FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.
CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.
What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.
The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.
Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.
Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.
The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!
Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.
Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.
As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on Amazon.com for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.
No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.
Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.
Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.
Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.
The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.
A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.
The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.
The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.
Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.
In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.
After Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”
Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.
What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.
Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)
To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.