Sunday, January 30, 2011

Season One, Episode 1: Black November

Air Date: October 7, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Everett Sloane, Keir Dullea, Whit Bissell, Patricia McCormack, George Kennedy

"Black November" is a compelling start for Route 66. It's a dark episode, and I'm not just talking content-wise. For some reason, so many of the scenes come out looking dark. Perhaps it is the print used by Infinity Entertainment on this DVD set. But I get the impression it was shot in a dark tone. According to James Rosin, this was the episode that was used to sell the series to CBS. Everything about the episode is taut. Director Philip Leacock got his start in B-movies and graduated to steady gigs in television. He'd go on to direct lots of episodes of The Waltons, Eight is Enough, Fantasy Island, Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

No surprise here that Stirling Silliphant wrote the teleplay. Before that, Silliphant had established an impressive track record as a TV writer, knocking out teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Alcoa Theater, Markham (a detective show starring Ray Milland) and another Herbert B. Leonard show, Naked City. He's in top form here. Route 66 really was his baby. His typewriter brings these characters to life.

Most Route 66 fans already know by now that "Black November" is a slight variation of John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). The Plot: Buz and Tod drive into a Mississippi town called Garth. Everybody is acting real weird, as if they're hiding a secret. Only Jenny Slade (Patty McCormack), the blonde girl who works at a local store, acts like a normal human being. Everybody is else seems to be terrified of their own shadows. Turns out the town is run by a tyrant who, like the town itself, is also called Garth (played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane). Buz and Tod find out that a P.O.W. camp used to be located in this town and a German prisoner of war was lynched many years earlier. Eventually, the mystery is revealed in flashback form, and Garth's son Paul (Keir Dullea) ultimately saves Tod and Buz from being lynched and helps redeem the traumatized town.

There is a lot about this episode that stands out. Sloane's performance is intense. It's also fascinating to see Keir Dullea in a pre-2001: A Space Odyssey role. Dullea is a method actor who was never given the roles he deserved, and he did not really go anywhere after Stanley Kubrick's 1968 outer space magnum opus. This is too bad, because Dullea is a very impressive actor who shows his depth in this episode. The rustic southern locale sets the stage for the on-location feel that came to define Route 66. The episode was filmed in Concord, Kentucky, just over the border and to the west of Nashville, in February 1960. Also watch for Whit Bissell (co-star of 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf with Michael Landon) as store owner Jim Slade.

The most fascinating thing about "Black November" is watching Buz and Tod . Unlike most TV shows, where characters need at least one season to form their personalities, Buz and Tod emerge as fully realized characters, exhibiting the personality traits that would define them over the course of the series (Buz = tough Hell's Kitchen kid with a touch of Kerouac; Tod = cool, calm, rational, slightly hip - but not as as hip as Buz - and ultimately very moral). You could actually drop "Black November" into the middle of Season Two or Three and it would fit in perfectly with the tone and style of the other episodes. There aren't very many shows that start off with the characters fully developed. This owes entirely to Milner and Maharis as actors and Silliphant as a writer.

Not surprisingly, "Black November" often ranks in the Top 10 of episodes for most Route 66 fans (I won't tip my hand yet in that regard). It's a gritty episode, slightly contrived at times, but mostly it - like Buz Murdock - packs a terrific punch.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10


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