Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Murder Maze

Todd Mason will start hosting a series of blog posts from around the world profiling forgotten and overlooked films. I was going to say something about a movie I found recently cheap on VHS anyway, so I thought I'd take part.

City of Angels was a short-lived private eye show in 1976, which I'd never seen, but the moment I noticed the VHS cassette in a thrift store titled Murhasokkelo/The Murder Maze I knew it was bound to be interesting. I guess this movie, made from two episodes of the TV series, was never aired in the US, as it's not mentioned anywhere in IMDb nor in the Thrilling Detective listing for the series (see the link above). I notice from the Finnish Elonet database that this was released as late as 1988 (and also in 1991).

The original TV series, with Wayne Rogers as private eye Jake Axminster in the 1930's Los Angeles, was created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, who usually knew what they were doing, but for some reason or another the series never caught on. I believe this movie was made to cash in on some money from foreign rental markets. Kevin Burton Smith says in his Thrilling Detective entry for City of Angels that Wayne Rogers never felt like a real PI, as he was better known as one of the M*A*S*H* jokers. He also says Rogers never liked the show himself.

The VHS compiles together the episodes "A Lonely Way to Die", written and directed by veteran Douglas Heyes, and "The Losers", written by Roy Huggins himself and directed by Across 110th Street alumni Barry Shear. The joints are very well hidden, the plots are made to intersect and interweave, they just don't follow each other, like they usually in these kind of films do. The story gets close to the complexity of Chinatown, which was obviously the model for City of Angels. The setting is the same - obnoxious private eye, bullying cops, family secrets - and the mood is the same - the perverse 1930's, glamorous Los Angeles and Hollywood. The dialogue is good, getting close to the snappy remarks of a Chandler, even using "Be missing" that Chandler wrote in one of his letters he prefers to "Get out".

There's just the fact that the plots don't really click - as the story unfolds, we are disappointed that the two storylines don't connect with each other. And Heyes and Shear have two different directorial styles, I believe it's Shear who goes for more early seventies' type of stuff, with some New Wavish ideas, scenes getting on top of each other, dialogue overlapping and all. Heyes goes for more traditional narration. Some of the characters are also not very well introduced, as they are recurring characters from the show - it took me some time to realize the purpose of Jake Axminster's secretary. I should believe, though, that these two are some of the better episodes in the original series.


Todd Mason said...

The series was up against tough competition--it was introduced in a slot where POLICE STORY spinoff JOE FORRESTER had just failed to make headway against the immensely popular MARCUS WELBY, MD and the new and increasingly popular lighthearted con-men for justice series SWITCH. I remember enjoying it on the perhaps two occasions I was able to see it when it was new.

Rogers was in the enviable position of not having to work, having made a lot of money on the Z-grade drive-in "classic" THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES even before M*A*S*H (or so I gather), and so didn't make too many efforts after CITY OF ANGELS.

And it was pretty common practice to sell two-episode packages of television to foreign markets...we in the States got the last two episodes of the UK DANGER MAN/SECRET AGENT offered here as the "film" KOROSHI.

Thanks, Juri!

Juri said...

Thanks, Todd, for further comments!

C. Margery Kempe said...

I never much cared for Rogers as an actor -- he always seemed to be smirking -- so I doubt I watched the show when I was a kid. It doesn't ring any bells. Amazing what the wrong star can do to a promising project (sigh, looking in your direction, Lord of Illusions).

cannellfan said...

City of Angels is one of the "lost wonders" for collector's of Cannell's shows. I managed to get all 13 episodes taped to VHS when they aired on the A&E cable network (badly edited) in the early 1990s. All 13 episodes actually did make it to the air on NBC during the series mid-season replacement run back in 1976. The 3-part pilot was probably the strongest, and the combo of the two that went into this tape release is actually quite strange!

Todd Mason said...

...though I'd forgotten about Rogers's turn in the sitcom HOUSE CALLS (he did best as a doctor, clearly), for three seasons. And it turns out THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES producing money was very good, but not That very good...he reportedly made about a $100K dollars off the film in the latter '60s, but he was, apparently, already advising fellow actors about investments by the time he was in the cast of M*A*S*H.

He was a bit smug in M*A*S*H (and elsewhere), but gosh so was Alda (particularly as Hawkeye...he's often been better elsewhere). One of the best scenes in the series involves Rogers's Trapper John finding himself exhausted and taking, at best, a few minutes nap outside the OR with Larry Linville's Frank Burns, also exhausted and on an adjoining gurney, and Burns gives Trapper a sense of how a family produces a Frank Burns, as the latter offhandedly mentions that if he or his siblings as children spoke at dinnertime, their father would punch them in the throat. Trapper, by default dismissively hostile to the unpleasant Burns, has no choice but to register this, and simply wishes Burns a decent nap.

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