Universal // 1971 // 782 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // February 20th, 2007
It was the end of an era on screen and off.
In the fictional world of Heyes and Curry, the old west was changing. Automobiles were replacing horses. Telephones were replacing telegraphs and banks were becoming more impenetrable. It was a tough time for bank robbers, but with a little ingenuity our heroes found a way to survive.
In the real world, the ever popular TV western was being replaced by hip cop shows such as Mod Squad and Mission: Impossible while All in the Family and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in were raising the bar for comedies. It was a tough time for heroes on horseback. But with a little ingenuity (and a large dose of humor) Alias Smith & Jones found a way to survive...even after a terrible tragedy rocked the show during their first full season.
This is the story of a very good show about two pretty good, bad men.
Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel, Gidget) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy, Winds of War) are two of the west's most notorious outlaws. Unfortunately, modern times are making it harder and harder to rob banks and trains and still get away clean, so our boys decide to give up their life of crime. They apply for the Governor's amnesty program and are given a green light -- but there's a catch. Well, two catches. One, they have to stay out of trouble for at least a year. Number two? Until the amnesty is granted, the deal is a secret, meaning our heroes are still wanted men with a $20,000 price tag on their heads.
To keep their identities hidden, Sheriff Lom Trevor (James Drury) dubs them Smith and Jones and together they roam from town to town, trying to make an honest living while carefully avoiding the law. It's a long road, but our boys are determined to make things right.
It's witty. It's adventurous and it's not your average western. It's Alias Smith & Jones: Season One.
Alias Smith & Jones is one of my all-time favorite television series. I fell in love with it as a kid and it hasn't lost one ounce of its charm 35 years later. The primary draw of the series is the relationship between the two leads. Heyes and Curry are the yin and the yang. Heyes is the thinker, the planner, the one who keeps them reaching for the prize when it seems like an unlikely dream. Curry is the fast gun, the one with the temper -- but also the one with the soft heart and the easy smile. On screen, Duel and Murphy had the chemistry of a Redford and Newman, though you won't really see it if you start with the series pilot.
The pilot movie (which is included on this DVD set) was done as a ninety-minute TV movie helmed by Universal staple, Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Hardy Boys, Knight Rider). Much more slapstick than the series itself, the movie has a Disney-esque feel to it as we see Heyes and his gang of screw-ups attempt to rob a train and a bank. The pilot is so humorous that it's hard to imagine these outlaws are much of a threat to anyone. The sense of danger to our boys is almost non-existent.
The show was picked up as a mid-season replacement in January of 1971, and Roy Huggins (Maverick, Baretta) took creative control of the series, personally writing dozens of the episodes under the pseudonym John Thomas James. With Huggins came a change in the feel of the show. The humor went from slapstick to witty, the drama ratcheted up a notch, and the chemistry between stars Duel and Murphy blossomed.
The second episode, "Exit From Wickenburg," is the best example of the series as a whole. In this episode, you see the smooth criminal side of the boys, the way they work together (Heyes as the brain and Curry as the muscle) and how truly formidable they are as a team. You see Curry's soft side as he gently explains to a young fan the downside of being "the fastest gun in the west" and the clever side of Heyes as he clears the casino of cheats and thieves. And there's real danger as someone tries their hardest to convince the boys to leave town. Add to that several great guest stars such as Susan Strasberg, Slim Pickens (Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) and Mark Leonard (Star Trek) and you have one of the series's best episodes.
Let's take a look at the rest:
This light-hearted TV movie stands on its own two feet with guest star Susan St. James (McMillan and Wife) as the young and sexy bank manager who misguidedly hires Heyes and Curry to help with security. Earl Holliman (Police Woman) shows his comic genius as the outlaw longing to takes Heyes' place as leader of the gang and Forest Tucker (F-Troop) is the dingy deputy sheriff who wouldn't recognize a bank robber if he was handed a demand for cash.
* "The McCreedy Bust"
Burl Ives (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer) stars as a land baron caught in a feud with his Mexican counterpart (Caesar Romero, Batman). The first of three episodes (one each season) concerning their feud, this one has some clever card game trickery that will keep you guessing (unless you saw those same tricks on Maverick).
* "Exit From Wickenburg"
After Heyes and Curry unmask a pair of poker cheats, owner Susan Strasberg hires them to help her save her sinking casino. The boys are really in their element until they're unexpectedly fired then asked to leave town. Stubborn cusses that they are, they stay and the requests to leave escalate to the use of fists and guns. Who wants the boys out of town and why? That is the question.
* "Wrong Train to Brimstone"
J.D. Cannon (McCloud) makes the first of several appearances as bumbling Bannerman detective, Harry Briscoe. Our boys are making a quick exit of town and end up on a train full of detectives. It's a trap to capture, ironically, Heyes and Curry and their gang, but our boys smell something fishy when the lone woman on board claims to know Heyes and Curry personally. This episode goes from delightfully silly to serious when one of their gang is shot and killed in the ensuing ambush.
* "The Girl in Boxcar #3"
Making a weekly western isn't as easy as it looks and it wasn't long before the show's production fell behind schedule. To make up for this, they began producing episodes that split Heyes and Curry so they could work on two episodes at one time. This is one of those splits. Curry runs into a complication, namely teenager Heather Menzies (Sound of Music) as he tries to deliver $50,000. The story was a quick rewrite of a Virginian episode that was penned by Gene Roddenbery (Star Trek). A good story, but it doesn't really suit Alias Smith & Jones.
* "The Great Shell Game"
This time it's Heyes going it alone as wines and dines Diana Muldaur (Star Trek: The Next Generation), but for what purpose? It's an odd and complicated plot that has more in common with The Sting than it does with Alias Smith & Jones.
* "Return to Devil's Hole"
Heyes is on his own again as he reluctantly leads Diana Hyland (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble) into Devil's Hole which is now being run by Heyes' former mentor Fernando Lamas. This horrible story is full of convoluted lies, enormous plot holes, a guest-star love story, and the worst romantic musical montages to grace a TV screen.
* "A Fistful of Diamonds"
Back in the swing of things, Heyes and Curry con a conman with the old diamond field swindle. The whole thing is a ruse to clear the boys of a bank robbery they didn't commit. The guest cast really sells this one with John McGiver as the conniving banker and girly but sexy Michele Carey as the girl who'll side with whoever has the cash.
* "Stagecoach Seven"
Keenan Wynn and a young Randolph Mantooth (Emergency) guest star in this "bottle show" about a stationmaster who decides to turn Heyes and Curry in for the reward rather than turn them over to the outlaws who are willing to kill to get them. It's an interesting tale of right and wrong that gets a bit too silly at times.
* "The Man Who Murdered Himself"
Heyes is on his own again as he leads an expedition that includes Juliet Mills (Nanny and the Professor) and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers). Again it's back to Devil's Hole but this time in search of relics of a tribe of red-headed Indians. The mystery here is way too complicated to follow, but if you ignore that the episode is very nice to watch thanks to the romantic sparks between Heyes and the supposedly married Juliet Mills.
* "The Root of It All"
Pete Duel is reunited with his Love on a Rooftop costar, Judy Carne (Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in) in this tale about a trio of young ladies in search of buried treasure. It's a case of cross, double cross and cross again in this amusing episode.
* "The Fifth Victim"
The series takes a serious turn, when Heyes becomes the fifth victim. He takes a bullet to the head leaving a distraught Kid Curry to figure out who's behind the killings of four men connected only by a weekly poker game. The plot's a bit hard to follow but it's nice to see the boys play it straight for a change.
* "Journey from San Juan"
Claudine Longet sings! And that about sums up this episode where the boys pretend to be cattle drovers in Mexico in order to entice a lovely lady back up across the border where she'll face murder charges. Despite the presence of Ms. Longet, this episode is actually a real winner.
* "Never Trust an Honest Man"
Button, Button, Who's Got the Button. A bag of jewels (real or fake?) keeps changing hands, despite our boys' attempts to place them with their rightful owner. Robert Donner steals this episode as The Preacher, an old outlaw buddy of Heyes and Curry.
* "The Legacy of Charlie O'Rourke"
Harry Brisco is back, and this time he's hoping to discover the location of buried treasure. Only two problems: the only man who knows the location is about to be hanged, and Joan Hackett may charm the info out of him before anyone else gets a chance.
At the end of its short first season, Alias Smith & Jones was at the bottom of the ratings heap but the series was renewed for a second season. Young Ben Murphy was enjoying his newly found fame and teen idol status, but co-star Pete Duel had a lot on his mind. He was adamantly concerned about global issues such as ecology. He was unhappy with his own performance and career and he was facing a jail sentence for a serious car crash he'd caused while driving drunk almost a year earlier. In the end, Duel was given probation, a large fine, and he had his license revoked. Still, the studio was behind him. They hired a driver to get him to and from Universal and production began on season two. Interesting stories and great guest stars helped boost the ratings and Murphy and Duel appeared in issue after issue of gossip, teen and TV magazines. The show broke for Christmas in December and it looked like it was going to be a great new year all around.
On December 31, 1971, the cast and crew were headed to the studio to begin another normal day. It turned out to be anything but normal. The news made it to the radio before most of them could be personally notified. Pete Duel had committed suicide the night before.
What happened that night has been reviewed and reviewed by experts and fans. There were rumors of murder or an accidental shooting, but Duel's girlfriend who was sleeping in the bedroom at the time said he'd been drinking. He was unhappy. She saw him take the gun from the bedroom drawer. He walked into the living room, she heard the shot and when she checked on him he was dead.
Duel's death shocked his co-workers, his friends, and his fans. A young actor at the height of his career, no one could fathom why he would do such a thing. And how odd was it to turn on the TV a few days later and see his boyish smile, hear his voice; see him carrying on as if nothing had happened.
As hard as it was for his fans to handle, the cast and crew of Alias Smith & Jones were faced with a horrendous situation. There was big money to be lost if the show shut down. The producers made a quick decision to replace Duel with Roger Davis, who had been the series narrator and a one-time guest star. Just three days after the death of his co-star, Ben Murphy had to give the performance of his life, delivering lines he'd rehearsed with Duel to Davis. The cameras began to roll for the completion of Season Two.
Since that day, the series Alias Smith & Jones has been indelibly linked with the tragic death of its star. Dragged out time and time again for Hollywood mystery documentaries and featured on the Hollywood Graveline Tours, Pete Duel's death eventually eclipsed the fame of the series that was his swan song. It's a shame, really. Alias Smith & Jones is some of his best work. He's simply magnetic on the screen and though it wasn't the kind of statement-making, life altering acting he'd always hoped for, it is warm and witty and wonderful.
As with many of the classic Universal TV shows, there are no special features on Alias Smith & Jones. Ah! But wait, you say. There's a commentary by creator Glen A. Larson. And again I say, there are no special features on this DVD set.
I appreciate that the show was made more than thirty years ago, but if you have nothing to say, don't bother sitting for a commentary track. Talking on the 90 minute pilot, Larson speaks less than fifty percent of the time. When he does, he mostly points out what you're watching on screen, ("see, they're both robbing the bank") and he enjoys identifying the various guest actors. There is a small patch where he discusses the true facts that led to them creating the story -- but that's pretty much it. As for the two leads who are the show, he speaks about them for less than a minute, commenting on Duel's great talent and early demise and Murphy's likeability and later role in Winds of War. No behind the scenes secrets, no personal stories. I kept waiting for more and it never came.
I'm also perplexed by the lack of quality in the video transfer. With the exception of the 90-minute movies, Encore Westerns has been airing clear, bright, nearly perfect versions of these episodes. But the ones on the DVD are full of pops and scratches, and there are times when the voices don't seem to be in sync. These problems are minor and they don't detract from my enjoyment of the show, but it's still strange that they aren't just as good as the versions run on Encore.
Alias Smith & Jones is on my list of all time favorite television shows. The kind of show where I participated in the full fandom collecting memorabilia, writing fan fiction, participating in fan gatherings, the whole shebang. I am thrilled to see it offered on DVD.
If you're not a fan of westerns, don't let that put you off. This series has little in common with shows such as Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Though there is plenty of gun fighting, poker playing, and horse riding, I'd dub the series an action comedy that just happens to be set in the Old West. Watch it for Murphy and Duel, who make this one of the all-time top buddy shows.
This court finds Alias Smith & Jones to be guilty, but seeing as they're trying so hard to mend their ways, we'll let them off for good behavior.
Review content copyright © 2007 Cynthia Boris; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 782 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on Pilot by Glen Larson
* Official Ben Murphy Site
* Remembering Pete Duel
* Alias Smith & Jones Collection