January 10th, 2011

Emma tries on a chastity belt, Steed comes to her rescue

"Murdersville" (Nov 11, 1967)

Seriously, if you haven't seen this episode and want to be surprised by it, maybe you should watch it first. I'm going to Spoil the pants off it.

I don't recall having ever seen this episode before. One of the unexpected benefits of having last watched THE AVENGERS decades ago (never you mind how many) is that the show has faded to just a few pleasant images in my mind. In effect, it's new to me. (Just what I was looking for, a new obsession!)

In "Murdersville," we're toward the end of the color season for Steed and Mrs Peel, with just two more installments to follow. There's a bit of slapstick (one of the few pie fights* in spy thrillers) and the usual dry understated humor, but in general, this seems a suspenseful little thriller that could have been played straight. The opening scene in the sleepy village of Little-Storping-In-the-Swuff (?!), where a man is coldly gunned down in front of a pub, while the rustics play dominoes unconcernedly, establishes the oddly paradoxical atmosphere I remember about this show.

Mrs Peel shows up at Steed's home with an old school chum of hers, Paul Croft. She's traveling with Paul (who frankly seems like a boring dud to me) to his new home in some quaint Little-Storping or other. There, as might be expected in a program like this, he is promptly murdered and she is knocked unconscious. (Maybe I should keep a count of how many times Mrs Peel gets a concussion with no noticeable lasting effects.) When she revives, she's told she was in a motoring accident. Emma isn't fooled that easily. As she investigates, we get much creepiness from this seemingly peaceful hamlet where there actually seems to be a good deal of killing going on that no one notices. An American equivalent would be finding that Andy and Barney have been murdering strangers coming to Mayberry and pawning their belongings all these years.

Getting to the bottom of things, Emma discovers that a wealthy gangster has effectively bought the townspeoples' silence. In exchange for a hefty sum, they keep mum as various thugs lure victims to the village; there, the murders can be carried out safely and the killers will have dozens of lying witnesses if an alibi is needed.

After being chased by goons in a helicopter (and it beats me why Emma didn't just creep through the shrubbery and make a stealthy escape in the woods rather than foolishly running right out into an open field, while wearing a bright purple jumpsuit) our heroine is captured. Maybe she let herself be caught so she could find out the villians' scheme? This is a common strategy used by pulp and thriller heroes who have more self-confidence than prudence. She is then locked into a bulky chastity belt. (Let me keep my snarky remarks to myself. It does look like it wouldn't work well at all, though; maybe a section was missing.) A few other brave souls who defied the murder racket are also imprisoned in the village museum, which is stocked with Iron Maidens, lead boots, hip-hop CDS and so forth.

Getting dunked a few times in the local pond while strapped to a long plank (a fairly unnerving sequence to watch, she seems genuinely distressed and even some of the villagers look concerned), Emma is given one chance to misdirect anyone who might come looking for her. So she phones John Steed (who has been conspicuously absent from the plot so far) and cleverly throws a few clues into her innocent chat with her "husband Johnsie-wonsie." Steed to the rescue! A bit unusual in a series where she was more apt to haul him out of trouble.

I am electrocuted by how sexy and appealing Diana Rigg is. Man! She was nothing like the surgically rebuilt cyborg blondes we see too much of these days. Diana looks like a real woman, with her chestnut hair, slim curves and mischievous laugh. She seems approachable, too, showing good humor and appears to be a likeable human being. (Again, a far cry from the teeth-clenching unforgiving woman warriors we've watched in recent movies and TV shows.) Emma seems to be sincerely fond of Paul, with no hints of romance or carnal interest. His disappearance and the realization he has been killed hits her hard. It's surprising to see her get so worked up that she loses her temper, but the guy who tries to hold her at gunpoint does get quite a thrashing.

There is one odd, rather surreal detail. Emma wears a purple tracksuit with blue trim throughout (and looks great in it), and yet once or twice, she abruptly is in a red suit with black trim for a few minutes. At first, I thought she had changed outfits but there's no break in the action where she could have done so (and anyway, why change back again?). So I'm guessing this is some sort of glitch in the film stock or color correction process.

As for the famous fighting abilities of Mrs Peel, I'd have to say they are much more reasonable and believable than I had expected. She does what a woman in good condition and with some training would do in fights (assuming she's not going to simply poke out eyes or jab throats). Emma does a lot of tripping and shoving her opponents, a few kicks to the midsection (no spinning reverse roundhouse to the head) and some throws that look like they would actually work. Unfortunately, her hand-edge blows are not convincing at all. She obviously is not putting any focus or impact into the chops and is not striking at any particular vulnerable spots. Still, in 1967, few viewers knew enough about martial arts to tell the difference (except those who had watched Bruce Lee in THE GREEN HORNET, of course).

She's not a killing machine by any means, but Emma Peel is capable of acting decisively when called for. One guy gets tossed unceremoniously down a well. My jaw hit my chest when she walks out of the village museum, wearing a knight's helmet and carrying a spear. Met by a group of armed men, she immediately hurls the spear right into one man's chest! I was not expecting that; in fact, it was more shocking than a ten-minute full-blast fistfight.

The chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg seems natural and affectionate. (I'd hate to ever read that they disliked each other and were faking it, they're so good in their interplay). We don't get to see much of Steed in this episode. He's suave, unruffled and witty (a pub owner pulled a shotgun on him "and I hadn't even criticized the beer yet!") but he has too little time on stage. I do like the way he pauses while trying to unlock Emma's chastity belt and she drums her fingers on it impatiently. These two show more humanity than most other screen spies put together.
*Custard tarts, actually. I'm afraid I'll likely be mixing American and British phrases and expressions in a way some might find jarring. Sorry about that. I won't pretend I know enough about UK idioms to blend in.

Frankenstein O'Brien

Art by Willis O'Brien

As I recall (watch out when you hear those words), in the early 1960s Willis O'Brien wrote a script, KING KONG VS PROMETHEUS. The idea was that Dr Frankenstein built and animated a new monster, but this time a huge lumbering ogre. How he made the brute so big when he was working with regular human carcasses, I don't know. And how Kong survived his iconic fate is another puzzler, maybe he landed on the watching crowd and they broke his fall. (ow.)O'Brien managed to get permission to use the characters and sold the script to Toho. But what they unleashed on theatres was KING KONG VS GODZILLA, good cheesy fun in its own right but nothing like O'Brien had envisioned.

Lure of the Underground

A strangely haunting poster from 1927.

As it turns out, of course it's about public transportation. But that slogan and the image of folks floating and drifting toward an entrance in the ground... it's evocative.