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?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Over Labor Day weekend, we got to see Raiders on the Lost Ark on the big screen, at Chattanooga’s wonderful old Tivoli Theatre. They started a film series that I didn’t know about as early as I should have – we missed The Goonies, and wouldn’t that have been a fine movie to see in a theater? – but I’ll be paying attention to what they announce for the Bobby Stone Film Series next year.

I mentioned that I’m very glad that we reacquainted our son with Raiders, so that the characters played by Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies would be fresher in his mind. You can never tell with kids. After we finished, I asked him whether Last Crusade was a million times better than Temple of Doom and he had to be reminded what happened in that one. I also reminded him of a couple of key moments in Young Indiana Jones, particularly the end of his relationship with his father.

But yes, Last Crusade is a million times better than its predecessor. It ticks all the boxes that Temple didn’t, especially the one where a movie like this needs a charismatic bad guy, this time played by the wonderful Julian Glover. Most importantly, it’s a fun movie, never dark or frightening. The kid couldn’t decide what his favorite scene or favorite line was. He jumped for joy throughout practically the whole film. Castles on fire, underground crypts, boat chases, motorcycle chases, tank chases, Flaming airplanes passing cars in tunnels… this movie’s got it all. It’s nearly as good as the original, and Sean Connery’s wonderful as Indy’s grouchy father.

I really enjoyed our son recognizing a famous landmark, but not for the same reason I did. The treasure hunt takes our heroes to an ancient city, the same one seen in 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. But our son leaned over and whispered “That’s a real place!” because he’d seen the facade – Al-Khazneh in Jordan – in a documentary recently. Some things register a little more strongly than Sinbad movies, I suppose!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The calendar tells me that I must have been nine when the mother of my school friend Sean phoned my mother and asked whether I wanted to go see a movie with her boy that afternoon. I’d never heard a single word about Raiders of the Lost Ark, or seen a TV ad, and spent the next couple of hours ready to see my buddy but very skeptical about the film. I’d half-convinced myself it was going to be an old documentary about Noah’s Ark shown at Sean’s church. That ended up being possibly the best movie-going experience that anybody’s ever had.

I almost pulled off the same blind spoiler for our son last night. I was slightly foiled by Lucas’s decision to quasi-rename the movie on the DVD menu – mercifully not on the print of the film itself – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. So since we’ve been watching Young Indy (we’re halfway through and will pick back up in a couple of weeks), he knows who the character is and I did tell him some time back that at some point we’d meet the adult Indiana Jones.

Of course, as entertaining as Young Indy often is, there’s little in that show to prepare anybody for what a mad, wonderful rollercoaster this movie is.

It would be about accurate to say that Raiders blew our kid’s mind. He jibbered and jabbered when it finished, after having spent giant chunks of the previous two hours with his jaw on the floor, and couldn’t decide what his favorite part was. He eventually settled on the fight at the airplane – that scene does, of course, feature explosions – but I think he loved practically every minute of it. Even after having watched this movie something on the order of forty or fifty times, I remain so impressed by the pacing. Not one of the exposition scenes – call ’em “talky scenes” when you’re looking at them through a kid’s eyes – goes on too long for a typical child’s attention span. There are spiders and snakes and truck chases and blood and skeletons and one delicious fight after another.

I confess that the “overly concerned parent” gene came out toward the end. I suddenly worried whether that climax was finally going to be the scene that was far too gory and shocking for our kid. Was I, at last, being a downright irresponsible dad letting this poor innocent baby see Ronald Lacey melt into a puddle of candle wax and red nail polish? I dismissed the thought, but it took a minute. Then when those angels turn into eighties ILM skeletons, I diverted my eyes from the screen and watched him. Ronald Lacey wasn’t the only one who melted. I use the phrase “jaw on the floor” a lot. I’m not kidding this time. I also think the word “melt” is remarkably appropriate. His eyes were open wider than I’ve ever seen them, his mouth open wide in shock, and when it ended with Paul Freeman exploding, the kid turned into liquid and slid off the sofa and onto the floor, absolutely stunned. There was a gasp and a “Wh – WHOA!” and he stood up, shaking his head, mind as blown as mine was, yours was, everybody in 1981’s was.

It was a sight to see.

Anyway, this silly blog wouldn’t be this silly blog if I didn’t praise some actors and point out an odd coincidence or two. One of the most curious things about the casting of Raiders is that among the Nazis, you’ve got Ronald Lacey as the black-suited Toht and Tutte Lemkow as the fellow with the eye patch. They also play two of the obsessed treasure hunters in the Avengers episode we watched last weekend, “Legacy of Death.” The actors do not share any screen time in either story. And because George Lucas enjoys working with the same actors, we have seen Paul Freeman, who plays Belloq, twice in Young Indy in the role of big game hunter Frederick Selous. And we’ll see John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, and Karen Allen again in some of the other movies.

Incidentally, the rumor was that had Young Indy continued as far as our hero starting his university career in 1922, we were supposed to meet the young Belloq as a recurring foe. That’s an awful missed opportunity. But we’ll look at a few more adventures of the younger Indy before we get to the next film a few months from now.