The Avengers: Death a la Carte

Death a la Carte (Episode 03-13, December 1963).


In Death a la Carte, Steed and Cathy go undercover in a hotel kitchen. There they cater to the needs of Emir Abdulla Akaba (Henry Soskin), the potentate of a Middle Eastern nation with oil concessions that the British government hankers after. Akaba is in London to visit Dr. Spender (Paul Dawkins); the Emir is in poor health, surrounded by yes-men, and has been the target of several assassination attempts. Steed and Cathy have reason to believe that another attempt will be made during the Emir’s stay at the hotel, to which end Steed poses as a chef to keep his eyes on the pastry cook Lucien Chaplet (Gordon Rollings) and pasta-maker Umberto Equi (David Nettheim). Cathy acts as go-between, managing the Emir’s menu and keeping watch over his bodyguard Ali (Valentino Musetti) and right-hand man Mellor (Robert James).

Death a la Carte has a number of things going for it, not the least of which is the cast. There are broad racial and national caricatures, but despite the “brown-face” performances it largely avoids overt racism or unkind stereotyping. Everyone is stereotyped, really, from the passionate Italian chef and his conflict with the snarky Frenchman, to the silent bodyguard and lazy kitchen maid. Most enjoyable is the presence of Ken Parry as head chef and manager Arbuthnot (he’ll make another memorable appearance in the Emma Peel episode Honey for the Prince); he’s one of the more adorable secondary character actors to pop up in The Avengers. Even Steed and Cathy play their parts to the extreme, with Steed doing an amusing rendition as chef Sebastian Stone-Martin (“I got it from a bird,” says Steed). This takes the edge off the fact that once more Arab characters are being played by white men.

The kitchen antics are the most entertaining part of Death a la Carte – as well they should be, for we cannot say much for the plot. The viewer knows right off the bat what form the assassination attempt will take, so most of the tension lies in how Steed and Cathy will figure it all out and whether they will be able to prevent it. Unfortunately the kitchen/hotel setting makes for a lot of talking and walking about, but not a lot of action. Cathy doesn’t get to show off her judo skills much, but Steed does get to play action hero nearing the end – another reminder that Patrick Macnee had a lot of physical talent when he could be roused enough to show it off.

I have come to love Death a la Carte more with each viewing. Once you get past some of the dull dialogue about the Emir’s health, it’s actually a quiet, entertaining episode, full of comedy and vitality. The viewer might not care whether the Emir lives or dies, but our heroes do and that’s enough to keep things going. During this viewing, I was amazed at how much fun I was having just watching the actors do their thing. I’m not certain you can ask for much more.

The Avengers: November Five

November Five (Episode 03-06, November 1963).


Here’s another Season 3 episode that hits and misses with equal exactitude. November Five (which originally aired on November 2, 1963, so kudos on the planning) begins with the assassination of Michael Dyter (Gary Hope), a Parliamentary candidate who has won on the strength of promising to reveal a government scandal concerning the “loss” of a nuclear warhead as soon as he’s elected. Enter Steed and Cathy, the latter of whom winds up campaigning on the same platform as Dyter in the hopes of luring the villains out into the open and finding the warhead. In the process the pair come up again two politicians from both sides of the divide, and election agent St. John, who ran Dyter’s campaign. This is all wrapped up in a health club with tenuous connections to St. John, but which offers the opportunity for Cathy to beat up on another muscle-head.

The plot is the culprit in this particular episode. All of the actors remain above par: there are Major Swinburne (Avengers doppelganger David Langton) and Arthur Dove (David Davies), the two rival politicians with interest in breaking the warhead scandal; then there’s the very enjoyable Mrs. Dove (Ruth Dunning), whom Cathy befriends and who provides more sanity and right thinking in her few scenes than the politicians in all their glory. The villains, however, leave a little something to be desired, with no one standing out as particularly interesting or nasty; though when the real villain pops up in the third act, it’s a pleasure to watch him mug about. All in all, however, the secondary cast is fairly decent and the political setting a neat departure for the show.

The plot, however, has so many bumps and twists that it’s difficult to keep track. As with some of the business-themed episodes of The Avengers, there’s a bit too much technical talk. The politics are dwelt on at length, with actors shooting out their lines so quickly that it becomes confusing; one loses track of what’s at stake. If they had managed to focus on Cathy’s election campaign and the search for the missing warhead we might have been all right, but the addition of the health club, the murder of a politician, and the blackmail of another, made this viewer at least felt somewhat at sea. We also miss out on a final showdown between Cathy and her stunt-man, as more time is taken up with Steed catching up to the true baddie to stop him from creating a real bang in Parliament.

Steed and Cathy are on point, however, and their few scenes together keep things moving right along. There are also some lovely little asides about women in Parliament, as Cathy makes her first official appearance as a candidate clad entirely in leather. Finally, a word must be said about Steed’s informants, two little ladies wandering the hallowed halls of government, collecting information and passing it on to Steed. It’s one of those small elements that makes The Avengers of any era so very charming.


The Dunwich Horror (1970)

The Dunwich Horror (1970)


Adapting the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is a challenge for any screenwriter, or director. Like Poe, much of Lovecraft’s power lies in his verbiage. His horrors are the concealed, obscure terrors of dreams, and his writing chock full of purple prose invoking nameless fears and indescribable stenches from dark Cyclopean caverns. Moving that kind of writing to the big screen is nearly impossible, because Lovecraft trades on things that cannot be seen or, once seen, cannot be described.

The Dunwich Horror makes a good attempt at adapting one of Lovecraft’s better known stories to a visual medium. The film was directed by Daniel Haller from a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. It was produced for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, which immediately indicates what we can expect from the production.

Following a bizarre birth sequence and some truly epic opening credits, the film properly begins with the introduction of Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell, looking more 70s than I thought was humanly possible). Whateley wants access to the dangerous and forbidden book of black magic, the Necronomicon, stored in the library of Miskatonic University and owned by Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, in his final film role). To this end, Wilbur hypnotizes one of Armitage’s students Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) into furnishing him with the book. When Armitage appears and refuses to allow Whateley to take the Necronomicon away with him, Whateley puts another plan into action: he has Nancy drive him home to Dunwich, where he lives in a ramshackle old house with his grandfather (Sam Jaffe, having the time of his life) and something vague and rumbly in the attic. It soon becomes clear that the Whateleys are a weird and creepy family (if we didn’t know that already), and Nancy will be their next victim in an arcane ritual designed, as most things are, to bring about the end of the world.Dunwich 05

Anyone who has read the original Lovecraft story will recognize the initial plot about the Whateleys, and also that the whole “sacrifice a virgin to the Old Ones” is nowhere close to that story. The Lovecraft narrative deals more with the birth of Wilbur, his upbringing, and the fear he inspires in the townspeople of Dunwich prior to the arrival of “the horror” in the title. The narrative then shifts to the “Dunwich horror” and how the townspeople discover it and defeat it with the help of Armitage and the local doctor.

The film of The Dunwich Horror ignores most of the first part of the original story and focuses on the underlying theme of sexuality, present in much of Lovecraft’s work. Wilbur’s seduction of Nancy is accomplished through drugging her drink, hypnotizing her, and finally having sex with her on a stone altar – the entire sequence, though not explicit, plays like a soft core porn film that pretty much kills Sandra Dee’s virginal teenage image for good. The point of this part of the plot is unclear, save that the opportunity to show Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee having kinky altar sex was too good to pass up.

Dean Stockwell takes the lead in this film, his fabulous mustache and 70s perm really hammering home the change of time period from Lovecraft’s – although it does match the “decadence” that Lovecraft finds so horrifying. But he’s also that combination of creepy and charming that makes his eventual seduction of Nancy believable, even if we wonder why any sane young woman would agree to get in the same car with a man who looks and talks like a pimp. Sandra Dee gives a perfectly serviceable performance as Nancy, although not much is demanded of her beyond being innocent and then writhing around on an altar. The elder actors are having a lot of fun with their respective roles, especially Sam Jaffe, who wanders around the house making arcane pronouncements and shouting in the face of his grandson.dunwich-1970-2

The problem with The Dunwich Horror is that there’s not much horror to go around. The film spends more time on the inevitable seduction of Nancy than it does on building up the terror surrounding the thing that rattles the attic door. However, I will give the film praise for creating an invisible “lurking terror” which, when it finally breaks loose, does its evil very effectively. The climax of the film does not quite work, however, as we’ve spent far too much watching Nancy become the vessel of the Old Ones and far too little time with reasons why that is a bad thing. I never thought I’d say this, but they needed to inject a little less attempted subtlety and a little more Lovecraft.

At the end of the day, The Dunwich Horror is a good, but not great, B-level Corman production. It’s never dull, and is actually far better than I expected it to be. Still, I wanted a bit more horror to go with my Dunwich.

The Avengers: Second Sight

Second Sight (Episode 03-08, November 1963).


Second Sight is one of the stranger Season 3 episodes for a number of reasons, the most prevalent being the subject matter. While it is not quite successful in developing its strangeness to the fullest extent, it nevertheless has so many interesting and macabre elements that I found myself wondering how it could have been improved as a filmed episode, with time and energy devoted to drawing out some of those elements.

This is one of those episodes in which Steed has a fairly routine assignment: he represents the British government in the importation of corneal grafts sent from a clinic in Switzerland to treat eccentric millionaire Marten Halvarssen’s (John Carson) blindness. The grafts are to be transported in a sealed, sterile container, which means that no one can inspect the contents. Steed suspects that there’s something not quite right in the whole set-up, and so sends Cathy off to pretend to be a researcher interested in corneal grafting. She discovers that the grafts are to be taken from a live donor, a former acquaintance of Halvarssen’s, and winds up going off to Switzerland in the company of an eye surgeon (Ronald Adam) to see the operation done.

The very subject of taking corneal grafts from a live donor is enough to veer Second Sight into creepy territory. As with some of the best Avengers episodes, Second Sight gives nothing away. We know that surgeons Eve Hawn (Judy Bruce) and Neil Anstice (Peter Bowles) are not what they seem, but their game remains unclear, revealed in degrees as the episode proceeds. Halvarssen’s apartment is deliberately structured to be confusing to all but the millionaire, creating an Expressionist mis-en-scene that carries on to the clinic in Switzerland. The Swiss sequences are even more disturbing, and use the limits of live television to excellent claustrophobic effect. Steed and Cathy are balanced, “normal” characters plunged into a twisted world, as bothered as the audience by the events of the episode.

The secondary cast is likewise an asset here. Peter Bowles and John Carson were old hands at Avengers episodes, the latter appearing in one guise or another for most of the series’ run. Carson has a lot to do here as Halvarssen, a sinister and sympathetic character in equal measure. Bowles gets to be a bit more extreme, playing Anstice as a fully nasty piece of work who seems to delight in the suffering of others. But my favorite secondary character here is Ronald Adams’s Dr. Spender, the eye surgeon that accompanies Cathy to Switzerland. Spender is a blustering fool, insulting Cathy at every turn, and making life harder for Steed. He’s also one of the funnier characters to come through this episode, wholly out of his element in dangerous surroundings. The first scene where he blusters into Steed’s apartment is worth the whole episode.

Meanwhile, Steed and Cathy are hitting their stride as a team. Their first scene together has them coming back from stock car races, bickering like a couple: Cathy complains about the weather, Steed points out that he went to that lecture the other day (“Complaining bitterly the whole time,” as Cathy concludes). The two are not just work colleagues: they’re good friends and spend a lot of their free time in each other’s company.

With so many excellent elements in place, Second Sight should be one of the best of the season. Yet the episode doesn’t come together as a whole – the plot is a trifle thin, once revealed, and certain sequences (like the murder of Dr. Spender) are funny rather than frightening. This is one of those occasions where the set-up is more intriguing than the pay-off, and the general air of nastiness and the macabre falls apart in the final act. The episode disappoints because it’s not as good as it should be.

Still, for all of that, there’s enough good here to make Second Sight worth a viewing. Like many episodes from this period, it improves on re-watching and I’ve found more to like about it the more I’ve seen it.