Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Classic TV Detectives Blogathon: Blacke's Magic (1986)

This review is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Check out the other great posts here.

When this blogathon was first proposed, I racked my brain trying to think of interesting detectives to write about. There are certainly many. But, I ended up with the non-detective detective show (of which there are also many!) Blacke’s Magic because it was a program I hadn’t seen a lot of people talking about, and because it gave me a reason to sit down once again with the pilot movie. And any excuse that gets me on the couch with Hal Linden is good for me!

Blacke’s Magic made its debut as a made for television movie on NBC on January 5th, 1986. It was a midseason replacement show, put together by Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link, the trio behind the much loved Murder, She Wrote, which had made its impressive debut in 1984 (and you probably also recognize Levinson and Link as the madly brilliant duo behind Columbo). In many ways, the formula replicates Murder, She Wrote: A non-detective celebrity figure finds a new profession investigating various crimes committed around them. However, whereas Jessica Fletcher worked a sort of intuitive magic solving seemingly unsolvable crimes, Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden looking fit and fine) employs his learned tricks as a way to turn a whodunit into a howdunit!

Linden said he had rejected many television series offers before he decided to hit the small screen again as the retired magician crime fighter. He remarked that the sophisticated Alexander Blacke appealed to him because unlike the good-natured and responsive Barney Miller, Alexander was not just reacting to everyone else. He seemed larger than life, and that enticed Linden, who noticed a hint of Broadway in the charming Alexander.

Also, this opportunity gave Linden a chance to work with the great and oh-so-lovable Harry Morgan, whose last series role had been on the unsuccessful MASH spinoff AfterMASH. Morgan was actually not in the market for a weekly show, but said that after his first wife died in 1985 he wanted to put himself back out there. The combination of these two greats, backed by Levinson and Link, directed by the great John Llewellyn Moxey, and featuring a tasty premise full of magic and wonder should have been just as magical for the audience as it was on the show (the actual tricks were orchestrated by Doug Henning’s “magic designer” Jim Steinmeyer). And, it’s a damn shame that Blacke’s Magic never got a chance to fully explore its potential.

Newspaper promo for Blacke's Magic
Many critics dubbed Blacke’s Magic the new Banacek, and that is not too far off the mark. And it was also part of the problem. Banacek took on some serious mind-boggling crimes, but sometimes the stories were overly confusing (even if George Peppard werked those turtlenecks). The same could be said here, as the pilot movie, while certainly engaging and fun, throws too many rabbits into its hat, confusing the mystery and heart of the story.

The pilot episode, which is titled Breathing Room, starts off with Blacke performing a highly anticipated escape act, only to end up all wet and soon retired. Bored and unfocused, Blacke is invited to a magician's conference where he is due to get an award. Jetting off to San Francisco he soon runs into one of his magician friends, the Great Gasparini (!), played by Ceasare Danova with an extra dose of suave. Gasparini's beautiful daughter, Carla (Kathleen Beller) is dating a hot new magician named Michael (Joseph Cali from Grease, and The Lonely Lady and my heart). Michael basically plagiarizes one of Gasparini’s tricks, much to the dismay of the great suave one! Before you know it, Gasparini is taking one last… you got it… gasp at his infamous dunked coffin bit, only this time he plans to stay underwater one more hour than normal. Everything seems to be going wonderfully, but soon after Gasparini is released from the depths of the hotel’s pool, it quickly become apparent that he’s been shot… from inside the coffin?!?

I know! Crazy, right? 

Luckily for the viewing audience, Alexander's daughter (Claudia Christian) is dating a gorgeous homicide detective played by Mark Shera (lucky girl!), who is so baffled by the murder that he invites Alexander to help him solve the crime… on the down-low of course!

And that’s just about half of the story! Early on Morgan shows up as Leonard Blacke, Alex’s scoundrel of a father. He is an aging con artist who is equally as bored by his retired life and he soon joins Alexander in San Francisco, using his con-style tactics to, well, not get too much information. But Morgan looks like he’s having a blast.

Airing on a Sunday night against a small screen remake of The Defiant Ones, Blacke’s Magic was met with mixed reviews. Certainly, it was an imperfect pilot film – Morgan needed a stronger presence, and the story is buried under subplots and superfluous characters. Sure, we need red herrings, but with abused housewives, con artist illusionists, devilish doctors and hotel managers it feels like the telefilm was trying to cram a whole season into their first two-hour time slot!

However, as a cozy mystery series, ala the aforementioned Murder, She Wrote, it doesn’t get much more charming or comfy than Blacke’s Magic. This is one of those shows where you can simply sit back and let the actors do the driving. It’s an inviting cast, and everyone from Maud Adams to Tricia O’Neil to David Huddleson bring a little bit of their own ol’ black(e) magic of awesome to the screen (trivia: O’Neil was also featured in the Murder, She Wrote pilot telefilm and got her start with the Fischer/Levinson/Link trio all the way back in seventies in an Ellery Queen episode and in another pilot TVM titled Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging). It’s really a shame that Blacke’s Magic only ran for 12 episodes before it did its final disappearing act, because I think the series had some great tricks up its sleeve.

Plus it had this wonderful opening:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Must See Streaming Movie of the Week: The Third Girl From the Left (1973)

Network: ABC
October 16th, 1973

Peter Medak is my favorite director that I never talk about. He has moved effortlessly from the big to small screen, and is behind so many films I absolutely adore (The Changeling, The Krays, The Babysitter… lots of movies starting with the word The). Very early in his career the Hungarian born director was offered a chance to direct both Kim Novak and Tony Curtis in their telefilm debuts. He does not disappoint, and The Third Girl from the Left (which is songwriter Dory Previn’s lone screenplay) is an exquisite and poignant look at how even in the fast lane, life can pass you by.

The main credit sequence fixates an almost fetishistic lens on Novak as she applies her makeup. Despite being an already beautiful woman who transforms herself into an idealized knockout in a matter of seconds, there is a definite sense that Novak’s character Gloria is an unhappy woman in an unhappy place. Even though she is the “number one showgirl” in New York, she works in a small revue and has to deal with younger dancers who constantly vie for her coveted spot. In this respect, the title reflects a sad anonymity for a well-known showgirl, because despite her small grasps at fame she remains a somewhat undistinguished figure languishing in the dying (and decaying) NYC chorus girl circuit.

Previn wrote the script based on her own experiences as a struggling chorus girl. She said in an interview, “The girls never have names. The choreographer says, ‘Third girl from the left, you’re out of step.’ Some try suicide. In my album, Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign, the starlet jumps off the letter H because she didn’t become a star… I wonder about our planet. Is it a lonely little starlet out in the sky? What happens when youth is gone?”

Now, in 2015, the telefilm evokes memories of last year’s Oscar’s, where Novak’s face became the object of derision, criticism and outright bullying. In this context, Third Girl takes on an extra layer of poignancy as we see Gloria as a woman whose age is quietly critiqued by everyone, including herself. She is constantly touted as a “relic” who is seen as either the stereotypical “good girl” that her philandering comedian boyfriend (Tony Curtis) puts on a pedestal while still managing to ignore her, or, in one of the film’s bluest moments, she is relegated as a celebrated antique by a group of young partygoers who only see her as the last of the great chorus girls. All, except for David (Michael Brandon, who would fall in love with Novak during production and spend the next year as her boyfriend), a young delivery boy who is clearly smitten. The two embark on a sad affair. Not sad in any kind of visibly tangible sense, but tragic in that it becomes obvious that he is also not the right guy for a girl who desperately needs the right guy.

There’s some heavy-duty stuff happening in Third Girl, but while a melancholy permeates every frame, the film never overwhelms itself with gloom. Novak is a stunner as Gloria the dejected dancer. The actress came out of a self-imposed four-year absence from acting, stating later that she liked the idea of working in television’s fast paced production atmosphere, while also bemoaning that “There’s too much time wasted in features.” And then, probably after she realized the hectic pace and the temporary life of the telefilm, she added later with some humor, “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”

Heartbreak is the name of Gloria's game and Novak keeps her sympathetic and easy to root for. Previn’s script is very of its time, and she even contributes a wistful folk song about the protagonist (which you will either love or hate, it’s that kind of tune). Produced by Playboy Pictures, Hugh Hefner cast his then-main squeeze, Barbi Benton in a small part as Curtis’ no nonsense mistress. It’s an early role, but she’s already commanding the lens and is one of the more memorable supporting characters.

Third Girl is also a wonderful, if bittersweet, time capsule, capturing the last days of the showgirl, the not-too-hard-knock-life of the Vegas comedian, the dark, grimy streets of New York, and some fantastic not very over the top seventies wear, which Novak wears with style. Whether they knew it or not, Previn, Medak and company composed a love letter to a time that feels too far away now, and despite the less than happy ending, Third Girl is a unique kind of treat and worth a look.

Third Girl From the Left is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.