Friday, September 5, 2014

Naked City: "Without Stick or Sword" - a toupological analysis.



"Without Stick or Sword" is a 1962 third season episode of the police drama series Naked City, which aired from 1958-63. The series notably placed guest stars front and center of each episode, and in this case Bill Shatner and respected character actor Martin Balsam assume the reigns (both actors having acted together on several occasions, including a classic episode of Studio One).

 William Shatner and Martin Balsam (center) in "The Defender"

In this story, Bill Shatner plays a devout Burmese Buddhist sailor called Maung Tun. (Yes, a white man playing an Asian - we'll get to our thoughts on that point later on!)

Anyway, the story begins with a murder. An Asian man (again, it's best to just hold off on this part for now otherwise we'll really never reach the end) knocks on the door of a New York apartment and stabs a person to death as they open the door.


Only, he doesn't know that the person he killed was actually the wife of his intended target.


Maung Tun had hoped to kill American ship captain Russel Barris (Balsam), a man he accuses of causing the deaths of his four younger brothers while on a shipping trip to Rangoon years earlier. We learn that the good captain had deliberately chosen not to rescue the boys after they ran into a little trouble while on a small rowboat in the city's harbor. But, crucially, Barris did radio in a warning about the youngsters. Nonetheless, they subsequently capsized and drowned. The captain and his first officer were both dismissed by their shipping company for gross professional discourtesy.

At first, the police hone in on Barris as the potential killer of his wife. But soon, the web of his troubled past is unraveled by the investigating cops.


Maung Tun finds temporary solace in the company of a female acquaintance he encountered on a previous visit to the US (possibly a prostitute, though this is only implied), portrayed by Philippine actress Pilar Seurat.


Tun is honor-bound to seek vengeance against the men who killed his brothers, including the first officer of that ship, the next man he goes after.

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But the twenty-four-year-old is riddled with guilt when he learns he has killed an innocent woman. Perceived religious-cultural prescripts demanding vengeance directly clash in Maung Tun's consciousness with Buddhist morality. The result: a young man's confusion.

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Meanwhile, the cops launch a sting operation at the funeral of Barris' wife. Maung Tun is guaranteed to turn up.


But will he seek vengeance or forgiveness? What shape will justice ultimately take?


That's where we'll leave the plot. Before we get to our toupological analysis, our overall thoughts on this episode:

It's a noble piece of drama, for sure. By that we mean that the subject matter - meaning the exploration of the pressures, penalties and oftentimes harsh judgments "prescribed" by traditional cultural and religious values - is certainly not belittled here. In today's world, these tensions are very real for many Christians, Muslims and Jews too.

Here, the Buddhist aspect of the story is treated with respect (with one notable exception - we'll get to that in a moment).

 
"Help me not to do this," Shatner's character asks his god in an almost Shakespearean soliloquy, begging to be absolved of his self-declared role of "just" executioner.


He also seeks guidance at a Buddhist temple - fortunately, we have another Asian actor cast as the priest, although in this case the fellow both looks and sounds like he's reading off cue cards.


Helping things along is above-average TV direction, and an oddly Star Trek-like haunting music score from Nelson Riddle. We would say that the real weak spot (other than the issue we're about to delve into) is the series regulars.


The cop characters, played by Paul Burke and Horace McMahon, come across as rather soulless automatons. Standing 90 degrees apart, looking out at "the audience", processing plot points almost like a Police Squad parody. No humor. No characterization. It's during these scenes that we felt this show descended somewhat into the realms of being just another forgettable 60s-era TV show. To be fair, we'd have to see more episodes to gauge how exactly this format works, but in this one episode, it leaves the viewer feeling a little bit alone amidst all the heady life and death themes (rather like watching the cold Captain Pike and "Number One" talking shop in the Star Trek pilot "The Cage").

So, let's move swiftly to the hair. And by hair, we mean hair and also that other issue, namely what happens when you "black-up" or otherwise make-up a white actor to play an ethnic role. The practice is pretty much taboo these days, and rightfully so (although there are exceptions both awful and iconic).

Peter Sellers as Dr. Fu Manchu.

 Perhaps the most ridiculous "Asian transformation" ever is Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (1967):


Obviously there are cases of ethnic transformation, which can be regarded as harmless fun, while at the other end of the spectrum we have grotesque racism. In this case, we would say the effect is somewhere in-between.

The real question is why a white actor had to be cast in such a role. Were there no decent Asian actors available? Of course there were (we don't mean George Takei, as we have to confess to not having been wowed by his acting abilities). Sad thing is, that even well into the 1970s, perfectly good Asian actors like Pat Morita were still having to accept degrading roles as "house boy" butlers with funny Asian accents, when in fact their real accents were as American as any other US actor. The legacy of fighting the "Japs" in World War II certainly plays a role in that. Thank God for Sam Fujiyama!

We suspect that in 1962, an Asian leading man in a role like "Without Stick or Sword" was still considered by producers as not viable. An Asian woman, or an Asian Buddhist mentor - yes. But not leading man.


However, we're not of the "OTT PC" school that believes retrospective offense should be taken at the portrayal. It is what it is. Certainly not intentionally demeaning to Asians in any way. Yes, Bill Shatner as a Burmese man is ridiculous. No matter his acting abilities, a white man as an Asian is just silly in this context. But it's not his fault he was mis-cast this way. Those were the times.

Weirdly, he even slips into an Indian accent at one point (please try not to laugh while listening to this):

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 Oh, dear...


"Oh, dear God..."

"Oh, dear God..."

And the actor also appears to have slight prosthetic appliances on his eyes to appear more oriental - not the fuller sort often used for this type of effect, but it is there. Here's a close-up:


If we try to set the whole ethnic debate to one side, we can say that Bill Shatner performs a reasonable acting job here. He's less effective when he's being characteristically del-ib-er-ate in his acting (as always), although adding "The Enemy Within"- style insane characterization into the mix can always turn such ham into a compelling Shatner-esque experience.


Indeed, watching the episode, a great deal of familiar Shatner-isms seen in later Star Trek episodes are evident - for example, the bloodied hand, the pause, the extra bit of acting to the camera, etc.


The actor is more effective in this role when turning up the soft-spoken charm:

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Phew! Now, really, really to the hair! A brief flashback sequence at the start promises merely a variation on the typical-for-the-time "Jim Kirk lace". Nothing to see here, right?


But shortly thereafter, the audience is given a subtle hint that toupologists should perhaps pay greater attention to this one. Bill Shatner pats down his cap, then walks contemptuously past a man combing his hair. Message?

Semiotics, or its sub-branch "toupiotics" - the study of toupological meaning.

What emerges from thereon is a full on black wig, and a long-haired one to boot, as Pilar Seurat points out:

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Hair is mentioned several times, including when, during his soliloquy, the character says "I will cut off hair" (foreigners naturally don't use words like "my"). Oh, Buddha, why didn't you take up Bill Shatner on that promise?

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But most importantly in this episode, Seurat gets to perform a very, very rare act - she gets to repeatedly touch the "hair".

 Note the lace line around a centimeter below the hair line.

 She strokes it.

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An act, which can lead to some fascinating insights.



A slight discomfort is visible in Bill Shatner during such moments:



There's also a curious wrinkle around the lace line visible at one point. Despite extensive touposcopic analysis, we can't conclusively state at this point whether it is a forehead wrinkle (which does seem less likely given the nature of Bill Shatner's facial expression) or the lace line edge coming undone:


Anyway, stepping back a little. We've often spoken of the idea of a grand trial in which all accumulated toupological evidence would be presented to a court attended by Bill Shatner.


Perhaps the idea is best viewed in less confrontational terms - as a way to provide healing and closure for all sides. A kind of "Toup and Reconciliation Commission" in which the believers and the master denier finally present their cases. 

The "Toup and Reconciliation Commission" convenes.

Why bring this up? The funny thing is that one could imagine Bill Shatner's high-powered defense team moving to dismiss this entire episode from being presented as evidence. "Yes, it's a wig!" the lawyer could argue. "My client accepts that."



Stunned murmurs in the audience.

"My client wore a wig for this role. As many actors do. That in no way proves toupee-wearing. He could hardly have grown his own...lush, absolutely real and extremely plentiful [looks to Bill Shatner for approval - receives a nod] hair long for a TV role of the week."

This undoubtedly brilliant tactic would leave the prosecution momentarily in tatters. The defense would be absolutely right. The wig here is so blatant that is cannot necessarily be placed in the same toupological category in which we might place more realistic attempts at persuasive hair presentation by Bill Shatner.


Yes, this example is better viewed as a wig, rather than a toupee. But as students of toupology will know, that makes it no less fascinating.

Naked City is available on DVD. The episode "Without Stick or Sword" can also presently be found on YouTube. Worth a watch for a variety of reasons.

Our next post will be entitled "Where the hell have you been!?"

30 comments:

  1. So glad you're finally, finally back!!!

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  2. So pleased to see this popping up on my blog list this morning - great read, thanks!

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  3. This is the greatest day in the history of all stuff.

    So glad you're back!

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  4. Hilarious. Welcome back from wherever you went.

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  5. Josh Lang Burning BrightSeptember 5, 2014 at 11:58 PM

    AT LAST! WELCOME BACK!

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  6. Trouble With ToupeesSeptember 6, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    My life is once again complete!

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  7. I am so glad you're back -- and in fine form!!

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  8. Thanks for all your welcome back messages. And thanks too for still coming to visit. -ST

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  9. When I spotted this post, I was so overcome with delight that my toup levitated 10 feet off my head! Welcome back sir!

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  10. Let us slay the fatted calf! Our lost toupologists were lost but now they are found! We're so happy to have you back but don't even do this to us again.

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  11. James Toupeerius KirkSeptember 9, 2014 at 12:30 PM

    http://www.mediafire.com/view/fava642fpgm82z5/mini_kirk_james_toupeerius_web.jpg

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  12. I've been waiting for today for a long time!!!!

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  13. Today is a day to celebrate!

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  14. If updates are still going to be infrequent then please don't waste one accounting for the absence/continued infrequency when there are still so many more important questions e.g.

    Is it just me or has the Katz toupee become markedly darker & more wig like over the last 2 or 3 years, with harsh, straight, obviously glued on temple areas & less visible scalp? If so, why might this have been? Are we now categorically sure that the post 2000 “hair” was never a transplant?

    I also think an entry is long overdue on Shatners 2012 Christmas message on youtube, where he explicitly covers topics such as fake hair & worshipping hair

    Someone also posted a picture of Shatner sat in a plane with the toupee practically hanging off many months ago, surely that glaring omission from the site should be resolved (If the picture wasn't photoshopped)

    I do hope this last update wasn't a one-off...

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    1. "please don't waste [a post] accounting for the absence/continued infrequency when there are still so many more important questions .."

      Probably you mean this remark as satire (beffitting STB comments), but in case you seriously regard an explanatory post as waste, I beg to differ! The dedication of ST author(s) and their team of tireless scientists, and the stories of how these investigators devote their energies to advance Toupology despite obstacles which would discourage lesser individuals, are inspiring! I look forward to the account of how our friend returned to once again further this vital scientific field (Toupismatics or Toupology). ST may well have spent the intervening months conducting pathbreaking integrative experiments, solely to enlarge the scope of future discoveries or those which been made but have yet to be shared with the public. To have a window on the life of this Toupological luminary is a privilege.

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  15. Thanks for your comments. We have been trying to encourage non-Blogger registered commenters to select the "Name/ URL" option and type in a username (anything at all). This eliminates the "anonymous" tag and helps other commenters to know who is saying what, avoiding multiple comments by "Anonymous". Thanks! -ST

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  16. shats own real syrupSeptember 16, 2014 at 11:16 PM

    Welcome back my dear old friend! We are so delighted, too have you back! I for one have missed you, more then words can say! This is a great comeback post! Hope we get, some more of this greatness soon. Your pal.shats own real syrup.

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  17. Am I dreaming???Am I halucinating???Shat toup is back???What aJoy!!!One of these days that Life shows you how sweet it can be...I don't care why you went away I just hope you are happy, healthy, content and full of desire to continue your toupological endeavors...Welcome back my friend,Bless you.....

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  18. Ohhhh Dear Lord…James Tiberius Kirk speaking with a phony Indian accent.I can safely say that I’ve seen it and I heard it all.Now even if two-headed aliens were to land in the lawn of the white house,speaking English with a New Jersey accent and moondancing to Michael Jackson tunes,it would just be anti climactic for me…..

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  19. shats own real syrupSeptember 21, 2014 at 12:57 AM

    Everythings good! And welcome back, to you all! I for one, have missed all the regulars on this site! Welcome back, my toupee loving buddies!

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  20. OH MY!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is great!! Welcome, our life is complete again!

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  21. This makes my bowel infection bearable. So glad to have this blog back to keep me and my diet of Gatorade company.

    Seriously, though. You're a purveyor of "affectionate satire" -- you may have a genre all your own.

    Welcome back.

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  22. A wonderful return. Great to have the blog back in action again.

    Strange as this may sound, the full cap wig used in this appearance is very sound evidence of Shatner's toup use. Explanation follows-

    This kind of wig is normally positioned in front of an actor's real hairline otherwise it would sit on the hair and have an unnatural lumpiness, weight, thickness. So it's set lower on the forehead displaying a slightly more simian hairline than normal. It's only millimetres, but a visual compromise nonetheless.

    Yet here it sits at Shatner's normal hairline position- four fingerwidths up from the browline and curved back at the temples. If Bill had a luxuriant thatch of hair growing beneath that wig, it would be in a different place on his forehead.

    In other news, that may or may not be Peter Sellers in the still from The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu. He employed a double, a Mr John Taylor, to make the dual roles of Fu Manchu/Nayland Smith easier to execute on-screen. By all accounts, the similarity between the two men was quite uncanny. When Roman Polanski visited the set he waltzed with Manchu, quite unaware that he was dancing with Taylor instead of Sellers.

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  23. I had the wonderful pleasure of talking directly to William Shatner at the 2014 Oz Comic-Con a few weeks ago. While we were talking i was trying to figure out if it was toup or plugs. I am not 100% resolved but i believe its plugs. His hair was quite Jim Kirk-ish with a little swish at the front. His Wikipedia entry now has a pic of him at the convention.

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    1. obvious toupee is obvious

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  24. So happy you're back. The new posts are as brilliant as always. Welcome back, toupologists!

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  25. OH MY GOD!!! HOW DID I MISS THIS JOYOUS DAY? :-O

    Truly, Toupological comrades... I'd lost hope. This may be the best Christmas gift EVER. :-)

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  26. toupee or not toupeeDecember 16, 2014 at 12:21 PM

    Oh Hail! You're back! Haven't passed by this way for a while. Obviously been busy collecting more spellbinding data for us. Amazed there is so much still to discover about the toupeed one. That Dracula style wig had me spitting over my cornflakes this morning. Shatner is one confident guy to wear such a vast array of horrors on his head!

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