Tuesday, December 22, 2009

THE JACK IS HIGH - August 1964 (Suspense Theatre)

I might not have written about THE JACK IS HIGH this soon if I had not received an e-mail from a producer-director of independent films. Let me share that note with you.

Oh for those wonderful days past when weekly anthology dramatic series reigned supreme.

In an ideal episodic-television world a perfect script would be delivered to the director’s home three days before he is due to report to the studio to start preparation for the production. This would be in accordance with the DGA-Producer’s Guild contract. Once at the studio the six days of preparation and seven days of filming would go without unpleasant incident or bloodshed. This would probably result in better television, but it sure wouldn’t help in providing material for a blog. Fortunately for this blog, it was not an ideal world into which THE JACK IS HIGH was born.

A script was never delivered to my home, which was not unusual. In fact, contract or no contract it was quite normal. So I reported to the studio on the appointed day in August, figuring the script would be awaiting me there. When I arrived I was told there was a script, but ... well actually there wasn’t exactly a script. The film I was to direct was a caper movie, a story of an armored car robbery by a group of five men. The robbers all wore masks of Snow White’s dwarfs. And the studio had just found out that Walt Disney OWNED the rights to anything connected to Snow White. Therefore the script was going to have to be drastically revised. So with six working days before the beginning of filming, with loads of location scouting to do, I was relegated to the side lines awaiting the script’s arrival.

Fortunately the casting department was able to go into action. They probably had read the Dwarf version, so they just had to take off the masks and cast what was behind them. I’m just assuming this, because this being Universal, I didn’t even know in which building the casting department was deposited. But they did come up with a pretty impressive group.

Pat O’Brien. I loved working with screen legends I had watched as a kid. And I had met Pat briefly nine years before. My friend, Paul Bryar, had a role in a movie starring Pat, and one day he took me with him to a small studio at the east end of Sunset Boulevard. Paul had just been in a production I directed at the Players’ Ring of MY THREE ANGELS. In fact it was on that production that I met Paul and his wife, Claudia, who also was in it but not one of the ANGELS. I guess Paul had told Pat about the production, because Pat and his wife were going to be doing MY THREE ANGELS in summer stock that year, and we spoke about the play.

And then there were three actors with whom I had already worked, and I liked that. Henry Jones had been one of the stars of the series BANNING. I had directed an episode of that series a couple of years prior. Wait until I get around to writing about that one and the incident of the white concert grand piano. It too was at Universal. Harry Bellaver of NAKED CITY. And good old Bill Bramley. After his delivery of the line, “Honey, you wanna ride on my bulldozer!” in THE BULL ROARER, I always figured he was like money in the bank. The new kid on the block was Edd Byrnes, Kookie from 77 SUNSET STRIP, his career still warm from having been in that series.

Well finally the script arrived, well at least part of it. They still hadn’t figured out the ending, of how to stop a speeding gasoline tanker. But my starting concern was robbing the armored car. We were going to film it on the Universal backlot at night. We had decided on our needed hilly, country dirt road, and on the appointed day the company assembled there very late afternoon to prepare to shoot as soon as it was dark. The various crews were at work preparing for the evening’s filming. When filming on rough terrain we used a jeep crane, a jeep with a camera crane mounted on its rear. The jeep driver was slowly driving up the fairly steep incline, a member of the gaffers crew holding and guiding the end of the very long arm of the crane which extended off the body of the vehicle. The camera was of course not installed on the crane at this time. Two thirds of the way up the hill something went wrong with the jeep. The engine stopped, and the vehicle started to roll back down the hill. The jeep driver hit the brakes of the vehicle, but they didn’t work. So the vehicle gained speed. The man holding the end of the crane had to let go, and as the vehicle plummeted down the hill, the crane arm swinging wildly, members of the company who were spread out over the hillsilde, scrambled to get out of the way of this lethal weapon. The driver to his credit (he could have jumped out of the careening vehicle) stayed at the wheel trying to steer it down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the jeep rammed into something, and the driver was thrown from the vehicle. We all assembled there, the medical person on the set was summoned. The driver was rushed to the hospital. Filming for the evening was, of course, called off. Two or three days later we learned the driver died.

A day or so later we reassembled at the same spot to shoot what you are now going to see -- the sequence for which a man gave his life.

We were scheduled to return to the same location on the back lot the next morning to film the sequence of the beginning of the investigation. I had qualms about what the next morning would be like. How do you go back to the scene of a tragedy and carry on as if nothing has happened? It is amazing what a night’s sleep and the morning sunlight will do. It was not the nightmare I expected. At this point, of course, we knew the driver had been injured, but he was still alive in the hospital. And then there was Pat O’Brien, the consummate pro.

Take notice of the opening shot, a rising crane shot filmed with the camera mounted on a different jeep crane.

We actually filmed the aftermath of the robbery BEFORE it happened. We still had to return to this location later to film the opening sequence.

Since we were filming on location away from the studio the first few days, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the viewing of the dailies. But I would receive a report from the producer about them. After the first day’s work, his report was very positive. I relayed this information to the cast. Pat O’Brien said, “That’s what they used to say to Jimmy Cagney and me. Cagney’s response was, 'If the dailies are so good, why don’t you just release them. Why bother to put the picture together.'”

The director of photography for this production was Walter Strenge. Walter, a contract cameraman at Universal, was the one who replaced Lionel Lindon on ARREST AND TRIAL. Walter had explained to me the previous year on that production that the coming of color was going to simplify filming. No longer would there be a need for the cross lighting of black and white cinema. Just put two arc lights, one on either side of the camera and say "action." Walter was not one of the artists of the profession. Well he was not going to be able to use large arc lights on the 'guest room' set they had provided for me on this production.

Now let’s be frank right from the start. This script was no great character study. It was a caper with five stock characters. When casting stock characters the goal is to select actors whose personalities will flesh out the thinly drawn people in the script. Henry Jones was a fine choice for the English professor, with that underlying quiet sinister quality that had been so brilliantly utilized in THE BAD SEED, first on Broadway and then in the film. Larry Storch as the comic and William Bramley as the professional criminal -- need I say more? Harry Bellaver was a good choice for the sickly welder. The weak link was Edd Byrnes. Nice capable actor, who could have been a war hero. But our story is going to have him in a physical confrontation with Bill Bramley. In defense of the casting department, it’s possible they didn’t have the full script so they would know about this confrontation. Another reason to have a finished script before beginning production. But even then that might not have made a difference. Did you notice who got top billing on the opening credits. Ralph Meeker would have been a better choice. But at this point in their careers, Edd was the ‘hotter’ actor. And that’s the way Universal and the networks cast.

We spent several days away from the studio on location on California highways. When filming exteriors there was always the problem of extraneous noise -- airplanes above, cars in the area -- and Universal had a policy: Keep filming and print what you shoot. Don’t kill a shot because of airplanes or other noise. This applied to exterior work on the back lot as well, which was especially noisy because Universal Studio was very close to the Burbank airport. The sound department would then prepare loops of each line of dialog. The actor would report to the sound proof looping stage, be handed a set of earphones and would then listen to the loops and rerecord the dialogue, line by line until the sound engineer felt he had a perfect match. Most studios waited until the film was edited before calling the actors back to loop defective dialogue. But that meant paying the actors another day’s salary. Universal had the actors report to the looping stage on their final day of employment, but since the film had not been edited yet, that meant they had to loop EVERY LINE OF EVERY PRINTED TAKE THAT HAD BEEN FILMED. I was not in favor of this policy. These looping sessions paid absolutely no attention to performance. The engineer’s only responsiblity was to get a sound track that would match the filmed image. So if I heard an airplane or an automobile or any other sound that I knew would be affecting the sound track, I would find a performance or camera technical problem and kill the take. Imagine the following scene with Larry Storch and the police officer if you were seeing it not in Larry’s actual performance but in a technically manufactured one, assembled line by line from the results of a loopiing session.

And now for the confrontation between Kober and Mueller. Casting is more than fitting the right actor into the right role. In this case Edd Byrnes could be a good fit to play a war hero, and William Bramley a good fit for a bullying criminal. It’s the pairing of the two that is wrong. As I wrote before, Ralph Meeker would have made a good opponent for Bramley (they faced off in THE BULL ROARER on BREAKING POINT), but a smaller toughie would be needed opposite Byrnes. So what’s a director to do when it comes to staging a mismatch like this.

And finally the final pages of the script arrived with the solution of how to stop the speeding tanker.

I am in a perpetual state of amazement that series’ episodes like this, created close to half a century ago, are still around, that they are fondly remembered by people who viewed them then and that they are still relevant to younger people who have seen them since, first in syndication and later on the profuse cable outlets. They’re like old generals; they never die, they just go into reruns.

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