In this series we always know the identity of the perpetrator right from the start, so these are inverted crime stories. This is also very much in the police procedural mould, with the interest lying in the methods used by the F.B.I. to hunt down wrongdoers.
The two lead characters are Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) and Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks). Erskine is the old hand and he’s a complex character with some personal tragedies that he’s still working through. Rhodes is a young hotshot but he’s a decent guy and the two agents have a very amicable relationship.
You have to remember that this series originated in 1965 and in 1965 the idea of a series that painted the F.B.I. in an entirely heroic light seemed pretty reasonable. And this series really does present a very very favourable view of the Bureau. It was made with the blessing of J. Edgar Hoover (who was still F.B.I. Director at the time).
The fact that the series began its run in 1965 really is quite important. The F.B.I. deals with all sorts of crimes and this includes political crimes. In 1965 it could be assumed that any political crime would almost certainly be the work of communist agents working for Moscow. And it could be assumed that these communist agents would be working class. This is 1965, just before the social revolution of the 60s. Within a couple of years the F.B.I. would be looking for subversives at university campuses rather than among dock workers.
Social and sexual mores were also about to change radically. In the first season Erskine’s daughter Barbara and Special Agent Rhodes have fallen in love and want to get married. Erskine wants her to wait until she finishes college. Barbara and Rhodes want to get married straight away. Within a few years a senior F.B.I. officer like Inspector Erskine would be delighted by anything that would get his daughter away from the subversive atmosphere of university.
The Episode Guide
The Monster was a rather bizarre opening episode for any series. A con-man named Francis Jerome (Jeffrey Hunter) has escaped from a federal prison. Jerome preys on women. What the F.B.I. don’t know is that he also kills women. Jerome is a seriously weird guy with a weird history.
Image in a Cracked Mirror is a lot better. Erskine and Rhodes are hunting an embezzler. Charles Gates (Jack Klugman) has covered his tracks well. He has managed to destroy every photograph that has ever been taken of him. No-one really seems to know what he looks like. He’s now on the run with his 13-year-old son and that could be his weakness. It’s a weakness that Erskine is prepared to exploit with a ruthlessness that shocks Rhodes. Erskine has an odd personal stake in this case because Gates reminds him of himself. A very good episode.
A Mouthful of Dust is like a flashback to the Wild West, with Erskine and Rhodes saddling up (with six-guns in their gun belts) to join a posse tracking down an Indian. Joe Cloud (Alejandro Rey) is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Erskine had been Cloud’s commanding officer in Korea and Cloud turns to Erskine for help. Erskine doesn’t want to let Joe down, but he does. Can he then put things right? Can Cloud be persuaded to save himself? Rey’s performance is OK but the Argentina-born actor’s very strong accent is rather wrong and jarring. Italian-American Robert Blake is no more Native American than Rey but he pulls off the important rôle of Joe’s brother Pete Cloud much more successfully. An offbeat episode that works, up to a point.
Slow March Up a Steep Hill is a case of history repeating itself, or at least it seems like it. A bank in Exeter Maryland is robbed and the same bank is robbed again three days later. Everything about these robberies seems to parallel a similar case in 1938. And the 1938 bank robber has just been released from prison. Erskine trusts his instincts on this one. Everyone thinks he’s on the wrong track but he won’t compromise. An excellent episode.
Given the priorities of the F.B.I. in the sixties it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not until the seventh episode, The Problem of the Honorable Wife, that the evil commies make their first appearance. They’re planing to sabotage the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by planting bombs on the San Francisco dockside. One of the saboteurs is married to a Japanese woman and she unwittingly puts the Feds on her husband’s trail. This is an episode in which Special Agent Rhodes, who is basically a decent young guy, feels just a little uncomfortable about working for the F.B.I. This is quite an interesting episode.
In Courage of a Conviction Lew Erskine should be a very happy man. He’s just caught up with a master forger who has eluded all law enforcement agencies for years. He’s a forger on the grand scale and it’s quite a feather in Erskine’s cap. But he’s not happy. It’s all because of a girl he saw in Ray Lang’s office. The girl is a junkie and Ray is a lawyer who has been supplying the F.B.I. with quality information for years. Ray and Lew are also old buddies. But what is Ray Lang doing with a junkie? As he connects the dots Lew realises that the unshakeable case he had against that forgery suspect isn’t so unshakeable after all. This is one of a number of episodes that emphasises two key things about Lew Erskine. Firstly, he trusts his instincts no matter what. And secondly, he will risk his own career rather than see a man convicted if he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Of course it not emphasises Erskine’s high moral standards but also those of the Bureau (and emphasising the honesty and probity of the F.B.I. was a pretty good idea for a series that relied heavily on the coöperation and goodwill of J. Edgar Hoover).
The Exiles would appear to be inspired by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Exiles from a certain Latin American nation are planning to launch an invasion to overthrow the ruling dictator. The F.B.I. have to persuade the leader of the exiles, General Rafael Romero, not to go ahead with the invasion. It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t want the dictator overthrown but the F.B.I. has intelligence that indicates that the invasion is guaranteed to be a messy and expensive failure and therefore very embarrassing to the U.S., especially given that the invasion is planned to be launched from Florida.
In All the Streets Are Silent automatic weapons are stolen from the U.S. Marine Corps. Erskine persuades cab driver Frankie Metro to turn informant but informing on the Murtaugh brothers is dangerous work. This one includes a fairly spectacular shoot-out. A pretty good episode.
An Elephant Is Like a Rope presents Erskine and Rhodes with an odd problem. They have a young man with a bullet wound in the head. He’s going to make a full recovery but is suffering from compete amnesia. So he can’t tell the G-Men where the half million dollars in his possession came from. There’s no actual evidence that he has committed any crime. The half million dollars seems to be clean. A strange little offbeat story but it works.
How to Murder an Iron Horse is somewhat silly but very enjoyable. It taps into 1950s obsessions that bad child-rearing practices were going to turn kids into juvenile delinquents. And this is really a typical 50s B-movie juvenile delinquent story with some bizarre diabolical criminal mastermind flourishes thrown in. A young man whose father was more interested in his model trains than his son now wants to blow up trains. Not model trains, real trains. And he demonstrates that he can indeed blow up a freight train. If he isn’t paid $100,000 he threatens to blow up a passenger train. It’s all quite crazy but if you like trains and explosions you’ll enjoy it.
The Forests of the Night deals with a fundamentalist Christian sect victimised by an extortionist on top of having to deal with less than sympathetic neighbours. When you’re dealing with such subject matter there’s always the risk of becoming preachy and that’s what happens here. This is crude hate-filled propaganda that portrays rural people as knuckle-dragging redneck bigots. A shockingly bad episode.
It’s easy to mock this series. There’s plenty of full-on hysteria about evil commies and the whole country seems to be overflowing with fifth columnists and foreign agents. But this is how reality looked to most people in 1965. There’s a sincerity about the series that tends to win you over. Erskine and Rhodes and their colleagues at the Bureau are brave dedicated men and they’re thorough professionals. This is basically a police procedural. We pretty much always know who the bad guys are right from the start so the interest lies in the methods used to track down the criminals. There’s some high-tech stuff but mostly Erskine and Rhodes rely on hard work and patient methodical routine investigative procedures. These guys do not give up. One of the things I really love is seeing the technical side of law enforcement in 1965 - it’s all still delightfully analog! To find a fingerprint match you go through thousands of fingerprints on file, and you go through them with a magnifying glass!
The series is a fascinating time capsule with a slightly melancholy edge - the American society depicted in the first season in 1965 had to a large extent ceased to exist by the time the series ended its run in 1974.
The F.B.I. is a slightly odd series. The tone is sometimes very serious, occasionally quite dark, and at other times light-hearted and even whimsical. The scripts are however mostly clever and well-constructed and often quite original and the execution is always top-notch. There are unfortunately occasional signs of the preachiness that was already starting to infect American television (signs that are also all too apparent in another contemporary Quinn Martin production, The Fugitive). Production values are high. Efrem Zimbalist Jr has real star quality. This was, like most Quinn Martin productions, very well-made television.