TV NOIR OF THE WEEK 11/17/15
THE FUGITIVE "Ill Wind" (first broadcast 3/8/1966)
Director: Joseph Sargent
Teleplay: Al C. Ward
Lead actors: David Janssen, Barry Morse, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan
Supporting actors: Bonnie Beecher, Tim McIntire, Lonny Chapman
Stanley Fish dwells a good bit on "ill Wind" in his THE FUGITIVE IN FLIGHT, a very worthy volume about the landmark 60s "noir inside out" TV series. It's an episode that crystallizes the tension between the large-scale values of what was once quaintly called "liberal society" and the tribal impulses that push back against the grain of heterogeneous homogenization. It'a also an episode that shows just how noir is commingled with redemption despite the posturing of those who would demand a nihilistic denouement--the leading-by-example by a mysterious stranger whose troubles transcend the comprehension of those he is helping.
Of course, as always, it helps that it's a TV series, where there can be no definitive conclusion (at least as dictated by the TV of the time). The repetitive nature of the plot for THE FUGITIVE often obscures the nuance in the situation Richard Kimble encounters, and how he relates to what he finds himself involved with. The best episodes engage on all of these levels, and manage to incorporate the "noir frame" on which the show is built--the strange, mirrored relationship between Kimble and Lt. Philip Gerard.
"Ill Wind" has all that. Back in another variant of "Tobacco Road" or "The Grapes of Wrath," Kimble (alias: Mike Johnson) has become a source of radiance for the itinerant workers with whom he travels. There is reference to prior action where Kimble was discovered by the Kelly family (patriarch Lester, played by John McIntire; matriarch Naomi, played by McIntire's real-life wife Jeanette Nolan; and daughter Ida Katherine, known as Kate, played by Bonnie Beecher). They know Kimble's secret, but Lester Kelly will soon be put to the test when Lt. Gerard, who has tracked them down thanks to the ubiquitous device of a random wire photo, threatens him with jail time if he doesn't reveal where Kimble has gone after their cauliflower harvest.
Kimble has also inadvertently (as usual) interfered in the love relationship between Kate and Jonesie, the soulful, sinewy-voiced singer who seemed to be on the inside track to join the Kelly clan (played by Tim McIntire). Entranced by the mystery of the decent man on the run, Kate is in rhapsodic mode with Kimble, much to Jonesie's chagrin. He responds by composing a country blues ("The Running Man") that tells of the "sad, sad tale" he's singin', about the love of a girl for a man who's "destined for hell.") The song becomes a leitmotif for the ensuing action in "Ill Wind," where Gerard captures Kimble but, as always, the tables are turned, the roles are reversed, and the ground literally shifts in a dark night of the soul spent in a barn battered by hurricane-force winds.
In the end, someone in the tribe must step up to save Gerard's life by giving him a blood transfusion, and from this a possible path to escape can start to emerge--but accomplished in a way that eschews eye-for-an-eye. What's interesting about the denouement, however, is that it's made clear that the vast majority of tribe members haven't been won over by Kimble's large-scale liberalism. It's a one-time accommodation for the mysterious stranger, a blip in the tribal radar. Except, possibly, for the young couple--Kate and Jonesie--who have witnessed the ultimate grace under fire...the "doing the right thing" despite the immediate consequences, trusting that individuals will open up to a larger, loftier world view.
The "desperate gambles" in noir don't usually rise to such a level, and thus are usually doomed to failure. But here, in a world where the original noir impulse has been turned inside out, there is nothing left to lose, and the gamble taken is always for others--those who might move away from the nocturnal entrapment of mere tribalism into the dawn of a more encompassing redemptive compassion.
Writer Al C. Ward, whose lone film credit is the mordantly twisty PLEASE MURDER ME!, was a fixture in episodic television in from the late 50s to the late 60s, when this type of "synthesis of ethical dilemmas" became passť. "Ill Wind," despite its timeless message, was a piece of work that could only come into being in a very specific time frame--a time before the flashpoint that caused so many to retreat from public bonds into an increasingly aggrandized, self-serving privation. (We see how far we've traveled from the message in "Ill Wind" by recent events, which privilege a bankrupt neo-tribalism as a pretext for excluding the victims of circumstances that were brought on by a lack of public vigilance--and NOT a failure of the principles so many chose to willfully reject.)
Barry Morse is at his most brilliant here, particularly in the end, when his almost-pitiable petulance betrays the oncoming attitudes of those who would not examine the spirit of the law while draping themselves in what narrator William Conrad, in the show's opening, so aptly calls "blind justice." The fact that there are actually innocent victims in the world does not negate noir, it only makes it more perverse and more like the tragedy from which it stems. And it's an ill wind indeed when refugees become fugitives.
Clearly the show's peak, in an episode anchored by the McIntire family, not least son Tim, a titanic but troubled talent who haunts so many obscure films, TV movies, and episodic TV, who died young due to the long-term effects of drug and alcohol abuse. He could not know that the "sad song" he was singing in "Ill Wind" was, in fact, about himself.