Monday, February 20, 2017

Escape! (1971)

Hooray! The good folks at Classic Film and TV Cafe are hosting a Movie of the Week Blogathon! Follow this link to check out all the entries. There's a pretty excellent mix in there. And, I would like to throw my hat into the ring as I review one of my all-time favorites...

Airdate: April 6, 1971
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Teleplay: Paul Playdon

 Awesome credits? Check.

Cameron Steele is the world's best escape artist, circa 1971. He looks exactly like Christopher George. He has a kickass theme tune, composed by Lalo Schifrin. He has a sidekick in Nicholas Slye (Avery Schreiber). He owns a Magic Castle-type building called The Crystal Ball...  with Huntz Hall as the bartender! And, Mr. Steele has a knack for getting people out of spots that they shouldn't be in.

 The only logical face one can make when one gets
thrown into a river while tied to a giant rock

Welcome to Escape!

 This car has everything!

Back on the very first episode of the Made For TV Mayhem Podcast, I declared this to be one of my Top Three favorite TV movies (alongside The Night Stalker and Satan's Triangle.) I stand by that bold declaration. Escape is pure escapist (you like that?) entertainment of the highest order. It doesn't shirk on the excitement or the epic scale of the bad guy's plotting. In the first ten minutes, Steele gets tied to a rock and thrown into a river. In the last five minutes, he chases a crazy John Vernon (playing Charles Walding) over, under and around a roller coaster. (With stunts coordinated by Hal Needham, for Heaven's Sake!) In between these moments, Steele is suave with the ladies. Slye proves himself to be an art expert, master chef, police sketch artist, researcher of the first order...  and Avery Schreiber! Plus, there are shenanigans in an elevator shaft and so much more...

Guess which one is the evil brother

What's the movie about, you may be asking? If I were waggish, I'd say about 70 minutes. But, I'm not that type...  and yet I'm not terribly interested in maneuvering through the plot because it's all MacGuffin to allow the fun to flow. Here's a brief rundown, however: Steele is contacted by a Dr. Henry Walding (William Windom, a year after appearing in one of my favorite films Brewster McCloud). Steele meets Walding...  but Walding is instantly kidnapped and Steele is tossed in a river. Investigations begin! Steele talks to the doctor's daughter, Susan (Marlyn Mason). Slye goes to talk with the doctor's deceased brother's ex-wife, Evelyn (Gloria Grahame, one year after appearing in the Tayback-filled Blood and Lace).

 That top may not be the height of fashion
but it's the height of something

Dr. Walding and his brother, Charles, were working on some sort of synthetic life form. When, apparently, the doctor set fire to his lab, killing Charles. But, Charles is not dead. He is living under an amusement park called Happy Land. (You access his underground lab via the Funhouse.) He kidnaps his brother because he needs the final ingredient to create this faux-life, with which he will enslave the world! Can Steele stop the evil Walding and save the good Waldings? Will the Earth become enslaved to John Vernon? Tune in to Escape and find out...

 Discovering your insane brother has his own underground cave...
and a viral organism with which he will enslave humanity

I would like to publicly declare something that I've actually said a dozen times but in regards to horror films and exploitation films, not TV movies. The 90 minute time slot TV movie is the best time for these features. (Unless, you're going bold like The House On Greenapple Road.) After commercials are excised, they're all around 70-75 minutes. Perfect length. A bit over an hour. They don't overstay their welcome. There's little padding. It's good times. Escape is the perfect template for this.

 The Crystal Ball
 Featuring Huntz Hall

Steele and Slye get thrown into this strange adventure. They gradually uncover piece after piece of the puzzle. (One involves the great Lucille Benson as a tattoo artist!) Plus, there's some very elegant (or convenient, I chose elegant) plotting in the second half. Steele learns that one of the thugs that attacked him works at Happy Land. So, he goes there to investigate. Susan is kidnapped by Evil Walding and taken to Happy Land. So, when Steele maneuvers his way into the hideout...  Susan and her father are already there! It saves a lot of time. And then, they put him in a straitjacket and hang him upside down in an empty room.

 Hanging out in the elevator shaft

The acting is excellent across the board. Christopher George is always awesome. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel with his character here. He's exactly the suave, brave kind of guy you expect him to be. And the world is better for it. John Vernon always gives good evil. William Windom is shaky and worried. Marlyn Mason may look like she's wearing a conglomeration of doilies on her chest but she's smart and...  most important...  Steele likes kissing her. Avery Schreiber is great as his character constantly keeps having new talents revealed.

 Important colored bulbs, especially the green one

I'm not going to go on too much longer. If you like fun adventure with a bit of sci-fi thrown in and some cool action scenes, Escape is your movie. The closing sequences are particularly well done. (Credit the power of The Moxey on direction and the Needham stunt-work.) The end begins in a stuck elevator with a treacherous climb up a cable. The end ends with Steele chasing Evil Walding through Happy Land and ending up on a roller coaster...  with at least two shots that will make you gasp or yell "Woah!" I don't condone running around on roller coasters....  generally. This film will make you want to climb all over one.

 If you've got time to threaten the world,
you've got time to ride the merry-go-round.

Evil Walding taking a snooze in the roller coaster car

I love Escape. I have watched it around ten times. It brings me great joy. It was a possible pilot for a series that never happened. That's sad. But, it's OK. Sometimes you only need one adventure to know how awesome a character can be. If you need me, I'll be down at the courthouse changing my name to Steele...  Cameron Steele. The Second. Don't tell my wife. I want to surprise her.

 This film has everything

One final note: Escape has something in it that I thought I had thought of but I've also seen it on a BJ and the Bear so my idea seems less original. The baddies keep people captive in a lovely series of rooms. However, the rooms are actually sets they've constructed within the underground caves to fool the captive people into thinking they are somewhere else. Steele (with the coolest fighting style ever) crashes though a window of a nicely designed living room and winds up in a cave next to a giant movie light. I had someone held captive in an old house that was actually a mock-up within a castle in my novel Diary of a Nude Man. We all have a good time here.

 I thought I thought of this!


  1. I quite liked this telefilm and always wondered why ABC didn't pick it up the series. Christopher George was always an affable performer. Plus, as you pointed out, it has an incredibly awesome theme by the incredibly awesome Lalo Schifrin (think of his royalties on his Mission: Impossible theme alone). Mr. and Mrs. Cameron Steele...I think your wife will like it!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rick. Great blogathon. I had a good time writing about one of my favorites.

  2. A world enslaved by John Vernon? Perish the thought! Thank Heavens for Chris George.

    I have got to watch this. I've caught the bug.

    1. I hope you enjoy it. Chris George > John Vernon. Or, at least, less evil. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I remember this one because it took me two days to see it.

    On the evening of its first ABC network telecast, Chicago was having a Mayoral election: Richard J. Daley was running for his fourth term.
    I can't recall offhand the name of his Republican opponent that year - not that it matttered; Daley's Machine was at its most powerful at that point.
    The Chicago stations didn't carry all-night returns that evening.
    However, all of them cut away to City Hall to pick up Daley's victory speech, live.
    Escape, which had been briefly interrupted a couple of times forlate returns, was about two-thirds through when Da Mare made Da Speech; Channel 7 stayed with the story clear through Marcus Welby. Their diligence was rewarded with a switchboard meltdown - ... yeah, yeah, Daley won, we all knew that, but what's happening to Chris George and the girl?
    Next night, Channel 7 ran the last third of Escape, after the midnight news - what's known in the trade as a make-good.
    In the wake of all this, I was sort of hoping that Escape would sell as a series, so the rerun of the pilot would get a proper fall showcase.
    I had noted that the movie was produced by Bruce Lansbury, whom I mainly remembered from his tenure on Wild Wild West, and who went on to Mission: Impossible, and thence to running Paramount Television. (RIP Mr. Lansbury, who passed away last week.)

    1. Best story ever. Thank you, Mike.

      I remember having my heart broken in 1986 when the soap opera parody series FRESNO was airing. During episode three, there was some sort of news that interrupted the episode. I was crushed. Then, the next day, a gal in school told me that they aired it later that night, around 11:30 after the news. Sigh.

      I have since been able to watch FRESNO in full. It's a good time.

  4. Thoroughly entertaining review! Informative and fun--a winning combination.

    I'm a longtime Christopher George fan (and just enjoyed for the first time his fine 1976 TV movie MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET). This movie looks like a winner from the IT TAKES A THIEF-style titles to the unrelenting adventure and suspense.

    Casting Avery Shreiber was genius! I'm enjoying him as Captain Manzini in the unjustly maligned sitcom MY MOTHER THE CAR. He's fantastic!

    "Tayback-filled"--I gotta use that myself someday it's too good an adjective to fall from our language!

    "William Windom is shaky and nervous." An apt description of virtually every Windom performance. I love the man ("Doomsday Machine" is my favorite TREK ep in large part due to Windom), but he always plays guys teetering on the edge.

    Reading your description of the two brothers--one good, one evil, natch--with an underground cave, plus a rollercoaster, I wondered if this plot was lifted by the producers of WONDER WOMAN (among whom was Bruce Lansbury) for the "Phantom of the Rollercoaster" two-parter starring Jared Martin in a dual role as twin brothers.

    I can't recall the B.J. AND THE BEAR episode with fake rooms that are actually sets, but the idea dates at least to 1969 and one of my top-three favorite movies THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr.

    Thanks for a rousing rollercoaster ride of a review! Yet another movie to add to my lengthy list of gotta-see TVMs. I didn't think this blogathon would result in so much homework!

    1. Thank you for the comment. It's much appreciated.

      The B.J. AND THE BEAR episode is called "Blonde In A Gilded Cage" from Season 3. Super rock star Paul Williams imprisons Judy Landers in a fake bedroom inside his mansion. If that description isn't enough, B.J. sings!

      I do a podcast on short-lived TV shows called Eventually Supertrain. MY MOTHER THE CAR may come under scrutiny at some point in the future.

      I need to see THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN. I'm not sure why I never have.

  5. I like what you said about the length of made-for-TV movies. 70-75 minutes is a perfect length, with no unnecessary "padding".

    As for this film, it sounds like non-stop action. I think I'd like this one. Thanks for the introduction! :)

    1. When it's not non-stop action, it's non-stop Avery Schreiber. So that's something. When you get a chance to watch it, I hope you like it. Thanks for the comment.

  6. In Jon Etter's excellent book. Quinn Martin, Producer, Lynda Day George says that Escape did indeed become a series...the concept was retooled slightly and became The Magician, the wonderful short-lived NBC series starring Bill Bixby.

    Lynda also mentioned in the book that Chris was the first actor to do three pilots in a row that sold...House on Greenapple Road (pilot for Dan August), The Immortal (the series he did) and Escape. He also recommended Burt Reynolds to star in Dan August, even foisting episodes of Hawk onto Martin to bolster his case.