The Escape

Filmed May 1966

The start of the 1966-67 season found me doing something I had never done before. I signed with QM Productions to direct every other THE FBI for the season, a total of thirteen productions. That meant I would be starting to prep a new assignment the day after I finished filming the previous one with no time off between shows. THE FBI was no stranger to me, I had directed three episodes its first season. This was my third season of working for QM and the new contract meant continuing to work with producer Charles Larson in prepping the scripts, continuing to work on the set with cameraman Billy Spencer and assistant director Paul Wurtzel, and it meant having sets designed by art director Richard Haman. For me it was a very inviting situation.

June is a notoriously bad month to film exteriors in Southern California. Fog. Overcast days. A sun in absentia. I learned that with a vengeance in 1965 when I was booked to direct the first episode of a new series, LONG HOT SUMMER. It was a production of 20th Century Fox attempting to turn their blockbuster Paul Newman starrer into another PEYTON PLACE. But it was being filmed at the MGM studio, just down the road in Culver City. LONG HOT SUMMER had a lot of exteriors, scheduled to be filmed on the MGM backlots, which I suspected may have been the main reason to choose that studio as the base for production. The edict from the Fox production office was, sun or no sun, keep shooting. Which we did. The following day when the rushes were screened, the eternal complaint from the producer was, “But it doesn’t look sunny.” Added to that were the constant phone calls to the set every twenty or thirty minutes from the Fox production office to check on the status of the shooting schedule. This was my first real association with 20th Century Fox. True the year before I had directed TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, which was their co-production with Quinn Martin Productions, but that show had been totally under the command of QM. I was not used to the vigilante treatment of the Fox production office. I put enough pressure on myself to complete the day’s work without Big Daddy standing over me. In addition to the present production, I was contracted to direct three more episodes. I decided I really didn’t want to face another nine weeks of the current situation. I called my agent and asked that he get me out of the balance of the contract. He did and mercifully my LONG HOT SUMMER was shortened.

My first assignment under my new QM contract was THE ESCAPE, a gutsy hard-boiled love story. Our first day’s location was the Santa Monica Airport. Although this was the last week of May, June weather had already settled over the area, and on our first day of filming it was a dismal dark airport that greeted our early morning arrival at the location just blocks from the ocean. We didn’t have the problem I had had the previous year on LONG HOT SUMMER. This sequence didn’t have to look sunny. But it was too exciting a sequence to end up looking drab and dreary. Director of Photography Billy Spencer amazed all of us the following day when we viewed the dailies. I don’t know what magic he applied, some combination of adjusting his camera stops and instructions to the lab to force the film when being developed, but the rushes he delivered had a surprising and vibrant amount of light and color that had not been evident when we shot it.

I thought the original script for THE ESCAPE was a mess, with disconnected scenes that pulled in all directions. Charles Larson did some remarkable work to shape it and to give the plot an intelligent progression. In the process he fleshed out the people and intensified the relationships. Roy Thinnes had recently been put under contract by QM Productions. I think this was in anticipation of their coming project, THE INVADERS. I had worked with Roy the previous year when I directed him in his screen test for LONG HOT SUMMER and then the first episode after he was cast. Charles Larson told me Roy had turned down two previous THE FBI scripts; Charles didn’t understand what there was about this script that was better than the other two.

I first became aware of Marlyn Mason when she was fourteen years old and was playing Heidi in a children’s musical based on that classic story at the Player’s Ring Theatre in Hollywood. I cast her in two of my early television directing ventures, and then we lost track of each other for a time, which is not unusual in Hollywood. In 1964 I bought a house on Sunset Plaza Drive in the hills overlooking the Sunset Strip. Some time within the next year I received a forwarded letter with writing on the envelope. The letter had been delivered to the same house number as mine, but on Queen’s Road. The occupant at Queen’s Road had very kindly forwarded it on to me. It was Marlyn. We’ve never really lost contact since

We did not send a Green Ford over the cliff into the ocean. Our arrangement with Ford Motors, one of the sponsors of the show, was that they would supply all of the vehicles we needed for our filming. In this case, we requested a duplicate of a vehicle in a film clip from a feature film in which a ’57 Green Ford went into the deep blue sea. They were pleased to do that; it was cheaper than providing a vehicle for us to destroy.

I was very pleased with the casting on this production. For the older brother, Steve, approval was given for me to cast William Bramley. This was the fifth time I had cast Bill since our first association in THE BULL ROARER on BREAKING POINT in 1963. (That was the show when he delivered one of my favorite lines ever, “Wanna ride on my bulldozer, honey!”)  Casting the show this second season was Bert Remsen with John Conwell supervising from his position as assistant to Quinn Martin. I didn’t know Steve Ihnat and I don’t remember if it was Bert or John who recommended him. He was a remarkably good visual fit to be playing Roy Thinnes’ brother and more importantly he was a sensational actor with potent star charisma. Steve had been born in Czechoslovakia; he arrived in Hollywood when he was twenty-four. Tragically he died in France of a heart attack six years after filming this episode. He was thirty-seven years old.

The Player’s Ring Theatre in Hollywood where I had directed my first theatre production after returning to the west coast eleven years before was a veritable launching pad for coming stars and featured players. Robert Vaughn, Robert Horton, Beverly Garland, Richard Dreyfuss, Marlyn Mason, Claudia Bryar; the list goes on and on. Virginia Vincent starred there in a production which I knew about and which had gotten rave reviews. We cast Virginia as the wife of one of the slain FBI agents. Her scenes in this episode were difficult, for her and for Zimmy. He was particularly uncomfortable doing them, but he never wavered, he never complained.

This was the show that introduced me to Franklin Canyon, a beautiful wooded area with a large reservoir in the hills above Beverly Hills. I scouted it on a lovely sunny day. The sun was filtering through the trees, reflecting off the water of the reservoir; it was truly enchanting. On the morning of the second day of filming when we arrived to film, it was a different story. The June blues had settled into the weather, and there wasn’t a ray of sunshine within miles of the Canyon. Billy Spencer saw my disappointment and concern. He told me not to worry; he said the soft, diffused light was very good for filming. Oh, how right he was. (I told you he was my film school.) I think the sequence gains by not having the sunlight, by having the soft light which Billy utilized to the nth degree, especially in the long close-up of Marlyn when she talks about her past.

Starting with THE FBI I was seeing a change in the scripts I was directing. They were no longer evolving from characters interacting in dramatic conflicts. Now I was dealing with scripts where characters were secondary to the activity in which they were engaged. That’s not to say that that kind of script writing hadn’t been around in television, but I had been able to avoid those shows. My first outing on THE FBI, SPECIAL DELIVERY, had skirted the issue; it had tried to flesh out the lovers on the lam, but I don’t think it was a total success. I was happier with the people  in this episode.

I didn’t know if it was just for this one episode or whether going into the second season there was a redistribution of time between that spent at the Bureau and that attending to the criminals. But Philip Abbott, who had played prominent roles in my first three outings, this time had two very short scenes, one of them just a phone call to Erskine. Most of Erskine and Rhode’s involvement was not at the Bureau but was more closely connected to the protagonists they were pursuing.

To open the scene at the lakeside after the couple had made love, I decided to have Pat look at the lake through the pink sheer kerchief she had worn on her head. For the moment life did seem to take on a warmer, rosier glow. I did not realize then that I was creating a scene that would have a more far-reaching effect than Pat’s momentary reverie. Two years later I stole from myself and opened a scene the same way in METAMOROPHOSIS on STAR TREK. There the cloud character, Companion, having recently taken over the body of the dying Assistant Federation Commissioner, looked through her mottled scarf at her loved one and saw him as she was used to seeing him when she was a cloud. I’m sure more people have viewed the space ship version than the one at the lakeside.

The day of location work at the reservoir began with a sequence in a nearby heavily wooded area. It was very early morning, and it was very very dark. Because of the overcast skies and the large trees it seemed more night than day. And it was too large an area to light, even with our huge arcs. Again it was Billy Spencer who said “Not to worry.” He gave instructions to the lab to force the film when developing it, and I don’t know what else he did, but we got the results we needed. What had seemed to be night, he turned into day.

THE ESCAPE was scheduled for four days of exterior locations and three days of interiors on the soundstage. That was close to the norm for filming a QM production. THE FBI like THE FUGITIVE was reminiscent of filming ROUTE 66, presenting stories that occurred in all parts of the country. The difference being that the Bert Leonard series traveled all over the country to secure their results. THE FBI and THE FUGITIVE did it without leaving the Los Angeles area.

Howard Alston had been the production manager for the four 12 O’CLOCK HIGH’s and the three THE FBI’s I had directed. In that capacity he was efficient, but none of the seven shows presented problems that were that unusual. The sequences away from the sets on the soundstages for the air force series were either Chino or the backlot west of Western Avenue. The sequences away from the sets on the soundstages for THE FBI likewise were not that unusual and again were planned for in a quick and expeditious manner. THE ESCAPE proved to be far different, presenting a MAJOR problem — finding the location where we could film the ending. The original script had Larry and Pat going to Cliff Side Lodge, where agent Rhodes of the FBI finally tracked them down. Then Steve arrived on the scene, armed with his rifle, and a gun battle ensued. The script had Rhodes climb down the side of the cliff and work his way around to a position behind Steve to end the battle. Howard and I drove the coast of Southern California seeking an establishment situated on a cliff that could represent Cliff Side where I would be able to stage that action. We found nothing. I have to admit I was discouraged, but Howard was relentless. He took me to a deserted recreation area in the far San Fernando Valley. There was nothing there to represent an establishment that could be the Lodge; there wasn’t a cliff within miles where I could stage the action called for in the script. But that didn’t matter. With the addition of a big CLIFF SIDE LODGE sign, we converted that inland San Fernando Valley area into the Coast. And there was a huge circular empty swimming pool that I immediately realized provided me with an unusual setting where I could stage the final shootout more excitingly than would have been possible had we found the location asked for in the original script.

I liked stories that did more than add up two and two to make four. For me THE ESCAPE did that. The main story was the escape and flight of the criminal, Larry Drake. But by the final fade out the most moving story was the unsuccessful escape of Pat from the traps in which life had imprisoned her.

The journey continues


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4 Responses to The Escape

  1. John Dayton says:

    Wonderful to see Marlyn, wonderful performance – “no more traps” – and Ralph, how did you come to think of the ‘thru the phone dial’ shot of Roy? I’ve never seen that, not even in Hitchcock. Unique indeed.

  2. Ralph Senensky says:

    Credit must be given where credit is due. Director of Photography Billy Spencer had it designed for me.

  3. John Dayton says:

    It brought to mind the HUGE (but not as effective) phone dial Grace Kelly used in Hitchcock’s 3D “Dial M for Murder” – somewhere, surely, he must be thinking “Why didn’t I shoot THROUGH it?” Terrific, Ralph.

  4. Kathy Tasich says:

    It was surprising learning how the kerchief was used in Metamorphosis. It didn’t seem to mean much in this epidode, but it sure was amazing when the Companion saw Cockran through it. Some ideas are worth repeating, and, in this case, it just got better with age! Way to go, Ralph!

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