Long before there was Netflix, or even HBO, network schedules were stuffed ‘with movies of the week’. Made specifically for television, these modestly budgeted offerings criss-crossed the generic range without earning much critical respect. Yet, during the 1970s, they provided worthwhile roles for ageing stars, while also giving emerging talent a showcase that would be beamed into living-rooms across America and beyond.
TV-movies were still in their infancy when John Llewellyn Moxey was hired for a 1967 Anglo-American remake of Dial M for Murder. Yet this British director, who has died at the age of 94, would help refine the form and, in producing 40 teleplays over the next 21 years, became something of an unassuming master of his craft.
Born in Argentina in 1925, Moxey toiled mostly in the British B-hive as an assistant and editor before being given his directorial debut on The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), a mist-shrouded tale of witchcraft and human sacrifice starring Christopher Lee that launched Amicus Productions and earned comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But neither it nor the wartime spy thriller, Foxhole in Cairo (1960), provided a cinematic breakthrough and Moxey spent the ensuing decade in television.
The 1960s was a watershed for small-screen entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, the BBC and ITV kept faith with stand-alone dramas that tackled contentious social issues and Moxey directed 46 studio plays between 1955-66, the majority of which were transmitted live from a studio. But he also worked regularly on programmes like The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, which were filmed on location in the tried-and-trusted ‘quota quickie’ style. Indeed, three of Moxey’s six contributions to the series, Ricochet (1963), Deadfall (1964) and Strangler’s Web (1965), were released in cinemas and he carried their krimi style into Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus, 1966), a Harry Alan Towers production that enabled Moxey to work in colour for the first time in reuniting with Christopher Lee, as a masked lion tamer.
Moxey also produced episodes for cult shows like The Baron, The Avengers, The Saint and The Champions, which were shot on film and on location. Moreover, they had a Swinging Sixties quirkiness that appealed to American network executives who were keen to shake up the schedules and end their dependency on the old Hollywood movies that they bought in from the studios at exorbitant prices. Used to working with tight budgets and schedules, Moxey had developed a functional style that not only suited episode television, but also made him a valuable asset to the likes of NBC and ABC in their pioneering attempts to produce their own exclusive colour features.
Having impressed with remakes of A Hatful of Rain and Laura (both 1968), the latter of which was co-written by Truman Capote, Moxey made four episodes of The Name of the Game, the groundbreaking series about a Los Angeles magazine that gave Steven Spielberg his first feature-length assignment. Yet, while he worked regularly on shows like Hawaii Five-O, Mod Squad, Mission: Impossible, Mannix and Kung Fu, Moxey’s métier was the TV-movie and his name became synonymous with slick chillers and thrillers that grabbed the audience’s attention at the outset and kept them gripped through a combination of suspense and suggestion.
Indeed, Moxey did much to give the new format legitimacy by refining techniques that would be employed across the networks. Keeping the imagery simple, but polished, he paced plotlines so that their dramatic high points left viewers on tenterhooks over the commercial breaks. He also insisted on adding visual flourishes that had been impossible during live studio transmissions and, in the process, demonstrated that small-screen pictures could be atmospheric, artistic and occasionally spectacular.
Moxey made his mark with a supernatural duo starring Barbara Stanwyck, The House That Would Not Die (1970) and A Taste of Evil (1971), and he would revisit the ‘old dark house’ formula with The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974), which served as a dry run for writer Sandor Stern’s The Amityville Horror (1979). He recruited Gloria Grahame for the mad scientist outing, Escape (1971), and teamed effectively with ace genre writer Joseph Stefano for Home for the Holidays (1972) and Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster on No Place to Hide (1981), which confirmed that there was more to horror than slashers.
With the networks keen to cash-in on the genres playing well at America’s multiplexes, Moxey became something of a jack of all trades, as he put a small-screen spin on science fiction, spy thrillers, all-star disaster movies, women’s prison sagas and social conscience dramas. What set Moxey apart, however, was his ability to set a scene and draw out a protagonist’s personality. This made him a natural choice for feature-length pilots, as he could capture the imagination of viewers and network commissioners alike. Starring Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak on the tail of a Las Vegas vampire, The Night Stalker (1972), became the most-watched teleplay of the decade and a major influence on The X-Files. Moreover, it led to Moxey being entrusted by producer Aaron Spelling with the pilot for Charlie’s Angels (1976), which transformed the way in which women were depicted in action scenarios.
He didn’t get every concept over the line, with Gene Rodenberry’s Genesis II (1973), a dystopian vision set in 2133, among his few failures. But Moxey kept plugging away and, when not giving Kim Basinger an early role in Killjoy (1981) or striving to reinvent Debbie Reynolds as a cop in Sadie and Son (1987), he put Tom Selleck through his paces on half-a-dozen episodes of Magnum. P.I. and helped Angela Lansbury solve 18 cases on Murder, She Wrote.
Cruelly, his chameleonic approach meant he was never nominated for an Emmy. Yet, while the name of John Llewellyn Moxey might never loom large in textbooks, we can look back with quiet satisfaction on three decades of a job well done.