Boris Karloff’s anthology tv series: It’s a THRILLER!

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SILVER SCENES IS HOSTING THE UNIVERSAL BLOGATHON! SO I THOUGHT I’D BRING OUT THE UNIVERSAL TELEVISION PRODUCTION OF BORIS KARLOFF’S ANTHOLOGY… LET ME ASSURE YOU, IT’S A THRILLER!!! VISIT SILVER SCENES AND CHECK OUT ALL THE WONDERFUL CONTRIBUTIONS TO THIS HALLOWEEN CELEBRATION!

Classic TV Blog Association is hosting the MeTV Summer of Classic TV Blogathon

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“I think the title leaves the stories wide open to be based on melodrama not violence or shock. They’ll be stories about people in ordinary surroundings and something happened to them. The whole thing boils down to taste. Anybody can show you a bucket of blood and say-‘This is a bucket of blood’, but not everyone can produce a skilful story”Boris Karloff (1960)

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At the bottom of this feature you will find links to my older Thriller posts. Some of my favorite episodes- as well as 4 newly covered episodes in brief for the MeTV Summer of Classic TV Blogathon!-Masquerade,Parasite Mansion, Mr.George and The Purple Room!

From the show’s opening iconic musical score, you know something deliciously sinister is about to occur. The word THRILLER appears against a fractured white web like graphic title design quite a bit in the style of Saul Bass. The discordant piano and horn stabs of modern jazz already bring you into the inner sanctum of menacing story telling. As Boris would often say as a precursory welcome,”Let me assure you ladies and gentlemen, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller.”

Boris Karloff’s Thriller was an anthology series that ran from 1960-1962. It included 60 minute B&W episodes, 67 in all, that were expected to compete with The Twilight Zone ’59-’64 and Alfred Hitchcock Presents ’55-’62.

Thriller was filmed at the same network and sound stage as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Producer Writer & Director Douglas Benton claims though not hearing it directly that Hitchcock resented Thriller, as he considered Hubbell Robinson encroaching on his territory.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1955

Benton states, “Actually we weren’t doing the same thing he was, he was doing some very sophisticated ‘twist’ material. Hitchcock was doing the sort of thing that they started out to do on Thriller… We {Frye, Benton et al} came along and improved the ratings considerably and got a tremendous amount of press and Hitchcock didn’t like the competition. I don’t think he ever came out and said ‘get rid of ’em’ but he did allow them to enlarge his show from -a half hour to an hour, and that made it more difficult for us to stay on.” {source: Boris Karloff-More Than A Monster The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs}

The series was developed by Executive Producer Hubbell Robinson program director and then executive vice president at CBS who was responsible for dramatic shows like Studio One & Playhouse 90 and produced Arsenic and Old Lace (tv movie ’69) with Lillian Gish & Helen Hayes. Boy oh boy would I like to get my hands on a copy of that!

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Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes with Bob Crane rehearsing for Arsenic and Old Lace ’69

In 1959 he left CBS to start his own production company, Hubbell Robinson Productions. Robinson had said “Our only formula is to have no formula at all,” endeavoring that each week’s episode would not be like the week before, bringing viewers one hour feature pictures that were “consciously and deliberately striving for excellence. {…}Each plot will be unique, unusual.” Robinson {source:Boris Karloff-More Than A Monster The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs}

Also on board were producers William Frye, Fletcher Markle & Maxwell Shane (The Mummy’s Hand ’40, Fear in the Night ’47) who added their vision of a superior mystery & horror anthology for MCA’s Revue Studios which would conform to the trend of anthology series’ featuring a host to introduce each week’s story.

The format had somewhat ambivalent themes, leaving the show’s narrative straddling both genres of crime melodrama and tales of the macabre. But… either of these atmospheres created by some of the best writers, directors and players delivered a highly intoxicating blend of both, remaining a powerful anthology with unique dramatic flare.

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Karloff loved the title for the show, “It’s an arresting title. And it does not tie you to one type of show. You can have suspense and excitement, without getting into violence {…} There will be none of the horror cliches on this programme {…} we will deal with normal people involved in unusual situations.”

Boris Karloff was very critical of horror for the sake of horror, during Thriller’s run,“We’re in an era of insensate violence. Today it’s shock, so-called horror and revulsion. I think the idea is to excite and terrify rather than entertain. The story is muck for the sake of muck. The over emphasis of violence on screen and tv has reached the point of being utterly absurd… That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller-violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock.”{source:Boris Karloff-More Than A Monster The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs}

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Boris’ prelude to Dark Legacy
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Boris Karloff presents The Hungry Glass
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Boris Karloff introduces Hay-fork and Bill-Hook

Not only was there unmistakable atmosphere to each of Thriller’s episodes, the stories themselves were lensed in a unique way that was very ahead of it’s time. The actors brought a serious attitude to their characters and the plot development, and didn’t treat them as merely short pulp stories as fodder for the tv masses. This was an intelligent show, and the presence of Boris Karloff added a charming and cerebral primacy to the show’s narration. It was like being tucked in by your remarkable grandfather who loved to tell a good spooky tale to you right before bedtime. I’ve said this plenty, I wish Boris Karloff had been my grandfather. Everyone who has ever worked with Karloff had nothing but glowing praise for the great and gentle man. He exuded a quiet grace and was the consummate professional taking every part seriously and extremely generous with his time even as he suffered from his physical limitations. Karloff had been getting on in years and his grand stature was riddled with arthritis causing his legs to bow.

Actress Audrey Dalton said this, “Just the perfect gentleman. A terribly British, wonderful wonderful man.” Actor Ed Nelson who was dying to work with Karloff said, “He was a very gentle man” Douglas Benton had said, “Boris Karloff-God, what a lovely man.”

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Karloff as Clayton Mace the phony mentalist in The Prediction

While filming The Prediction the scene at the end when he must lie down in the pool of rainy water and die, Karloff asked director John Brahm “Is this the best way for the camera?” who said, “Yes, it is but good lord you don’t have to lie there and have gutter water coursing up your britches like that!”  Karloff replied, “Oh yes I do! This is my work. I insist.” {source: Boris Karloff-More Than A Monster The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs}

Every installment of the show offered us a chance to see Karloff as he enters the Thriller stage like a sage Fabulist delivering us the evening’s program with a refined articulation of philosophy and captivating story telling encapsulated in a compelling little prologue, often infused with it’s own brand of dark humor.

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Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

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“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

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Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947
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Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing Act of Violence (1948) wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and it’s discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of it’s relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with it’s roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

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Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. Patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

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Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses the male subjectivity which is a principle issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying in any good classic film noir.

In this post I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to much of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

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Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, an inner turmoil, alienation, persecution and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set- Up (1949) noble over- the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton,On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self deprecating, masochistic and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Continue reading “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir”