The Threat

Filmed February 1965

THE THREAT was another change of pace for me. It was the first time I was to direct a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Unhappily it was also the last time.

The script followed the Hitchcock formula. Take an ordinary man and involve him in an exotic web of intrigue, violence and danger. It was a genre I really enjoyed – seeing and doing.

Since almost all series were more or less like an anthology–each episode standing alone as a separate, not a continuing story– one of the advantageous things about directing film episodic television in those early years was that a director had the opportunity to work in many different genres. On 12 O’CLOCK HIGH I directed a love story, an intense character-driven human drama, a Hitchcockian suspense story and an out-and-out conventional military tale, a situation not unlike that of the Hollywood major studio directors of the thirties and forties.

The Hitchcock influence on this episode extended beyond the script. John Larkin, one of the stars of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. played General Savage’s (Robert Lansing’s) superior officer, General Crowe. A behind the camera situation was soon to occur that I had never encountered before nor would ever (fortunately) meet again.

Bob Lansing fared better than the stars of some series, but like the character of Spock in STAR TREK, his role imposed strict limitations on General Savage; the four stars on his shoulder dictated how he must behave. His character was always very involved with the main story line, but that story line wasn’t always centered around him. In TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE the German Kurt Muller was the main protagonist and Savage was really a supporting character. In THE TRAP Savage was a member of the ensemble of five people trapped in a cellar during a Luftwaffe bombing. There were a few stories where the four stars shone less brightly and his tie was loosened (e.g. a love story with Dana Wynter), but I don’t think any of them was as much of a star vehicle built around the General as THE THREAT. In that show he was the General, but he also became a victim. As I stated before, there had been an instantaneous connection between Robert Lansing and me and I was happy that I was appointed to steer him through this adventure.

Bob had one mannerism that I found distracting and counterproductive; he would react to a speech from the person he was playing the scene with by building up an inner tension, which he would then release with a grunt before responding. I felt he should respond before releasing. He was always receptive when I offered this criticism.

After a series had completed its network run, if it had been successful and had enough episodes, it would go into syndication. There were positives and negatives to this. The positive was that for actors, writers and directors there would be added revenue in the residual payments that would result. The negative was that in order to generate more revenue for the independent television stations that would be airing the show, cuts would be made in the film to allow for more commercials. Unfortunately in the case of many series, it is those shortened films that have survived. In the case of THE THREAT two scenes were eliminated. The first was a short night sequence on the base where General Savage was nearly accidentally run down by a jeep, driven by the corporal who was recording Axis Sally’s broadcasts (another suspect?). After a scene in General Savage’s office where the corporal was exonerated of any attempt to harm the General, there followed a scene of General Savage, seated alone in his office. He looked at his wrist watch. It was midnight. He rose and crossed to his desk, and on his desk calendar he tore off the top sheet, revealing it was now Friday the 13th. To film this I had Billy Spencer place the camera up in the grid, a scaffolding walkway suspended from the ceiling that followed the contours of the walls of the set. That was where lamps that lit the set were placed. Since there was no dialogue in the setup, we used the Arriflex camera with a zoom lens. The shot was a high angle straight down on General Savage seated in his chair. It followed him as he rose and crossed to his desk, and as he tore off the sheet of his desk calendar, the shot slowly zoomed into the number 13. Music crescendoed. Cut. That originally was the climactic end of Act II. ( I’m sorry I can’t show you the shot. Maybe some day I’ll get a copy of the film that still includes it.)

I really liked and respected the films of Alfred Hitchcock. One of the things I had learned from watching them was that when something violent and unexpected happened to the protagonist, that was shock. Suspense was when the audience knew of a danger awaiting the hero of which he was not aware. From the beginning I had a concern about this script. I wasn’t happy with the fact that the identity of the spy wasn’t revealed until the final act. I felt there was a benefit in knowing his identity earlier. I took my concern to Charles Larson. He agreed and wrote an additional sequence. The next scene, which followed the shot of Savage tearing off the page of the desk calendar, became the new ending for Act II.

We had a technical advisor on the set to guide us in how to shave with a straightedge razor. The hand without the razor holds the skin taut, while the straightedge carefully slices away at the beard. Our Gilly, that fine actor Laurence Naismith, had some difficulty coordinating his movements. I shudder when I think of the hundreds of inaccurate filmed shaving scenes I have seen since where they did not have a technical advisor on the set and the skin was not stretched taut.

I had storyboarded this sequence extra carefully. Storyboarding is a process whereby a drawing is made for each camera setup. The unfortunate fact here is that I can’t draw worth a damn. So over the years I had devised a method of describing in words my vision of what I wanted to film. As I commented in one of my earlier postings, many times I was accused of having been a script clerk. Here is one page of my script of the shaving scene for THE THREAT. The script with the camera setups is first; the page with the explanation of the setups is next.

The shaving sequence in Act III was the major reason for my wanting to reveal the identity of the spy earlier. With the barber Gilly established as the enemy, I was able to stage the scene and plan my camera coverage with more moments of menace to Savage as he was shaved.

The shaving sequence was four pages long. My general rule of thumb was to allow three setups per page. A ten page schedule for a day’s work was a good average, thus allowing thirty setups for the day. (Feature films shot as little as four or five setups a day.) As you can see there are ten camera setups on the one page of script I included. What I’m trying to point out is that this was a sequence that required an overloaded amount of setups. It was scheduled on Laurence Naismith’s final day of shooting and it was evident I was not going to complete it that day. Suggestions were made very strongly that I should eliminate some of my planned setups. I was not in favor of doing that, but as a director in episodic television I did not have the power to defy them. And then Robert Lansing stepped in. He said HE WOULD PAY Naismith’s additional day’s salary in order to complete this sequence the way I had it planned. The company relented and hired Naismith for the following day without Lansing having to pay his salary.

It was not unusual for colored pages of script revisions to be delivered to the set. It was my habit to give them a cursory glance before depositing them in the back of my script, to be read and integrated later. One day my quick glance gave me a moment of confusion. I recognized a revised scene as one we had already filmed. But I didn’t give it more than a quick thought. That day as we neared completion of filming, Frank Glicksman (producer) and Charles Larson came to the set. After I called “cut — print” on the final take, Frank called for everyone’s attention. He announced that John Larkin, our General Crowe, had had a fatal heart attack and died that day. That explained the mysterious script revision. The original scene had John crossing through General Savage’s outer office. We would be reshooting it with Harold Gould, a very fine actor who was in the cast as Colonel Reed. The scene that followed, which had not yet been filmed, had been rewritten with Colonel Reed now replacing General Crowe. I did wonder how much time elapsed between their learning of Larkin’s death and the delivery to the set of the revised script.

While I was still preparing, there was something else in the script that disturbed me. Axis Sally had made such an important point about the number 13. Our script had placed great emphasis on the 13th. But I felt there was no closure. Once Friday the 13th became Saturday the 14th, 13 disappeared. Max Hodge, a fine writer and a friend since our days at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre, came to visit the studio one day. Over lunch I shared my dilemma with him. Maxie immediately came up with a solution. I excitedly took it back to Charles Larson, who then wrote it into the script. I had the closure on 13 that I was seeking.

I remember a very special moment for me on this show. We were filming a scene between Bob Lansing and Laurence Naismith and we were doing Bob’s close-up. After a take I said we would need to do it again. I pointed out to Bob that there was a moment where he was thinking and I told him what I thought he was thinking. I suggested a different thought. Bob looked at me with a startled expression that said, “Are you a mind reader?” And then softly with a slight smile he said, “You son-of-a-bitch!” You don’t get nicer compliments than that.

The journey continues

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6 Responses to The Threat

  1. John Dayton says:

    Ralph, in the pickup shot you had to shoot after John had passed, I (and I’m sure everyone else here) saw your gentle nod to John Larkin in the shot over-the-shoulders of both Bob Lansing and Frank Overton to John’s picture on the wall. This is what (among a plethora of other things) that separates you, Ralph, from all the rest.

  2. Rob says:

    An exciting episode. I’m really enjoying these 12’O Clock High episodes, a show new to me.
    I love your blog. It’s much more interesting than a DVD commentary and gives a better insight into the filmmaking process. Plus, it is fun to read!

  3. John B. says:

    The Threat was an outstanding episode. Man, they gave the elderly Naishmith superhuman strength in his final scene in the railroad car!

    Those first season scripts often had the structure of a murder mystery even when there was no murder as such. They had red herrings, in a manner of speaking, which is to say things you expected would happen that didn’t; and characters you could swear would swing one way that go the other; while the endings were often both surprising and ironic.

    For some reason the second and third season episodes weren’t so compactly written nor so well structured, it seems. Or maybe Paul Burke simply Lansing’s intensity and, especially, authority.

    I vastly prefer the first season to the ones that followed. You got the series when it was in high gear.

    John

    • Ralph says:

      The second and third season was because of the the network. They were the ones responsible for replacing Robert Lansing with Paul Burke, and mostly they wanted more of an adventure series. I always referred to those two seasons as The Rover Boys Go To War. I moved over to Quinn’s new show, THE FBI and wouldn’t do 12 O’CLOCK after the change.

  4. John B. says:

    Yes, that sounds right about the Rover Boys, though Frank Overton’s sober citizen playing kept it grounded somewhat. The series didn’t go to the dogs exactly, it maintained a medium quality level, just not so good as the first season.

    My guess as to why the network was so insistent on changing the cast: the big uptick in the ratings of the already two years in the running Combat! series, which I believe cracked the top ten for the first time during the 1964-65 season, showing that a war show could hit big with a large cast, and especially a fairly youthful one.

    Maybe the ABC suits were hoping for the same, with an expanded cast for 12 O’Clock High, giving it a “youth vibe”, which I can tell ya’, having been a kid then, Combat! definitely had. It was a good series, but it feels somehow less grownup than 12 O’Clock High. It’s Something For The Boys; while the other series was that to a degree but somewhat more thoughtful, cerebral.

  5. Phil says:

    In the next episode (“Mutiny at Ten Thousand Feet”), they explained Gen. Crowe’s absence as a transfer back to Washington.

    I assume the missing scenes you mentioned would be included if Fox issued an official DVD release of this series. I wonder why they haven’t done it. The marketing part would be a challenge. What do you play up when there were so many changes in front of and behind the camera? You had two actors in the lead role, but Frank Overton was in more eps. than anyone else. Watching it online at random can be disorienting…as if each season was a separate series.

    I think QM had a shuttle bus in ’66 running between ‘12OH’ and your eps. of the FBI…Windom, Bellamy, Bramley, Thinnes, and Broderick were a few of the passengers, LOL.

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