In a career spanning six decades, writer-director Blake Edwards (1922-2010) really mixed it up, making almost every conceivable type of film. There were westerns (Panhandle and Wild Rovers), musicals (Darling Lili and Victor Victoria), dark drama (Days of Wine and Roses), frothy romance (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and such dyspeptic satires as S.O.B., in which wife Julie Andrews went au naturel; he even dabbled in horror (The Couch, co-written with Robert Bloch) and reincarnation fantasy (Switch). He is best remembered though for the Pink Panther farces and ‘male menopause’ comedies like 10. But actually it’s the crime and mystery genre that he kept coming back to. Don’t believe me? Then read further …
The following post is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“If you still want to kill him, do me a favor and take him outside. Those are new sheets.” – from Skin Deep (1989)
Edwards’ may not be a name one would readily associate with thrilling tales featuring hardboiled private eyes, weary policemen, femme fatales, uppity gangsters and Cold War spies – but over the decades he wrote, produced and directed dozens of such for TV, radio and the movies. A Hollywood writer and director of great commercial acumen, Edwards started out as an actor but soon diversified into writing, often in collaboration with Richard Quine, another ex-actor. The two would work together on and off for the best part of a decade, Edwards writing and Quine directing.
They were both under contract at Columbia, assigned to a variety of projects including musicals (the delightful 1955 CinemaScope version of My Sister Eileen) and service comedies (Operation Mad Ball), usually starring emerging star Jack Lemmon. They also worked on several Mickey Rooney projects, the most seemingly unlikely being Drive A Crooked Road (1954), in which he plays a patsy for a femme fatale. From a mystery standpoint however their best effort is probably The Notorious Landlady, from 1962 and their last collaboration in fact, a daffy comedy mystery about a suspected black widow bringing together Lemmon, Kim Novak and Fred Astaire, which is great fun (and I’ll be posting a separate review of this one shortly). When not working with Quine, as writer and eventually director, Edwards had some of his first successes on radio and TV however:
Richard Diamond, Private Detective (radio 1949-53; TV 1957-60)
Edwards’ first popular excursion into the crime and mystery genre was for radio as creator and writer of Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1949-53) starring Dick Powell as a
crooning PI, a smart combination of the star’s song and dance background with his tougher postwar image. 100 or so of the episodes are available to listen to over at the Internet Archive. The show later moved to television from 1957 to 1960 but with Powell producing and David Janssen taking over in the title role. His secretary, only ever seen from the waist down, was initially played by Mary Tyler Moore.
Mickey Spillane’s ‘Mike Hammer!’ (1954)
It may have been his initial radio success that saw Edwards attempt to turn Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer into a weekly TV series starring Brian Keith – he shot a pilot, Mickey Spillane’s ‘Mike Hammer!’, but it failed to be picked up. Eventually Darren McGavin would star in a weekly series, but by then Edwards had developed his own private eye and was about to have his first monster hit …
Peter Gunn (1958-61; 1968; 1989)
Edwards would have far greater success when he developed his own original show for TV, Peter Gunn, a smash hit starring Craig Stevens as the ultra smooth LA investigator featuring an immortal theme tune by Henry Mancini, who wrote the score for virtually all of the director’s projects. Edwards worked as writer, producer and director on the show and was the unquestioned auteur of the piece – and so when he decided to call it quits after three seasons, Stevens agreed.
However, in 1968 they made a movie version entitled just Gunn (1968) – but as the abbreviated title suggested, this felt like a cut-down version of the great show, with only Stevens reprising his role. Sensibly if somewhat radically re-thought for the big screen, it was shot in bold colour and given a tougher tone (though the original had often been accused of being too violent). This approach emphasised how much of the appeal of the original had resided in the fairy-tale atmosphere through its stylised noir look and the supporting cast, which had originally included Herschel Bernardi as the friendly Lieutenant Jacoby, Gunn’s girlfriend Edie Hart (played by Lola Albright), a singer at Gunn’s regular haunt, Mother’s. They were all sadly missed, though the film certainly deserved kudos for trying to be different. It flopped at the box office however – Edwards tried to revive the show one more time in 1989, this for television, with Peter Strauss in the lead, which while entertaining enough had little of the original magic sadly.
Experiment in Terror (1962)
Adapted by ‘The Gordons’ (husband and wife authors Mildred Gordon and, I kid you not, Gordon Gordon), this is a superbly made Noir, heavy on atmosphere and exhibiting none of Edwards’ usual comedic stylings. Instead we have a beautifully shot (courtesy of Philip Lathrop) policier set in San Francisco with Glenn Ford as a FBI agent trying to help Lee Remick, who is being victimsed by a bank robber who wants her to do the robbing for him. For two contrasting but equally excellent reviews of the film, see what Colin has to say at Riding the High Country while Michael provides further illumination over at, It Rains … You Get Wet.
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Edwards will remain best known for the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau of the Sûreté. Technically of course these can all be classed as thrillers of one type or another – the first, The Pink Panther (1963) is a caper comedy in which various people try to steal the eponymous diamond, a situation reprised in the direct sequel Return of the Pink Panther (1974), while Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) mainly has a plot involving Hong Kong gangsters. A Shot in the Dark (1964) however is an actual whodunit that, while crucial in the series for introducing Clouseau’s homicidal manservant Kato (Burt Kwouk) and his increasingly insane boss Dreyfus (the late Herbert Lom), is otherwise an atypical entry. And there’s a good reason for this. Adapted from Marcel Achard’ original play L’idiote into a modest broadway success by Harry Kurnitz, the movie version began under director Anatole Litvak as a straight adaptation of the play but when this went badly Edwards was parachuted in to rescue the film – and he did this by actually adding Clouseau to the storyline and beefing up his role, turning the film into a spoof of murder mysteries and with many standout moments including the Inspector’s encounter with a nudist colony.
The Carey Treatment (1972)
After a series of box-office disappointments, most notably the expensive wartime comedy-cum-spy-musical Darling Lili (1970) starring Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson, Edwards found himself temporarily out of favour in Hollywood (though he did go on to marry his leading lady at least). Making do without many of his usual collaborators, he undertook a number of highly unusual projects. One of the first was the James Coburn medical mystery The Carey Treatment, adapted from Michael Crichton’s Edgar-winning novel A Case of Need (review of this one coming here shortly). It is a rather low key affair but well plotted and highly entertaining – and it also features a memorable score by Roy Budd. Sadly the film would suffer badly under the hands of MGM studio head James Aubrey – indeed the film’s scriptwriters, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., had their names removed, something Edwards also threatened to do.
The Tamarind Seed (1974)
Edwards reunited with wife Julie Andrews for this Cold War spy movie backed by Lew Grade’s ITC company and which was clearly meant as a more adult alternative to the Bond movies, featuring 007 crew regulars Maurice Binder for the titles and a music score by John Barry. Egyptian star Omar Shariff once again plays a Russian as he did for Doctor Zhivago (and Edwards even used that film’s cameraman, Freddie Young). Edwards adapted the script from the eponymous novel by Evelyn Anthony (review coming along here shortly) and the result is a melancholy spy drama that didn’t do much business but which is worth revisiting. I’ll be posting a review shortly but there is already an excellent in-depth analysis of the film by Kathleen Murphy available over at Parallax View.
City Heat (1984)
This amiable movie had a somewhat troubled production and only did moderate box office business. Initially this seemed like a surefire commercial hit, bringing together two of the biggest stars of their day – Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds – in a light thriller, with Eastwood as a cop and Reynolds as a hardboiled PI in 1933 Kansas City (the title was originally going to be ‘Kansas City Blues’). However, things went wrong behind the scenes with Edwards getting fired over ‘creative differences’ (allegedly he wanted Julie Andrews to be in the film but Reynolds didn’t), which led to his taking a pseudonym on the writing credits (‘Sam O. Brown’ – the initials are not accidental …). In addition a serious accident during a stunt meant that Reynolds broke his jaw, delaying production and leading to life-long problems for the actor, who visibly lost a lot of weight during the films. It still works quite well but one can’t help wondering what it might have been like …
Justin Case (TV-pilot, 1986)
This pilot movie, made for Disney, is about a gumshoe who comes back from the dead to solve his own murder. It stars George Carlin, who is paired with Edwards’ daughter Jennifer for an amusing take on the private eye genre, reminiscent of the British TV show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (known in the US as My Partner the Ghost). It’s a fairly amusing trifle, aimed at a ‘family’ audience (so little of Carlin’s usual rebarbative style is in evidence) but a mild entertainment none the less.
This is a very odd combination if truth be told. James Garner reprises his role as Wyatt Earp from Hour of the Gun (1968) for a whodunit set in Hollywood and based on a real event – the meeting of Earp with movie cowboy Tom Mix, here played by Bruce Willis, who had starred in Edwards’ previous film, the farce Blind Date. Willis has just too contemporary a persona to really convince in this period role (he was at the height of his Moonlighting success) and the mystery plot is a bit feeble really though it remains an intriguing enough idea – shame it didn’t work better, though it is certainly worth a look.
Here is a chronological list of Edwards’ crime and mystery films – unless otherwise stated he directed and wrote the screenplays:
- Mickey Spillane’s ‘Mike Hammer!’ (TV pilot, 1954)
- Drive A Crooked Road (1954) (writer only)
- Richard Diamond, Private Detective (TV series, 1957-60)
- Peter Gunn (TV series, 1958-61)
- The Notorious Landlady (co-writer, 1962)
- Experiment in Terror (1962)
- A Shot in the Dark (1964)
- Gunn (1967)
- The Monk (writer only; TV-pilot, 1969)
- The Carey Treatment (1972)
- The Tamarind Seed (1974)
- City Heat (1984, co-writer, as ‘Sam O. Brown’)
- The Ferret (co-writer, TV-pilot, 1985)
- Justin Case (TV-pilot, 1986)
- Sunset (1988)
- Peter Gunn (TV-Movie 1989)
Now that’s a lot of crime and mystery projects for a writer and director best-known for working outside of the genre – I hope to get round to individually reviewing some, maybe even all, of these over the coming months …