The Jack Is High

Filmed August 1964

I am constantly amazed that an episode of a series I directed almost a half a century ago, an episode that I hoped would be good enough to make the short list that would be aired again during the summer reruns and thus produce some added revenue because of the residual, that that film has had an unexpected longer life and is in fact still showing somewhere today. A case in point is THE JACK IS HIGH. But let a note I received from a producer-director of independent films tell the rest of the story.

Obviously SUSPENSE THEATRE was too tame a title for a showing today, so the package has been renamed CRISIS. But it still comprises the same shows we ground out in six days all those years ago.

It had been a year since I filmed A HERO FOR OUR TIMES, my first SUSPENSE THEATRE, and nine months since I had filmed FUNNY MAN WITH A MONKEY on ARREST AND TRIAL.  And there I was, a glutton for punishment, back on the Universal lot in what was going to be the first of three shows I would direct there during the 1964-65 season. By that time I was already saying that I thought there were electronic sensors at the gates into the studio that erased all creativity in people as they passed through. But there I was, driving through again.

In an ideal episodic-television world a perfect script would be delivered to the director’s home three days before he was due to report to the studio to start preparation for the production. That would be in accordance with the DGA-Producer’s Guild contract. Once at the studio the six days of preparation and six days of filming would go without unpleasant incident or bloodshed. That would probably result in better television, but it sure wouldn’t help in providing material for a future website. Fortunately for this website, it was not an ideal world into which THE JACK IS HIGH was born. A script was never delivered to my home, which was not unusual. In fact, contract or no contract it was quite normal. So I reported to the studio on the appointed day in August, figuring the script would be awaiting me there. When I arrived I was told there was a script, but … well actually there wasn’t exactly a script. The film I was to direct was a caper movie, a story of an armored car robbery by a group of five men. The robbers all wore masks of Snow White’s dwarfs. And the studio had just found out that Walt Disney OWNED the rights to anything connected to Snow White. Therefore the script was going to have to be drastically revised. So with six working days before the beginning of filming, with loads of location scouting to do, I was relegated to the sidelines awaiting the script’s arrival.

Fortunately the casting department was able to go into action. They probably had read the Dwarf version, so they just had to take off the masks and cast what was behind them. I’m just assuming this, because this being Universal, I didn’t even know in which building the casting department was deposited. But they did come up with a pretty impressive group.

Pat O’Brien. I loved working with screen legends I had watched as a kid. And I had met Pat briefly nine years before. My friend, Paul Bryar, had a role in a movie starring Pat, and one day he took me with him to a small studio at the east end of Sunset Boulevard. Paul had just been in a production I directed at the Players’ Ring of MY THREE ANGELS. In fact it was on that production that I met Paul and his wife, Claudia, who also was in it but not one of the ANGELS. I guess Paul had told Pat about the production, because Pat and his wife were going to be doing MY THREE ANGELS in summer stock that year and we spoke about the play. Paul must have said some nice things about me, because Pat said he wished I was going with him to direct their production. Needless to say I wished that too.

And then there were three actors cast with whom I had already worked, and I liked that. Henry Jones had been one of the stars of the series, BANNING; I had directed an episode a couple of years prior. It too was at Universal. Harry Bellaver of NAKED CITY. And good old Bill Bramley. After his delivery of the line, “Honey, you wanna ride on my bulldozer!” in THE BULL ROARER, I always figured he was like money in the bank. The new kid on the block was Edd Byrnes, Kookie from 77 SUNSET STRIP, his career still warm from having been in that series.

Finally the script arrived, well at least part of it. They still hadn’t figured out the ending, of how to stop the speeding gasoline tanker. But my concern at the start was staging the robbing of the armored car. It was to be filmed on the Universal backlot at night. We had selected our hilly, country dirt road, and on the appointed day the company assembled there very late afternoon to prepare to shoot as soon as it was dark. The various crews were at work preparing for the evening’s filming. When filming on rough terrain we used a jeep crane, a jeep with a camera crane mounted on its rear. The jeep driver was slowly driving up the road, a fairly steep incline, with a member of the gaffers crew holding and guiding the end of the very long arm of the crane which extended off the body of the vehicle. The camera was of course not installed on the crane at this time. I was seated in my director’s chair off to the side of the road, studying my script. Two thirds of the way up the hill something went wrong with the jeep. The engine stopped, and the vehicle started to roll back down the hill. The jeep driver hit the brakes of the vehicle, but they didn’t work, so the vehicle gained speed. The man holding the end of the crane had to let go, and as the vehicle plummeted down the hill, the crane arm swinging wildly, members of the company who were spread out over the hillside, scrambled to get out of the way of this lethal weapon. The driver to his credit (he could have jumped out of the careening vehicle) stayed at the wheel trying to steer it down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the jeep rammed into something, and the driver was thrown from the vehicle. We all assembled there, the medical person on the set was summoned. The driver was rushed to the hospital. Filming for the evening was, of course, called off.

We were scheduled to return to the same location on the back lot the next morning to film the sequence of the beginning of the investigation of the robbery. I had qualms about what the next morning would be like. How do you go back to the scene of a tragedy and carry on as if nothing has happened? I’ll get to that in a moment.

A day or so later we reassembled at the same spot to once again try to film the robbery of the armored car – a sequence that had one of our crew in the hospital in critical condition.

It is amazing what a night’s sleep and the morning sunlight will do. When we assembled the next morning at the site of the tragedy, it was not the nightmare I expected. At this point, of course, we knew the driver had been injured, but he was still alive in the hospital. It was two or three days later we learned he died.

We filmed the aftermath of the robbery BEFORE it happened. We still had to return to this location later to film the opening sequence.

Since we were filming on location away from the studio the first few days, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the viewing of the dailies. But I would receive a report from the producer and the reports from the beginning were very positive. I relayed this information to the cast. Pat O’Brien said, “That’s what they used to say to Jimmy Cagney and me. Cagney’s response was, ‘If the dailies are so good, why don’t you just release them. Why bother to put the picture together.’”

The director of photography for this production was Walter Strenge. Walter, a contract cameraman at Universal, was the one who replaced Lionel Lindon on ARREST AND TRIAL. Walter had explained to me the previous year on that production that the coming of color was going to simplify filming. No longer would there be a need for the cross lighting of black and white cinema. Just put two arc lights, one on either side of the camera and say “action.” Walter was not one of the artists of the profession. Well he was not going to be able to use large arc lights on the ‘guest room’ set of this production.

When casting stock characters in a caper movie and make no mistake, this was a caper movie and the characters were right off the top of the stock pile, the goal is to select actors whose personalities will flesh out the thinly drawn people in the script. Henry Jones was a fine choice for the English professor, with that underlying quiet sinister quality that had been so brilliantly utilized in THE BAD SEED, first on Broadway and then in the film. Larry Storch as the comic and William Bramley as the professional criminal — need I say more? Harry Bellaver was a good choice for the sickly welder. The weak link was Edd Byrnes. Nice capable actor, who could have played a war hero. But our story was going to have him in a physical confrontation with Bill Bramley. In defense of the casting department, it’s possible they didn’t have the full script so they didn’t know about this confrontation. Another reason to have a finished script before beginning production.

Ce Ce Whitney had also appeared the previous year in THE BULL ROARER, playing pretty much the same character. That was one of the traps for an actor or actress in Hollywood. If he or she made an impression playing a certain type, they could very quickly be typecast and limited to playing variations of that role over and over.

We spent several days away from the studio on location on California highways. When filming exteriors there was always the problem of extraneous noise — airplanes above, cars in the area — and Universal had a policy: keep filming and print what you shoot. Don’t kill a shot because of airplanes or other noise. This applied to exterior work on the back lot as well, which was especially noisy because Universal Studio was very close to the Burbank airport. The sound department would then prepare loops of each line of dialog. The actor would report to the sound proof looping stage, be handed a set of earphones and would then listen to the loops and rerecord the dialogue, line by line until the sound engineer felt he had a track that was a perfect match to the film. Most studios waited until the film was edited before calling the actors back to loop defective dialogue. But that meant paying the actors another day’s salary. Universal had the actors report to the looping stage on their final day of employment, but since the film had not yet been edited, that meant they had to loop EVERY LINE OF EVERY PRINTED TAKE THAT HAD BEEN FILMED. I was not in favor of this policy. Those looping sessions paid absolutely no attention to performance. The engineer’s only responsibility was to get a sound track that would match the filmed image. So if I heard an airplane or an automobile or any other sound that I knew would be affecting the sound track, I would find a performance or camera technical problem, kill the shot and do another take.

As I wrote before there was a confrontation in the script between Edd Byrnes’ marine and Bill Bramley’s character that was not going to make much sense when played by those two actors. Ralph Meeker would have been a better choice for the marine. The year before he had faced off very successfully in THE BULL ROARER in a similar relationship with Bill Bramley. But at this point in their careers, Edd was the ‘hotter’ actor because of his recent success on 77 SUNSET STRIP. And that’s the way Universal and the networks cast. So what’s a director to do when it comes to staging a mismatch like that? Have a good stunt man take all of that into consideration when the fight is choreographed and then convince the bigger, tougher character to throw the fight.

I have such respect and admiration for the fine character actors in film in the thirties and the forties. They brought such substance to film in their secondary roles and yet most of them were superlative performers just the lack of a lucky break away from being headliners. Frank Morgan, Beulah Bondi, Frank McHugh, Edna May Oliver, Charles Coburn, Glenda Farrell, the list goes on and on. And on that list – Harry Bellaver. Harry started in film in the late thirties and with the advent of television in the fifties divided his time between the two venues. I first worked with Harry on the great NAKED CITY series. This was our last collaboration, although he continued working for another twenty-one years.

The final pages of the script finally arrived and I was very pleased and excited  with the solution to the problem of slowing down the tanker that writer William Wood had devised.

The old venue for series television after its network run were the independent tv stations of the country. Today that has all changed. An even bigger arena is available on the profuse and ever expanding cable and satellite outlets. Old series are like old generals; they never die, they just go off into space and rerun from those satellites in the sky.

The journey continues

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15 Responses to The Jack Is High

  1. Jason Johnson says:

    That’s a good one Ralph….I can almost smell the gas !!!

  2. Leslie Kirkpatrick says:

    Excellent recollection of events Ralph. I vividly remember this episode and can almost play it back in my mind like a movie recalling every scene. Even more enjoyable now with your embellishments and insights. Thanks for sharing!

  3. detectivetom says:

    Thanks again for your posting. I always enjoy seeing Harry Bellaver. Also thank you for the new method of posting clips.

  4. John Nelson says:

    Ralph, another great story as yoiu recall your long career. I especially like hearing you talk about the chasracter actors your worked with and admired. I’m sure you were saddened, as was I, to hear of the death of Claudia Bryar on the 16th of June. She was always so good in everything she did…

  5. Ashcan says:

    It’s bad enough (I guess) to drown in water…But GASOLINE!? YIKES!!!!!

    I want this on DVD!

  6. John B. says:

    Mr. Senensky,

    The Jack Is High is one of my two favorite Suspense Theater episodes (the other being The Wound-Dark Sea). Awesome directing job (if you’ll excuse the cliche). I remembered your name from it and especially, of the actors, William Bramley, whom I knew nothing of till I saw TJIH. His character was my favorite of the criminals,–LOL!–because he was so unprecdictable, and also so dangerous. Of all the criminals he was actually the best judge of what was right and wrong with the caper despite his seemingly limited intelligence. His manner of speaking, right down to the lisp, reminded me of Broderick Crawford. I’ve watched TJIH several times on RetroTV over the last two or three years and have never been bored for an instant. Than you for doing such a fine job with it…

    Question: the first time I saw the ep my jaw dropped when I saw the glasses fall out of the compartment door and the gasoline spill onto the highway at the end. I didn’t see it coming, figured the guys would just get caught. My sense was that Bramley’s character had killed the professor due to how the caper had gone wrong. Upon repeat viewings it looks to me like the “roof” fell in and they were both killed instantly (that’s after paying close attention to the leaking gas after the first viewing). Could you tell me what was supposed to have happened? My guess is that the Bramley and Jones characters were killed instantly when the truck hit the tires and the that they were “drowned” by the gasoline, that the tires bumped the truck around, causing considerable physical trauma and death.

    I’ve seen other things you’ve directed as well, but one thing at a time. You did fine work and had a brilliant career IMO even as you’re not regarded as an auteur, as such. The hell with that. You ARE an auteur.

    Thank You For Your Career, John

    • Ralph says:

      John, thank you for those kind words. I always felt the two of them drowned in the gasoline. I don’t remember how the earlier version ended. I”m not sure I even had a chance to read it. There was the problem with the Disney organization, because that early version had the men wearing Seven Dwarf masks during the holdup, and when I reported to begin preparing the script was being rewritten. I do remember that the rewritten version did not have an ending because they hadn’t figured out how they were going to stop the tanker. I was delighted when the final pages came (and they came after we had commenced filming) to see the business of stopping the tanker with the tires strewn across the road. That of course demanded the final ending that we filmed. However I am not as kind as you. I have never imagined they were killed instantly. Death was by drowning — in the gasoline. I still haven’t decided if it was regular or diesel.

  7. Phil says:

    I watched this episode for the first time on the AntennaTV channel about a year ago and was floored by ending. It’s one of the great gross-out scenes in TV history and almost nobody knows about it.

    In fact, I never heard of this series until a couple of years ago when I stumbled across an episode posted on Youtube, which starred Clint Walker. It’s amazing that a COLOR series like this has been treated as an afterthought in today’s video market. If it’s not viable for a DVD release, I’d love to see it put on hulu.com.

    If the series were on hulu.com in a restored or re-mastered version, it would be an interesting project to compare your three ‘Suspense Theatre’ episodes from a picture quality perspective, since each had a different cinematographer. All of them are on Youtube, but from different sources, so a comparison there would be unfair. Regarding ‘The Jack is High’, the version from RTV has faces that are almost orange. Also, the blue trim on the highway cop uniforms jumps out at you and is closer to violet.

  8. John B. says:

    Just to drop by and say to Mr. Senensky: there is, believe it or not (and maybe you’ve heard of it already) a website, or maybe blog is a better, more appropriate word, dedicated to Kraft Suspense Theater, and some of the episodes you directed are mentioned, with, of course, special attention paid to (as always) The Jack Is High.

    • Ralph says:

      The good news is I have heard of it. The bad news is that Comcast, which is my server, does not carry it. Or it if does, I haven’t been able to find it. Any Comcast users out there who are getting it — HELP!

      • Jon says:

        Ralph, great job on this episode. I’m a big fan of the Kraft Suspense Theater series, renamed “Crisis.” The theme song by Johnny Williams is memorable and unique.

        I watch the series every Sunday at midnight, where the KTLA digital station plays two episodes back to back. I do an overnight shift on the radio from midnight to 5a and it helps keep me awake.

        I just saw this episode for the second time and really, the Edd Byrnes casting and subsequent fight scene with Bill Bramley did not bother me so much, Kookie’s character was supposed to be an ex-marine, though in a real fight, Bramley would’ve wiped him out.

        I noticed the police called the off-ramps “turn offs,” which is not really used in traffic or police work anymore. They referred to the White Oak Avenue and Vineland “turn offs.” Sorry to hear that one of your crew died during this shoot, awful, though still don’t understand the whole jeep/camera setup or why it was necessary. Big fan and thanks for posting such insightful comments, these Crisis episodes are so much better than anything on TV today!

  9. Phil says:

    Is this the blog?

    http://kraft1963.blogspot.com/

    It was last updated two months with “The Jack is High”. The author has comments on all twenty-eight Season One episodes, as well as on the first six episodes of Season Two.

  10. John B. says:

    Ralph: I agree with the other poster, Jon, that the Suspense/Crisis episodes are better than anything on TV today. Recently MeTV has brought back Perry Mason, The Untouchables and Thriller, as well the the first half-hour season of Naked City. They all play well; and those early Naked City eps offer some extraordinary. It’s a pity that you didn’t get a chance to work on those early episodes with McIntire and Franciscus. Some of the best were directed by Hollywood veteran John Brahm, and what a difference it makes when he’s in charge.

    I wish Desilu had used you for The Untouchables. Paul Wendkos directed some of the best episodes. It’s a better directed and designed series (art direction, props, costumes) than it is written, but it’s loads of fun, features some good action (and lots of exteme violence). Some great guest stars that I know that as a stage director you’d have worked well with. I’m wondering if there’s a reason you didn’t do any Hitchcock hours. They vary in quality, and some of them are simply lacklusterly (sic) directed. You’d have brought a lot to the feast with that one. Thriller might have offered some good opportunities as well, though their director line-up was solid (Daugherty, Brahm, Florey, Lupino). I’m curious as to why you got some series and not others. Luck of the draw? The competition must have been intense, though your track record speaks for itself. It’s good to see this blog still going. I hope your health is good and that you can continue.

    John

    • Ralph says:

      Hi John: You raise so many questions. Let me try to reply. Re the early half hour NAKED CITY — I wasn’t directing film yet. And actually that answer will apply to most of the series you mentioned (THE UNTOUCHABLES). I did have an interesting contact with the Hitchcock series. After I directed my first DR KILDARE, one of my agents, Mel Bloom, took me on an interview with that series producer, Norman Lloyd. After the usual perfunctory greetings Mr. Lloyd said, “This script is a suspense show with an advertising agency setting. What have you directed that you can show me like that?” At that time all I had to show was my episode JOHNNY TEMPLE on DR. KILDARE. I didn’t get the job. A year later after my big breakthrough with ROUTE 66 & NAKED CITY I was more involved with doing NEW series like EAST SIDE WEST SIDE, BREAKING POINT, SUSPENSE THEATRE, ARREST AND TRIAL, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. I don’t know if any of the other shows you mentioned tried to hire me. I was happy at that point to be working.

  11. John B. says:

    Thanks for the resonse, Ralph. There were so many good series back then and they must have had all sorts of policies regarding directors as to whom to hire and, as you mentioned, why. Paul Wendkos had directed a couple of first rate, avant garde style crime pictures that were really eye catching, which is probably why he got The Untouchables. Track record, track record.

    Hollywood veteran Robert Florey directed what may be the best of all Thriller eps, a straight horror, beautifully done, but he went back with Uni thirty years, was slated to direct the original Frankenstein, then got unceremoniously dumpled. Later on he directed the weird Peter Lorre vehicle The Beast With Fingers,;a wild ride, that one. So he finally got to work with Boris Karloff after a thirty years delay,–and what one was wild, too!

    Anyway, it’s great to see you still here, posting. I so wish that youmg film directors had to work in the theater first, not study the Art Of Film. They’d appreciate dialogue, actting and pacing more, cool it on the editing. I want to watch a scene, not race through it like it was some kind of video game!

    Best Wishes,

    John B.

    John

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