We are here to serve
Here to re-af-firm
Light the way from fear
---credo of The Monitors---
Sometimes, pumpkins, you end up loving a film in spite of itself. A bit paradoxical, of course, but it helps keep the noggin free of cobwebs.
I now offer Jack Shea's 1969 film "The Monitors" as something of a personal example. It is based on a 1966 novel by Keith Laumer (1925-1993). I have been a fan of Laumer's writing for decades, and grieve at the fact that so very little of his work has been translated to the screen. This particular day and age seems to be ripe for movies based on both his "Bolo" novels and his "Retief of the CDT" books and stories.
It could be argued that a little Laumer is better than no Laumer at all. Well . . .
The story certainly lends itself to clever interpretation. Earth has been successfully invaded by a race of creatures known as the Monitors. Rather than being bloodthirsty killers however, the Monitors desire only to keep things peaceful among the people of Earth. Really peaceful. I mean really, really, really peaceful. They continually patrol the streets and neighborhoods, always ready with calm words and cans of anesthetic spray to put down any instance of trouble.
And yes, kids, we've all seen this before. Perhaps the best known version of this sort of thing came with Jack Williamson's classic 1947 story "With Folded Hands" (elements of which made its perhaps unconscious way into Alex Proyas' 2004 film "I, Robot"). A much more sinister variant of the tale came with Damon Knight's 1950 story "To Serve Man" (successfully adapted to television by "The Twilight Zone"). Some argue that there are no new ideas, only new interpretations.
I haven't been able to determine what inspired Bernard Sahlins and Sheldon Patinkin to produce Laumer's novel into a film. There's certainly no clue in the choice of director Jack Shea. Before and after "The Monitors" his work focuses mainly on directing episodes for television sitcoms (as well as Glen Campbell's variety series). As for screenwriter Myron Gold, his small resume shows nothing of similar interest other than, perhaps, a 1984 feature film (also directed by him) entitled "Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie".
(Yes I had a bit of a shiver while reading the above paragraph. Why do you ask?)
"The Monitors" had the potential for being a eerily dramatic work. The titular creatures were human in appearance, but disturbingly so. Tall males with placid expressions and even voices, decked out in dark overcoats and black bowler hats. They were everywhere! The only exception to their sameness came in the form of Tersch Jeterax: the leader of the Monitor mission on Earth. Played by Shepperd Strudwick as a sort of frosty Michael Rennie in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" type, monitoring his agents from within an office in Chicago complete with electronic wall map and blinking computer lights.
Jeterax and the Monitors are having their hands full with suppressing the violence on Earth and are taking whatever steps they deem necessary to improve the situation. One such idea is to use an attractive human agent, film star Barbara Cole to try and seduce professional pilot/actor (and potential resistance figure) Harry Jordan. But as matters move along both Harry and Barbara find themselves in the hands of SCRAG: the anti-Monitor underground.
Normally I'd be upset about giving out so much plot detail, but it doesn't bother me here. Mainly because, for reasons perhaps known only to Shea and Gold, five and a half minutes into the film the audience finds itself treated to a brief summary on Who's Who, as well as the fact that Barbara is secretly working for the Monitors. Wow guys . . . know anything about subtlety?
But no one associated with "The Monitors" was apparently taking the project seriously. All too soon we're finding ourselves smack dab in a slapstick comedy. The first clue was in the cast which included Avery Schreiber, Larry Storch and about a dozen or so refugees from both Second City and the New York improv comedy scene. There are numerous other little hints, such as when Harry and Mona (a fellow human also dissatisfied with the Monitors) escape from SCRAG headquarters and are obliged to get involved in a food fight with a guard. A good deal of mugging for the camera abounds (courtesy mainly of Schreiber and Storch), and all pretenses of dark mood are soon flushed down the commode. "The Monitors" was trying too hard to be a comedic satire on subjects such as American military and government policy, and ultimately it failed. Failed big time.
And recently something of an epiphany came onto me, and I realized what sort of film "The Monitors" should've tried to be. A few years before "The Monitors" was made, Theodore Flicker directed what still stands as perhaps the most finely-honed mixture of social satire and action: "The President's Analyst". Brilliant, brilliant film with stand-out performances by James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden (if you're going to use Second City comedians in a movie it pays to pick the good ones). Maybe Shea thought he could capture the lightning of "The President's Analyst" in a different bottle. Lord knows some similarities exist (e.g. romantic interests who're secretly working for the Other Side, musical accompaniment to lovemaking, storming a high-tech command center, etc.). But whereas Flicker made cinema history, Shea's attempt descended into obscurity.
And one can't actually put the blame on the primary actors. Guy Stockwell (Dean's big brother) successfully managed to sneer and smirk his way through films such as "The War Lord" and "Blindfold". As Harry Jordan, Stockwell is something of a proto-Han Solo: a womanizing rogue with a mildly humorous sardonic air and a definite chip on his shoulder regarding the Monitors (as well as a doofus would-be comedian brother, played by Schreiber).
(Stockwell's character is also suffering the sort of Vietnam fighter pilot flashbacks Clint Eastwood would have thirteen years later in "Firefox". Here's a hint: Eastwood's condition was depicted far more dramatically.)
Susan Oliver plays Barbara Cole as a soft-voiced sort of diva who is nonetheless lonely for sincere companionship (so lonely, in fact, that she collaborates with alien invaders in the hope of finding a man . . . a role, oddly enough, carrying echoes of the work she did in the first "Star Trek" pilot*). "The Monitors" has been the most I've seen her in a mainly comedic role, and she carries herself well. One good scene has Larry Storch playfully whacking her on her (admittedly nice) fanny, and the slow burn Oliver throws in his direction is far and away superior to the cutting remark she delivers.
(*"The Monitors" is sort of a reunion of "Star Trek" females, with Sherry Jackson from the episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of" playing the extremely watchable fellow-Monitor escapee Mona.)
"The Monitors" boasts other talented veterans among its cast. Keenan Wynn plays General Blackwish (the head of SCRAG) with the sort of composed buffoonery that he had honed throughout dozens of films. Ed Begley plays the President of the United States in a scene which rather hits us hard over the head in an attempt to depict just how powerless governments have become under the rule of the Monitors. When Harry and his gang enter the Oval Office they find Begley (along with several cobwebs) idly working a crossword puzzle.
(Come to think of it, "The Monitors" would make a good second half of a double-feature beginning with Barry Shear's "Wild in the Streets", which featured Begley as an ambitious Congressman.)
I had mentioned music a bit earlier. In regards to "The Monitors" I can sum up the soundtrack in one word: Ugh! Let's go back for a moment to "The President's Analyst". That film had shmoozy music courtesy of Barry McGuire (especially in a nice scene involving a death-filled field) and a LA psychedelic group known as the Clear Light (as well as James Coburn on gong. "How 'bout that sound?").
By comparison, "The Monitors" gives us incidental music composed by Fred Kaz (another Second City alumnus), as well as two (count 'em . . . two!) songs written by Kaz and warbled by Odetta Holmes ("the Voice of the Civil Rights Movement"). Keep in mind that "The Monitors" was filmed in 1969. This meant that you didn't really have to be talented as long as you sang about flowers, loving, Mother Earth and distant tears. Preferably all in the same song (and better yet if you could work all of that into one verse). As long as you were doing that then it was all Heavy and Righteous and Off the Pigs (Man!).
All of which serves as a warning: if you're watching "The Monitors" on television, then turn the sound off during a chase scene. Also when Stockwell and Oliver finally fall into bed for a pretty much G-rated love scene.
(Oh, and the end credits as well.)
And as I said, the tragedy is that "The Monitors" could have been more of a standout if handled with greater subtlety and competence. Watching the film I found myself wishing that more attention could've been given to the overall state of a Monitor-dominated world. There was a palpable touch of weirdness in seeing the Monitors strolling about while, at the same time, loudspeakers continually blared the message that "The Monitors are your friends . . . the Monitors will protect you . . . the Monitors work for your welfare"
Then there's also the television commercials demonstrating how pleasant life under the Monitors can be. Featuring lyrics such as: So merrily we dance (Hooray!)/For now we have the chance (Oboy!)/We used to be so blue (Bravo!)/But now we sing to you . . . the Mo-ni-tors! If these were also composed by Kaz then he was missing a definite bet by not focusing more on this. It was this sort of thing which helped to pull "The Monitors" up from the mire. Or at lease get its nose into the air.
Besides, any film which features cameos by Alan Arkin, Xavier Cugat, Jackie Vernon and Everett Dirksen can't be totally dismissed. One might try, but one can't totally dismiss it.
A lot of issues with this film, but I Liked It!