Lamont Johnson

Lamont Johnson | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Collaborators | Rankings

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 Twilight Zone: Five Characters in Search of an Exit | Kick the Can | Hocus-Pocus and Frisby

Coronet Blue: The Assassins

The Bold Ones: The Protectors: Deadlock

The American Short Story: Paul's Case

Made-for-Television: Call to Danger | My Sweet Charlie

Feature Films: A Covenant with Death | The McKenzie Break | The Groundstar Conspiracy

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Television Western Articles | Color in the Arts

Lamont Johnson

Lamont Johnson is an American film and television director. Dan Sallitt has written an overview of Johnson's films.

Lamont Johnson: Subjects

Society and the Individual: Settings: Parents and Children: Characters: Imagery: Information: Lamont Johnson's motifs are shared with other directors:

Lamont Johnson: Structure and Story Telling

Story Structure: Images: Sound:

Lamont Johnson: Visual Style

Architecture: Visual style: Geometry: Color: Costumes and Color: Costumes:

Lamont Johnson: Collaborators

Favorite collaborators: Favorite performers:

Rankings

Here are ratings for various films directed by Lamont Johnson. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.

Have Gun - Will Travel:

Peter Gunn: Mr. Lucky: The Twilight Zone: Coronet Blue: The Bold Ones: The Protectors: Made-for-Television Films: Feature films:

Have Gun - Will Travel: The Teacher

Social Commentary

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.

Women

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

Social Commentary

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, if misguided.

Women

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.

Visual Style

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.

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.

Trapped

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 Well

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.

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).

Flowers

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.

Pictures

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 Twilight Zone: Five Characters in Search of an Exit

Five Characters in Search of an Exit (1961) is one of the major television works of its era. It is an unusual combination of science fiction and avant-garde theater.

Successors

Another television drama of the era with Theater of the Absurd aspects is the Rawhide episode House of the Hunter (Tay Garnett, 1962). Like Five Characters in Search of an Exit it deals with people who are trapped inside a building, with no understanding of why they are there. Unlike Five Characters in Search of an Exit, is set in a "realistic" building and has no science fiction elements.

I've always wondered if Five Characters in Search of an Exit helped inspire the short story "The Lost Ones" (1966, 1970) by Samuel Beckett. Both have characters living in a large cylinder.

Lamont Johnson Traditions

Five Characters in Search of an Exit anticipates Kick the Can and The McKenzie Break in dealing with a group trapped in an environment who try to escape. As in Kick the Can, most of the trapped people are exceptionably passive, and only one man leads an escape, determined to get out.

The clown is remarkably fey. It is possible the film is hinting he is gay. The bagpiper, who wears a kilt, might also be transgressing against conventional norms of masculinity.

The cylinder is one of Johnson's well-like structures: tall areas with steep sides, that sometimes get climbed by the characters. Such regions appeared in Lamont Johnson's work long before Five Characters in Search of an Exit.

Clark Allen, who plays the bagpiper, made only a handful of acting appearances on film. He seems to have been a well-known musician, and also a painter and owner of a Flamenco night-club. Lamont Johnson directed what seems to be his first appearance in the Peter Gunn episode The Coffin (1959). He played a musician in The Coffin too, a guitarist.


The Twilight Zone: Kick the Can

Kick the Can (1962) argues that older people should try to regain their youthful spirits.

The Twilight Zone: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby

Hocus-Pocus and Frisby (1962) is perhaps autobiographical for Rod Serling: at least in the sense that the lead character is a teller of tall tales, and thus might by a stand-in for Serling as a writer of the fantastic.

While Frisby is a self-described "Old Country Boy", he has none of the anti-intellectualism associated with today's Republican Party. Instead, Frisby boasts of having numerous PhDs from many universities. His pro-education attitude recalls the Sputnik era.

Science Fiction

Hocus-Pocus and Frisby is one of the few actual science fiction tales Lamont Johnson directed for The Twilight Zone. The others mainly are fantasies, plus two tales set in contemporary America which are actually realistic dramas without any fantastic elements: The Shelter, One More Pallbearer.

Frisby's tall tales are all often science or technology based. They are NOT fantasies or supernatural.

Links to This Island Earth

The science fiction premise, in part, recalls the famous film This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955). SPOILERS. In both works: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby gives this a comic twist, with reasons given for the aliens getting a tale-spinner who is not actually Earth's smartest human.

Coronet Blue: The Assassins

The Assassins (made in 1965, broadcast in 1967) is Lamont Johnson's only episode of the thriller TV series Coronet Blue. It is full of situations that run through Lamont Johnson's films. It has an intense, gripping quality that is probably related to this personal expression.

Some Lamont Johnson subjects are especially important in The Assassins:

A Gay Subtext

The amnesiac hero meets a new alleged "stepfather" - actually a international plotter. The handsome, well-dressed "stepfather" tries to be as charming, indulgent and manipulative of the hero as possible. In the plot, this is treated as part of a spy conspiracy to manipulate the hero - nothing more. But it has a subtext of an attempted seduction, with gay undertones. The relationship has a strong homoerotic charge.

The audience has long since guessed that the "stepfather" is a phony, and completely unrelated to the hero.

Hero Frank Converse was likely 27, and "stepfather" Edwin Binns was 48, when The Assassins was filmed. Both men look very grown-up and adult. In Lamont Johnson's pioneering Gay Lib drama That Certain Summer Hal Holbrook was 47 and Martin Sheen was around 32. It is a similar sort of romantic pairing.

Oddly enough, the strong homoerotic feelings in The Assassins are mainly not visible in That Certain Summer. Holbrook and Sheen stand around and look dignified in That Certain Summer; the viewer has to guess at their feelings.

The "mother" tells the hero that she's a bit jealous of the close bonding between the hero and "stepfather".

At the end of the film's opening long take, two men walk by. They are in matching very good black suits and ties. The one on the right is exceptionally handsome. His black shoes are well shined. He passes by a tall phallic pole. Meanwhile the hero is trying to enter a gate. It is as if the men are marking the world the hero is trying to enter, as a gay couple.

Uniforms

The many uniforms in the film also suggest gay subtexts.

The soccer team wears uniforms on field, and black tuxedos at the party.

Villainous John Vernon encounters a man uniformed as a security guard at the stadium. The guard immediately behaves in a way completely subservient to him. It is clear that the guard is part of the conspiracy. It is unclear whether this is a real guard who has been corrupted, or a phony crook impersonating a guard with the uniform. Either way the scene has a perverse charge.

At the finale we see well-built men in New York City police uniforms. We often see glimpses of them through windows.

Cal Bellini

Cal Bellini plays the Middle Eastern Prince. Cal Bellini's TV career had started with a bang, as the Indian scientist in the pioneering forensic crime drama Diagnosis: Unknown (1960), based on stories by Lawrence G. Blochman. That was one of the most dignified depictions of an Asian anywhere in American television of the era. But one suspects that the TV industry didn't know what to do with him.

Both Diagnosis: Unknown and Coronet Blue were shot in New York City. So was Frank Converse's next TV series N.Y.P.D. on which Bellini also guest-starred.


The Bold Ones: The Protectors: Deadlock

Deadlock (1969) is the 98-minute pilot for the short-lived series The Bold Ones: The Protectors.

Deadlock is generally better in its first half, filled with varied scenes of black power, black progress, black schools, black theater and black militancy. This is unique, and forms a time capsule of its era. Its second half turns into a routine cop show.

The Wells

The first half of Deadlock is notable for spectacular shooting, in a kind of setting that run's through Lamont Johnson's work. I've dubbed this "the well". These are multi-storied locales, with deep open areas. In Deadlock these include: Deadlock comes alive in these scenes. I wish there were more of them. In particular, I would have liked to have seen a lot more scenes at the hero's campaign headquarters. Seeing a black hero run for office is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately Deadlock keeps putting down the hero as a "politician" (boo, hiss!). This negative view of politics and politicians minimizes one of the best features of Deadlock.

Red and other Color

The opening "police and crime" scenes have much red-and-white: Much later in the film, we see that the police motorcycles are black-and-white with prominent red lights. The red echoes the police cars.

The political campaign is red-white-and-blue. This is hardly original: both in real life and movies this is a patriotic symbol for a campaign. But here in Deadlock and elsewhere, it is effective and dramatic.

The Freedom School is also red-white-and-blue.

Parody

Leslie Nielsen co-stars as a tough urban police chief. He later played a very similar role in the spoof TV series Police Squad! (1982) and its movie spin-offs The Naked Gun films. Today, these parodies are much more famous than his original performance in The Bold Ones: The Protectors.

I confess that I had trouble viewing his work in Deadlock seriously. I kept thinking of its later spoof. This is especially true of the second half of Deadlock, where there is more emphasis on him emoting scenes as the "tough cop".

While Police Squad! spoofs Nielsen's character in Deadlock and The Bold Ones: The Protectors, it does not otherwise seem to be a parody of Deadlock. Instead Police Squad! is reportedly a parody of an earlier cop show M Squad. Consequently, the Police Squad! parody does not affect the viewing of Deadlock as a whole, but just certain scenes with Nielsen's character.


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.

Locations

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.

Lamont Johnson made one of the landmark social consciousness films about gay men, 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.

Red and other Color

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 imposture.

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.

Music

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.

The hero is a figure that runs through Lamont Johnson's films: a brainy man who is good at intervening in the lives of people in trouble, solving their problems. He is one of the most high-technology of such figures, using computers.


Made-for-Television: My Sweet Charlie

Race

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.

Food

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.

Trapped

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).


A Covenant with Death

A Covenant with Death (1967) a combination courtroom drama and think piece. It starts out well, but becomes less and less interesting as it progresses:

The McKenzie Break

The McKenzie Break (1970) is a POW drama.

Quality

The McKenzie Break has good story telling, that keeps the viewer absorbed throughout. But its lack of meaning, morally nihilistic characters, and the lack of Lamont Johnson's best visual style, makes watching it a limited experience.

I am in disagreement with auteurist accounts of Lamont Johnson, that treat The McKenzie Break as a central Johnson work. It seems much inferior to his better TV films.

Discussions of this film on the Internet also find me in disagreement with many contemporary fans of this movie. There is clearly a sizable fan base for "POWs Escape" films. Lots of viewers treat The McKenzie Break as us another example of this genre. Such viewers often see The McKenzie Break as a fun romp. Such a viewpoint ignores all the Nazi depravity shown by the POWs in The McKenzie Break. It also ignores the bad decisions and values displayed by the film's protagonist Captain Connor (Brian Keith).

Links to Deadlock

On a purely situational level The McKenzie Break has parallels with Deadlock: I feel nervous about making this situational comparison. There is NO moral equivalency between the groups in the two films. In particular, the blacks are morally sympathetic in Deadlock; the Germans are monsters in The McKenzie Break. Still, there are so many situational parallels, that they become insistent when watching the films.

The McKenzie Break in fact exhibits moral nihilism in its characters - the exact opposite of Deadlock. The Germans, except for the two gay officers, are completely morally depraved. The Allied protagonist Captain Connor (Brian Keith) seems to have no values at all. This leaves weary, unglamorous and none-too-competent Camp commander Major Perry and his devotion to the Geneva Convention, to be the only person with any values.


The Groundstar Conspiracy

The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) is one of Lamont Johnson's excursions into science fiction.