Thursday, October 18, 2018

THRILLER Thursday: Portrait Without A Face

NEW SEASON 2!!!

THRILLER: Portrait Without A Face

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 2, Episode: 14.
Airdate: Dec. 25, 1961 (The Christmas episode?) Director: John Newland
Writer: Jason Wingreen.
Cast: Jane Greer, Robert Webber, Katherine Squire, George Mitchell, John Banner.
Music: Morton Stevens
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Producer: William Frye



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Robertson Moffat’s greatest masterpiece doomed by the shot of an assassin’s crossbow to remain just as we see it - blank, lifeless as the murdered artist himself. It is said that art is a human effort, having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and noblest feelings which men have risen. Well, my friends, tonight you’ll see that the activity of art can be inhuman as well. And that its purpose, at least in this case, is shall we say, unexpected. The victim’s vacant canvas should give you a hint of the title our play. It’s called Portrait Without A Face. Look closely, and it will reveal the identity of our leading players. They are: Jane Greer, Robert Webber, Catherine Squire, George Mitchell, and Brian Gaffikin. Sit back, relax if you can, while we whet your pallete with some bold strokes of terror. Oh, do you have a skylight? Be sure to bolt it securely, otherwise you won’t know that you are absolutely alone.”



Synopsis: In his studio, egotistical painter Roberston Moffat (John Newland) is strangling over-acting newspaper reporter Nat Fairchild (Brian Gaffikin) and tosses him to the floor. Fairchild says he didn’t want to come, but she begged him to try and get the painting back. Moffat laughs - says she begged him to paint her nude. Moffat pours himself a drink and pontificates on death... and says he’s going to paint the Angel Of Death, and orders Fairchild to get out. Once Fairchild is gone, the phone rings - Marie, the woman in the nude painting begs him to give it to her. He refuses.... but does ask if she wants to hook up. She hangs up instead.

As Moffat gets his brushes and paints ready, someone climbs the wall of the studio with a crossbow, opens the skylight, fires an arrow into Moffat’s *head*, killing him. Closes the window and vanishes.



Six Months Later: Art Appraiser Arthur Henshaw (Robert Webber) arrives at the Moffat house and is *greeted* by crazy old Aunt Agatha Moffat (Katherine Squire) who asks if he’s from the Janus Gallery in New York. Moffat left all of his paintings to Janus because he discovered him, but Moffat’s wife Ann keeps all of the paintings in the house until she dies... so Janus will probably be long dead before he sees any of the paintings. Crazy old Aunt Agatha is an exposition machine who rattles off information and backstory and plot points and just about anything else the story needs. She tells him the police still have no clues as to who shot the arrow into Moffat’s head.

Ann Moffat (Jane Greer from OUT OF THE PAST) descends the stairs and introduces herself, and crazy Aunt Agatha scampers away. As Ann shows him out the backdoor of the house and across the courtyard to the studio, Henshaw says he’s here to catalogue all of the paintings so Janus can decide what to show at Moffat’s last exhibition. No one has been in the studio since the murder.

She unlocks the door and shows Henshaw around, pointing out Moffat’s last canvas... which is blank. But Henshaw looks at it and says it is not blank... Ann takes a look, and there is a painting of Moffat’s head on the floor with the arrow sticking out of it in the corner of the canvas - the rest is blank. Ann faints.



Dr. Grant (Gage Clarke), who has the worst bedside manner ever, scolds Ann for fainting and yells at her to keep calm. On his way out, Dr. Grant has a conversation with Henshaw about why she fainted. Henshaw says the canvas was blank, and then there was part of a painting on it. “Do you realize what you’re saying?” Dr. Grant replies. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone has any idea what they are talking about - because they avoid the word “ghost” and avoid anything that might make you think that’s what they are talking about. Also, they forgot to plant that the painting of dead Moffat was in Moffat’s style. Grant scolds and yells at Henshaw, then leaves.

Ann gets out of bed, tells Henshaw that she must destroy the painting, and heads out the backdoor into a night thick with fog. They have a conversation about the key to the studio - there was only one, Ann didn’t even have a key until her husband died and she was given his. They discuss the arrow shot through the skylight - could someone have entered the studio through the skylight and painted on the canvas... maybe the killer? The fog is so think in some of these shots that the actors didn’t have to show up for work that day.

In the studio, crazy Aunt Agatha is looking at the painting a cackling. They send her away, and Henshaw closes the door. Henshaw goes to get the canvas... and looks at it for a long long long time. Anne eventually comes over and sees that someone has added to the painting - dead Moffat’s body has now been added. Henshaw wants to leave and lock the studio door behind them and call the police. Now we get Ann saying that the painting is in her husband’s style. “He’s dead, but he’s painting this picture.”



Sheriff Pete Browning (George Mitchell - the old drunk in ANDROMEDA STRAIN) shows up and says it’s crazy - Moffat can’t be painting from beyond the grave. Henshaw tells him that he’s sent for the greatest art critic in the world to authenticate the painting. Browning isn’t sure what that will prove... and that’s when Fairchild shows up unannounced. He’s heard rumor that Moffat is painting from beyond the grave, can Sheriff Browning or Henshaw verify this? Again, this guy is over-acting like crazy. Browning shows Fairchild out... then asks Ann for the key to the studio so that he can investigate this alleged ghost painting.

Henshaw helps Ann upstairs, then goes to the studio - where Browning is looking at the painting. Browning pulls up a chair to make sure no ghosts add to the painting overnight. Henshaw goes upstairs in the studio to catalogue paintings.

Crazy Aunt Agatha runs around in the thick fog cackling.

Ann looks out her bedroom window at the fog.

Fairchild looks through the gates at the fog.

Crazy Aunt Agatha makes a cup of coffee, then looks out the window at the fog... and sees a MAN! She screams!



Sheriff Browning hears this and runs out of the studio and through the fog into the kitchen, where Ann is comforting crazy Aunt Agatha... and the MAN is standing in the kitchen. He is Professor Martin Vanderhoven (John Banner, Sgt Schultz) the art expert. He explains how many times he knocked at the front door before coming around to the back and looking through the kitchen window, scaring Agatha, Then he explains exactly why he came here... to examine the painting. Browning realizes that no one is guarding the painting and races back to the studio... Everyone follows.

Browning looks at the canvas and calls for Henshaw, who has been upstairs all along, and says that no one has entered or left the studio. Except, more of the room has been painted - including a roughed out version of the ceiling and skylight!

Vanderhoven says this is definitely Moffat’s work. How is that possible? He’s been dead for six months. Vanderhoven touches the new portion of the painting - and the paint is still wet. Impossible! Vanderhoven wants to take more time to study the painting.



Meanwhile, crazy Aunt Agatha is using a Ouija Board in the livingroom and cackling... while all of the other cast members wait. For some reason, Fairchild is there.

Vanderhoven comes back from the studio and says it is Moffat’s work - but that is impossible. Everybody freaks out in their own way.

Sheriff Browning wants to take the painting to the police station, and Henshaw stops him in the fog - neither actor really needed to show up for this scene, the fog is so thick you can barely see them. Henshaw says the painting belongs to Janus Galleries, and as the representative of the owner, he can’t let Browning have it. Besides - it’s not finished. Browning goes to get a court order.



Henshaw is going to spend the night in the studio guarding the painting.

Fairchild spends the night in a bar. Someone sits across from him - unseen. Fairchild has a file on Henshaw... he was captain of the archery team in college.

Ann grabs a knife and goes into the studio to destroy the painting... but Henshaw wakes up and stops her. That’s when they notice that more of the painting has been filled in. The skylight, but not the face of the killer. Henshaw asks if she killed her husband - she says she hated him, but didn’t kill him. Dude was an a-hole, and screwed every woman who posed for him.



Henshaw says he believes that the killer will return to the scene of the crime to destroy the painting...

And a masked man climbs over the wall with a cross bow!

Henshaw tells her that *he* has been doing the painting - as an art student he learned how to mimic the styles of other painters. He is doing this to catch the killer. He couldn’t tell her until he knew that she wasn’t a suspect. That’s when they hear the noise from the skylight. Henshaw tells her to sit in the chair, and then he races upstairs to the door overlooking the skylight (um, kind of negates the locked room aspect of the mystery) and tangles with the masked cross-bow dude... throwing him through the skylight!

Outside, Fairchild grabs a screaming girl in the fog and brings her into the studio for no apparent reason, where Henshaw rolls over the dead masked man and pulls off the mask... exposing Sheriff Browning. The screaming girl is Marie, Browning’s wife (Alberta Nelson)... who was the nekkid girl Moffat painted who called him in the first scene. Browning found out and got jealous and...

Then, for no apparent reason, everyone looks at the painting as Browning’s face is painted by Moffat’s ghost! Creepy... not!



Review: Newland’s technical direction is a small step better than in his last episode, there is actually a moving shot in this hour! But still, most of his plan is to set up a camera and have actors act in front of it - zero actual direction. This stands out in scenes in the living room set and the art studio set when characters are so far away from the camera that it is like watching a stage play. In the episode’s teaser, where he plays the famous artist *and* directs, there is an awkwardly shot conversation where Fairchild is in close up talking to Moffat in long shot... and the different sizes of the characters on screen is confusing. Had this been done for some purpose it might be okay, but it just seems like Newland wasn’t thinking about how the shots would cut together.

The living room scenes often have the camera planted somewhere and characters move back and forth across a diagonal in front of it - again, making it seem like a stage play. One of the weird things about that moving shot is that it goes from two characters talking to each other on the sides of the screen in profile (flat shot), to behind one of the characters so we can only see the back of his head for the rest of the conversation. What’s that all about? Newland’s flat lack of style has been an issue with all of his episodes since Stephen King’s favorite PIGEONS FROM HELL, where he couldn’t make cobwebs creepy... here he doesn’t make fog creepy.



But the biggest problem with this episode is that it doesn’t get the creepy concept to the audience until close to the end. Whether that is the fault of the screenplay or the direction (most likely both), despite several chunks of exposition, the concept that Moffat is painting his killer’s face from beyond the grave isn’t made clear or even made creepy and strange until the episode is almost over. Yeah, someone is painting that canvas, but the critical information that the painting is in Moffat’s style is never mentioned - and never shown - until Sgt Schultz shows up. The direction is so flat that it can’t make the additions to the painting spooky - someone is just painting - and the writing seems to miss that this is important information. The writer, Wingreen, is a character actor whose face you would recognize - but this is one of 5 TV episodes he wrote, and no one ever asked him back. My guess - due to all of that clunky exposition in an early scene - is that *on the page* we are told that the painting is in Moffat’s style, but because it is never shown in any way - that information stays on the page.



One of the issues here is that for a story that hinges on the painter’s style, prop paintings all seem to be from different painters with different styles. There is never a sequence after the post-death painting has begun that shows shots of Moffat’s previous work and compares it to the post death painting to show the audience that it’s the dead guy doing the painting. One of the checks and balances in cinema is that if the writer drops the ball and the information is on the page but not the stage, the director can rectify that and come us with a visual way to show that information. Here, that wasn’t done. So the concept of a dead man painting his killer doesn’t pop up until too close to the end.



Oh, and the painting is NOT of the killer. Another big issue. The painting is of Dead Moffat with a tiny little piece of the painting being where the killer was. Prop department failure? Writer failure? Director failure? All three?

Though better than his previous entry, Newland’s theory on shooting fast for TV seems to be minimal set ups - and not in a great Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING way. He has one more episode coming up, let’s see if there is more camera movement and style than in his previous entries. Meanwhile, the next episode is a clever little crime story about the family that slays together...

- Bill

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