Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE THREAT - February 1965 (12 O'Clock High)

THE THREAT was another change of pace for me. It was the first time I got to direct a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Unhappily it was also the last time. It was a genre I really enjoyed. That was one of the nice things about directing film episodic television in those early years. Since almost all series were more or less like an anthology--each episode stood alone as a separate, not a continuing, story--a director had the opportunity to work in many different genres. On 12 O’CLOCK HIGH alone I directed a love story, an intense character-driven human drama, a Hitchcockian suspense story and an out-and-out conventional military tale. A situation not unlike that of the Hollywood major studio directors of the thirties and forties. Oh and by the way, remember what I said about hooking your audience early!

John Larkin was one of the stars of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. He played General Savage’s (Robert Lansing’s) superior officer, General Crowe. But on THE THREAT John provided a ‘backstage’ story like I had never encountered before nor would ever (fortunately) meet again.

The process stage on the lot west of Western Avenue was unlike anything I had experienced. All of the process I had filmed until then had been on LARGE stages with ample room to place the process screen behind the set with the rear projector behind it. The process stage on the old Fox lot felt like a closet. In one corner on an elevated platform was the camera. I swear the camera operator's rear end was touching the wall. I squeezed in next to the camera as best I could. In the opposite corner, also elevated was the set for the cockpit. Behind it was the process screen and behind it was the rear projector. All were placed with enough room to provide the necessary requirements for filming. How Billy Spencer managed to obtain the results he did is one of the magic mysteries of filming.

When episodes like this one went into syndication, additional cuts were made in the film to allow for more commercials. The copy of the film that I possess today is one of those abbreviated versions. The scene cut was a short night sequence on the base where General Savage is nearly accidentally run down by a jeep. This was followed by what originally was the climactic end of Act II. General Savage is alone in his office. He looks at his wrist watch. It is midnight. He crosses to his desk, and on his desk calendar he tears off the top sheet, revealing it is now Friday the 13th. To photograph this I had Billy Spencer place the camera up in the grid, a scaffolding walkway suspended from the ceiling that followed the contours of the walls of the set. This was where lamps that lit the set were placed. Since there was no dialog in this setup, we used the Arriflex camera with a zoom lens. The shot was a high angle straight down on General Savage in his chair. It followed him as he rose and crossed to his desk, and as he tore off the sheet of his desk calendar, the shot slowly zoomed into the number 13. Music crescendo. Cut to next scene. I’m sorry I can’t show you the shot. Maybe some day I’ll get a copy of the film that still includes it.

From the beginning I had a concern about the script. I wasn’t happy with the fact that the identity of the spy wasn’t revealed until the final act. I felt there was a benefit to knowing his identity earlier. I took my concern to Charles Larson. He agreed and wrote an additional sequence. The following was our new ending for Act II.

The dangerous day of the thirteenth arrived. My chore was to establish and keep the suspense and tension high. Guards. Guns. General Savage must be protected.

Now I think you will see why I wanted to have Gilly revealed as the spy early in our story.

We had a technical advisor on the set to guide us in how to shave with a straightedge razor. The hand without the razor holds the skin taut., while the straightedge carefully slices away at the beard. Our Gilly, that fine actor Laurence Naismith, had some difficulty coordinating his movements. (And I shudder to think of the hundreds of filmed shaving scenes I have seen since where the skin was not stretched taut. Thankfully oceans of blood did not spurt from the screen.)

I had storyboarded this sequence extra carefully. Storyboarding is a process whereby a drawing is made for each camera setup. The unusual fact here is that I can’t draw worth a damn. So over the years I had devised a method of describing in words my vision of what I wanted to film. As I commented in one of my earlier postings, many was the time I was accused of having been a script boy. Here is an example out of my script of the shaving scene for THE THREAT. The explanation of the setups is on top. The script with the camera setups is below.

The shaving sequence was four pages long. My general rule of thumb was to allow three setups per page. A ten page schedule for a day’s work was a good average, thus allowing thirty setups for the day. (Feature films shot as little as four or five setups a day.) As you can see there are ten camera setups on this page alone. What I’m trying to point out is that this was an overloaded setup sequence; it was scheduled on Laurence Naismith’s final day of shooting; and it was evident I was not going to complete it that day. Suggestions were made that I should eliminate some of my planned setups. I was not in favor of doing this. And neither was Robert Lansing. He immediately stepped in and said HE WOULD PAY Naismith’s additional day’s salary in order to complete this sequence the way I had it planned. The company relented and hired Naismith for the following day without Lansing having to pay his salary.

It was not unusual for colored pages of script revisions to be delivered to the set. It was my habit to give them a cursory glance before depositing them in the back of my script. One day my quick glance gave me a moment of confusion. I recognized a revised scene as one we had already filmed. But I didn’t give it more than a quick thought. That day as we neared completion of filming, Frank Glicksman (producer) and Charles Larson came to the set. After I called “cut -- print” on the final take, Frank called for everyone’s attention. He announced that John Larkin, our General Crowe, had had a fatal heart attack and died that day. That explained the mysterious script revision. The original scene had John crossing through the outer office. We would be reshooting it with Harold Gould, a very fine actor who was in the cast as Colonel Reed. The scene that followed, which had not yet been filmed, had been rewritten with Colonel Reed now replacing General Crowe. I did wonder how much time elapsed between their learning of Larkin’s death and the delivery to the set of the revised script.

While I was still preparing, there was something else in the script that disturbed me. Axis Sally had made such an important point about the number 13. Our script had placed great emphasis on the 13th. But I felt there was no closure. Once Friday the 13th became Saturday the 14th, 13 disappeared. Max Hodge, a fine writer and a friend since our days at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre, came to visit the studio one day. Over lunch I shared my dilemma with him. Maxie immediately came up with a solution. I excitedly took it back to Charles Larson, who then wrote it into the script. I had the closure on 13 that I was seeking.

I don’t think there is any doubt that actors appreciate being praised for their work by their directors. What may be less evident is that directors appreciate being commended by their actors. That appreciation can be expressed in different ways.

One summer in the late fifties Sandy Meisner conducted a series of acting classes on the west coast. There were four classes, each of which met for two three-hour sessions a week. The course lasted six weeks. It was possible to sign up to audit these classes. Although I was still working at CBS on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, I did and took my usual copious shorthand notes. The evening classes offered no problem. Auditing the day classes presented a slight one that I solved by taking three-hour lunch breaks. The classes were conveniently conducted very close to CBS Television City, and PLAYHOUSE 90 was conveniently into summer reruns. I audited the master teacher for twenty-four hours a week for six weeks. As a result I tried to direct actors subjectively, working from their insides out.

I remember a very special moment for me on this show. We were filming a scene between Bob Lansing and Laurence Naismith, and we were doing Bob’s close-up. After a take I said we would need to do it again. I pointed out to Bob that there was a moment where he was thinking and I told him what I thought he was thinking. I suggested a different thought. Bob looked at me with a startled expression. Again I read his thoughts. He was saying, “Are you a mind reader?” And then softly with a slight smile he said, “You son-of-a-bitch!” You don’t get nicer compliments than that.

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