Lamont Johnson | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling
| Visual Style | Collaborators
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 is an American film and television director. Dan Sallitt has written an
overview of Johnson's films.
Lamont Johnson: Subjects
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,
maybe-gay clown and bagpiper: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
bomb shelters: One More Pallbearer,
right-wing witch hunts, hater suffers from prejudice and opposes equality: Four O'Clock,
political corruption: Question: What Is Truth?,
anti-Ku Klux Klan: Oscar W. Underwood,
gays: Weep the Hunter Home,
Communist censorship: The White Birch,
urban race relations, black politics, black militants, black Freedom School, Black Arts theater: Deadlock,
inter-racial romance, Civil Rights: My Sweet Charlie,
gays, Nazi persecution of gays: The McKenzie Break,
gays: That Certain Summer,
Hollywood blacklist: Fear on Trial,
school integration: Crisis at Central High,
Agent Orange: Unnatural Causes)
- 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,
Mexican-American hero, Native American Zuni law clerk: A Covenant with Death,
black politician hero, militants: Deadlock)
- Woman leftists ("Utopian reformer" lobbyist Sally Kellerman: Question: What Are You Doing Out There, Waldo?,
black militant teacher Ruby Dee: Deadlock)
related (teacher: The Teacher,
daughter of political prisoner: The Assassins)
- 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,
vicious man publicly exposed: One More Pallbearer,
middle class hero criticized by black militants: Deadlock,
gays rejected by Nazis: The McKenzie Break,
student expelled from school, job, restricted from theater, taunted by friends: Paul's Case,
black students integrating school, school board member's daughter: Crisis at Central High)
related (convict shy at daughter's wedding: Wings of an Angel)
- Ex-convicts, often trying to go straight (parolees blackmailed into crime: The Parolee,
Losers Weepers, Dangerous Company, The Man Next Door)
- 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,
hero told he is son of wealthy family, gets room and clothes: The Assassins,
heroine hides out in nice house: My Sweet Charlie,
young man sees glamorous city: Paul's Case)
- Runaways (retirees break out of retirement home: Kick the Can,
hero breaks out of prison: Sentenced,
My Sweet Charlie, That Certain Summer,
teenage girls join outlaw gang: Cattle Annie and Little Britches,
Paul's Case, Off the Minnesota Strip)
- Unwed pregnant women who run away (Don't Call Me Dirty Names, My Sweet Charlie)
- Manhunts (Gun Shy,
Deliver the Body,
for escaped convict hero: Sentenced,
good guy hunted by criminals: The Parolee,
The Hawk, The Chase,
retirees hunted at end: Kick the Can,
urban killer: Deadlock,
My Sweet Charlie,
escaped Nazi POWs: The McKenzie Break,
- Government surveillance, technological (hero spies on mobster: Call to Danger,
government villain watches, denounces privacy: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
related (right-wing hater keeps massive files on opponents: Four O'Clock)
- Sinister men in uniform (Robert Redford as cop: Nothing in the Dark,
Prince, John Vernon, security guard subservient to Vernon: The Assassins,
helmeted cops, motorcycle cops unleashed on ghetto: Deadlock,
Nazis: The McKenzie Break,
Peppard's man shoots victim: The Groundstar Conspiracy,
National Guardsmen block black student facing mob: Crisis at Central High)
- Legal struggles of deserting soldiers (Question: Why the Lonely?... Why the Misbegotten?,
The Execution of Private Slovik)
related (deserting German officer tries to escape: Fear Is the Chain)
- 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,
mysterious place: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
night club: Sentenced,
family house run by mother: The Assassins,
females stars at opera concert and theater: Paul's Case,
schoolroom: Crisis at Central High)
- Heroes who are good at intervening to help others, making plans (Paladin: Have Gun - Will Travel episodes,
Mr. Lucky: The Parolee,
hero: Kick the Can,
hero helps daughter of political prisoner: The Assassins,
government agent hero: Call to Danger,
attorney Louis Nizer: Fear on Trial)
- Small store owners representing bourgeois life and normal society pressuring heroes
(The Teacher, The Five Books of Owen Deaver, My Sweet Charlie)
related (hero runs country store: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby)
- Rapists (men who offer heroine rides: My Sweet Charlie,
You'll Like My Mother, Lipstick, The Man Next Door)
Parents and Children:
- Sports (kick the can: Kick the Can,
soccer stadium, tennis racket, golf clubs, throwing ball in park: The Assassins,
auto racing: The Last American Hero,
basketball: One on One)
- Courtrooms (trial in saloon: The Silver Queen, Deliver the Body,
hero on trial: Sentenced,
A Covenant with Death, Punishments, Cruel and Unusual, Fear on Trial)
- School (Western school in crisis: The Teacher,
military training: School of the Soldier,
protagonist cheats in high school, frames other student: One More Pallbearer,
teacher denounced by witch-hunter: Four O'Clock,
tall tales about having multiple Ph.Ds, graduating at 13: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
hero Tom-Tom drops out of college: Chicago Gains a Number,
hero allegedly goes to Oxford: The Assassins,
black militant Freedom School: Deadlock,
college sports: One on One,
traditional 1900 high school: Paul's Case, school integration: Crisis at Central High)
- Crowded big-city hotels (Paladin's hotel: Have Gun - Will Travel episodes,
opening: Call to Danger,
second half of film: Paul's Case)
related (boarding house: Gun Shy,
retirement home: Kick the Can)
- 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,
heroine never leaves apartment: Nothing in the Dark,
bomb shelter: One More Pallbearer,
retirement home: Kick the Can,
spaceship: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
heroine never leaves apartment: The Sleeping Princess,
lighthouse complex: My Sweet Charlie,
POW camp: The McKenzie Break,
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,
retiree wants his son to let him live with him: Kick the Can,
mother and daughter in murder case: The Human Trap,
man hates late father: Killer with a Kiss,
amnesiac hero told he is son in family: The Assassins,
judge hero and his mother: A Covenant with Death,
teenager deal with father's gayness: That Certain Summer,
in-law and grown children: You'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)
- Parents in conflict over child custody (parents try to preserve their adoption of Korean child: Question: Where Vanished the Tragic Piper?,
ex-convict vs mother-in-law over child custody: Losers Weepers)
- Orphans (donations to kids in orphanage: Five Characters in Search of an Exit)
- Unwanted children (Solomon's Choices)
- Good looking young pretty boy types (James Olson: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
James Franciscus: Deliver the Body,
Jeremy Slate: The Parolee,
bagpiper Clark Allen: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
Robert Redford: Nothing in the Dark,
Linden Chiles as FBI agent: Four O'Clock,
Robert Redford: The Burning Sky,
Frank Converse, Cal Bellini: The Assassins,
George Maharis: A Covenant with Death,
political worker at campaign headquarters: Deadlock,
Michael Sarrazin: The Groundstar Conspiracy,
Eric Roberts: Paul's Case)
- Female musical performers (singer heroine: The Silver Queen,
night club singer heroine: Sentenced,
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 pot on clown's head: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
in field where hero confronts heroine: The Assassins,
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, talk about cooking filet mignon at end: The Parolee,
heroine cooks food provided by hero: My Sweet Charlie,
radio broadcast about Aunt's cooking: Fear on Trial,
son cooks for father, hotel dining room: Paul's Case)
related (birthday cake shared, gathering water: The Shelter,
characters permanently lack hunger: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
candy from country store: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
bagel sandwich shared by character: Deadlock)
- Chess (stolen chess set: Gun Shy,
hero plays multiple chess games in office: Call to Danger)
- Flowing water (filling bottles from tap: The Shelter,
ornamental pool in front of office: One More Pallbearer,
playing in sprinkler: Kick the Can,
fire hoses: The McKenzie Break)
Lamont Johnson's motifs are shared with other directors:
- Wire containers for information (file basket on desk: Four O'Clock,
computer printouts: Call to Danger,
wire basket used by police for crime evidence: Deadlock,
office mail cart: Fear on Trial)
- Information in files (liquor board man's investigative files burned by villains: The Parolee,
hate-monger keeps files on people: Four O'Clock)
- Computers (tall tale about contest of human calculating vs computers: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
college, key punch operator: Chicago Gains a Number,
government: Call to Danger)
related (right-wing hater wants to keep opponents from using adding machines & typewriters & phones: Four O'Clock)
Lamont Johnson: Structure and Story Telling
- Mysteries of identity and situation (Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
has amnesiac hero found his identity: The Assassins,
The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Heroes with amnesia (all characters: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
hero forgets everything at end: Kick the Can,
series hero of Coronet Blue: The Assassins,
hero: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Artificial reality for characters (boarding house with special rules: Gun Shy,
makeup can create any appearance: Sentenced,
strange science fiction existence: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
simulated events with special effects in shelter: One More Pallbearer,
hoax of imaginary family: The Assassins,
undercover roles and schemes: Call to Danger,
POWs can create any uniform: The McKenzie Break,
new high-life for hero: Paul's Case)
- 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?,
NBC Experiment in Television: Losers Weepers,
The Bold Ones: The Protectors: Deadlock)
- Character breaks fourth wall (hero Tom-Tom talks to camera: Chicago Gains a Number)
- Images (target of man on wall painted: Young Gun,
photo of hero used for makeup job: Sentenced,
model of robbery plan: Wings of an Angel,
bad oil painting as gift: Aces Back to Back,
statue in front of office: One More Pallbearer,
photos in album, heroine is artist, target practice image of man: The Assassins,
campaign posters of hero, campaign banner unrolled in front of building, photos of murder used as clues: Deadlock,
gallery of paintings, art class: Paul's Case)
- Filming (new conference: Deadlock,
secret cameras: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Televisions (dialogue says televisions have gone black: The Shelter,
with fake news in shelter: One More Pallbearer,
campaign headquarters: Deadlock,
hospital security: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Talking over unrelated scenes (fake news over loudspeaker: One More Pallbearer,
police listen to talk radio while patrolling at start: Deadlock,
radio calls heard over footage of escaping explosives truck: The McKenzie Break)
- Disembodied sounds (bell: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
aliens talking in general store: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby)
- Unusual photography (sustained blurred image to represent near-sightedness: Sentenced)
Lamont Johnson: Visual Style
- Characters exploring buildings (lair at end explored by hero: Sentenced,
hero looks through roof then mansion: The Assassins,
hero visits classroom and room with leaders in industrial building: Deadlock,
heroine and house: My Sweet Charlie,
hero and concert hall, hotel: Paul's Case)
- Towers (storage elevators in industrial district: Deadlock,
lighthouse: My Sweet Charlie,
ruined tower at end: The McKenzie Break,
tower in Pittsburgh in background: Paul's Case)
- Well-like structures (barn with loft: Young Gun,
saloon with high walls: The Silver Queen,
apartment staircase, man hangs from window ledge: The Parolee,
mysterious place: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
apartment staircase: Four O'Clock,
street in opening shot, roof structures, empty stadium in last shot: The Assassins,
alley with fire escapes, campaign headquarters, modernist building with upper stories visible through glass: Deadlock,
military hospital lobby: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- 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,
hitman seen through glass door: The Parolee,
shelves in shelter, stairs: The Shelter,
heroine and apartment through bed-frame, boarded-up window, Redford through door with chain: Nothing in the Dark,
bird perch, glass door of grandfather clock: Four O'Clock,
spaceship equipment: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
hero through grill, hero through ladder & cloth & windows, hero and mother through candles: The Assassins,
tilted office window: A Covenant with Death,
fences: The McKenzie Break,
harp: Paul's Case,
stairwell shot through railing: Crisis at Central High)
- Depth staging through doors (boarding house: Gun Shy,
jail: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
listening to radio, through kitchen door looking into dining room followed by camera movement to kitchen,
through shelter door: The Shelter,
final shot through door: Nothing in the Dark,
looking through doors in shelter corridor: One More Pallbearer,
hallway seen from apartment: Four O'Clock,
spaceship ramp and central chamber seen from door: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
hotel lobby door, elevator: Call to Danger,
pathology lab, lab elevator: Deadlock,
heroine's home: Crisis at Central High)
related (chain of signaling through windows: The McKenzie Break)
- Moving down corridor towards viewer (hotel upstairs: Call to Danger,
running down corridor with fire: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Screen parallel with architecture, making a flat frieze effect (store: The Teacher,
barn, shoot-out: Gun Shy,
jail: The Five Books of Owen Deaver,
cabin on ship: The Parolee,
Serling standing in front of bedroom: Four O'Clock,
hero's car in front of storage elevators: Deadlock)
- Long take camera movements (opening shot on street, first shot at party, final shot in empty stadium: The Assassins)
- Grids (file cabinets: Four O'Clock,
sports jacket: The Assassins,
windows in tunnel that are removed to escape: The McKenzie Break,
tile wall in hospital: The Groundstar Conspiracy)
- Rotating objects (wire construction: One More Pallbearer,
pencils sharpener, twirling pencil evokes propeller: Four O'Clock,
spaceship equipment: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby)
- Circular architecture (platform on spaceship: Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,
semi-circle entrance arch at party, island in traffic, park tunnel: The Assassins)
Costumes and Color:
- Red (couch, tuxedo in clothing store, carpet on party stairs, waiter, pills, triangle on hero's bedroom wall,
flag at soccer, red-and-white soccer jerseys, red-black checkerboard golf bag: The Assassins,
red-and-white for police and crime, red-white-and-blue for politician hero's world: Deadlock,
red-black firetrucks, red-white explosives truck, signs with red letters,
Red Cross sign, red radio, dial at end with red danger zone: The McKenzie Break,
hero's white-red jacket and white building with red steps: The Last American Hero,
red for hero's original world, young men in red in later scenes showing what hero has lost: Paul's Case)
- Light-colored clothes (salad chef uniform, Jeremy Slate in white shirt, towel and shaving cream: The Parolee,
ballet dancer: Five Characters in Search of an Exit,
hero's light gray jacket and trousers, Prince's uniform and jacket, attendant, soccer team, vendor at stadium: The Assassins,
white barber's uniform worn by agent: Call to Danger,
hero's pale green suit: A Covenant with Death,
reporter's trenchcoat, white-clothed pathology lab workers, hero's raincoat: Deadlock,
Brian Keith's trenchcoat: The McKenzie Break,
Michael Sarrazin's white jacket and pants: The Groundstar Conspiracy,
hero's white pants, racing suit: The Last American Hero)
- Black clothes (Paladin: Have Gun - Will Travel episodes,
Mr. Lucky's tuxedo: The Parolee,
villain's suit: One More Pallbearer,
hero's black tailcoat, men in black suits in opening shot, stepfather's tuxedo, soccer team in tuxedos: The Assassins,
law clerk: A Covenant with Death,
leather jackets of black militants: Deadlock,
George Peppard's leather coat, villain Roger Dressler's rubber suit: The Groundstar Conspiracy,
hero's black tailcoat in later scenes: Paul's Case)
- Clothes matching background (hero's gray clothes and walls, hero's dark blue shirt and car door he sits against: The Assassins,
hero's pale green suit and office wall: A Covenant with Death,
hero's white-red jacket and white building with red steps: The Last American Hero,
heroine's blue dress and blackboard: Crisis at Central High)
- White tie and tails as symbol of entry into high life (The Silver Queen,
party: The Assassins, Paul's Case)
Lamont Johnson: Collaborators
- 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)
- Richard Boone (Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, The Richard Boone Show episodes,
The Roarer, Kona Coast)
- Jeanette Nolan (Green Shores, The Virginian, Gun Shy, The Richard Boone Show episodes)
- James Franciscus (Deliver the Body, The Strong Man)
- Clark Allen (The Coffin, Five Characters in Search of an Exit)
- Patty Duke (My Sweet Charlie, Birdbath, 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)
- Hal Holbrook (That Certain Summer, Off the Minnesota Strip, All the Winters That Have Been)
- 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:
- 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 **
- Sentenced *1/2
- Wings of an Angel **1/2
The Twilight Zone:
- Aces Back to Back
- The Parolee **
The Bold Ones: The Protectors:
- The Shelter *
- Five Characters in Search of an Exit ***
- Nothing in the Dark **1/2
- One More Pallbearer *1/2
- Kick the Can **1/2
- Four O'Clock **1/2
- Hocus-Pocus and Frisby **1/2
- Passage on the Lady Anne
- Call to Danger **1/2
- My Sweet Charlie **
- That Certain Summer **1/2
- Fear on Trial ***
- Paul's Case ***
- A Covenant with Death *1/2
- The McKenzie Break **
- The Groundstar Conspiracy **
- One on One **
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 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.
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.
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.
- Aliens secretly invade Earth.
- They disguise themselves as humans.
- But they act peculiar.
- They look for the smartest men on Earth.
- They kidnap these men to take them in their spaceship back to their home planet.
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 grown-up son's relationship with his (alleged) "mother",
and her house as one of the woman-run spaces in Johnson.
- The alleged new life offered to the hero as part of the hoax, is
some of the virtual reality in which Johnson characters flourish.
- A hero who gets a taste of something better, in the new life offered him.
- Amnesia, and a hero with a mystery of identity.
- The way the "stepfather" manipulates the hero into practicing with the gun
recalls Young Gun.
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.
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 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 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.
- The alley with fire escapes.
- The black hero's campaign headquarters, with mezzanine-like areas along its walls filled with campaign workers.
- A modernist building with upper stories visible through glass.
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 police cars are brilliantly colored in red-and-white.
- The police car has a red-and-white portable radio hanging in front.
- Doors on buildings they pass by are often in these colors.
- At the crime scene, there is a red brick wall with white letters.
- The campaign poster is white with red letters.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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).
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 hero's two romances eventually become implausible at an emotional level.
- The fascinating subject of the racial minority status of the hero, and its implications for society,
gets shoved into the background.
- The legal problem at the end, seems more like a gimmick, rather than a topic of genuine relevance.
The McKenzie Break
The McKenzie Break (1970) is a POW drama.
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.
- Deadlock has black Americans isolated in the Southside of a California city, surrounded
by a white country. The McKenzie Break has German POWs isolated in a camp, surrounded by a British country, Scotland.
- Deadlock ends with the blacks threatening to riot. The McKenzie Break begins with the German POWs
committing a full scale riot.
- The blacks in Deadlock ostracize and criticize the integrationist, middle class black hero.
The Germans in The McKenzie Break ostracize and hate two Germans who are gay.
Ostracism of outsiders is a long term Lamont Johnson theme.
- In real life infamous Sheriff Bull Connor attacked black protestors with fire hoses.
In The McKenzie Break Captain Connor (Brian Keith) attacks the Germans with fire hoses.
- The white authorities in Deadlock use red police cars.
The British authorities in The McKenzie Break use red fire trucks.
- The protagonist of Deadlock keeps persuading the white authorities to refrain from
the traditional methods of control advocated by head policeman (Leslie Nielsen).
The protagonist Captain Connor of The McKenzie Break
keeps persuading the Camp commander Major Perry from using traditional methods of control.
- White policemen wear helmets in Deadlock, discussed in the dialogue as designed to be intimidating.
British soldiers in riot gear wear helmets in The McKenzie Break.
- Militant blacks in Deadlock have a small theater group that expresses their political commentary.
The German POWs in The McKenzie Break put on a small satirical stage show.
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.