George McCowan is a director who achieves by a very precise technique a consistent ability as a maker of pictures for television.
All television series have at least one more or less fortuitous episode, as you might call it, where the director for some reason or other slips into cinematography, perhaps through inattention or devil-may-care, but by and large over the years radio may be said to have prevailed.
McCowan is one among the number who broke the mold, creating pictures first in the pilot, then demonstrating his great technique in the series.
The Magnificent Seven Ride!
The two previous films after The Magnificent Seven had dealt with a certain aspect of the theme quite diligently and thoroughly, now McCowan begins with a great joke to sum all that up. A rider speeds into town and dashes into the U.S. Marshal’s office, it’s the one about the Westerner who’s heard of Paul Revere, the Easterner “who rode fer he’p.”
Clint Eastwood surely must have noticed this for Unforgiven, Chris (Lee Van Cleef) is now a stern, unforgiving justice with a newly-acquired biographer (Michael Callan) emulating Ned Buntline (“mostly trash” is Chris’s verdict). The messenger warns of an ambush set for Jim McKay (Ralph Waite), a sheriff in Mexico (Chris is surprised) carrying three thousand dollars to raise a force against De Toro’s bandits—a thousand to Chris, who is in semi-retirement and turns him down.
A mother’s plea prevails upon Chris to turn a young robber loose, and the boy does it again, shooting men down and kidnapping Chris’s wife (Mariette Hartley). Chris and his scribe track the gang South, meet the besieged McKay outside the village of Magdalena, and figure the boy has joined De Toro.
They find Chris’s wife raped and killed, the village taken, the men murdered, the boy and McKay dead at each other’s hand. “He did my job,” says Chris, “I’ll do his.”
He goes to Tucson Territorial Prison to fetch the cutthroats he didn’t set free (Luke Askew, Pedro Armendariz, Jr., James Sikking, Ed Lauter, William Lucking), with a pardon from the Governor in exchange for their service. This is directly from The Dirty Dozen (as Return of the Seven anticipated it), but gradually acquiesces into the tints of Aldrich’s great original, Gordon Douglas’s Only the Valiant. Having retaken the village in De Toro’s personal absence, the seven raid his hacienda likewise, again killing a number of his men but also pillaging his loot, with his woman for bait.
Magdalena is now a village of women and children, some American. Chris has the seven choose up women till none are left, for the practical considerations of loading, nursing and building fortifications. “Draw your own lines,” he tells the women. De Toro’s attack is only days away.
McCowan has a great position as a director. He settled the art for television in Cannon by continually applying a photographic technique even to the demands of an hour-long weekly series in color, here you see him in full stride with the best compositional work you can find. The key is in his filming of the Vasquez Rocks near the William S. Hart Ranch. These can be seen as shorthand for the rugged landscape or as surreal unearthly forms (seen here from a distance early on), McCowan unequivocally sizes them up in every shot for sculptural values, making integral compositions. The detailed lively plaza of the village is partly a smaller version of the one at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what’s taken and put to use with great care and a settled eye is the life of the place, and again this is conceived in sculptural terms of the finest. Small, colorful plants in clay pots amid the adobe walls, objects, signs, make up still-lifes in the background of the shots, an up-angle on one of the seven atop the mission isolates a recessed corner of the molding into a strong abstract composition McCowan returns to several times (a curve and an angle) for its expressive properties, the mobile barricades are made of various bits of furniture and junk of all sorts forming great modern sculptures dragged into place amid gunfire, intricately detailed pictures every one of them, reflecting the intricacy of the construction. The mother persuades Chris to free the young robber, lest the boy become “an animal” in prison, and he at once falls in again with his old crowd, eventually leading De Toro’s gang around and behind the ambush McKay has set up. Then the widow (Stefanie Powers) persuades Chris to help the village, and he goes to the prison to get men tough enough to fight De Toro—former colleagues who wouldn’t change their ways when Chris did.
This gives a matter-of-factness and grasp to McCowan’s shots that is well-wrought and quite efficient. A side-angle of the altar picks up part of a carven crucifix with no loss to the image, and tracks down the aisle giving the Stations of the Cross in a series of plaques on the far wall as, again, multum in parvo.
His exteriors on the town or the pallid desert (with golden scrub and kelly green) involve large-scale use of shadows, he doesn’t forbid them, they lend a chiaroscuro variegated from black geometric forms (houses) to a blue as pale as gunsmoke.
But for the fine directorial eye of Eastwood, all this might have gone completely unnoticed. McCowan begins a shot in close-up on the rich material of the dress De Toro’s girl is wearing, then does a tricky slow tilt-up at a slight angle (her hands are tied behind her back in the mission, she’s leaning on something) to her face. Another purely characteristic shot is a wide view of the Marshal’s office from the street, the camera moves right across horses and men to the side of the prison wagon, which fills the screen in passing with a prisoner’s face and hands visible through the barred windows like a Monopoly card, continuing on to another at the rear. In the village, the cantina has a luminous stained-glass window behind the bar, an amber bottle is on the bar in front of it, Chris steps in-between (after a bit of focus-pulling) for a drink. McCowan begins and ends the film with a rising crane shot from High Noon.
This time, and with a wife, Chris stays put in the village afterwards as sheriff. One of the seven, now pardoned and thrice-wived (“I’m a Mormon!”), is his deputy. The doubtful scribe takes up his book in earnest.
The Greatest Collection
of Them All
The Salon was dead, and that’s why artists took the thing over, so that we have the Impressionist paintings on the walls of even the tiny St. Petersburg Art Museum in Florida. “The Greatest Collection of Them All” mirrors their history.
The owner of a trucking company is draining the firm with philanthropy, he’s an art connoisseur. His son engineers a proxy fight to take over. The company’s back in the black, but the father is strapped, charitably speaking. He arranges a benefit exhibition of Impressionist paintings from private collections, and every picture (save one) disappears en route from New York to Boston. Eyewitnesses and a police investigation consider the feat impossible.
Theodore J. Flicker has a secret little joke here, that the Braque was not stolen because it’s “too deep” to be concealed in the manner employed. There’s a beautiful running theme: McCowan opens by panning right across the collection on the walls to a Renoir nude, which is taken down, wrapped and crated. Banacek tells the story of No-Nose Cannoli, whose beer truck was heisted when a naked lady climbed into the cab. The young heiress who organized the show (and calls Banacek a “chauvinist”) poses nude for the father, a dabbler. Banacek takes her home in the end, not to show her “any etchings,” no... “there’s an old Polish proverb that says, ‘a wise man never tries to warm himself in front of a painting of a fire.’”
McCowan’s unobtrusively elegant compositions are set off by a magnificent gag in the trucking company garage, where Banacek is very nearly run over.
The first issue of The Blind Man (“Independents’ Number,” April 10th, 1917) has a cover drawn in the comic strip style of the day. The blind man, a Gubbins with a derby, a mustache, a cane and a small dog on a leash, is led by the latter past a painting of a tree and a naked dancing girl thumbing her nose at him, unseen.
“The Greatest Collection of Them All” premiered exactly one day before McCowan’s “The Set-Up” on The Streets of San Francisco. The title evidently makes reference to Ken Annakin’s film, The Biggest Bundle of Them All.
The Streets of San Francisco
Melville would have taken his time with this, but McCowan has no time at all, so it’s brisk business. Stuart Whitman as the hit man back from France to be rubbed out has it all in the bar scene with Jack Albertson as the blind barman when Lt. Stone and Inspector Keller stand him up for a frisk and a sharp interrogation. All of the character development has to be expressed by sheer nuance, presence and stance eking out the script, which gives solid indications. Whitman accomplishes a film’s worth of work in a minute or so.
McCowan sets up a virtuoso night piece with the camera on the hood of the detectives’ car. A hospital scene has a cart laden with bottles in the corridor. At the end of the scene, the waist-high camera dollies forward in the direction of the exiting detectives and is stopped by the cart and bottles in a close-up. This bit of picturemaking has various reasons, but its primary one is simply the rapid modulation achieved that fast on location. The beautiful nuance of the Palace of Fine Arts during the night ambush shows the fine line between television and filmed radio.
Murder on Flight 502
A note is left in a first-class lounge at JFK, announcing the murders. The killer isn’t a spoiled brat (Danny Bonaduce), a griefstricken father (Dane Clark) or husband (Theodore Bikel), a business-minded doctor (Ralph Bellamy) or a fake priest (Don Hanmer) whose body rides the 747 service elevator from storage locker to galley. The victims aren’t a waning rock-star (Sonny Bono), that same husband or the doctor but the suspect priest and a stewardess (Brooke Adams) and the mastermind (Fernando Lamas) of the seven-million-dollar Federated Bank holdup five years previously. A smuggling operation takes the loot overseas in small increments with a stewardess (Farrah Fawcett) who temporarily saves her neck by framing a colleague.
The murderer is a New York police detective (Hugh O’Brian) deranged by his older brother’s death as a security guard at the bank. The airliner’s captain (Robert Stack) is advised throughout by a JFK security chief (George Maharis) and a psychiatrist (George Petrie) working through Government channels (FBI, Immigration, State Department) but always one step behind events on the plane.
In London, the father and his wife (Laraine Day) go to see the sights, a Jewish mother (Molly Picon) and a Methodist bachelor (Walter Pidgeon) continue on through the continent together, the doctor and the husband arrange a friendly chess game, the rock star has met a fan. Mona Briarly (Polly Bergen) the mystery writer, who can only fly drunk but still has an excellent memory and keen powers of observation, arranges with her secretary for a new book, Murder on Flight 502.
McCowan is mainly concerned with the distillation of herrings everywhere down to one sole possibility, but also with the sharp technique of obscure murders committed onscreen, and furthermore he has more than a dozen top characterizations in view. Finally, he has the dramatic effect to convey, of a transatlantic night flight, in all its degrees.
The Sand Castle Murders
A serial killer whimsically entombs his victims on the beach, one of them was a friend of the angels, a beach security guard helps with the investigation. The suspect is a “Muscle Beach type” whose body is his temple, Bosley as a fry cook can’t give away French fries to him as a ploy to stall for time until the collar’s made.
The guard’s an ex-cop fired for brutality, his wife runs a successful cosmetics business and is divorcing him to marry an industry executive. The suspect is indeed the murderer, hired to the purpose by the husband for a string of murders to include the wealthy wife.
The Wurlitzer melodeon at the merry-go-round on Santa Monica Pier accompanies riders with the tune of Hogan’s Heroes. McCowan’s sea views set the stage, his unique approach to picturemaking can be seen early on as the angels descend a staircase and pass before a large beach towel drying on a fence, abstract and geometric forms make up the image as the camera moves along.