Sunday, February 13, 2011

Season One, Episode 5: The Strengthening Angels

Air Date: November 4, 1960
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Suzanne Pleshette, John Larch, Harry Townes, Warren Stevens, Tom Reese

Buz and Tod drive through a dark and rainy night with the Corvette's top up. Little do they know, in this part of the country (Needles, California) there is a Christian tent revival going on, where Lotti Montana (Suzanne Pleshette, left) is about to bear her testimony. Suddenly, to the shock of Reverend Wylie (Harry Townes) and the big audience of Christians in the tent who braved the harsh showers to hear Lotti speak, she ends up bolting out of the tent into the pouring rain, leaving her daughter behind. She gets a ride with Buz and Tod, who end up motoring into a fictional town called Sparrow Falls.

As is the case on so many Route 66 episodes, Buz and Tod get sucked into the personal life of a complete stranger, this time Lotti. She's a woman with a secret past. Our heroes discover that she murdered a man who happened to be the brother of local lawman Sheriff Hingle (John Larch). It's clear that Hingle has it in for Lotti. He has a hate-on for her. He wants to lock her away for good. He hauls her in to the local jail and interrogates her. The iron heel comes down hard on poor Lotti.

Buz and Tod get closer to Lotti. They hire a local attorney, Richard Crown (Warren Stevens), to come to Lotti's aid. Shit keeps happening. Lotti seems strangely indifferent or even downright hostile to the help she's getting from Buz and Tod. Then Buz gets in a fight with Hingle and is about to kick the sheriff's ass, but one of the deputies knocks out Buz cold with a blackjack. Buz ends up in the hoosegow, but it's only temporary. He and Hingle end up developing a sort of macho respect for each other. Hingle releases Buz, who is reunited with Tod. The two buddies encounter Reverend Wylie, who shows up in Sparrow Falls to help Lotti. Buz and Tod, meantime, find out there was a third man who was with Hingle's brother the night Lotti murdered him.

Without giving too much away, Tod and Buz relentlessly pursue all the clues until they discover the identity of the mysterious "third man" who was with Lotti and Hingle's brother on the night of the murder. No spoilers here. Names won't be named on Andrew's Route 66 Blog. Suffice it to say, the identity of the mysterious figure who witnessed the crime will surprise you.

"The Strengthening of Angels" is a damn good Route 66 episode. It is often considered to be a favorite of fans (author James Rosin lists it as one of his 25 faves in his Route 66 guidebook). Like "The Man on the Monkey Board," "Strengthening" is tense, well written and contains some powerhouse performances. Years before landing a starring role as Emily Hartley on the Bob Newhart Show, Suzanne Pleshette showed off her extremely impressive acting skills in "The Strengthening of Angels." Pleshette had been guest starring in TV shows since '57, which included a role on the Silliphant/Leonard collaboration Naked City. Despite her gorgeous looks (she resembles a young Elizabeth Taylor in this episode), Pleshette plays the role with a kind of gritty realism that is thoroughly believable. And then there is John Larch as Sheriff Hingle (pictured above right). For my money, Larch is one of the greatest TV actors of all time. He's one of those solid performers like Frank Overton, who really throws himself into each and every one of his roles with a convincing intensity. Incidentally, Larch and Overton are both veterans of multiple Route 66 episodes. Larch would appear in three over his career, "The Strengthening of Angels," "Legacy for Lucia" (1960, also in Season One) and "Go Read the River" (1962, Season Two).

Like "The Man on the Monkey Board," there is a lot of tension in "The Strengthening of Angels," but a very different kind of tension. "Strengthening" is not as suspenseful as "Monkey." There is a fantastic fight scene pitting Sheriff Hingle against Buz. It's truly one of Buz Murdock's best fistfights. It looks almost real.

The episode is not so much a Whodunnit (we know Lotti committed the murder). It turns out to be more of a Whydunnit. And the resolution at the end is satisfying and plausible. And I like that Silliphant shows so much respect for the traveling tent-show Christians. They're real people, with a deep yearning for the spiritual, not cardboard, fire-breathing caricatures of Evangelists.

Warning: This isn't the best episode to watch if you're a Tod fan. Tod ends up laying pretty low in this one. He's there in much of "Strengthening," but he's content to play a largely supporting role for Buz. The story is told much more from Buz's P.O.V.

Director Arthur Hiller, a Canadian-born filmmaker, would go on to enjoy a highly successful career directing such films as Love Story (1970), The Hospital (1971), Man of La Mancha (1972) and Silver Streak (1976), and he'd serve as head of the Director's Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was also one of the most prolific directors on the Route 66 payroll, helming no fewer than twelve episodes.

He shows off his skills to full effect in "The Strengthening of Angels." The end result is a potent episode that is a definite asset to the series. While it may not pack quite yield the same emotional knockout as the episode that preceded it, this is still one hell of a good way to spend slightly less than an hour.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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