Lamont Johnson | Rankings
| A Covenant with Death
| The Groundstar Conspiracy
Have Gun - Will Travel: The Teacher | Gun Shy
| The Five Books of Owen Deaver | The Silver Queen
| Deliver the Body | Young Gun
Peter Gunn: Wings of an Angel
The American Short Story: Paul's Case
Made-for-Television: Call to Danger | My Sweet Charlie
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
| Television Western Articles
Lamont Johnson is an American film and television director. Dan Sallitt has written a good
overview of Johnson's films.
Some common subjects in the films of Lamont Johnson:
Society and the Individual:
- Social commentary on controversial subjects (teaching controversial current events in school: The Teacher,
Habeas Corpus and other legal rights: Deliver the Body,
prisoner rehabilitation: Wings of an Angel,
bomb shelters: The Shelter,
right-wing witch hunts: Four O'Clock,
political corruption: Question: What Is Truth?,
anti-Ku Klux Klan: Oscar W. Underwood,
inter-racial romance, Civil Rights: My Sweet Charlie, homosexuality: That Certain Summer,
Hollywood blacklist: Fear on Trial, school integration: Crisis at Central High)
- Early non-stereotyped minority characters on TV (Chinese: Gun Shy,
black characters: Sing a Song of Murder,
Rex Ingram as black judge: A Split Week in San Quentin,
Cicely Tyson: Frieda)
- Ostracized characters (man rejects his nation: Man Without a Country, controversial teacher: The Teacher,
unconventional young marshal: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
gunslinger's wife: Young Gun,
rancher accused of murder: The Accused,
student expelled from school, job, restricted from theater, taunted by friends: Paul's Case)
related (convict shy at daughter's wedding: Wings of an Angel)
- People more refined than their society (teacher: The Teacher,
gourmet cook in small Western town: Gun Shy,
marshal with law books: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
young man loves theater: Paul's Case)
related (sensitive young man trained to be gunfighter: Young Gun)
- People getting a brief taste of "something better" (prospector spends evening with singer: The Silver Queen,
convict at wedding: Wings of an Angel,
heroine hides out in nice house: My Sweet Charlie,
young man sees glamorous city: Paul's Case)
- Runaways (My Sweet Charlie, That Certain Summer, Paul's Case, Off the Minnesota Strip)
- Manhunts (Gun Shy, Deliver the Body, The Chase,
My Sweet Charlie, Paul's Case)
- Female-run or headed places (school: The Teacher,
boarding house: Gun Shy,
jail run by mother: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
singer at theater: The Silver Queen,
females stars at opera concert and theater: Paul's Case)
- Small store owners representing bourgeois life and normal society pressuring heroes
(The Teacher, The Five Books of Owen Deaver, My Sweet Charlie)
- Rapists (men who offer heroine rides: My Sweet Charlie,
You'll Like My Mother, Lipstick, The Man Next Door)
- Sports (auto racing: The Last American Hero,
basketball: One on One)
- Courtrooms (trial in saloon: The Silver Queen, Deliver the Body,
A Covenant with Death, Fear on Trial)
- School (Western school in crisis: The Teacher,
college sports: One on One,
traditional 1900 high school: Paul's Case, school integration: Crisis at Central High)
- Trapped characters in an environment (jail: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
cave: The Silver Queen, lawman's office: A Sense of Justice,
virus quarantine: Hair of the Dog,
mysterious place: Five Characters in Search of an Exit, lighthouse complex: My Sweet Charlie,
snowbound mansion: You'll Like My Mother)
- Parents and grown or older children (son wants to be vet, father opposes: The Virginian,
Southern family: The Teacher,
mother and daughter: Gun Shy,
marshal's feisty mother: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
gunslinger trains son as gunfighter: Young Gun,
convict father and grown daughter: Wings of an Angel,
mother and daughter in murder case: The Human Trap,
man hates late father: Killer with a Kiss,
teenager deal with father's homosexuality: That Certain Summer,
in-law and grown childrenYou'll Like My Mother,
father forces son to be bourgeois: Paul's Case,
runaway returns home: Off the Minnesota Strip)
- Young men with a deceased parent who was a big influence (father: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
mother: Young Gun, father: Killer with a Kiss, mother: Paul's Case)
- Young people with two contrasting parent's homes (Heritage of Anger, That Certain Summer)
- Good looking young pretty boy types (James Olson: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
James Franciscus: Deliver the Body,
Robert Redford: Nothing in the Dark,
Robert Redford: The Burning Sky,
George Maharis: A Covenant with Death,
Michael Sarrazin: The Groundstar Conspiracy,
Eric Roberts: Paul's Case)
- Female musical performers (singer heroine: The Silver Queen,
Diane Carroll as singer: Sing a Song of Murder,
ballerina: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
opera singer, harpist: Paul's Case)
- Flowers (elderly flower seller in saloon: Deliver the Body, flower imagery: Paul's Case)
- Cooking (Jeanette Nolan as ranch cook: The Virginian,
teacher invites people to dinner: The Teacher,
mother runs wonderful boarding house table, men supply with food: Gun Shy,
mother's soup, mother goes to get eggs: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
lawyer with groceries: Deliver the Body,
women in kitchen: Young Gun,
man works as Salad Chef on ship: The Parolee,
heroine cooks food provided by hero: My Sweet Charlie,
son cooks for father, hotel dining room: Paul's Case)
- Images (target of man on wall painted: Young Gun,
model of robbery plan: Wings of an Angel, gallery of paintings, art class: Paul's Case)
- Characters exploring buildings (heroine and house: My Sweet Charlie,
hero and concert hall, hotel: Paul's Case)
- Towers (lighthouse: My Sweet Charlie, tower in Pittsburgh in background: Paul's Case)
- Well-like structures (barn with loft: Young Gun, saloon with high walls: The Silver Queen,
mysterious place: Five Characters in Search of an Exit)
- Mysteries of identity and situation (Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Pilots and first episodes of TV series (early version: The Virginian, Angel: The French Touch,
The Richard Boone Show: Statement of Fact,
Slattery's People: Question: What Is Truth?)
- Shooting characters through things (kid looks through crack in wall: The Teacher,
bars of jail cell: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
through stagecoach window: The Silver Queen,
window shot of man: Wings of an Angel,
harp: Paul's Case)
- Depth staging through doors (boarding house: Gun Shy, jail: The Five Books of Owen Deaver)
- Screen parallel with architecture, making a flat frieze effect (store: The Teacher,
barn, shoot-out: Gun Shy,
jail: The Five Books of Owen Deaver)
- Blake Edwards TV series (Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky)
- Richard Levinson and William Link, scriptwriters (My Sweet Charlie, That Certain Summer,
The Execution of Private Slovik, Crisis at Central High)
Lamont Johnson's motifs are shared with other directors:
- Richard Boone (Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, The Richard Boone Show episodes,
The Roarer, Kona Coast)
- Jeanette Nolan (The Virginian, Gun Shy, The Richard Boone Show episodes)
- Patty Duke (My Sweet Charlie, You'll Like My Mother)
- Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Kildare episodes, Wallenberg: A Hero's Story,
All the Winters That Have Been)
- James Olson (The Five Books of Owen Deaver, The War of the Eggs,
The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- William Russ (Crisis at Central High, Cattle Annie and Little Britches)
Here are ratings for various films directed by Lamont Johnson. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.
Have Gun - Will Travel:
- A Covenant with Death **1/2
- The Groundstar Conspiracy **
- One on One **
- The Teacher ***
- Gun Shy ***
- The Five Books of Owen Deaver **1/2
- The Silver Queen **1/2
- Deliver the Body **1/2
- A Sense of Justice *1/2
- Young Gun **1/2
- The Chase **1/2
- Heritage of Anger **
- Five Characters in Search of an Exit **1/2
- Nothing in the Dark **1/2
- Call to Danger **1/2
- My Sweet Charlie **
- That Certain Summer **1/2
- Fear on Trial ***
- Paul's Case ***
A Covenant with Death
A Covenant with Death (1967) a combination courtroom drama and think piece.
The Groundstar Conspiracy
The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) is one of Lamont Johnson's excursions into science fiction.
Have Gun - Will Travel: The Teacher
The Teacher (1958) is a fierce social commentary drama.
It shows that Lamont Johnson's interest in message films did not start with his famous television movies of the 1970's,
but already was present early in his career. Quite a few other "social commentary"
TV films are listed in the checklist above.
The Teacher is Lamont Johnson's first episode of Have Gun - Will Travel.
One might speculate that it is what motivated him to become involved with the series.
A store owner is depicted as a "typical member of the community", one whose attitudes
towards the teacher represent bourgeois life. Store owners appear in other Lamont Johnson films,
also representing the pressures of the "real world" on the heroes' dreams.
A little girl is a significant character. Little boys are more common in Westerns than girls.
The school is one of Lamont Johnson's female-run spaces.
Both the teacher and the little girl have to show physical courage against the bad guys.
Visual Style: Frieze Effects
In the store, Paladin has a conversation with the storekeeper.
Each man is shown against a different wall, as the film cuts back and forth between them.
Each wall is photographed parallel to the camera frame, making a frieze-like effect.
We see only a portion of each wall, rather than the "full walls as friezes" in other Lamont Johnson films.
Have Gun - Will Travel: Gun Shy
Gun Shy (1958) has Paladin tracking robbers. Robbery is a less serious crime than the killings
Paladin often investigates, and the show takes advantage of this to offer a lighter and more comic tale
than typical. Gun Shy is a delightful story, richly brocaded and full of pleasant detail.
The boarding house run by the women is an unexpectedly happy place. It perhaps anticipates some
happy places in Paul's Case, that are also presided over by female stars: the opera concert, the theater.
The boarding house centers around cooking, a favorite Lamont Johnson theme.
The sympathetic treatment of the Chinese characters, anticipates
Lamont Johnson's famous TV movies about Civil Rights.
Visual Style: Frieze Effects
Some shots of the barn are parallel to the back wall of the barn.
This makes a striking flat frieze-like effect. It also shows off and highlights
the architecture of the barn.
When the big confrontation in the dining room begins the final shoot-out,
the camera shows the wall of the room face-on, parallel to the screen.
We get some of Johnson's "depth staging through doors", with the door showing into the hall.
The back-wall of the hall is also parallel to the frame.
Have Gun - Will Travel: The Five Books of Owen Deaver
The Five Books of Owen Deaver (1958) is about an idealistic young Sheriff,
who wants to disarm the citizens of his Western town. This film presents
this as terribly misguided.
The dialogue explicitly labels the Sheriff as "Utopian". So The Five Books of Owen Deaver
is not just about disarmament, but a critique of Utopian ideas that fail in reality.
After critiquing the young Sheriff throughout as impractical, the finale suggests his ideas
will likely come true in the future. One also notes that this young man is portrayed as brave and honest,
The Sheriff has to go up against his Mother, a rough tough and fierce woman
who runs the jail. This is partly comic. But it also involves us in Lamont Johnson's
theme of parents and grown children.
The jail is one of the female-headed institutions in Lamont Johnson.
Several shots are taken from the inside of a jail cell. Some of these are staged,
so that both the bars of the cell, and the wall of the Sheriff's office seen through the bars,
are parallel to the plane of the shot. The visual effect is striking.
It has an artificial or a visionary quality. It looks like an imaginary, stylized world.
The jail cell shots are often three levels deep:
We also get some of Lamont Johnson's depth-staging through doors, the room
in the back of the office seen through the doorway.
- Inside the cell.
- The Sheriff's office.
- People walking outside in the street, seen through the window.
Have Gun - Will Travel: The Silver Queen
The Silver Queen (1958) is about an old prospector, and his friendship
with a woman singer.
An Early Draft of Paul's Case
The opening of The Silver Queen is like a miniature version of
Paul's Case. In both:
The opening is the best part of The Silver Queen.
- The heroes are desperately lonely men from a poor background.
- Both men get a brief poignant taste of a high life, filled with glamour.
- Both men admire a famed woman singer.
- Both men get dressed up in white tie and tails for their encounter.
- Both encounters involve glamorous hotels.
- Both men die immediately after.
The long middle section of The Silver Queen is not as good.
It does involve that Lamont Johnson subject, people trapped in an environment,
here a cave.
The tale picks up in the final section, a trial held in a saloon
(a Western movie tradition). This returns to exploring the prospector's
intense feelings of loneliness, and desire to experience something better.
The saloon is a steep well-like structure, also a Lamont Johnson tradition.
Such wells have:
The archetypal example of such a "well" is in Johnson's
Five Characters in Search of an Exit.
- High walls, that stretch upward far beyond a single story.
- People climbing up and down the walls.
- A whole group of people inside.
Have Gun - Will Travel: Deliver the Body
Deliver the Body (1958) is a Western preaching the "rule of law".
This was a common theme in television Westerns, and an admirable one. This means that
Deliver the Body is not especially original in overall subject or message.
However, the specific details of what Deliver the Body is defending are more unusual.
Deliver the Body gives a full civics lesson in both the right of prisoners to
be defended by counsel in court, and in the legal principle of Habeas Corpus.
Habeas Corpus originated in English law, and was incorporated in the US Constitution.
It has long been viewed as one of the cornerstones of a free, democratic society.
Habeas Corpus is fully dramatized and its value shown in Deliver the Body.
Deliver the Body is an educational work, designed to inform and educate the American public
about these basic values. Other TV programs of the era also educated about the US Constitution,
notably the classic Studio One episode An Almanac of Liberty
(Paul Nickell, 1954).
Deliver the Body has flower imagery, that anticipates Paul's Case.
Both have sympathetic characters purchasing large bunches of cut flowers.
Both show these men later arranging the flowers on the ground, as symbolic gestures
of support or defiance, when they are in deep trouble.
The Lawyer Hero
Deliver the Body celebrates the fact that its young lawyer hero is married.
His wife is intelligent, supportive, and an independent social thinker,
who offers a spokesperson for the film's values. The episode Young Gun will also
soon celebrate such heterosexual young families. These make a contrast to such gay-themes later
Johnson films as That Certain Summer and Paul's Case.
The lawyer is later shown carrying sacks of groceries. He is likely bringing food supplies
to his wife to cook. Men are seen in similar supporting roles of providing foodstuffs
for cooking in Gun Shy.
The lawyer has a distinctly business-like office, including conspicuous file cabinets.
A business office will be seen negatively in Paul's Case, as a place of repression and spiritual death
for the hero. But in Deliver the Body, it suggests the lawyer is a serious person about his admirable job.
The lawyer is another of Johnson's very young men.
Have Gun - Will Travel: Young Gun
Relationships and Society
Young Gun (1958) deals with such Johnson subjects as parent-older child relations, and social ostracism.
The account of how the farm wife is ostracized by her neighbors is emotionally powerful.
The father tries to coerce the son into his own violent, gunslinger lifestyle.
This separates the son from "normal life", and the heterosexual love, marriage and family the son
so desperately wants. The son's values are seemingly fully endorsed by the film,
including his participation in heterosexual love. The much later Paul's Case (1980)
has both parallels and contrasts with Young Gun: once again a father tries to coerce his son
into the father's own lifestyle. But in Paul's Case, that lifestyle unwanted by the son
includes "normal living", heterosexuality, marriage and family, with broad hints that the son might be gay.
The last shot of Young Gun is terrific. One wonders who dreamed this up.
It conveys a powerful development in purely visual terms.
Peter Gunn: Wings of an Angel
Wings of an Angel (1960) seems a bit unusual among the Peter Gunn series.
For one thing, it invokes pathos, a feature not always found in the energized and humorous series.
SPOILERS. The first half conveys a number of Lamont Johnson subjects. The convict-on-leave is another Johnson
character who is shunned by society. He feels he has to sit in the back row and be inconspicuous
at his daughter's wedding. He is not quite as actively ostracized as some other Johnson characters,
but it is a related subject and condition.
He is another Lamont Johnson protagonist who gets a brief taste of a better life, during his furlough.
He winds up sitting in the night club, just like Paul in Paul's Case will sit in the fancy hotel.
He and his daughter are more of Johnson's parents and grown children.
The American Short Story: Paul's Case
Paul's Case (1980) is part of an educational series made for Public Television,
The American Short Story, that dramatized short stories by classic American literary writers.
Each episode is around 52 minutes long, and has a different director.
"Paul's Case" (1905) is a tragic tale by Willa Cather.
Paul's Case was filmed at a series of spectacular historic buildings, in towns near
Albany in upstate New York, and nearby Vermont. I have rarely seen any films shot in this region.
Even today, all the locations in Paul's Case look absolutely "different":
they are places I have never seen before, in photos, films or life.
This gives Paul's Case a unique look.
In addition, everything in Paul's Case looks really old. Probably it is.
This is underscored by the cinematographer, who has used techniques that give the film an "ancient" look.
The whole film looks as if one has stepped into a time machine, and come out in a very old place.
Both the short story and film are set in Pittsburgh, New York City, and finally Newark, New Jersey.
The upstate New York locales stand-in for all of these.
There is a tower in the background, in the scene where the hero's friends humiliate him over his photos.
This tower recalls the lighthouse in My Sweet Charlie, also often shown in the background.
A Gay Hero?
Many critics today see the hero of Cather's short story as a gay man - though he is never explicitly labeled
as such. It is easy to speculate that the hero of the film Paul's Case is similarly gay -
although once again, this is never discussed openly. Broad hints include:
The hero's deep social alienation was also common in gay people in that era.
- The hero's desire for friendship with the actor,
- His indifference and apparent dislike of the young married couple his father perhaps feels are ideal heterosexual role models,
- His intense dislike of being touched by a female teacher,
- His confusion over the Yale man's enthusiasm for women.
Lamont Johnson made one of the landmark social consciousness films about homosexuality, That Certain Summer.
Johnson's best role in a theatrical film was as a heterosexual character, the young married Marine Captain in
Retreat, Hell! (Joseph H. Lewis, 1952). But two of his roles on TV's
Hallmark Hall of Fame are playing characters often seen as gay today: Ishmael in Moby-Dick (1954),
and Damon of legendary male friends Damon and Pythias in The Promise (1955).
Whether many people in the 1950's saw anything gay about such characters is another question,
and they might have been depicted as completely straight on these TV shows.
I've never seen these TV versions, and have little information about them.
Much of the film is shot in mixtures of red or pink tones. In a few scenes, these are mixed with green,
making a red-green contrasting color design. These green accents include a woman's blouse on stage,
and green plants at the hotel in New York. The reddish scenes recall old hand-colored photographs, or
silent films shot in two color (red-green) Technicolor. They contribute to the antique quality of the images.
Early in the film, the hero is often in reddish clothes, that match this color scheme. But after he goes to
New York, he is often in the black tailcoat he wears with his white tie and tails. This is socially correct:
white tie is almost always worn with a jet black tailcoat and trousers. However, the hero's white-and-black look
serves to subtly alienate him from his colorful environment. It is a sign of something he has lost by his
When the hero works as an usher in the first half, he is in a reddish uniform. This makes him part of the reddish world.
But in New York, he constantly meets bellboys who are in red-tinged uniforms. These young men resemble
the hero in his old life. The hero cannot socialize with these young men, because he is now impersonating a member
of the upper class. This too is a loss for the hero. These young men are like echoes of the hero's former self.
In the grim finale, the hero, all in white-and-black, moves into a world in black and white:
white snow, black carriage, white horses. Only his red flowers leave any color, and any relation
to the old red world. The hero is losing more and more of life.
The music played by the harpist in the hotel lobby is Handel's The Harmonious Blacksmith.
This is during a striking camera movement, in which the hero is shot through the harp strings.
During the first half of the shot, the camera moves so that we always see the walking hero framed through the harp.
In the shot's second half, the hero has moved beyond the harp.
(A simpler shot of a grand ball seen through a harp is in Anna Karenina
(Clarence Brown, 1935)).
Made-for-Television: Call to Danger
Call to Danger (1968) is a television pilot, around one hour long.
It is an entertaining story, but it did not get turned into a TV series.
Made-for-Television: My Sweet Charlie
My Sweet Charlie (1969) is the pioneering American telefilm that shows interracial romance.
By doing this, My Sweet Charlie broke one of the strongest taboos in American racist ideology.
My Sweet Charlie also has a strong pro Civil Rights stand, explicitly mentioning Civil Rights protests.
The film was widely recognized in its day, being showered with awards.
I'm not fond of all the racial invective spewed by the heroine in the film's first half.
In 1969, this might have seemed like a good idea. But later experience suggests that such material
only encourages bigots in the audience.
Context: People might want to read the many Internet articles about early interracial kisses on
American TV shows: the musical special Movin' With Nancy (Jack Haley, Jr., 1967),
and the Star Trek episode Plato's Stepchildren (David Alexander, 1968).
Entering the House
When the heroine enters the house by the lighthouse for the first time, she is awed.
The poor heroine has hardly ever been in such a lavish place.
These scenes anticipate the hero of Paul's Case, and the many spectacular buildings he enters.
Both young protagonists stare around in wonder, soaking up details of the buildings.
Both are often alone with the architecture, and seem very comfortable in their own
isolated refuge, a place that can seem like a fairyland.
One of the best scenes in My Sweet Charlie shows the first time the couple attempts to cook together.
(Before this they had largely eaten out of cans.) Food scenes in Johnson tend to be joyous,
involve good feeling and fellowship, and suggest an ideal refuge from the cares of living.
All these feelings are evoked in My Sweet Charlie. This is the first time the pair become friends and allies.
The gender roles of the man and woman reflect Lamont Johnson traditions, in such idealized portraits of cooking
as Gun Shy. The man provides the raw materials of the food: a sack of potatoes.
The woman cooks the food: makes French fries.
The two also exchange ideas, talking about farming and the Irish Potato Famine.
The two characters are essentially trapped in the isolated lighthouse complex.
Whenever they try to leave, they are under attack:
the heroine is nearly raped by every man who offers her a ride;
the hero is a black man threatened with death down South.
Being trapped in an environment is a Johnson tradition.
The recognition that rape is omnipresent "on the road" anticipates Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991).