The Avengers: Brief For Murder

Brief For Murder (Episode 03-01, September 1963)


Season 3 of The Avengers got off to what can only be described as a unique start. Brief For Murder opens with the public trial of Wescott (Alec Ross), a man charged with selling government secrets to an unidentified recipient known only as Johnno. Wescott gets off due to the brilliant machinations of his solicitor Barbara Kingston (Helen Lindsay) and the Lakin Brothers, Jasper and Miles (John Laurie and Harold Scott). Cathy Gale is on hand for the verdict, and makes it publicly known that she still believes that Wescott is guilty, and that none other than her erstwhile friend John Steed is the mysterious Johnno. Furious at her insinuations, Steed threatens Cathy and then lawyers up with the Lakin Brothers. The brothers, it turns out, have been making a mint by engineering criminal cases to get their client off scot-free. When Steed appears and asks them to help engineer a case so he can murder Cathy, they’re only too happy to oblige.

Brief For Murder side-steps a problem that some later episodes of The Avengers would have: letting the viewer know more than the characters. Instead, a good half of the episode has Steed and Cathy at murderous odds, the purpose behind their apparent hatred of each other kept unclear. The result is one of the more intelligent episodes in Season 3, beginning a character arc of mutual distrust between Steed and Cathy that would have some sort of conclusion in The Nutshell. Although we’re fairly confident that Steed is not actually trying to murder Cathy, just what he’s up to – and how much she knows – remains ambiguous until the third act.

A competent cast reinforces an original and intelligent plot. Aside from the usual pleasure of watching Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman verbally fence, there the added enjoyment of the bizarre and gleeful Lakin Brothers, played by John Laurie and Harold Scott. Laurie is one of the best recurring character actors to appear in The Avengers – he already popped up once in Death of a Great Dane, and would return for the Emma Peel episode A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station. The Lakin brothers are so excited to be able to work out legal arcana in service of their nefarious clients that they can almost be forgiven the whole criminal thing.  As Steed quips nearing the end, “I’m going to miss them.”

While Brief For Murder never rises to the heights of humor or eloquence that some Season 3 episodes achieve, it’s nevertheless one of the better ones.

The Avengers: The Nutshell

The Nutshell (Episode 03-04, October 1963).


Directly following the disturbing doppelgänger episode The Man with Two Shadows (read about that one next week), The Nutshell features another development in the Steed and Cathy relationship, straining it almost to the breaking point. The pair are called in to investigate a break-in and possible sale of government information from a secret nuclear bunker called Nutshell. Steed’s odd behavior concerning the investigation begins to worry Cathy, however – especially when it’s discovered that he’s had several meetings with the girl who broke into the facility. Steed is arrested for espionage and imprisoned at Nutshell, where he undergoes torture at the hands of his own security organization.

The Nutshell plunges us deep into the heart of the spy organization that Steed works for, drawing into question his loyalty. Following so close on an episode that ends semi-ambiguously in terms of Steed’s identity and his relationship to Cathy, The Nutshell focuses tightly on the character relationships and what the pair don’t tell each other. Steed is tortured by the very people he has sworn loyalty to and interrogated without trial. At one point, Cathy asks a representative of Nutshell whether they obey the same moral laws as the rest of the world, to which she is given the curt reply that the only crime in Nutshell is endangering security. It’s a murky world, and one which Cathy is evidently not comfortable with. She watches Steed’s torture on closed-circuit cameras, and the acute nature of her own suffering reflects in Blackman’s face.

Steed, meanwhile, further complicates the viewer’s feelings about him. Some strong editing of scenes means that the audience is kept guessing as to his motives. He and Cathy engage in several discussions about their nature of their work, revealing something of Steed’s personal politics and the strain his job puts on him. Unlike James Bond, Steed was never a character who seems superhuman. If anything, he’s more flawed and less sure of himself at times than Bond, but has the makings of a true hero beneath it all. Macnee is always a good comic actor, but here he shows that he can play drama just as well.

The Nutshell represents the best of Season 3 in terms of pacing and performance. There’s barely a misstep – a remarkable feat for an episode of live TV with numerous location changes and complicated sets. The secondary cast, including Avengers regulars John Cater and Patricia Haines, is excellent, as cold and precise a set of bureaucrats as you can ask for. If there’s a single problem with the episode, it’s the somewhat perfunctory conclusion which, following a very intense series of events, feels a little sudden and anti-climactic. However, that’s a small quibble in what is otherwise a superb episode.



The Avengers: Build A Better Mousetrap

Build a Better Mousetrap (Episode 03-21, February 1964).


Season 3 of The Avengers begins moving the show farther from its noir roots and into the stranger realm of spy-fi fantasy and pastiche. While Build a Better Mousetrap would not become one of the episodes re-adapted to the candy-colored world of Emma Peel, it does indicate a slight shift in tone for the dynamic duo of Steed and Cathy. There are still the underworld noir elements at play, including the presence of a motorcycle gang, but the characters are broader and the British quirkiness more apparent.

Steed and Cathy head to the English countryside to investigate some strange goings-on in a small English village. A nearby atomic energy plant appears to be causing mechanical failures within the radius of the village, but Steed of course thinks there’s more to it than that. The failures happen to coincide with the presence of a youthful motorcycle gang on the weekends, who have also run afoul of two charming old ladies living in a rebuilt watermill. So, Cathy joins the gang and Steed investigates both the atomic plant and the mill, with predictably bizarre results.

Build a Better Mousetrap trades on a combination of bizarre British character types and audience assumptions about them. The innocent old ladies could be behind the disabling of mechanical devices and the thuggish motorcycle crew might just be having a good time. The secondary characters are well-drawn and enjoyable to watch, from the slightly creepy landlord of the local pub to a former army colonel and his daughter (the latter keeps hitting on Steed in a very strange manner). Things are not all as they seem and misunderstandings between characters increase the stakes. The mystery lies not so much in who causes the mechanical failures (that becomes evident fairly early on), but why and how.

This episode includes some of the best visual jokes in The Avengers, with more than a few scenes that allow our main characters to pop. Steed is amusingly out of place amid the young motorcycle gang, while Cathy, in her leather jacket and boots, fits right in. Cathy enjoys herself at motorcycle rallies and dance parties, while Steed has an entertaining sequence as a representative of the “National Distrust,” insinuating himself into the good graces of the two old ladies. The tight pacing and enjoyable character vignettes keep everything fun and breezy, although there are darker elements at work here too.

An absurd, entertaining piece of television, Build a Better Mousetrap ranks right up there with the top episodes of Season 3.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

The Invisible Woman


We often acknowledge Charles Dickens as one of the finest writers of the 19th Century. Certainly he was one of the most influential, developing the three volume novel as a work both of art and entertainment, and the novelist as a celebrity and public figure with moral and ethical responsibility to his public. Like many great public figures, though, Dickens’s private life was less than stellar, wrapped up in Victorian social and sexual mores. He was, in short, no better than most people, and at times perhaps a great deal worse.

The Invisible Woman claims to tell the story of Dickens’s semi-public relationship with Ellen Ternan, a young actress whose relationship with Dickens would last the rest of his life. Because of both the extreme secrecy of the relationship – Dickens was still married – and the fact that Dickens burned his entire correspondence with Ternan, the actual circumstances of much of their relationship remains largely hearsay and speculation. Dickens had already engaged in a fairly public infatuation with his wife Catherine’s sister Mary earlier in his life, and it is true that he separated from his wife around the same time he’s believed to be involved with Ternan. As with most biographical or semi-biographical films, The Invisible Woman should probably not be taken as “the truth,” but rather a speculative version of it.

The film opens with the first appearance of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), long after her affair with Dickens has ended. A married woman, she still harbors fond and not-so-fond memories of the man she loved. The film rolls us back to their first meeting during a production of The Frozen Deep, a joint play by Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Nelly is the youngest in a family of actresses headed by Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas); she’s also the least talented, with difficulty projecting beyond the footlights. She and Dickens share an immediate attraction and rapport, however, and their relationship progresses from a great man and his acolyte to a great man and his somewhat recalcitrant mistress.

The Invisible Woman thankfully avoids some of the cliches that could have marred its project. Fiennes’s Dickens is not a seducer, but neither is he wholly sympathetic – he’s a talented author and celebrated philanthropist who cannot bear not to be adored. His attraction to Nelly is both that of an older man falling for an attractive younger woman who obviously venerates him, and as a man who believes he’s found someone who understands him. His treatment of his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan) is reprehensible, yet we do not fully condemn his character. The whole plot becomes bound in the mores of Victorian society, which permits a man to have an affair but condemns the woman with whom he has it.

Felicity Jones plays Nelly as a woman in a relationship she both desires and wishes to end. All but sold by her mother, who believes she will never be able to support herself as an actress, Nelly falls for Dickens but does not really wish to be his mistress, condemned by the culture that surrounds her. A painful scene between Nelly and Catherine Dickens shows both women as victims of their society. They caught in love for a man who will always, as Catherine says, choose his public above any woman.

If The Invisible Woman fails anywhere, it is in the somewhat lax use of the framing narrative. This is meant to be something of a flashback and something of a mystery. There’s a lack of clarity in the connection between Nelly’s persistent unhappiness in her current life and her complicated experiences in the past. Jones plays even the younger Nelly as a somewhat unhappy and certainly a troubled young woman, giving her little space to change over the course of the narrative. While I never doubted her passion for Dickens was sincere, I did doubt its depth – she seems to worship him as a writer, conflating the man and the public figure. As such, the emotional connection between them feels shallow where it should, in my view, have been more complicated. The ending of the film is abrupt and a little unsatisfying, as though there was no way to bring the narrative to any kind of a round conclusion for either character.

Despite one or two shortcomings, however, The Invisible Woman is one of the better semi-biographical films about the time period. The Victorian era tends to either be romanticized or treated with undue harshness on film – The Invisible Woman avoids these pitfalls by approaching its characters as human beings, good people who sometimes behave badly. At the heart is the mystery of the human experience, and a sense of both profound joy and deep melancholy. When looked at in that light, one might imagine that Charles Dickens would be proud.