Once, American television drama was ambitious to the point of insanity – before it settled into being a kind of adjunct to the movies. This live production of Heart of Darkness – announcer Sterling Hayden keeps flagging up that its writer Stewart Stern’s take on the Joseph Conrad novel – is entirely studiobound, and must have been a bastard to get on the air what with multiple changes of scene and Roddy McDowall’s Marlow having to do a strip as each scene finds him with a more shredded costume until he’s almost naked (and with whip-marks on his back) when he finally gets to his estranged foster father Kurtz (Boris Karloff), who has become darkness incarnate in the Congo. McDowall probably shed pounds during this show, since he’s in every scene and has to go up against a series of actors who set out to batter him physically and emotionally.
We meet Marlow as a sailor bent on purity, reviled by shipmate Griggs (Rusty Lane). He leaves his ship and returns at Christmas to the London house where he grew up under the tutelage of benefactor Kurtz but fled after a romantic moment with his foster sister Maria (Inga Swenson), who is now a seething manic depressive who wants to run off with some overwhelmed carol singers and then clings to her returned, vowed-to-be-chaste childhood sweetheart. Learning that Kurtz is now off in the Congo for the Colonial Company, Marlow sets out to retrace his footsteps – which get dark even before he’s set foot in Africa, including encounters with a blind crone (Cathleen Nesbitt) and a company doctor (Oskar Homolka) … then, in studiobound jungle, Marlow meets a K-branded native lad with Zuni fetish filed teeth who clamps down on his finger, a gussied-up accountant (Richard Haydn) who takes out his frustrations by whipping random natives at the end of the day, Kurtz’ seductive queen (Eartha Kitt!) who admits that the self-declared king calls all his female slaves ‘Maria’ before failing to seduce Marlow and getting speared for her pains … and, in a scene that requires Karloff’s presence as much as his performance not to be an anti-climax, passes through besieging company troops into Kurtz’ camp, where Karloff gets more to say than Conrad’s character though he does finally whisper ‘the horror the horror’ in a way that resonates throughout his filmography and the vibrant thread that winds between Conrad and Apocalypse Now.
Directed, if that’s even possible, by Ron Winston, this is close in cinema tone to something like Brian DePalma’s Dionysius in ’69 (a filmed stage production) and clearly aims for theatrical effects with sketchy sets, guest star turns playing very broad (Swenson hits the crazy note early and everyone has to build from there), stylised business (Haydn is very obviously whipping the floor rather than an unseen person) and speeches that stitch together talk out of prose. Stern’s other credits include Rebel Without a Cause and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (which surprisingly fits over the template of this). It stirs an obsession with incest into the cannibalism, decapitation, capitalist rapaciousness, sex slavery, homosexual rape, bestiality and the rest of Conrad’s stew of bubbling darkness – all of this stuff registers, and some of it is still shocking over sixty years on.
The version on Youtube is made even more surreal by the original ads, in which Fred MacMurray eulogises over a gas-powered kitchen, and Hayden’s not-exactly-reassuring presence in a tux. Can you imagine the cast party afterwards?