Friday 24 April 2020

Route 66 season one (1960)

Route 66 ran on CBS for four seasons from 1960 to 1964. It initially starred Martin Milner and George Maharis. The show was a major hit. Maharis departed midway through the third season and that was the beginning of the end for the series.

The opening episode gives us the basic backstory. Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a rich young man with an Ivy League education until his father died. Instead of leaving him with a fortune the father left him nothing but debts, and a brand new Chevy Corvette. He paid off the debts and kept the car, then he set off in the Corvette with his working-class buddy Buz Murdock (George Maharis). They’re going to find themselves, or find America, or something.

The road movie, in which the open road represents both freedom and a quest for knowledge, was a new American mythology which started to replace the old Wild West frontier mythology in the 50s (although of course it borrows very heavily from the frontier mythology). Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road provided the template although in movies the road movie appeared in prototype form much earlier in films like It Happened One Night (1934) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Route 66 is also a variant on the buddy movie formula, increasing popular at that time.

There’s also a bit of an odd couple vibe. Tod is highly educated, sensitive and even just slightly arty. He’s an intellectual. Buz is from the wrong side of the tracks, a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He’s more the two-fisted action hero type. He’s the man of action. The contrast between the two characters is one the show’s major strengths (as is the acting chemistry between Milner and Maharis).

Buz was an orphan and doesn’t even remember his parents. Tod lost his parents not long before he took to the road. At the moment they just want to wander across the country but they’re both ultimately looking for somewhere to fit in, somewhere to settle down and put down roots. It might take a few years but they both know that they don’t want to wander forever.

Tod and Buz are not really the main characters in the stories. At most their presence serves as a catalyst that sets certain events in motion but the real focus is always on the people they meet along the way. We don’t find out anything more about Tod and Buz than we already knew. And often they’re not even catalysts but merely observers.

This is a series that often tries too hard, it’s overly earnest at times and it does get preachy. It takes itself a bit too seriously. It tries for serious drama but usually only manages rather contrived melodrama.

The strength of Route 66 is that many of the stories are original and offbeat, and they’re certainly varied. The weakness is the excessive reliance on sentimentality and a certain humourlessness. There are also too many unconvincing happy endings in which everything suddenly works out for the best.

Of course two good-looking young guys driving around the countryside in a cool sports car are going to meet girls. And the series has to have some romance. The difficulty is that these affairs of the heart are going to have to be very temporary in nature. After all if one of the guys decides to get married that’s the end of the series. At the same time it can’t look as if Tod and Buz are the love ’em and leave ’em type. They are the heroes and they have to be decent and honourable (this was 1960). Which means the writers have to come up with clever ways to explain why Tod and Buz keep meeting really swell gals but it never works out for them. And of course it can’t be implied that they have sex with any of these girls.

Episode Guide

In the opening episode, Black November, Tod and Buz end up in the town of Garth. It’s a mighty unfriendly place but they’re stuck there after their car breaks down. They may not get out alive. Paranoid hatred of rural people, portrayed as evil inbred rednecks, is one of the staples of American popular culture. This is a particularly extreme example of that staple.

A Lance of Straw is a definite improvement. Tod and Buz have arrived in Louisiana and are taken on as crew of a shrimp trawler. The captain is a fiery young lady named Charlotte Duval. Charlotte is being courted by another skipper, Jean Poussin, but Charlotte doesn’t want to give up her independence. This is a Taming of the Shrew episode which is interesting in that it could never get made today. A hurricane adds some excitement. Not a bad episode.

The Swan Bed takes Tod and Buz to New Orleans where they find themselves mixed up with a nice girl with a crazy mother, an old drunk living on a broken-down showboat and an exotic dancer with parakeet. The parakeet is the key. Oh, and there is a swan bed as well. It’s an intriguing offbeat story and it’s very good.

The Man on the Monkey Board is a truly abysmal episode. The setting - an oil rig - is excellent. Unfortunately the story, about hunting for a Nazi, is tedious and obvious. And it’s all very preachy and earnest.

The Strengthening Angels begins on a rainy night with Tod and Buz giving a girl a ride. The story actually began eight months earlier on another rainy night but they don’t know that yet. They stop to eat at a town called Sparrow Falls although the girl tells them it’s a bad idea. She’s right about that. There’s the little matter of a murder charge and a very unsympathetic sheriff. It’s all rather contrived and predictable but at least it doesn’t fall into the obvious traps that you keep expecting it to. Well it doesn’t fall into all of them anyway.

In Ten Drops of Water Tod and Buz are in drought-stricken Utah and trying to help three young people struggling to keep an obviously failing ranch going. The boys get involved because they got soft-hearted over a mule. An OK episode but too sentimental and too contrived.

In Three Sides Tod and Buz get mixed up in a family drama. Rancher Gerald Emerson has big problems with his two teenaged kids. Daughter Karen (memorably played by 16-year-old Joey Heatherton) is a bit of a wild child and a would-be party girl. Her brother Curt has a chip on his shoulder the size of Oregon, a drinking problem and worst of all a quixotic determination to defend Karen’s honour. These two spoilt teenagers just cause more and more problems and since Mr Emerson can’t deal with them it falls to Tod and Buz to do so. It’s another episode that is a mini-Social Problem Movie with a Moral Message. It’s worth watching just for Joey Heatherton in full-on bad girl sex kitten mode.

In Legacy for Lucia Tod and Buz get mixed up with a young Italian woman fresh off the boat from Sicily. During the war an American soldier, just before he died, left her a legacy. Unfortunately the legacy is not what she thinks it is. Like most episodes of this series it’s very sentimental but it’s OK.

Layout at Glen Canyon could have been fun. It’s a fun idea. Tod and Buz are working on a dam construction site. There’s a company town built to house the workers. A thousand men, and no women. The men haven’t seen a woman for months. And now all hell is about to break loose. Four supermodels are about to arrive to do a fashion shoot on the dam site. Tod and Buz are given the job of keeping those thousand guys away from the four gorgeous babes. Actually the bigger problem might be to keep the four girls away from the thousand guys!

Unfortunately it gets bogged down in domestic dramas and sentimentality. It does have its moments though. The explosive finale (literally explosive) is very good. And it is fun to see the naughtiest of the models, Betsy, let loose among the men. You might think the thought of a thousand men would be too much for any girl but if you think that you haven’t met Betsy. A bit of a mishmash but not a bad episode.

The Beryllium Eater is about an old prospector who has finally struck it rich. And that’s where his problems begin. Buz’s problems begin when he meets Wendy. Wendy is very attractive, she’s obviously on the prowl, she obviously likes But. And she’s married. The boys almost get rich themselves in this episode, and they almost get themselves killed. But that’s life on the road. An OK episode.

In A Fury Slinging Flame it’s the end of the world. At least that’s what a top American scientist believes so he’s taken shelter in the Carlsbad Cavern, deep beneath the earth’s surface. He has a motley group of true believers with him. Tod and Buz get involved accidentally. It’s a story that could have been played for humour or for thrills but instead it’s played as a moving human drama about a brilliant man who has somehow lost the plot. A surprisingly effective episode.

In Sheba Tod and Buz are in Texas where they befriend a woman just out of prison. She blames rich cattleman Woody Biggs (Lee Marvin) for all her troubles. Her problems are biblical - she has found herself caught up in a modern version of the story of David and Bathsheba. An interesting and original episode.

In The Quick and the Dead Tod decides it might be fun to enter one of the support races, like the production car race, at the upcoming Grand Prix. Rather to his surprise it looks like he might end up driving in the Grand Pix himself but that lands him in the middle of an acrimonious family squabble. And he meets a girl and thinks he’s fallen in love, which is a lot riskier than racing in a Grand Prix. If you can buy the far-fetched notion that some guy off the street would be allowed to drive a Formula 1 car then it’s an enjoyable enough episode.

Play It Glissando is told in flashback. The boys are in Malibu with money in their pockets and life is good, and then they get mixed up with famous jazz trumpeter Gabe Johnson and his wife Jana. Gabe and Jana have a troubled marriage. More than just troubled. One of them is crazy. Bad crazy. Dangerous, paranoid, obsessive crazy. But which one of them is the crazy one? Either way Tod and Buz are about to be caught in the middle. This episode has an awesome guest cast, with Jack Lord as Gabe and Anne Francis as Jana. This is Route 66 with a bit of a film noir flavour and it’s good stuff.

The Clover Throne is an offbeat episode. Tod and Buz are helping out on Adam Darcy’s date ranch in California. Adam, unable to walk since an accident, spends all day on the porch with a rifle. Partly he’s protecting his property from a road construction company but mostly he’s guarding Sweet Thing. Sweet Thing is his teenaged ward (and yes her legal name really is Sweet Thing). He hopes to marry her. Sweet Thing is remarkably pretty, perhaps too pretty for her own good. Perhaps too pretty for anybody’s good. Sweet Thing is a whole lotta woman. Sweet Thing wants money and she thinks Adam has a lot of that hidden away somewhere and she also wants to be a movie star. Buz is just the latest in a long line of men who’ve fallen for Sweet Thing’s charms. It’s a situation that could get real messy and real dangerous. It’s all very overheated and contrived but it’s worth it for Anne Helm steaming up the screen as Sweet Thing.

In Fly Away Home Tod thinks it would be fun to be a crop-duster pilot so the boys try to talk themselves into jobs with the Windus crop-dusting outfit. Mr Windus taught Tod to fly but he’s dead now and the company is run by his widow. The chief pilot is a haunted ex-RAF pilot named Summers who may have flown one too many combat missions. Also on the scene is Summers’ ex-wife Christina, a singer. These are all seriously crazy messed-up people. The best thing for the boys to do would to jump back in the Corvette and drive away from there as far and as fast possible. But of course they don’t. And of course Buz falls for Mrs Summers. The only thing that could make things even worse would be if Tod were to fall for the widow Windus’s 19-year-old daughter (who is also crazy) and of course that’s what he does. Summers knows how it will all end. It will end in death. Everything ends in death for Summers. Not a bad episode.

Sleep on Four Pillows is a nicely whimsical little episode. Buz and Tod meet a girl and she spins them a story about her father being a Mafia don and about the Syndicate being after her. The boys aren’t stupid enough to believe that story but the girl is pretty so they allow themselves to be roped into whatever it is that she’s really up to. Patty McCormack (best known as the chilling evil child in The Bad Seed) plays the girl and she’s charming and amusing. Larry Gates is wonderful as the chief of the Baer Detective Agency, a man who prides himself on running a professional outfit that is nothing like the private eyes on TV. It’s a very good episode.

An Absence of Tears suffers from a surfeit of sentimentality. Tod and Bus meet a young blind woman whose husband has just been murdered. She intends to take her revenge. How can a blind woman take revenge on a couple of thugs? She has her own ideas about this and Tod and Buz as usual get caught in the middle. This one is a bit too contrived.

Like a Motherless Child is one of the episodes that goes perilously close to over-indulging in sentimentality. Tod and Bus pick up a ten-year-old boy hitch-hiking. He’s run away from the state orphanage. Tod insists on taking him back, Buz (with unhappy memories of his own childhood in an orphanage) violently disagrees and their friendship looks like it might be at an end. They also encounter Jake Hunter’s Girls, a travelling busload of chorus girls. Hannah looks after the girls for Jake. Hannah is middle-aged and has spent her whole life regretting giving up her son for adoption. Not surprisingly a bond develops between Hannah (a woman looking for a long-lost son) and Buz (a guy looking for the mother he never knew). While there is a lot of emotional melodrama here it at least avoids offering us easy contrived answers.

Effigy in Snow takes the boys to ski country. Tod joins the Ski Patrol, Buz gets a job in the ski shop. This is Tod’s world, the world of the rich (or at least it had been his world). There are two women the story, or rather there are three. Two of them are dead. Soon all three might be dead. This is one of the episodes in which Tod and Buz are mere spectators. It’s not a bad story, perhaps a little contrived but basically it works quite well.

In Eleven, the Hard Way the town of Broken Knee is dying now that the mine has shut down. The only hope is to turn the two into a tourist destination. To do that they’ll need to build a road and that will cost $35,000. They’ve managed to raise $2,700. So they’ve come up with an ingenious plan. The town’s most disreputable citizen, broken-down gambler Sam Keep (Walter Matthau), will take the $2,700 to Reno and turn it into $35,000 at the craps table. Tod and Buz find themselves acting as combination bodyguards and babysitters for Sam. This is an episode that skirts the boundaries of sentimentality but does so successfully. It’s pretty good.

Most Vanquished, Most Victorious is yet another story that manages to push lots of emotional buttons and more or less gets away with it. Tod discovers, to his surprise, that his Aunt Kitty is still alive. But she won’t be for much longer. She wants him to do one favour for her before she dies - to find her daughter. What Tod finds is not what he expected.

Don't Count Stars is another pulling-at-the-heartstrings story. The boys fish Mike McKay (Dan Duryea) out of the water after he falls off his boat in a drunken stupor. Mike is the legal guardian of his nine-year-old niece Linda, a very rich little girl. She owns a hotel in San Diego. Not a fleabag hotel, but a seriously big luxury hotel. She loves the hotel because it’s the only link she has with her deceased parents, and also because even at nine the hotel business has gotten into her blood. The hotel is pulsating with life. Now banker Mr Hammond wants to get the court to remove Uncle Mike as her guardian and force her to sell the hotel.

But Mr Hammond is not a villain. He really thinks it’s for Linda’s good. And Uncle Mike really is an irresponsible drunken bum. But he’s also basically a kind decent man who cares about his niece. He is also not a villain. There are no easy answers to this one but somehow Tod and Buz (who like everyone else have fallen under Linda’s spell)  have to find some answer. A very good episode.

Tod and Buz rescue a pregnant Indian girl from a wicked rancher in The Newborn. Her story is complicated and tragic. She just wants to die, which the boys of course cannot accept. This one’s a bit too contrived and obvious.

In A Skill for Hunting Tod and Buz find themselves cast as the hunted and they don’t like it. They decide they’d prefer to be the hunters. It all begins with an aggressive businessman shooting game in a game preserve, which the boys take exception to. They take even graver exception when he starts shooting at them. The businessman’s wife, known as Trinket, tries to warn them that her husband will kill them. That makes the boys even more annoyed. Quite a good episode.

In Trap at Cordova Tod and Buz encounter a wagon that has overturned and trapped a young boy. But it’s actually a trap for Tod and Buz, or rather a trap set to catch an educated man. Why an educated man? The boys find out when they are taken to the small village of Cordova in New Mexico. A village that needs an educated man very badly. And having found one the village intends to keep him. The beginning is nicely offbeat but then it becomes another somewhat contrived and sentimental tale.

The Opponent is a boxing story. Buz suggests a detour so he can see his old hero Johnny Copa fight. He and Tod rather unwisely bet all their money of Johnny. Then they meet Johnny and discover he’s a broken-down slightly punch-drunk has-been whose job is to lose all his fights because that’s all he can do. But Buz thinks he can turn Johnny into a winner again. It’s another exercise in putting us through the emotional wringer but it’s saved by moving performances by Darren McGavin as Johnny and Lois Nettleton as the sweet girl who’s decided she loves Johnny even if he is a loser (or maybe because he is a loser).

Welcome to Amity is about a girl named Joan (Susan Oliver) who returns to her home town, Amity, to bury her mother. Again.  Her mother died ten years ago and is buried in a pauper’s grave but Joan wants to move her to a nice spot in a proper cemetery. Everybody in the town is determined to stop her. There’s obviously a Deep Dark Secret here but it takes a long time to be revealed. Tod and Buz, as outsiders, are the only ones willing to help her. The biggest fault in this series is the way things usually get wrapped up too neatly and too implausibly at the end but this time the ending is fairy convincing. A decent episode, a bit melodramatic but the melodrama works this time.

Incident on a Bridge suffers from preachiness and too much cringe-inducing speechifying but it has its moments. It’s all told in flashback. It’s the story of Anna, a mute Russian girl in Cleveland, her ignorant oppressive father and the brutal Orlov who is going to marry her. And it’s the story of Dvorovoi, a man regarded as a monster and a killer. Dvorovoi has kidnapped Anna and they have both vanished and Tod and Buz are trying to explain to the homicide lieutenant how maybe nothing is as it seems to be. This is one of the rare episodes with a totally satisfying ending.

Final Thoughts

Route 66 is perhaps not my cup of tea. There are too many messages and too many unconvincing plot twists and (especially) endings. It does however have some strengths and the two leads are excellent.

My advice would be to rent a few episodes first. You might like it a lot. You might not.

Thursday 16 April 2020

The Rockford Files season 3 (1976-77)

The first season of The Rockford Files went to air in 1974 and was a huge hit. Subsequent seasons were never quite able to recapture that ratings magic. It settled down into being a solid enough ratings performer and of course ended up being recognised as one of the great American private eye series.

The third season screened in 1976 and 1977. The cast remains unchanged from season two. One of the things that distinguishes The Rockford Files from other PI series is that the regular supporting players are a bit more than sidekicks. Rockford’s relationships with his father Rocky (Noah Beery Jr), with his buddy Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), with his old prison cell-mate Angel (Stuart Margolin) and his long-suffering lawyer Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) have some degree of complexity. They’re not just there because they’re needed for plot reasons. They are, by the standards of network TV series,  more like real people.

The Rockford Files was in a sense the anti-Mannix. It tries to be the complete opposite of Mannix. Mannix is a very successful private investigator. Jim Rockford is mostly just keeping his head above the water. Mannix’s office is expensive and classy. Rockford works out of his trailer. Mannix has a secretary. Rockford can’t even imagine what it would be like to be able to afford a secretary. Mannix is a very confident guy whose life has pretty much worked out the way he wanted it to. He likes being a successful PI. Rockford has been in prison and he’s a PI because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Rockford veers between cockiness and a kind of cynical world-weariness. Mannix is stylish with an ambience of wealth and success. The Rockford Files is stylish with an ambience of seediness.

It’s not surprising that critics loved The Rockford Files, but Mannix was a bigger success with viewers.

In fact they’re both good shows. Mannix was almost the perfect conventional private eye series. The Rockford Files was deliberately and aggressively unconventional.

The Rockford Files has aged pretty well. The cynicism of the 70s matches the cynicism of today. It’s that edge of cynicism that distinguishes this series from earlier American private eye series such as Mannix and Cannon. Rockford is a decent guy but he doesn’t see himself as a hero or a crusader for justice. He does not believe that the criminal justice system always works or that it is fair. He has nothing against the police but he has no illusions about them. Some cops (like Becker) are honest and basically decent but they’re overworked and demoralised. And some cops are crooks and some are lazy and some are decidedly not nice guys. Rockford does not trust the Feds one little bit and he has very limited faith in the government.

Rockford likes to see justice done, if it can be done without too much personal risk or inconvenience, but he’s realistic enough to know that sometimes if you want justice you have to take your own steps to obtain it, steps which might not be entirely legal or ethical. For Rockford ethics are what you can get away with without having your private investigator’s licence taken away and that doesn’t bother him too much because he considers that his intentions are good.

He is instinctively on the side of the little guy but he tries to avoid offending the big guys unless he has to because they’re dangerous.

Ten years earlier such attitudes in a television private eye series would have been regarded as being excessively cynical but Rockford’s outlook does have a fair bit in common with the outlook of the hardboiled school of crime fiction and with film noir, although The Rockford Files lacks the nihilism and pessimism of true film noir.

The Episode Guide

The Fourth Man starts with an airline reservations clerk named Lori making a quite innocent remark to a passenger named Mr Farrell, about his being a regular flyer and having been on the Detroit flight a week ago. Someone then makes two separate attempts to kill Lori, and the second time she’s pretty sure her would-be slayer was Mr Farrell. Lori being a friend of Jim Rockford’s he naturally gets involved.

There’s more action than usual but this was the season opener so it was probably a good move to establish Rockford’s action hero credentials. It was a nicely twisted little plot. A good start to season three.

The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit gets Jim mixed up with phoney psychic Roman Clementi. The victims of phoney psychics are usually lonely vulnerable people but in this case the victims are the LAPD. And they’ve been taken in completely. Including especially Lieutenant Chapman. The problem for Jim is that the case the psychic is working on with much fanfare and self-publicity is one of Jim’s old cases. And Jim starts to figure he’s being used but he can’t quite see how it’s being done. Somehow this psychic really does seem to know stuff he shouldn’t know. And it seems like he’s got everybody convinced. Except Jim, who is about as hardcore sceptic as you can get. And Beth Davenport, his lawyer, shares his scepticism because lawyers don’t believe in anything.

The highlight here is the battle of wits between Rockford and Clementi (played with panache by Robert Webber). Great fun.

The Family Hour has an unbelievably convoluted plot. I’m not even going to try to tell you anything about it. The story starts when Jim finds a 12-year-old girl on his doorstep. Trying to figure out who she is is the first challenge. Of course he could just take her down to Juvenile Hall but he and Rocky are too soft-hearted to do that and so they get mixed up in all kinds of dramas featuring assorted hoods and narcotics deals and general craziness. There’s a real danger of soggy sentimentality in a story like this but that danger is neatly avoided. It’s an episode that gives Rockford a chance to put one of his amazingly complicated schemes into operation. All very enjoyable.

Feeding Frenzy shows that giving money back can be a lot harder than stealing it. Charly Baylock is a bit of a loser. A few years back he got drunk and stole half a million from his employer. Now he wants to return it but someone else knows about the money and they kidnap his daughter and demand the half million. There’s also a cop who is very interested in the case and he’s giving Jim a really hard time. The moral of the story seems to be that if you steal money you’re a fool and if you then decide to do the right thing you’re an even bigger fool. A good episode.

In Drought at Indianhead River Rockford’s loser ex-con friend Angel is suddenly a real estate tycoon, but the word is that he’s about to become a deceased real estate tycoon. And Rockford is caught in the middle, the way he always gets caught in the middle of Angel’s dramas. What he can’t figure out this time is why a bunch of crooks would want to make Angel a partner in some land deal and then kill him. When he does figure it out he has to find a way out of the mess. The classic formula for The Rockford Files is for Rockford to get himself out of trouble by pulling some ingenious con whereby he can ensnare the bad guys without getting himself into trouble with the law. And Drought at Indianhead River is a particularly fine example of this formula. It also has some rather deliciously amusing scenes with Angel in the sanatarium. A terrific episode.

Rocky (Jim’s dad) gets into the oil business in Coulter City Wildcat. This particular brunch of the oil business is a little unconventional and it’s not exactly honest, and not exactly legal. Of course Rocky doesn’t know. It’s another of the fiendishly complicated scams that are such a feature of this series, and as usual Rockford comes up with a neat little scam of his own to love the case. It’s a fun episode.

In So Help Me God Rockford is subpoenaed to give evidence before a grand jury and discovers that his constitutional rights are worth nothing. It’s all to do with the disappearance of a union boss. It’s a pretty savage indictment of abuse of power. An unusually passionate episode, but effective.

Angel gets Jim into hot water once again in Rattlers' Class of ’63. Angel is getting married but of course there’s something dishonest behind it. The awkward part is the two dead bodies, plus the bride’s Armenian brothers who want to see both Jim and Angel dead. In this episode we see Angel being particularly sleazy and then, for a brief moment, actually trying to be a decent human being. The plot is not as delightfully convoluted as usual but it’s not a bad episode.

There’s nothing like an old army buddy to get a guy into trouble. Rockford’s old buddy is Al Brennan (Ned Beatty) and in Return to the 38th Parallel he certainly provides the trouble. Al has had a lot of bad luck, mostly with racehorses and bookies, and he needs a break. He wants to try his hand at being a PI. When he takes on a missing persons case Rockford feels he has little choice but to go along with it. He really would have been better off keeping right away from the case and from Al Brennan. And those paintings. A good episode.

Piece Work seems to be a routine investigation into insurance fraud but Rockford finds that it leads to much bigger stuff. Like gun-running. But it’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated. A very good episode.

The Trouble with Warren starts with Rockford doing a favour for Beth. Her cousin Warren is in some trouble, although she doesn’t tell Jim the full extent of the trouble. And Warren just seems to keep digging himself in deeper. Being mixed up in one murder is bad but two murders is just too many for Jim’s liking but by now he’s in as much trouble as Warren. Not to mention having a whole raft of other charges hanging over his head. An enjoyable episode.

In Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You L.A.’s private investigators are having a tough time of it. Firstly one of Rockford’s old buddies tells him a story of how he lost his PI’s licence in what he is sure was a setup. Then another PI spins Rockford exactly the same tale. And then a third PI, and the story is identical.

There's One in Every Port concerns a con, or rather a series of cons. Jim gets innocently mixed up in the first one and now he’s got a really nasty gangster type who wants his money back. Jim hasn’t got the money but if the gangster doesn’t get Jim will end kinda dead. In fact that first con was merely the prelude to a much bigger much more elaborate one. But not quite as elaborate as the con Jim comes up with to get himself off the hook. These conman episodes are among my favourites and this is a very good albeit fiendishly complicated one.

The Trees, the Bees and T.T. Flowers is a two-part episode. Many years ago Rocky’s old buddy T.T. Flowers wanted to get right away from the city so he bought a ten-acre place where he could raise his animals and tend his bees. Now the city is catching up to him and his property would make an ideal site for a very profitable apartment block. T.T. is an eccentric but he’s a nice harmless old guy. His son-in-law is anything but harmless and he’s trying to get T.T. committed so he can sell the property. Jim didn’t want anything to do with the case and only reluctantly agreed to go to the mental hospital to check things out. Then the people at the hospital tried to kill him. That got his attention. And now he can smell a very nasty scam and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately exposing the scam seems like it will be almost impossible. An OK episode but a bit too predictable and the surprise twist isn’t going to surprise anybody.

In The Becker Connection Becker is set up while temporarily assigned to the Narcotics Squad. He persuades Rockford to help him prove his innocence. This is a disappointingly routine episode with none of the clever twists we expect from this series.

Just Another Polish Wedding reunites Rockford with his old prison buddy Gandolph Fitch (Isaac Hayes). Rockford lines up with a job with another old buddy, Marcus Aurelius Hayes (Louis Gossett Jr), which proves to be a mistake. Rockford and Hayes are actually working on the same case, a missing probate heir case, but they’re not the only ones looking for the missing heir. It all gets very messy, but entertainingly messy. A fun episode.

To Protect and Serve, a two-parter, is a missing persons case but if Jim had known the identity of the missing person and the identity of the man who wanted to find her he would never have touched the case. But it’s too late now. Plus there’s an interfering buff named Leanne to deal with. Buffs are kind of like police groupies. They’re civilians who hang around cops. Leanne is a particularly unfortunate specimen. She’s obsessed with Becker. Hanging around with cops really excites her. And she’s inserted herself into the middle of Jim’s case. The case is quite bad enough without that complication. It’s fairly typical Rockford Files stuff but it’s done pretty well.

New Life, Old Dragons brings Rockford one of those clients who tells him all sorts of stories, none of them true. She’s a Vietnamese refugee and her brother has been kidnapped and as you might expect the real story is complicated and involves all sorts of illegal activities on the part of just about everybody involved. A fairly good episode with some decent plot twists.

In Dirty Money, Black Light Rocky is in Hawaii but while he’s away money is arriving in his mailbox. Lots of money. Jim obviously wants to find out what’s going on but he doesn’t want to get Rocky in trouble. He could however be getting himself in trouble with some nasty people. People like gangsters. And even nastier people, like the Feds. Not to mention loan shark Electric Larry. Jim is going to have to be smarter and more devious than any of them, always a good setup for a Rockford Files episode.

Final Thoughts

In season three The Rockford Files maintains a pretty good balance between cynicism and fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday 4 April 2020

Orson Welles Great Mysteries (1973), volume 1

Orson Welles Great Mysteries is another of the mystery/horror anthology series that enjoyed such a vogue from the mid-50s right through to the end of the 70s. This one was made by Anglia Television in Britain in 1973  and was shot in colour. It’s somewhat in the style of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with an emphasis on human weakness and evil rather than the supernatural (although there are occasional suggestions of the supernatural).

The only contribution that Welles actually makes to the series is his brief intros and outros, which almost certainly would have been done in a single day. But Welles did earn his money - his amused cynicism does add to the atmosphere.

Even by the standards of half-hour television drama these stories are rather simple, with just one little sting in the tail. Sometimes the payoff isn’t quite as satisfactory as one might have hoped, and too often it’s too easy to see the payoff coming.

In some ways the lack of ambition is a plus. The stories are for the most part just amusing and ironic little vignettes but they manage to be generally entertaining. Many have period settings and despite obviously limited budgets they do capture at least some of the feel of mystery tales of a bygone era, although the 1970s haircuts sported by the men do make the suspension of disbelief that much more difficult to sustain. It also has to be said that the historical episodes do suffer from a few anachronisms in terms of social mores and from an occasional tendency to present caricatured views of social attitudes of the past. These are of course a problem with every television series or movie with a period setting but they seem a bit more noticeable in this one.

The better episodes are however quite good.

There are quite a few stories by acknowledged masters, writers of the calibre of Wilkie Collins, Balzac, Charles Dickens, W.W. Jacobs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and also some lesser-known but interesting writers (including some writers who have fallen entirely into obscurity).

This was  time when British television was starting to up the ante as far as violence was concerned, and to a lesser extent becoming a bit more daring in regard to sexual content. Orson Welles Great Mysteries is however very subdued in its treatment of such matters. The violence is mostly offscreen. The general approach is low-key. Compared to Brian Clemens’ Thriller anthology series, which began to air at around the same time, it seems rather genteel. This is however part of its charm. It’s content to be subtle and to rely on suggestion.

There’s quite an array of acting talent on view in this series including quite a few who were already major stars (such as Susannah York and Bond girl Jane Seymour). And there are plenty of cult movie stars, like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. And some good directors, like Peter Sasdy.

For some bizarre reason Network have decided to release only thirteen of the twenty-six episodes in a two-disc DVD set. Whether the other thirteen ever see the light of day remains to be seen. The transfers are reasonably good.

Episode Guide
In A Terribly Strange Bed (based on a famous story by Wilkie Collins) a well-to-do young man wins a great deal of money in a very disreputable gambling house in Paris sometime in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately he celebrates a little too enthusiastically with the result the he is in absolutely no condition to make his way safely back to his hotel. Luckily there is a proud old soldier, a veteran of Austerlitz and Borodino, who arranges a bed for him for the night. But will the young man make it through this night? Not a bad episode but there’s not much of a payoff.

Compliments of the Season is set in London in 1930. A little girl, the daughter of an American millionaire and an English lady of quality, loses her rag doll. It’s a very disreputable rag doll but it’s the little girl’s most treasured possession. An American derelict is lucky enough to find the doll. Will he be lucky enough to live long enough to claim the reward? Amusing enough but with no real substance.

The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs has been filmed many times. A soldier brings a monkey’s paw back from India. It has the ability to grant three wishes. The problem with wishes is that sometimes they come true. This is a good version of a classic tale.

The Ingenious Reporter is set in the pre-World War 2 period. A brash young American reporter who sees a brutal murder in a French village as a chance to get the story of a lifetime. He gets more than he bargained for. There’s such a thing as being too clever. Not a bad episode, if a little predictable.

Captain Rogers is about a man with a past. Mr Mullet is a prosperous innkeeper and he’s rather alarmed when a fellow named Cawser shows up on his doorstep. You see Mr Mullet was once the notorious pirate Captain Rogers and Cawser was one of his officers. Captain Rogers amassed a vast fortune from his piratical adventures and Cawser wants half of it. If he doesn’t get it he’ll have a quiet word to the local magistrate and Mr Mullet will face the prospect of being hanged for piracy. It’s a ticklish problem. Great performances by Donald Pleasence as Cawser, Joseph O’Conor as Mullet and Willoughby Goddard as the local squire and magistrate. The first really excellent episode so far.

For Sale - Silence has a contemporary setting. A wealthy businessman is being blackmailed. This story actually manages to come up with a new twist to the blackmail game. A very neat little episode.

La Grande Breteche is based on story by Balzac. A handsome dashing young Spaniard is a prisoner-of-war of the French during the Napoleonic Wars. As was the custom at the time, being a gentleman of breeding and an officer and having given his word not to escape, he is housed comfortably in an inn and allowed to come and go freely. Nearby in the house known as La Breteche lives the Count Gerard De Merret (Peter Cushing) with his wife. The Countess (played by Susannah York) is much younger than her husband, she is very beautiful and she has a romantic and passionate nature. You can see where such a situation could lead. In fact it leads to a horrifying conclusion. An excellent episode with a very nasty sting in the tail.

An Affair of Honour by F. Britten Austin. When a soldier commits treason it can of course be dealt with by a court-martial, but sometimes that is not the most desirable way to handle the matter. It is better to leave it as an affair of honour. In this case there was however a twist. A reasonably decent story.

In the Confessional is based on a story by Alice Scanlan Reach, a now very obscure writer who in the 1960s penned a series of clerical detective stories featuring kindly Irish Catholic priest in an American parish. In this tale Father Crumlish hears a disturbing confession, and an amiable drunk named Old Harry hears it too. There are all kinds of sins. The twist ending is fairly effective. A reasonably good episode.

The Furnished Room (based on a story by O. Henry) is unusual in that we’re offered, in the intro by Orson Welles, a hint of the possibility of the supernatural. Whether anything supernatural actually occurs is something I’m not going to tell you. A young man is tramping from one furnished room to another in New York, looking for his girlfriend. This story relies very heavily on trying, with limited success, to achieve an atmosphere of subtle ambiguous unease. Unfortunately it’s also a story that doesn’t amount to very much. One of the lesser episodes.

Trial for Murder is the one old-fashioned ghost story in the series (and it’s based on a very famous story by Charles Dickens). A juror in a murder trial sees the ghost of the murder victim, or perhaps it’s an hallucination. The accused sees visions as well. For me this one falls rather flat. Perhaps there’s such a thing as trying to be too subtle.

The Leather Funnel (based on a story by Conan Doyle) is one of the better episodes. The funnel in question is very old, a kind of bizarre family heirloom. It has an interesting if terrible history, as young Stephen Barrow is about to find out. Stephen n is about to marry the beautiful Veronique d’Aubray (Jane Seymour) but before that happens her uncle (plated by Christopher Lee) is determined that the young man should know the secret of the funnel. This episode has both a contemporary and an historical setting and it has a nicely ambiguous plot. Good stuff.

Final Thoughts

If you enjoy the Alfred Hitchcock Presents style of television mystery then Orson Welles Great Mysteries is worth grabbing. Recommended.