Sunday 16 February 2020

M Squad season one (1957)

M Squad was an American cop series starring Lee Marvin which ran on NBC from 1957 to 1960. It was a solid ratings success. It was made by Marvin’s production company, Latimer Productions, in conjunction with Revue Studios. Marvin had had good supporting rôles in feature films such as The Big Heat but it was M Squad that proved he had the charisma for starring rôles.

M Squad can be thought of as the anti-Dragnet. They were the two best police series of the 50s but they took diametrically opposed approaches to the subject matter. Dragnet invented and defined the TV police procedural. Jack Webb, creator of Dragnet, was obsessed not just with depicting realistic police procedures but also with ordinariness. These were just regular cops doing their day-to-day jobs. The emphasis was on plot and on structure. M Squad by contrast was in the larger-than-life maverick cop mould. The emphasis was on style and action. The film noir influence was considerable. There was nothing ordinary about Lieutenant Frank Ballinger, the character played by Lee Marvin. This was the cop as hero. It would be impossible, and futile, to try to decide which was the better series. Both achieved what they set out to do, and did so very impressively indeed.

While Dragnet doesn’t avoid the seamy side of life M Squad dives head-first into it. M Squad is decidedly hardboiled. Being a cop like Frank Ballinger is not for the faint-hearted. It’s dangerous and you have to deal with a lot of sleazeballs. You have to be tougher than the bad guys. That’s no problem for Ballinger, and it’s no problem for Marvin - he radiates simmering aggression and he’s like a pressure cooker about to blow. It’s not that he lacks sensitivity, but unlikely other sensitive TV cops the sensitivity feels real. When you’re as tough as Frank Ballinger you don’t have to worry about showing your sensitive side. If someone doesn’t like it you can always slug them.

Dragnet and M Squad were also fine examples of the production line technique of American 50s television. An episode could be cranked out in a couple of days but it would still be great television. In those days a season could be anywhere from 30 to 39 episodes so even though M Squad ran for just three seasons no less than 117 episodes were made.

M Squad also benefits from some pretty cool jazz sounds on its soundtrack.

There’s a bit of an exploitation movie vibe to this series. It’s lurid and violent and sometimes sleazy and while it’s careful always to take the side of law and order and decency you also get the feeling that, like exploitation films, it’s revelling in the lurid and the sleazy.

It’s set in Chicago which for some reason didn’t get used as a setting for crime movies and television shows all that often so it provides a great opportunity to get some glimpses of that city in the late 50s.

Timeless Media Group have released all 117 episodes in their Social Edition DVD set (which includes a disc of extras as well) but the quality is extremely variable. The source material came from all over the place. Given this show’s overall vibe it doesn’t matter - if some episodes are extra-grainy or a bit muddy you can just think of it as extra noir flavouring!

Selective Episode Guide

The Alibi Witness is a neat little story. Wally Gardner is an ex-con and a total loser so it’s no surprise when he gets fingered for a robbery with violence, which becomes a homicide when the storekeeper dies. Gardner claims to have an alibi, of sorts. A guy who saw him on the street a long way from the murder scene. Finding this alibi witness promises to be next to impossible but Ballinger decides to try anyway. He figures if a guy is facing a murder rap he should be given a chance even if he probably will turn out to be guilty. The witness proves to be incredibly hard to find and the reason for this provides a nice little twist at the end. An excellent episode.

Ballinger goes undercover as a hired guy in The Specialists, trying to get the dope on a very slick trio of professional criminals. Unfortunately it seems that they’re just too well organised - they don’t appear to make mistakes. But of course it only takes one tiny mistake. A good episode.

In Family Portrait Ballinger’s partner is killed trying to gather evidence against crime boss Sam Hinder. Ballinger is now determined to nail Hinder. He needs to find one weakness and he thinks he’s found it in Hinder’s daughter but the daughter has some surprises of her own up her sleeve. An excellent nicely plotted episode.

Having to act as bodyguard to a killer like Tommy Hatch is not a job that appeals to Ballinger but in The Palace Guard that’s what he has to do. Of course while they’re protecting him the police are also looking for the evidence to put him away for good. Tommy’s wife and sister-in-law make things much more complicated. Whit Bissell is terrific as Tommy, a guy who combines arrogance, cunning, rashness and cowardice in roughly equal quantities. A good episode.

The Slow Trap is a story of robbery, infidelity and murder. Bonded messenger Eddie Lucas is robbed and the evidence suggests he arranged the robbery himself but it’s not clear how he could have contacted his accomplices. The messenger’s wife thinks another woman is behind it and Frank thinks she just might be right about that. But does that prove Eddie’s guilt or his innocence? Frank doesn’t know for sure but he does think the answer might be found at the Heracles Health Club. A good episode with some nice plot twists.

The Cover Up is a messy case that threatens to get uncomfortably close to the District Attorney. At the centre of it is possibly corruption or it might just be a particularly tangled romantic triangle. A pretty decent episode.

Blue Indigo has Frank hunting a psycho who has strangled three women. He always plays a song to them before he kills them. Always the same song, Blue Indigo. It’s not much of a clue but if Frank is lucky it might be enough. A reasonable episode.

The Long Ride starts in class M Squad style, with three murders in the first sixty seconds. A convicted murderer escapes from custody not once, but twice. And then we get a great suspense-on-a-train story, always a bonus. Terrific stuff.

The Shakedown is one of those cases in which, as Ballinger ruefully admits, nobody wins. It starts with an extortion attempt against a dry cleaning chain. It’s gritty hardboiled stuff. A very good episode.

Dolly’s Bar is a blackmail story with a decent twist. A gossip columnist is found dead in the apartment of rising theatrical star Kathy Bane. It looks bad for her since he was known to indulge in blackmail. Kathy and Frank Ballinger used to have a bit of a thing going. A very good episode.

In Lover's Lane Killing a rich young woman arrives home frantic with terror after the young man she’d been out with is shot to death by a robber. The curious thing, the thing that the police don’t like, is the matter of the impending marriage. An impending marriage to the wrong person. An OK episode although there aren’t enough suspects to make it much of a mystery.

The Frightened Wife is somewhat predictable but wth a couple of interesting twists. A man has disappeared. It could be a missing persons or a murder case. It seems to be solved when the wife confesses, but she has a very strange reason for confessing. Fairly entertaining.

Frank goes undercover to trap a nasty second-rate hoodlum in The Black Mermaid. There’s practically no limit to the number of things that can go wrong on that sort of operation, and all of them go wrong this time. Plenty of tension and excitement in this episode.

The Man in Hiding is about a bank robber and an exclusive boys’ boarding school. There doesn’t seem like there could be any link between those two things but Frank Ballinger has a hunch. A good episode in which Ballinger does some real detecting.

The Chicago Bluebeard is a man suspected of preying on women at lonely hearts’ clubs. Ballinger has to go undercover as a lonely heart and he’s not entirely comfortable doing it. A pretty good episode.

Hideout is an exciting siege episode. A couple of bank robbers are holed up in a suburban house and they’ve taken a woman and her child hostage. Frank manages to get into the house but his gun is just out of reach. Good stuff.

Shot in the Dark concerns a sniper who shoots women. He shoots from long range but only ever wounds them and not seriously, which means he has to be a pretty good shot. It makes a kind of sense until he shoots a man and kills him. That doesn’t add up and Frank has to find out why. A good episode.

The Twenty-Six Girl is a girl who runs a gambling game, but she doesn’t seem to have any connection with a routine missing persons case. A married couple has disappeared but the wife’s sister is unusually worried. So is Frank. He thinks the couple may have been murdered. Lots of false leads to confuse things in this excellent episode.

Charles Bronson guest stars as boxer Eddie Loder in The Fight. His opponent died after his last fight but the autopsy showed he was killed by a blood clot which was not caused by Eddie’s punches. But now it seems that somebody wants Eddie dead. A very good episode.

Guilty Alibi is a straightforward hit-and-run case, except that it isn’t. Witnesses saw the man driving the car hit the girl and he admits to the offence, but two of the witnesses had a vague impression that the driver was a woman. If that’s so then the case could connect up with a murder case. A good well-constructed plot expertly executed.

The Healer deals with a disturbed young woman planning to murder her father but the real villain is a quack therapist. And Frank hates quacks. The trouble is that it’s incredibly difficult to get a conviction against such people but Frank has a plan. Of course he also has to stop the girl from committing murder. A good episode.

In Day of Terror Frank’s friends the Grevilles have adopted a child but now the biological mother wants it back. Everything about the adoption was shonky and Frank has to find a way to nail some very unpleasant people without Helen Greville losing her adopted baby. An OK episode.

The $20 Plates are the last plates made by legendary counterfeiter Doc Pierce before his death. And now notes made from those plates are circulating in Chicago. Frank is working with a Treasury Department Social Agent and he has one clue - a child’s colouring book. The way the notes are being passed suggests an amateur, or a professional trying to look like an amateur. A very good episode.

The Case of the Double Face is a straightforward armed robbery case with one slight problem. It doesn’t make any sense. The robberies are small-time stuff but the suspect has no need of the money. The evidence against him is overwhelming but it still doesn’t make sense. The solution is far-fetched but it’s still an enjoyable episode. And the laundry evidence is very cool.

The System is a system for winning at craps. There is no such system and that’s what worries Frank. He thinks this system might involve guns. He’s trying to shut down a floating crap game which is hard enough but with a guy running around with a gun it’s even worse. And Frank doesn’t even know how to find the game. A very good episode.

The Woman from Paris of the title has just arrived in Chicago and she’s just been murdered. There seems to be a connection with a rich Chicago society couple but what the connection might be is a mystery. Perhaps there’s something in the murdered woman’s past. A good episode.

In Accusation the suicide of a sick old man looks suspicious. And the old man had a very pretty and much younger wife. And a good-looking young male chauffeur. The inference that the wife and the chauffeur killed the old man is obvious, but is it true? Another solid episode.

Final Thoughts

Even without Lee Marvin M Squad would have been a fine cop series. It has clever scripts and it has a nicely gritty feel to it. With Lee Marvin it’s one of the great American TV cop shows. Very highly recommended.

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