definition of greatness as uncredited, Lt. Colonel Bill Killgore in Apocalypse Now. To focus on a small gem that did not fare well upon release from Orion films in 1979. Given a change in title to The Ace. Which really didn’t improve response or fill the needs of First Class and Coach airliner passengers. From its original:
The Great Santini: (1979)
Taken from the very little messed with novel by Pat Conroy. Developed into a screenplay Conroy and by Lewis John Carlino, who also directed. Creating not only a superbly detailed period piece about race relations in 1963 Beaufort S.C. But, also an intriguing and sometimes scary look into the travails of a Military family in pulling up stakes and traveling cross country in the middle of the night. And beyond, to a new locale and base. And the myriad ways wife and kids noisily resist. Then adapt and improvise to new surroundings.
Focused consistently upon Lt. Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Former “Nugget” and Marine fighter pilot and Ace of WWII. Equipped with a non-issued ego as wide as the skies he slices through in a McDonnell “Phantom” fighter and bomber. Anxious for promotion after upsetting many Navy officers of higher rank and their wives after a joint exercise in the Mediterranean. And seeing such an opportunity in a possible upcoming war with Cuba months before its Missile Crisis.
Mr. Duvall’s Meechum is a contradictory piece of work. Meticulous in appearance and regulation when first assigned to ramrod a squadron. Yet, not averse to pranks that backfire and threaten his dreams for advancement. While being loud and a bit standoff-ish at home. As his wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner. Rarely better as the hard striving Southern Belle) raises and runs interference for teenage Ben (Michael O’Keefe revealing excellent chops!). Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky playing much younger. While portraying teen angst with a sarcastic touch). And little sister, Karen (Julie Anne Haddock. Who sees the family’s problems and privately wants her ticket refunded!).
The Meechum family is about the polar opposite of the “Ozzie & Harriet” Nelson’s of that era’s television fame. “Bull” drinks. Sometimes too much. And is a mean, verbal, sometimes physical drunk. With his own ideas of “Manhood”. And in those rigid ideas. his male progeny is sadly “gentled” and “lacking”. Sharing weekend cookouts and “family time” with soon to be 18, Ben in traditional basketball games. Taking his first loss badly while letting his anger fly and ruin the brief celebration. And the realization that his son is growing up. And may be better, more cultured and civilized than the Old Man.
Unsettling to experience? Yes, Though it is in this key scene and others that Mr. Duvall reveals the inner turmoil of a warrior without a war. Gifted with the ability to strap a multi million dollar pieces of technology and machinery through the ages. Out fly all comers and arrive victorious. While being denied the ability to ply his craft with reckless abandon. And the distinct and distasteful prospect that the good Colonel may be nearing the end of a career. While leaving not much of a mark in American and Marine Corps history.
Yet, instantly willing to throw it all the way when Ben calls his Dad. Who’s pulling Officer of the Day duty when Ben’s negro friend, Toomer (Always under rated Stan Shaw) is being beat up by local thugs Red Petus (David Keith) and his buddies. “Bull” abandons his post. Tells Ben to call the cops. Offering strong moral support while Ben gets his first taste of 1960s Jim Crow bigotry and racism in action.
The pendulum swings throughout the film and is capped off one hot August night. When Ben and his basketball team play a long-standing rival. Ben’s talents as Captain are being noticed by scouts and others. Hopes are high. As “Bull” enters the crowded gym. Drunk and anxious to give Ben a pep talk. Against the wishes of Ben’s coach. The game starts well and tight. With a tie ticking down to the last minutes. Ben cedes to his dad’s wishes to be more aggressive. Intentionally roughs the opposing player as the winning basket is sunk. As Ben’s future in regards to Sportsmanship and a possible college scholarship.
“Bull” arrives home late. And even more frighteningly drunk. Arguments ensue. Fists fly. And the Colonel winds up in the dog house. As Lillian balms wounds. Taking extra time with Ben. In trying to explain his father to him. Made worse with the revelation that Lillian had more than “a fling” with Bull’s long time rival, Colonel Virgil Hedgepath.
With the Meechum family’s future on the rocks. I’ll leave it right here for Spoiler’s sake.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
A very notable second effort from Mr. Carlino taking on an often ignored facet of our society. Those who decide to wear the uniform and endure the vagaries of unannounced moves. Not just on the parents. But on the kids. Losing and acquiring new friendships. While also dealing with living on a tight budget. And being the perpetual “new kid in school and town”. And in this film, the latter is written large and interwoven into different swirling plot lines. Giving young Mr. O’Keefe, Miss Persky and Haddock copious opportunities to vent their grievances and make them all more known and memorable. Most handled with gentle, understated Southern charm, aplomb by Ms. Danner’s Lillian. If there is a better film about the inner lives and feelings of often disparaged “G.I. Brats”, I know not of its existence!
Direction by Mr, Carlino is uncluttered, clean and lacking in lagging points. Guiding Ralph Wooley’s touch with cameras in surprising ways. Especially when using the military town and surroundings of Beaufort. Making it an uncredited character while taking advantage of its dripping moss, Magnolias and vast beautiful expanses beyond town. Music from Elmer Bernstein is on the sparse side. Heightening drama, conflict and occasional levity.
Set Direction by Jeff Haley and Donald Sullivan is on the light side. When most setts are supplied by the Marine Station at Beaufort. And the Meechum’s mansion on Laurens Street in the center of town. High marks also for Teresa Merritt as the Meechum’s housekeeper and Toomer’s mother, Arrabella Smalls. Who has the Colonel pegged. And is unimpressed from their first meeting. And takes absolutely no static from him!
What Makes This Film Great?
Robert Duvall taking on a complex and often unlikeable character. And being willing to pull out a number of stops. Making fighter (First in WWII prop driven Grummans. Later in jets) jock, Colonel Meechum flawed in ways associated with his career field. Plus the myriad qualms of growing old, mid-life crisis. The possibility of rising no higher in rank. A marriage that is less than sterling. Though is too mule headed to admit any fault. And a son and daughters who may be better people than he is.
I’d written of a contemporary, Frank Gorshin in an episode of Combat! turning in a fine example of the inner turmoil of “Push Me. Pull You”. And as Lt. Colonel “Bull” Meechum. Mr. Duvall takes that swirling emotional microcosm and puts it on occasionally over the top steroids! Creating a multi layered, fully fleshed, something of a bastard character and giving it incredible life!
Author’s Notes: Clips and interviews for The Chameleon can be found on You Tube. The entire episode is linked through IMDb.com. While clips, trailers and The Great Santini can be found on You Tube.