Wednesday 25 September 2019

The F.B.I. season 1 part 2

The F.B.I. was one of the most successful American series of its era, running from 1965 to 1974. The F.B.I. has been released on DVD in half-season boxed sets. I’ve already reviewed season one part one, so now it’s on to part two.

The major change from the early part of season one is the departure of Lynn Loring who played Inspector Erskine’s daughter Barbara who was engaged to marry Erskine’s protégé Special Agent Jim Rhodes. She just suddenly disappears. The other change in the second half of the season is that espionage stories are given greater prominence. The F.B.I. was one of the most successful American series of its era, running from 1965 to 1974. The early seasons have been released in half-season DVD sets. There were 32 episodes in the first season. I reviewed the first half-season set a while back. The second set, containing another sixteen episodes, is just as good and just as interesting.

The major change from the early part of season one is the departure of Lynn Loring who played Inspector Erskine’s daughter Barbara who was engaged to marry Erskine’s protégé Special Agent Jim Rhodes. She just suddenly disappears. The other change in the second half of the season is that espionage stories are given greater prominence.

The great thing about a series like The F.B.I. is that the Bureau investigates so many different kinds of cases that the sheer variety of stories that can be encompassed is immense. Not just a variety of crime stories but espionage stories as well. And the series takes full advantage of this.

This was the height of the Cold War and the F.B.I. was checking under every bed for communists. What makes the espionage stories so interesting is that they’re totally unlike the spy stories in most TV series and movies. These are not spies with a licence to kill who spend their time romancing beautiful but deadly women and gambling for high stakes at Monte Carlo. These are ordinary spies, just everyday people, they’re not glamorous, they’re often rather tawdry. OK, for commercial reasons a certain unrealistic amount of action has been added to these stories but they’re still a lot more realistic than anything you’ll see in any other American spy series of that era.

The other thing that’s interesting is that when they’re tracking down spies they rely mostly on routine investigative procedures - lots of boring legwork, lots of boring sifting through personnel files. The series tries quite hard to emphasise that the work of the Bureau isn’t especially glamorous - mainly it’s a matter of taking infinite pains, following up every lead, .

The first season went to air in 1965 at a time when the F.B.I. had an almost godlike status in the eyes of most Americans. It’s difficult today to imagine a time when people actually trusted the F.B.I. but in 1965 people really did. In many episodes you’ll see portraits of J. Edgar Hoover on the walls of F.B.I. offices and that’s not an ironic touch. Hoover was regarded as a heroic figure who was all that stood between the American people and the chaos and evil of crime and communist subversion. It’s important always to keep in mind that this series is absolutely and totally sincere. While many American television series at this time were succumbing to the temptation to indulge in social criticism and indulging in highly critical political agendas that certainly cannot be said of this series.

Episode Guide

The Chameleon is a con man but he’s more than that. He’s a murderer as well. His schemes are incredibly elaborate. Most recently he’s managed to take control over a bank and the bank has made a lot of loans but the loans are secured by binds that are forged. That’s how Erskine and Rhodes get involved. A bank vice-president got suspicious and sent one of the bonds to the Bureau. The problem is that this con man is a man who doesn’t exist. There’s not even a single photograph of him. Having pulled off his latest coup he has vanished without trace. His wife has also vanished.

But at the F.B.I. they know that nobody can disappear without leaving traces. Con men have certain individual signatures. Their cons follow a pattern and the pattern repeats, and the F.B.I. has an immense archive of bits and pieces of evidence collected over the years and those patterns can be traced. This is a classic episode demonstrating all the strengths of this series.

The Sacrifice is an espionage story and it’s very much typical of this series. On the one hand it’s a realistic spy story, with seedy non-glamorous spies and with Erskine and Rhodes solving the case by patient routines investigative methods but on the other hand this is network TV and it has to be entertaining so there’s a shootout which maybe doesn’t quite ring true but hey shootouts are always fun. A Russian defects tips off the F.B.I. to a major security leak at a defence contractor. The spies know the Bureau is onto them, and the Bureau knows the the spies know this. Enjoyable stuff.

In Special Delivery a bank robber named Porter is on the run and the Bureau believes that he’s going to use the services of a gang who specialise in getting wanted criminals out of the country. The only way to break that gang is for an agent to go undercover, posing as a   fugitive. Erskine volunteers himself for the job. The gang is going to transport Erskine, Porter and Porter’s girlfriend Linda Rodriguez to Rio. If Porter lives that long - he has a bullet in him. A fairly exciting episode with Erskine in real trouble when his cover starts to get rather shaky. Some nice human drama as well. An excellent episode.

Quantico is an interesting attempt to deal with the rise of the counterculture. Someone has tried to blow up a government building and it’s considered certain that he’ll try again. A couple of years later the bomber would have been a hippie type, but this was January 1966 so he’s a young jazz trumpeter named Willard Smith. He’s a sort of beatnik. He looks like a beatnik. The counterculture existed and its existence was recognised but people were not quite sure exactly what it meant. They thought (correctly) that it was dangerous but they weren’t quite sure exactly how it was dangerous.

Willard Smith grew up in a bad neighbourhood. So did his cousin Charlie. Willard has been as big shot as a teenager. Now Charlie is a star trainee at the F.B.I. Academy and Willard is just another loser. But can Willard drag Charlie down with him?

The Spy-Master is a tense spy thriller episode. Erskine goes undercover as an American diplomat named Rogers working for a Red Chinese spy ring. Patrick O’Neal is nicely sinister as spy-master Victor Allen and he is genuinely smart - he out-thinks Erskine who is lucky to get out of this one in one piece. Allen is under pressure to achieve results and he puts Rogers/Erskine under pressure. There’s also a beautiful blonde lady spy, and an action climax in which Erskine again gets lucky. It’s all tense and very effective.

The Baby Sitter is the story of a crazy woman who kidnaps a baby. But what are her intentions? There are some ominous indications. This is an intriguingly poignant episode.

In Flight to Harbin an airliner is hijacked en route to Seattle. The hijacker wants the plane flown to Harbin, in Manchuria. Nobody knows who the man is or exactly what it is that has motivated him. That’s something the F.B.I. are going to have to find out, fast. In the meantime one of the passengers has decided to play at being an amateur hero. It’s all pretty tense and it works well. One thing that is a bit startling is the idea that in 1966 passengers could legally carry guns on to civilian airliners as long as they got permission first.

The Man Who Went Mad by Mistake sees Inspector Erskine committed to a mental hospital. Actually of course he’s undercover. He’s there to try to prove that Mark Tabor isn't really mad. Mark Tabor was supposed to testify in a big court case and his Mob associates were worried that his testimony might cause them some embarrassment. So they decided it would be better if Tabor wasn’t alive any more. Tabor fled, but he chose an interesting place to hide - he got himself committed to a mental hospital. He has a psychiatric history so that wasn’t too hard.

The problem is that while he’s in the hospital he cannot testify. And the Feds really want him to testify. Hence Erskine’s presence in the asylum. It’s an interesting and clever story idea. A good episode.

In The Divided Man a bomb sets off a fire that decoys a petro-chemical plant making rocket fuel for American missile. Inspector Erskine’s boss suspects the commies are behind the sabotage. In fact it’s a research chemist who has gone seriously crazy. He makes further attempts at sabotage and he’s obviously going to keep on serving bombs so it’s a race against time to catch him before he does even more damage. And he’s getting crazier by the minute. The bomber seems to want help. He makes appointments with a psychiatrist but he walks out on the appointments. There’s a reasonable amount of excitement and catching a suspect in a chemical plant isn’t easy - if the F.B.I. agents use guys they could blow the whole plant.

The Defector is a two-parter and it’s a Cold War spy saga. A chess champion from an eastern bloc country is in the U.S. for a major international chess tournament. Holman is however more than just a chess player and he’s believed to be ready to defect. Then he gets blown to pieces by a bomb. The trouble is that this story just doesn’t satisfy  Inspector Erskine. There’s the fact that Special Agent Rhodes who was tailing Holman lost sight of the chess champion for a moment. There’s the fact that Holman’s body was burnt beyond recognition. Most puzzling of all is Holman’s last chess game. It was a good game. The puzzle is that it was a good game the first time it was played, back in 1834. It was the exact same game, which means it was rigged. But why? What exactly was Holman playing at? For Erskine an added complication is that Holman’s unfortunate accidents may have implications for a vital international conference and he’s getting pressure from the State Department.

This is classic spy thriller stuff with lots of spy tradecraft on display and a delightfully devious plot. There’s code-breaking and lots of double-crosses and a fine action climax. It’s an elaborate game of chess, played for the highest stakes, and although Erskine claims to be a lousy chess player it turns out that he’s pretty good. Excellent stuff.

The Tormentors is a kidnapping story, complicated by the fact that the kidnapped boy’s father is most uncoöperative and his foolishness seems likely to cost his son his life. The highlight of this otherwise fairly routine episode is the F.B.I.’s use of an Air Force RF-101 Voodoo supersonic high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft to try to locate the kidnappers’ car. The ending is reasonably exciting as well. Not a great episode but it’s OK.

In The Animal a murderer named Earl Clayton (played by Charles Bronson) breaks out of prison with four others. Given that the escaped convicts are now armed to the teeth and that Clayton’s record suggests he’s spectacularly violent, and given the Clayton is already facing execution for murder, the chances of retaking them peacefully seem remote. Clayton and one of the other escapees take refuge in a mountain lodge and they have four hostages. This episode is an interesting example of changing times. Today the lodge would be surrounded by dozens of heavily armed F.B.I. agents and cops but this is 1966 so four F.B.I. agents are considered to be an ample force to deal with the situation. A very good episode with Bronson in fine form.

The Plunderers is about an odd bank job. The vault was wide open but nothing was taken, even though the robbery seemed to have been very well planned. And a guard was killed during the robbery. Erskine and Rhodes don’t have much to go on - a red button and a few fibres plus a nagging feeling on the part of Erskine that he’s seen this M.O. before. It’s a fine police procedural tale in which the Bureau makes good use of its natural advantages - unlimited resources, modern laboratories - plus lots of legwork and a thoroughly methodical approach.

If you’ve been watching the series so far you’ll be wondering - where are the neo-nazis? There are always neo-Nazis in a 60s TV series. Well they finally make their appearance in The Bomb That Walked Like a Man. They’re an outfit called the Marshals of Freedom but they’re clearly full-on neo-Nazis plotting to overthrow the government. But the F.B.I.’s interest is in this organisation’s latest recruit, a suspect in a kidnapping-murder. And he’s a real crazy. Someone will have to go undercover to get the necessary evidence and of course the someone will be Erskine. This gives Efrem Zimbalist Jr a chance to do his cool guy under pressure thing, which he does very well. The added complication is the local police chief. His daughter was the murder victim and he may be planning to take the law into his own hands. It’s a good episode.

The Hiding Place is an all-Japanese town in Oregon and fingerprints taken near the scene of a hit-run incident suggest that one of the townspeople is a Japanese war criminal named Fujita. Fujita never renounced his American citizenship so technically he was guilty of treason. The case threatens to tear the town apart. Even if the plot is a bit contrived the episode is interesting as an example of the way the format of the series allowed it to deal with subjects that would have been right outside the orbit of a conventional cop show.

Final Thoughts

The F.B.I. is a fascinating blend of spy thriller and cop show. It succeeds for the same reason that the wonderful British series Special Branch succeeds - the format allows it to  approach spy stories in a slightly unusual and original way. The F.B.I. has the added advantage of being able to take a slightly different approach to crime stories as well.

The F.B.I. is a superbly made and very entertaining series. Highly recommended.

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