BluRay/DVD Reviews

HARRY O

By • Sep 10th, 2012 •

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Here’s a TV series from the mid-70s with a fine reputation. David Janssen was a solid performer with perhaps a limited range. Fresh out of college, one of my first film reviews for Films in Review magazine, in 1967, was a Janssen vehicle – WARNING SHOT, which I seem to remember enjoying. I had missed getting hooked on ‘The Fugitive’ on TV in the mid-60s, but did enjoy catching up with him in ‘Harry O.’ Warner Bros has released season one.

The first episode I sampled was “Guardian at the Gates”. I don’t know what the title signifies, but I remember seeing this one when it originally aired in ’74, and it was pretty strong – a dog eating cyanide, and Harry, our protagonist, sleeping with an obnoxious architect’s daughter, then getting summarily dumped by her. Those elements were still effective forty years later, but the episode felt like a film going for noir and not quite knowing how to get there. I’ll put the blame on Director/Executive Producer Jerry Thorpe. With few exceptions (DAY OF THE EVIL GUN was a good theatrical feature) his work was on TV in the form of series episodes and made-for-TV films. He directed this episode. But the end result is just…TV. The dialogue tries – particularly with the terminally disgruntled, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish character portrayed by Barry Sullivan – to be pithy and sarcastically superior, but struggles unevenly in that effort. And the directing has the erratic feel of being up against TV shooting schedule time constraints, skimming over lesser scenes and trying to do the best with the more important ones. There’s also some metallic echo in the voice-over recording and a few of the dramatic scenes (and this aberration occurs in other episodes as well).

“Eyewitness” is much better. This time all the trappings of noir are present. Blinking neon bulbs (alternating red and green), striated shadows on the walls and ceilings, narrow plunging staircases and claustrophobic rooms and hallways (one in particular which, shot in an unnaturally wide angle lens, looks like something out of Polanski’s THE TENANT, and they know they hit pay-dirt with that particular camera set up and mise-en-scene because they use it a half dozen times and it never runs out of energy), scenes at night, and our rankled protagonist suffering the lingering effects of a bullet wound near his spine that threatens every day to take him down. Not to mention the voice over, the urban decay and crime, the racial tension. Yeah, this is a good one. It still suffers – from logic problems, and forced twists and crisis – but Richard Lang directs with more panache than Thorpe. Some of those frames are really delicious.

As an aside, the way the black villains speak is fascinating. Was it that clichéd and simple-minded back in the mid-70’s? I disremember. If they got it down accurately, then black street rhetoric has grown far more poetic in the intervening decades.

Staying with African Americans in ‘Harry O’, Janssen shares a friendly-yet-suggestive kiss with Rosalind Cash in the film’s epilogue. Although Bill Cosby had pretty much shattered the race barrier on episodic TV in the ‘60s series ‘I Spy’, still this was a provocative moment. Ms. Cash plays a nurse who once helped Harry recover from that bullet wound near his spine (a key part of his semi-sour persona throughout the series), and now enlists his aid to get her son out from under a murder charge. After he has accomplished this, and following the kiss, she gets in her car and looks back coyly, perhaps invitingly, but the subsequent cut back to Harry, which could have shown him still making eye contact with her and transmitting back some sort of emotional substance, instead finds him completely re-involved in his ongoing endeavor to repair his beached boat. There’s absolutely no impression that the relationship will go further. Montage, and perhaps the sponsors’ concerns, have deep-sixed that romantic possibility. Ms. Cash, light-skinned like our current president, graced the narratives of a number of Blaxploitation films of the period, including UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME, DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE, and THE MONKEY HU$TLE. She’s not particularly good here, except in that last suggestive exchange. And sadly, she died young, aged 56, in 1995.

I was more impressed with the vulnerable, sympathetic performance of Margaret Avery as Ginnie Adams, a prostitute providing for her blind son, than I was with Ms. Cash. Born the same year I was, she also dipped her toe in Blaxploitation – with HELL UP IN HARLEM, directed and written by sublimely creative indie denizen Larry Cohen. Following that she did a wide variety of feature and TV work, and is still out there filling the frames. She has some dramatically effective moments in this episode. Not surprisingly she showed up in a few more.

As Harry’s nemesis/friend in the force, Henry Darrow’s (seemingly) dyed black wig was a problem back then, though it didn’t offend me as much as it does seeing it now. I don’t know what they were thinking when they put together his look. After the 14th episode of the first season, on Jan ‘75 he was primarily replaced by the always-quirky Anthony (THE OMEGA MAN, PAPILLON) Zerbe.

I know I seem to be using Film Noir as a measuring stick as to how well detective series succeed, and that’s not fair as a blanket appraisal. After all ‘The Rockford Files’ is remarkably successful and goes out of its way to avoid Noir tropes. But when a series seems to be trying for the Noir ethos, then it should at least be partially judged against the genre’s standards, and ‘Harry O’ does that. In fact Janssen’s previous series, ‘The Fugitive,’ is considered one of the landmarks of Noir TV. In Ray Starman’s useful tome ‘TV Noir,’ he includes both Janssen series as valid examples of noir, but notes that this series was substantially less dark than ‘The Fugitive’: “By definition of the word noir, hard or existential, Janssen’s Harry O was cynical, disillusioned and already suffering middle age aches and pains, but this existential noir-ist, as opposed to Richard Kimble [protagonist of ‘The Fugitive’], exhibited some wry and self-deprecating humor about his physical ills and financial situation and often, hot-footed and limping, ran to catch that bus to pursue his suspects.”

‘A Sound of Trumpets’ gives us Cab Calloway in a tantalizing supporting role. Sadly, he has much too little screen time. It also co-stars the gorgeous, sharp-featured Brenda Sykes – a Louisiana girl who (what else…?) did her time in Blaxploitation – BLACK GUNN, CLEOPATRA JONES, MANDINGO and DRUM. MANDINGO, a seething Blaxploitation/Exploitation extravaganza, has in very recent years managed to rise above its roots critically.

Farrah Fawcett (as Farrah Fawcett-Majors) appeared in several episodes as a sort of girlfriend of Harry’s, and I had to check her out. The episode I chose was ‘Lester’, about a psycho-sexual serial killer, and it leaned as heavily on comedy as it did suspense. It might have been my favorite of the episodes I watched. Perhaps it was the balance between humor and drama. Perhaps that was needed to counteract Janssen’s uncomfortable, relentlessly grim demeanor. The cast was fun. Zerbe was particularly enjoyable, delivering spirited line readings. Allen G. Norman, playing a college suspect, was a Brando-esque actor in looks and style who knew it and used it, but whose film career ended abruptly in the late 70s. He reappeared in the new ‘Fugitive’ series (2001) looking unrecognizably different. Fawcett was more a beautiful prop than an actress, and in some angles her upper lip looked weird. And director Lang gave us that signature super-wide angle shot of a set again, and again it was a lovely frame. Lang was primarily a TV director, but he did helm THE MOUNTAIN MEN in 1980, which starred Charlton Heston, Brian Keith and Victoria Racimo, and was written by Heston’s son Fraser. I liked THE MOUNTAIN MEN quite a bit. It was an offbeat adventure with good emotional content. Lang died in 1997, at age 57.

Paul Wendkos directed 113 features and episodes, most of them for TV. Among them are three revered horror flicks. THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BELL (not on home video) and FEAR NO EVIL were superior made-for-TV films, and THE MEPHISTO WALTZ was theatrical. He also directed the TV movie THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN, and the three GIDGET theatrical films. He died in 2009 at the age of 84.

I wanted to see what he could do with ‘Harry O,’ so I put on ‘Shadows at Noon’. And how fortunate for me that I did. It’s a wonderful episode, creepy, upsetting, surprising, with a wonderful structure, and even Henry Darrow is solid in it. The plot quickly recalls both KISS ME DEADLY (Robert Aldrich, 1955) and SHOCK CORRIDOR (Sam Fuller, 1964). Not that forced imprisonment in mental institutions is unique to those two classic noirs, but the writer and Wendkos, had probably seen them. I don’t want to give away anything besides that general narrative info, but I was on the edge of my seat for much of the episode, and the epilogue was particularly upsetting. Good for them.

The quality of the shows is quite good, taking into account the occasional sound peculiarity mentioned earlier. Included is a pilot for the show which didn’t convince the powers that were. A second pilot did the trick, but that isn’t included. Maybe it’ll be on the Season Two collection.

Incidentally, Janssen, a workaholic, died youngest of all those mentioned above, of a heart attack, at age 48.

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One Response »

  1. You should try “Gertrude,” the first hour episode. I think it’s one of the finest hours of detective fiction ever on TV.

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