Bullseye (Episode 02-04, October 1962).

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Only four episodes into Season 2, Cathy Gale gets her first opportunity to strike out on her own in Bullseye. Faced with a murder at a small arms company that may be tied to gun-running in Africa, Cathy joins the company’s board of directors as a shareholder, plunging herself into industrial espionage and conspiracy. Steed is on hand but remains solidly in the background for this one, only showing up once or twice to tease Cathy and smoke cigars.

Cathy uncovers a series of nasty coincidences as more fellow board members are murdered, narrowing the range of suspects to about three by the end of it. It’s all tied in with a takeover bid by industrialist Henry Cade (Ronald Radd), who intends to purchase the company and carve it up at a profit. Cade is suspect number one, as each of the directors dies after meeting with him, but there are several others that are equally nasty pieces of work: Doreen Ellis (Judy Parfitt, who pops up pretty consistently through The Avengers), and Mr. Young (Felix Deebank), a ladykiller with a smarminess all his own.

Giving Honor Blackman her own episode this early in the season was a gamble for The Avengers (regardless of production order), and it’s a shame she didn’t get a better one. As with a number of these early episodes, Bullseye suffers from the combination of a preponderance of plot, and dialogue that fails to drive it. Steed’s absence does not have to harm an episode (check out The Big Thinker if you don’t believe me), but in this case poor Cathy has very little to occupy her time. The villains are fairly clear from the outset, and the ending both unsurprising and anti-climactic. Cathy has no opportunity to show off her fabulous judo skills (despite setting up a villain with whom she could easily grapple), and much of the interesting action takes place off-screen.

However, Bullseye is not all bad. On a second viewing I actually found it more enjoyable, with at least two scenes that create excellent tension and remind us that Cathy is quite the badass. Ronald Radd’s Henry Cade is simply delightful, an irascible millionaire entirely at home in his business. The episode pops when he’s onscreen. Finally and as always, the few scenes between Cathy and Steed have an energy all their own, as their combative relationship makes even a friendly meeting into a battle of the sexes.

So put Bullseye in the “miss” category. It isn’t a bad episode by any means, but there’s not a great deal to be said for it.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

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Fear Strikes Out might be one of the few baseball movies to feature very little baseball. No games are depicted in full; there are no exciting montages of teams winning or losing, and there’s little romantic aggrandizement of America’s pastime. Yet the film also purports to tell the true story of a great ball-player, and deals openly and honestly with the pressure that comes with being a sports star.

Fear Strikes Out tells the story of real-life outfielder Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1953-58. Piersall had a public breakdown during the 1952 season, entering a mental hospital where he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The film is based on Piersall’s autobiography, and elides over some of the less charming aspects of his personality (including one instance where he spanked a teammate’s four year old child in the Red Sox clubhouse). This is perhaps the story as Piersall would like it to be known, about a talented outfielder beset by familial pressures and mental illness. As such, it might behoove us to take the historical accuracy of the film with a grain of salt.

Passing the sketchy biographical details, what we have left is a drama with a baseball background. The film opens with the adolescent Piersall at home in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he’s already a driven baseball player. He’s both encouraged and dominated by his father (Karl Malden), a former ball player who never made it to the majors. Raised with only baseball on his mind, Jimmy grows up to be a socially awkward young man but a brilliant player, attracting the attention of Red Sox scouts during his senior year of high school. He’s drafted and heads off to Scranton to learn how to play in the majors, where he meets apparently the only positive force in his life: Mary (Norma Moore), who becomes his wife.

As Jimmy moves towards the majors, though, his nervousness and self-criticism (fueled by his father) become more pronounced. Terrified of failure, he also cannot celebrate his own success – he loves baseball, but does not seem to have any fun on or off the field. His constant refrain is that he’s not good enough. He fails to make the Red Sox right out of Scranton, but when he’s finally drafted as a shortstop (instead of an outfielder, which he was trained for), he nearly has a breakdown. The paranoia only increases when he actually becomes a major league player, clashing with his teammates and coaches, constantly frightened of judgement and inadequacy.

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The center of the film is of course Tony Perkins, who plays Piersall with the same haunted gaze and tragic aura that would make him so effective as Norman Bates, three years later. Jimmy never seems relaxed, standing or playing with hunched shoulders, his body tight and face taut with controlled emotion. He builds slowly from a nervous boy to a man in the throes of total collapse without overacting the part – and his breakdown, when it comes, is both expected and heartbreaking, as he shrieks into the stands, begging to be told he’s good enough.

Karl Malden as John Piersall has the unenviable task of making a controlling man into more than caricature. He pulls it off though, imbuing the domineering father with a sense of tragedy all his own. The viewer never doubts that he loves his son, or that he is the main actor in Jim’s mental collapse. He and Jim share an intense, co-dependent relationship that luckily never makes one or the other of them overly sympathetic. It would have been easy to turn John Piersall into the villain of the piece, and Malden helps to keep that from happening.

The women of the film are minor characters, and as such are fairly lackluster. Jimmy’s mother, whose own mental illness is briefly hinted at, is a non-entity, while his wife Mary is both his major supporter and a little too forgiving of all the men around her. One has the impression that she recognizes the over-dominance of the father early on, but seems incapable of even suggesting to her husband that he sever ties.

The only truly glaring flaw in Fear Strikes Out comes when Jimmy finally makes it to the Red Sox. The movie makes it appear as though the Red Sox manager is taking a lot from a rookie ballplayer – a young man who cannot get through a game without insulting or instructing his own teammates, and even begins a fight in the dugout. We’re made to understand that the Red Sox continue to put up with Jimmy because he’s a brilliant ballplayer, but his brilliance is rarely in evidence on the field. A few longer sequences of Piersall actually playing ball, proving just how good he really is, and it would have been easier to accept that a major league team would keep him for as long as they did.

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The flaws of the film could be put down to the relative inexperience of director Robert Mulligan. Fear Strikes Out was his first feature film in a career primarily focused on television. Mulligan would go on to direct some excellent, if maudlin, films, including To Kill A Mockingbird and Inside Daisy Clover. He makes excellent use of aural and visual cues that set the viewer on the field beside Jimmy, focalizing scenes through him in an experience of nerves and paranoia. Unfortunately, his directing does nothing to expand upon an understanding of Jimmy’s talents as well as his fatal flaws.

An early and honest examination of mental illness, in the context of one of America’s most beloved sports, Fear Strikes Out largely avoids maudlin sentimentality or easy answers. It also reminded me that baseball is the most individual of team sports. We focus on stats of individual players as much as we focus on whole teams, and scream to take players out of the game. Attention falls onto a batter, a pitcher, a fielder, and a single mistake can make or break a game (and a career). It’s an aggressive, quiet, strange sport, and aggressive, quiet, strange men have to play it.

 

Six Hands Across A Table (Episode 02-25, March 1963).

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Following Venus’s departure, Cathy Gale returns for an episode more or less on her own – and for the first (and last) time, romance is in the air! Cathy has become involved with shipyard owner Oliver Waldner (Guy Doleman), ostensibly on the strength of her schoolgirl friendship with his sister (?) Rosalind (Sylvia Bidmead). But there are nefarious dealings afoot when one of Waldner’s business colleagues dies a suspicious death after refusing to participate in a deal that would give Waldner and friends control of a large section of British shipbuilding. Steed is on hand, of course, to prove that Cathy’s boyfriend is a killer.

Six Hands Across A Table suffers from a number of confusions between characters, both personally and professionally. Waldner and his colleagues are apparently attempting to push through a deal that would keep British shipbuilding in their control, while the murdered man and his son, who takes over his father’s company, attempt to work with a French firm that would take some shipbuilding out of the country. The plot is a little complex for an hour episode, and unfortunately focuses a bit too much on some rather complex backroom business deals to be interesting.

The other source of confusion appears in Cathy’s relationship to Oliver and Rosalind. At first I thought Rosalind was Oliver daughter, based on the way they relate, but Oliver is far closer to Cathy’s age and her and Rosalind were meant to be at school together. Some of the confusion is a result of Cathy visibly being in her early to mid-thirties, while Rosalind looks much younger. It is at times difficult to understand the relationship of the characters as a result.

Beyond confusions in the plot, however, Six Hands Across A Table hangs together rather well. It is the only time that Cathy has a romantic interest – and she makes quite a terrible choice. Waldner is a cold-blooded killer who treats murder like a business venture. When Steed warns Cathy of her lover’s possible criminal activities, she attempts to dismiss him – but is obviously shaken. Blackman gives an excellent performance here; she’s gotten in too deep and made the mistake of falling in love with a man she’s supposed to be investigating. While Steed offers little solace, couching his suspicions in his usual flippant manner, he’s earnestly concerned to keep her out of trouble.

There’s a touching scene that highlights Steed’s increasing sensitivity, and inherent decency, as well as Cathy’s intense guarding of her emotions. More and more we see that these are two people who protect themselves from emotional pain, but actually care very deeply for one another. The episode is worth it for that scene alone.

Mister Jerico

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Following the conclusion of The Avengers in 1969, a number of the cast and crew decided it was a good idea to take themselves off to the sea and sand and make a movie. The result was Mister Jerico, intended as a TV pilot that never got off the ground. It was released theatrically in the United Kingdom, and then as a TV movie in the U.S.

Patrick Macnee is Dudley Jerico - whose theme song leaves a little to be desired – a thief/con-man (with scruples) out to con a nasty millionaire Russo (played by the always nasty, always enjoyable Herbert Lom) out of a few million dollars. Jerico’s pal Wally (Marty Allen) helps with the endeavor – and there is of course the lovely Susan Grey (Connie Stevens), Russo’s secretary and Dudley’s love interest. Things get complicated when a mysterious French woman pops up trying to pull the same caper, involving the theft and sale of a rare diamond.

Mister Jerico is one of those charming and fluffy capers that the 1960s did well, quite similar to the higher- budgeted Gambit or How to Steal a Million. The palette is sun-soaked, the plot buoyant and just this side of ridiculous. The second half of the film in particular moves along at a nice pace, complicating matters without making anything seem too serious. If you think too deeply about the story, it will all appear very nonsensical, but this is a stylized caper film not intended for deeper scrutiny. It’s a surface film and as such it’s quite enjoyable.

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Patrick Macnee is a likable screen presence and good light comedian, playing Jerico with the same dash of wit and energy that he possessed as John Steed. He’s a somewhat limited actor, but works within those limitations to create a charming, erudite con man.  His wardrobe is also nothing short of spectacular – if that’s the word for it – with bright prints, flashy trousers, and a blue velvet fedora that Superfly would be proud of. Herbert Lom is an excellent counterpoint: a sharp, venal heavy, who fully deserves anything the cons can throw at him.

Connie Stevens meanwhile seems a touch out of place as Susan. While she and Macnee have heat, her somewhat breathy line delivery and slight air-headedness don’t quite gel with her role, which becomes more complex  as the film goes on. Still, she’s not an uninteresting leading lady, though I could name about ten actresses that might have played the light part with a bit more depth.

Mister Jerico is the height of 1960s silliness, and as long as one expects nothing more it makes for a diverting few hours. While I understand why it was never picked up as a pilot, it’s no less ridiculous than The PrisonerThe Persuaders, or any other stylized TV show from the same period. I have a soft spot for stylized films – all the more so if they happen to feature actors and actresses I enjoy. While not quite high camp, Mister Jerico is a lot of fun.

A Chorus of Frogs (Episode 02-24, March 1963)

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 A Chorus of Frogs is the final Venus Smith episode to air, and actually manages to be my favorite of her six entries into The Avengers canon.

Steed has gone on holiday to Greece, but the mysterious death of a diver/spy interrupts his enjoyment of the sea and sand. So Steed hops onto millionaire Mason’s (Eric Pohlman) yacht, the site of the man’s death and the location of his three fellow “Frogs,” a team of smugglers/divers/spies. Venus Smith just so happens to be providing entertainment for the cruise around the Mediterranean – but she’s none too happy when Steed puts in his appearance in her cabin, insisting that he be allowed to sleep there. All is not well on the boat, of course – the death of another diver complicates matters, as does the presence of Anna Lee (Yvonne Shima), apparently a Chinese operative. Meanwhile, Venus appears to have finally gotten fed up with Steed’s insinuation into her life, and just about gives him up as a stowaway when the excitement gets the better of her.

A Chorus of Frogs moves along at a good pace. The plot is somewhat sparse, but what it lacks in narrative sense it makes up for in characterization. Peppered with excellent character actors, including John Carson as the diver Ariston, the dialogue snaps better than any other Venus episode. Some excellent rapport between Venus and Steed show just how tired she’s become of his constant invasions, as she gleefully watches him trying to shave with a dull straight-razor. Steed is rather put-upon throughout the episode, threatened at gunpoint by the female diver Helena (Colette Wilde) in a scene that becomes a running gag. But it’s a dashing, water-soaked story, with some strong tension at the climax.

Although Steed might at times put his partners into harm’s way (often without their knowledge), he never wants to hurt anyone and usually goes out of his way to make certain that innocent people aren’t harmed. A Chorus of Frogshows off both his humor and his strong sense of justice – he has a desire to do right, and to protect as many people as he can, especially those he feels a personal responsibility towards.

Venus Smith exits the series here; it’s a shame she wasn’t given a better chance to develop. While Stevens’s musical numbers might grate just a bit, Venus had some potential as a character if she could have shaken some of her naivete. However, like Dr. King before her, the writers evidently did not know what to do with her. So out she goes, making the way for Cathy Gale as the only partner willing to stick it out with Steed, which is probably just as well.

Conspiracy of Silence (Episode 02-23, March 1963).

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Circus clowns! The Mafia! Assassination attempts! Knife-throwing! This episode should have it all. So why doesn’t it quite come off?

Conspiracy of Silence starts off well. Circus clown Carlo must assassinate Steed or face dire consequences from the Mafia’s envoy. The assassination attempt fails (as it would) and Steed sends Cathy to hang out at a local circus in a bid to locate the assassin who failed to kill him. There Cathy finds herself (once more) in the midst of family drama, as the wife of the circus clown cum assassin apparently has no idea where her husband is. Meanwhile the Mafia man hangs around in the hopes of finding Carlo and forcing him to do the job.

The drama here takes a front seat to the actual plot, with Cathy trying to be sympathetic to everyone involved. The wife fends off advances from the Ringmaster, the Mafia man threatens loudly, and the various clowns and performers are all suspect in helping to keep Carlo under wraps. Unfortunately this seems to mean that a lot of nothing happens for most of the runtime, with the best action packing into the last ten minutes or so. Carlo is a somewhat sympathetic antagonist, caught between having to commit a horrific crime or be sent back to Italy, where the Mafia will do away with him. Yet I found it difficult to feel any real sympathy for a whiny and weepy character, or his oft-hysterical wife.

What Conspiracy of Silence has, though, are two excellent scenes between Steed and Cathy, highlighting their inherent differences and the development of their characters. When Steed appears at the circus to discuss Cathy’s findings, they stand at odds with each other: Steed wants to force Carlos into the open, while Cathy tries to convince him that it’s better to offer Carlos a deal rather than frightening him. Steed accuses her of idealism, she accuses him of cynicism, and the whole thing ends with Steed shaking his fists and storming off. It’s a dynamic little scene, complemented by the later sequence in which Cathy hears two gunshots and believes that Steed has been murdered. When she discovers that he survived, the pain on her face is real – her fear of losing him shows the chinks in her otherwise impenetrable emotional armor. It’s a brief moment, but it ends the episode with a strange poignancy for The Avengers. Cathy has truly begun to care about Steed, even though she doesn’t want to show it. 

At the end of the day, though, Conspiracy of Silence is one of the lesser episodes, despite a setting that offered many opportunities for some campy fun.

Man in the Mirror (Episode 02-22, February 1963).

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With Cathy Gale saving the world from exploding stars, what is there for Venus Smith to do except wander an amusement park? Venus returns in her penultimate episode Man in the Mirror to assist Steed in proving that a cipher expert who recently committed suicide might not actually be dead.

The impetus for the investigation comes when Venus wanders the amusement park where the man committed suicide and happens to snap a picture of him in a funhouse mirror – several days after he’s supposed to be dead. This is enough to launch her and Steed into the weird world of the amusement park, where they discover family drama, people held hostage, and a possible treacherous plot in the offing.

Steed’s superiors make a few appearances during the second and third seasons of The Avengers (and thankfully disappear for the entire Mrs. Peel series). This time Steed finds himself somewhat at odd with his boss, who accuses him in the opening scenes of being a lone wolf, declining to play by the rules. It’s a neat little scene, and highlights what makes Steed so likable in the early seasons – while he might dress the part of a traditionalist, he’s quite far from it.

Venus, meanwhile, has fully transitioned into a teenager. When Steed brings her back to the amusement park, she’s carrying a teddy bear and chewing on a candy-apple. The dynamic between them has ceased to carry any possible sexual implications – Steed not only towers over her physically, but she’s apparently regressed from a twenty-year-old to a seventeen year old. Her continued naiveté about Steed’s profession remains inexplicable – this is the fifth time he’s involved her in a case, and a fifth time that she’s gotten in too deep.

The uncertainty of Venus’s character might very well be what got her eliminated from The Avengers altogether. There’s no ambiguity between Steed and Cathy on a professional level – she’s well aware of his job, and he never tries to fool her about it. Yet Venus goes between having a competent understanding of Steed’s work, and an apparent ignorance that seems laughable this late in the game. The youth/age dynamic (which will unfortunately reappear in the much later Tara King season) means that there’s little chance for parity between them – Venus is far too much of a child to be a proper partner.

There are some enjoyable moments in Man in the Mirror, however. The villains capture Venus at the climax, revealing one or two salient details about their plot that on first viewing quite surprised me. Steed’s dedication to protecting her is quite sweet, even if he does always get her into trouble in the first place. While it’s a far cry from my favorite Venus Smith episode, Man in the Mirror can make for a diverting 50 minutes.