Madame Sin (1972)

One Tuesday in January 1972, ABC showed The Night Stalker, which broke all the ratings records and launched a franchise. Four days later, ABC showed Madame Sin, which was a big flop and didn’t lead to anything. Oh, but if it did…

In the early seventies, instead of just making twenty-six episode series and hoping that American networks would bite, ITC started making some movies of the week – slash – pilots instead. There was Mister Jerico, with Patrick Macnee, and The Firechasers, with Chad Everett, and Baffled!, with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire. That last one gets a little stick for a silly name and a silly premise, but it’s actually a pretty fun film and might have made a good series had another network not already commissioned and canceled the very similar The Sixth Sense.

And then there’s Madame Sin, which is a pretty good movie. It’s not great but it’s not bad. But you know how pilots are; they’re often rough around the edges and the resulting TV series is a lot better. Had ABC ordered twenty-six episodes of Madame Sin for September 1972, we’d still be talking about them. This could have been the greatest and most fun TV show ever.

In 1996, there was a one-hour special produced by Lee Goldberg called The Greatest Shows You Never Saw, a showcase of failed pilots, both promising and ridiculous. The clips from Madame Sin demanded further investigation. This was back in my VHS tape trading days and I put out the call immediately and had a copy within a couple of months. It starred Bette Davis as Dr. Fu Manchu, basically. Madame Sin is an impossibly wealthy supervillain who employs an army of scientists to develop the newest technology. In the pilot, she’s based on an island in the north of Scotland, and is using ultrasonics to create holograms and brainwash people. She’s been commissioned to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’s got a new accomplice in a disgraced American intelligence agent played by Robert Wagner.

Interestingly, Wagner’s face was blurred out in the clips that were used in the 1996 special, so perhaps he declined permission. When he filmed this in 1971, the actor was probably best known for the hit series It Takes a Thief and is credited as one of the producers. I think that he wouldn’t have continued on had the movie been picked up (see below), and not because he’s too busy marveling at the price of a plane ticket from London to New York in 1971. No, he wouldn’t have continued because Madame Sin would have turned the convention of a hero fighting a new villain each week on its head. Each episode would have had the supervillain match wits with a new secret agent.

I’ve occasionally let my mind wander and think about who might have shown up in this series to battle the evil Madame Sin. Her cohorts include Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Burt Kwouk, some of whom may or may not have appeared in the series, and guesting in the pilot, you’ve got Gordon Jackson and Roy Kinnear along with two of ITC’s stock Americans, Paul Maxwell and David Healy. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast for a British movie in 1971? But who could have played the various CIA and MI-6 operatives who would attempt to foil her plans each week? Or would all the guest heroes be agents of the same super-agency, an UNCLE or a Nemesis? Could you imagine Robert Vaughn one week, George Lazenby the next, and Stuart Damon the week after? This could have been more fun than Columbo!

Our kid didn’t like it very much. There’s one fight scene, but it’s very talky, with only one small explosion. He didn’t like Robert Wagner’s character having to betray his friend, and he was surprised and disappointed that the hero character actually gets killed in the end, while Madame Sin and Denholm Elliot wonder whether they can kick the royals out of Windsor Castle. I’m with you, Madame Sin. Incidentally, the movie is 86 minutes long, but it ran in a 90-minute slot on American television that Saturday night in January, suggesting it was cut down to about 75 minutes. Maybe Wagner’s death scene wasn’t shown in the US and he might have been back for a rematch in the series?

Incidentally, I’m stupidly proud of myself for a bit of prop spotting. Madame Sin’s sonic rifle, being tested by Charles Lloyd-Pack above, later turned up in a couple of Doctor Who serials, including 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” shown below. I’m not the first to have made this observation – Google tells me that Jon Preddle, who knows everything, spotted it years ago – but it tickled me all the same.

The gun later made it to a silly 1975 Tomorrow People serial which guest starred Peter Davison. I wonder where else it might have been used?

Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

There’s a churlish and contrary side of me that remains petulantly bothered by Disney’s 1978 film Return from Witch Mountain. My complaint is that Tony and Tia don’t get to do nearly enough together. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann had such fun chemistry together in the original film, and they’re separated for nearly the entirety of the sequel.

On the other hand, they don’t waste time getting this story moving. I like the way this movie just takes off running. Ten minutes in, and we’ve met the villains, as played by Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. I don’t believe that either actor would have listed this movie among their ten best, but boy, are they ever fun. They’re properly evil, too. The only thing in this film that troubled our son was Christopher Lee knocking out Tony with an injection – could movie makers get away with anything like that today?! – but he recovered and enjoyed the daylights out of this.

I’ll tell you who else would enjoy the daylights out of this: anybody who grew up in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. There’s a lot of location filming here as Tia meets up with a gang of truant kids called the Earthquakes and hides out with them looking for Tony. Bizarrely, she doesn’t think about going to the police for help. I get that identifying herself would be a huge issue, but the subject just doesn’t come up.

Speaking of police, I guess if I’m being honest, the only thing about the movie that actually aggravates me is the mammoth plot hole about Bette Davis’s station wagon. Once the baddies have stuck a mind control chip behind Tony’s ear, they’ve got an accomplice with telekinetic powers and she plans to heist a museum of $3,000,000 in gold. But she didn’t think it through, and her car is totaled by the giant stack of gold bricks. At no point do the police follow up on this. Of course, in Disney films, policemen are only ever present to either have their own cars wrecked, or lower their eyebrows, ticket pad in hand, when somebody else’s car gets wrecked, but seriously, nobody followed up on the destruction of the getaway car to see who owned it?

Anyway, with our heroes separated, the movie’s effectiveness comes down to the chemistry with their co-stars. Eisenmann has the totally thankless task of playing an emotionless slave for almost the whole film; he’s a blank slate for Lee and Davis to be simply evil. Richards is teamed with a kid gang played by young actors who are pretty entertaining, too. One of the gang is played by “Poindexter,” a child star who seemed to inevitably take roles in the seventies that Robbie Rist had turned down. The gang’s leader is Christian Juttner, who we’ve seen in Ark II and Wonder Woman, and who we’ll see again in a recurring part in the first season of The Bionic Woman in a couple of months. Grown-up support comes from the wonderful Richard Bakalyan as a jerk of a taxi driver who steals the kids’ luggage and deserves what he gets, and Barney Miller‘s Jack Soo as “Yoyo,” the truant officer trying to catch the Earthquakes.

With that in mind, it’s probable that, with its dated optical effects, rear-screen projection, obvious stunt doubles and wire-work, Return from Witch Mountain looked a little old-fashioned to audiences in 1978 as Star Wars and all of its imitators were showing up in theaters – more on that subject very soon – but our son probably enjoyed this even more than the original. The telekinetic chaos is genuinely fun to watch, even if Davis really should have tried her museum heist after dark, and the effects scenes are perfectly paced to keep children interested.

Our kid absolutely loved the really excellent car chase about halfway through the film, and when Tia telepathically sends a goat to fetch the Earthquakes, he was roaring. The animal ends up in a car while its driver is oblivious – we’ve seen that before from Disney – and then all the tough-guy kids end up hanging from pillars in their hideout’s big room while it brays and nips at their legs to get their attention. He was laughing so hard he nearly cried, and made up a “Chasing the Goat” song.

So yes, perhaps Davis and Lee might have done well to heed the old advice about not working with kids and animals, because for this six year-old, they were downright forgettable in the wake of the slapstick comedy. But the grown-ups appreciated seeing these giants at work. The film is flawed but entertaining, but they elevated it a little in my book. Plus, of course, whenever we will see Christopher Lee in any other film or show – and we certainly will – I can remind our son “He was Professor Garron in Return from Witch Mountain!”