Friday, July 28, 2017

Istanbul Express (1968)

So you are asking just why I'm spending time looking at an obscure sixties TV movie?  After all, it isn't exactly schlock in the normal sense that the stuff I tend to write about here is - the closest it gets to that is that it is the TV equivalent of those European Bond knock offs that proliferated in the sixties.  But not as colourful or inventive.  However, it isn't the film itself I'm so much interested in as the whole phenomena of the made-for-TV movie.  To deal with Istanbul Express itself, the film isn't without interest.  The plot itself is pretty straightforward, with US art dealer-cum-CIA spy Gene Barry involved in espionage shenanigans aboard the titular train.  During the journey he is to collect a series of numbers which, together, will give him access to a bank account in Istanbul, whose funds he is to use to try and buy some secret documents at an auction.  Inevitably rivals try to delay or kill him along the way.  Whilst Barry represents pretty conventional casting for this sort of project (he'd previously starred in Burke's Law/Amos Burke - Secret Agent and would later headline ITC's The Adventurer), the casting of the second lead was somewhat less conventional, with the ubiquitous John Saxon playing the train's security officer.  Saxon, a prolific actor with a long career (he's still around today), is one of those 'not quite' movie stars.  Instantly recognisable, although most viewers probably couldn't tell you his name, Saxon is one of those performers casting directors can never quite pigeonhole.

A decent enough actor, he always seems uncomfortable when cast as conventional good guy.  There's an edge and intensity to his performances which prevents the viewer from completely empathising with his good guys - you always suspect that he's about to to do a volte face and do something evil.  Consequently, he's more often than not cast as a villain and has spent most of his career in low budget movies (he's been in everything from B westerns to Italian cannibal movies).  His looks (he's part Native American) have often been used as shorthand for foreign villainy - one of his highest profile TV roles was playing an Arab sheik in Dynasty).  Istanbul Express uses him reasonably effectively - although the narrator of the story, we're never quite sure whose side Saxon's character us actually on.  Indeed, the character himself tells Barry that ultimately he is only interested in the safety of the train and reputation of the railway company operating it and these concerns happen, for the time being, to coincide with Barry's mission.

The other notable feature of Istanbul Express is that, unusually for a TV movie, it features some overseas location shooting.  The exterior sequences in France and the  Venice segment do appear to have been shot on location, with at least some of the featured actors actually present.  By contrast, the Istanbul sequences use a series of long shots to establish the location, with the featured actors only appearing in close up in studio bound interiors.  TV movies were generally shot on the Universal back lot, featuring exterior sets already over familiar from countless movies.  The only location shooting would be on nearby streets or on one of the ranches owned by the studios, which were still within easy driving distance of LA.  Indeed, cheapness was always one of the defining characteristics of the average TV movie.  A cheapness which extended beyond the over used standing sets to the curiously empty streets and buildings the action took place in - extras cost money. 

But Istanbul Express predated the mass-produced TV movies of the seventies.  It was made at a time when the format was still a relative novelty and sanitised blandness became the order of the day.  Compared to later TV movies, for instance, it is notably violent, which wasn't unusual in the early incarnations of the TV movie,  (A 1964 made for TV remake of  The Killers, directed by Don Siegel and starring Lee Marvin, no less, was considered so violent it was released to cinemas, instead).   Production values were generally better on these early TV movies - they were still cheaply made, but there seemed to be a bit more care taken over them.  Which isn't to say that all seventies TV movies were worthless: Spielberg's Duel was originally made for TV, Dan Curtis' Night Stalker was an effective horror movie, as were several Richard Matheson scripted TV films.  Nevertheless, the majority of them were simply cheap and unmemorable, (as a kid, my heart would sink when I saw something labelled as TV movie turned up in a film slot), very much the B movies and programmers of their day.

It wasn't just the re-use of old sets, the employment of second and third string actors and by-the-numbers direction which seventies TV movies had in common with B movies,  The fact is that their very existence was the result of the supply of cheap movies not being able to keep up with TV's appetite for content in the seventies.  In the seventies the TV rights to top line Hollywood movies were still relatively expensive - a cheaper alternative was to produce sinilarly themed, but cheaper, TV movies to keep audiences happy.  Plus, TV movies had the advantage of being tailored to fit a particular time and came with convenient vreaks for ads built in, eliminating the need for editing.  Not to mention the fact that they were made to conform to network standards, meaning that network censors didn't have to go through them snipping out expletives and nudity.  TV movies also provided  a useful format for producing pilots for prospective TV series: even if it wasn't picked up for a series, the network still had a movie it could give repeated screenings of. 

Eventually the TV movie was superseded by other formats, notably the 'Mini Series', often based on a best selling novel and the advent of cable stations like HBO, which weren't subject to network restrictions on content.  The format hasn't disappeared altogether. Nowadays they usually take the form of 'real life' stories of small town family trauma.  These are even blander than their seventies ancestors, despite better production values.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home