Part of my series on never-made occult detective TV shows.
Dark Intruder (1965)
In public and to his friends, Brett Kingsford (Leslie Nielsen) is a wealthy playboy socialite in late 19th century San Francisco. In private, he investigates cases of the occult. Police Commissioner Harvey Misbach asks for Kingsford’s help with a series of brutal killings. At every murder scene, the killer leaves behind a mysterious carving of a two-headed Sumerian god — and each time, the second head emerges a little further out. At the same time, Kingsford’s friend Evelyn expresses concern about her fiance Robert’s strange mood and erratic behavior.
This 1965 picture was originally the pilot for Black Cloak, a supernatural series for Alfred Hitchcock. I believe it was meant to be an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well; Black Cloak was intended to eventually replace that show. It was produced by Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, the company that not only produced Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but also Psycho.
Beyond the Hitchcock connection, Dark Intruder has an impeccable supernatural horror pedigree. The screenplay was written by Barré Lyndon, who wrote the screenplay of the 1944 version of The Lodger (based on Marie Belloc Lowdnes’ 1913 Jack the Ripper-ish horror novel), and who also wrote for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The film was produced by Jack Laird, who later went on to work on The Night Gallery. The cinematographer, John F. Warren, was Director of Photography for several episodes of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Sounds promising, right?
Let me start with the good. Dark Intruder is well executed and engaging. The plot twists are inventive, if perhaps a touch easy to figure out. The Lovecraftian idea of an Old God (or demon) trying to break back into our mundane plane was probably innovative for television and film at the time; and the symbolic expression of his progress via the statuettes is quite creative.
There are parts of the picture that are beautifully filmed, with a noirish use of light and shadow. The foggy opening sequence reminds me a bit of a certain famous scene from Val Lewton’s The Bodysnatcher (directed by Robert Wise). The climatic scene in the church tower, towards the end of the movie, felt particularly influenced by the visuals of expressionist film, as well as by Universal’s Dracula.
The exterior sets are clearly in the studio, but are atmospherically shot. The interior sets are pretty good, too, with nice bits of set dressing and well-crafted props; I liked the skulls and statues in Kingsford’s study. The carvings that constitute such an important part of the plot were creepy and well conceived. The art work on the opening credits was great.
The performances were generally good. Nielsen has a nice rapport with Gilbert Green, who plays the skeptical Commissioner Misbach; he also clicks well with Charles Bolender, who plays his assistant and valet, Nikola. I assume Nielsen, Green, and Bolender would all have been regulars in the series. Peter Mark Richman plays Kingsford’s friend, Robert Vandenburg, who fears that he may be the murderer; he has a tendency to overact, but I suppose I’d be pretty upset in Vandenburg’s place, too.
And there are some great makeup effects. The final transformation (I’ll call it Jekyll and Hyde like, not to spoil the story) is excellently and effectively done. Really impressive, even by today’s standards.
But… it felt rushed, with a plot too complex for its length. In contrast to The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, which padded its source material too much and dragged in places, Dark Intruder would have benefited from a little extra time to breathe, to better develop the storyline and flesh out Nielsen’s character, and the other characters, as well.
After the pilot was rejected, Shamley Productions recycled it as part of a drive-in double feature package, along with William Castle’s I Saw What You Did. This would have been a good time to extend Dark Intruder to movie-length, perhaps add another fifteen or twenty minutes for character development and to fill in parts of the story that got short shrift. But they didn’t; I guess they just wanted to move on to the next thing.
Nielsen was still in the “leading man” phase of his career (he was quite handsome, and I enjoyed his brief shirtless scene), but he played Kingsford as sarcastic and irreverent, as a character that reminds me of Airplane or Police Squad! era Nielsen. I think it was supposed to be the Scarlet Pimpernel thing: a feckless outer persona masks the secret hero who combats evil; but it comes off a little weird in places. There were other injections of humor, involving either the uber-chatty Evelyn (Robert’s fiancee, played by Judi Meredith), or an overactive mandrake plant. These were probably typical of television humor of the time, but they often felt out of place, given the overall grimness of the plot.
I guess I’d say the whole thing felt a little too TV — an odd thing to say about a television series pilot, I know, but remember Dark Intruder was released theatrically. While the cinematography on the exterior scenes was beautiful, the interior scenes tended to be filmed in a flat and static way: television style. The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre felt like a TV movie too, but it was also more fluid in its camerawork. And Dark Intruder was far less cinematic than the subject of my next post, Chamber of Horrors, which was also released as a feature film.
Lalo Schifrin, who composed the score, also composed the scores for a lot of famous mid-twentieth century television: Mission Impossible, Mannix, Starsky and Hutch. It’s probably not fair to ding the score for screaming “TV” when it was composed by the man who arguably defined that television sound, but, well, it did contribute to the small screen feeling of the picture, for me, at least.
A few things I’ll mention in passing, because I’ll be coming back to them next post:
- Kingsford’s assistant is a little person. According to Steve Haberman, in the commentary for Chamber of Horrors, little person sidekicks were popular during this period. They’d often be used in place of a female sidekick to the male lead when they wanted to avoid any romantic overtones to the relationship.
- The yellowface! This is a film set in San Francisco, and which was shot in Southern California. They couldn’t find an actual Chinese (or at least Asian) actor for a five-minute scene? And what was up with that hybrid Buddha/Shiva statue?
- Another popular TV trope at the time (and all the way until at least the eighties, I think), was a ladies’ man protagonist, irresistible to any woman he encounters. I will say Nielsen made a convincing ladies’ man.
Apparently, the pilot was rejected as too scary for television. This surprised me; it seemed about the level of scary one might expect for TV at the time. The two most suspenseful scenes of the film struck me as more beautiful, in a noir or expressionist kind of way, than spooky or disturbing. The Haunting/Ghost of Sierra de Cobre seemed spookier and eerier to me. Perhaps it’s just hard for modern viewers to put themselves into the mindset of the era.
Would I have watched the series?
Sure, for light viewing. It was fun, though not particularly eerie, or even suspenseful compared to other pilots/features that I watched for this series. I like Leslie Nielsen. Given Kingsford’s relationship with Commissioner Misbach, if he was to be a regular character, I suspect that the occult cases would mostly involve murder, which cuts down on the variety. Indeed, Gary Gerani, in the commentary, says that Leslie Nielsen told him that the show would “definitely have been a monster of the week.”
But perhaps the company that gave us Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Psycho might be trusted to keep a show that it produces varied enough for interest. Alas, we’ll never know.
Taken as a standalone film, Dark Intruder is enjoyable, and beautiful to look at, but is perhaps too rushed to be more than moderately rewatchable.
I have the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray, with commentary by Gary Gerani, just released last year. There is also a 2015 Turner Classics DVD, a double feature of William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor) and Dark Intruder; I still see it on Amazon. Both movies, by the way, feature actress Judi Meredith. I was unable to find Dark Intruder streaming or on YouTube, so viewers outside of the US and Canada may be out of luck.
Featured Image Source: dvdbeaver.com