Sunday 6 December 2020

The Streets of San Francisco, season 1 (1972-73)

After a shaky start with very poor ratings early on The Streets of San Francisco became a solid success for producer Quinn Martin, running for five seasons on ABC from 1972 to 1977.

The formula was not exactly earth-shakingly original. It’s a cop show featuring a veteran old school cop (Lieutenant Mike Stone, played by Karl Malden) and a young college grad rookie detective (Inspector Steve Keller, played by Michael Douglas). To make such a hackneyed formula work you need the right actors with the right chemistry between them. Fortunately this series does have the right actors and they do have that chemistry.

I’m not at all a fan of Michael Douglas and I was prepared to dislike him here but I have to admit that he’s actually very good.

The success of the series was also partly due to some great San Francisco location shooting, partly due to a reasonable effort to get a feel of authenticity, and partly due to the fact that it is a Quinn Martin production so it’s extremely well made.

American cop shows at this time were moving tentatively towards a slightly grittier slightly more hard-edged streetwise feel. 

At this time the networks were however still pretty nervous about downbeat endings. They really didn’t think the viewers would accept anything other than an ending that tied things up neatly with the good guys winning and justice being done. The Streets of San Francisco does occasionally risk downbeat endings, or endings in which justice is done but maybe the price was too high. It doesn’t do this too often, but just often enough that you have to be prepared for the possibility of an ending that might be a bit on the darker side. There are also occasional episodes that have a bit of a film noir feel, with criminals who are not entirely evil but they’ve made one big mistake that they’re going to pay heavily for.

They were also trying to engage a bit with the social problems of the time (you can see this tendency even in Hawaii Five-O), with mixed success. The Streets of San Francisco is clearly making an attempt, within the constraints of what the network was prepared to risk at that time, to approach social problems as being not necessarily clearcut cases of right and wrong. Sometimes people do things that are morally questionable, or against the law, but they have what seem to them to be valid reasons. It can makes things difficult for a cop.

In some ways this series is reminiscent of Naked City, made a decade earlier, in being more interested in people’s motivations than in the actual crimes, although it has to be said that Naked City did this sort of thing better, or at least more consistently well. But when The Streets of San Francisco manages to get the focus on character just right it has to be admitted that it can come up with some pretty effective character studies.

This series is also interesting for its willingness, at times at least, to forego clichéd car chase and shootout endings.

One weakness is that friends and family members of Stone and Keller become involved in far too many cases. This is something I regard as a cheap writer’s trick to emotionally manipulate the audience. It’s a common enough device and it gets used in most crime series but in this series it’s used just a little bit too often.

The first season of The Streets of San Francisco gets off to an erratic start but settles down into being a pretty solid cop series.

This series was initially released on DVD in half-season sets but since then there’s been a DVD set of the complete series and another including the first three seasons, both of which offer pretty good value for money. The three-season set is the one I have and the transfers are good, plus it includes the feature-length pilot. 

Episode Guide

The feature-length pilot episode begins with a young woman’s body washed up on a beach. It doesn’t take long to establish that this is a case of homicide. Curiously the girl had her attorney’s business card hung round her neck like a set of dog tags. The attorney is David Farr (Robert Wagner), and he’s a high flying very smooth corporate lawyer. Keller hates him on sight, but Keller is like that.

The pilot is an adaptation of a novel by Carolyn Weston and it’s a story that gets quite bizarre towards the end - not quite what you expect in an early 70s network TV cop show. The ending perhaps ties things together too neatly and in a slightly contrived manner. On the whole though it’s very entertaining. It certainly goes out of its way to let us know we’re in San Francisco!

The Thirty-Year Pin was a very strange and probably rather poor choice to kick off the first season. Strange because we haven’t had a chance to get to know the characters yet and we find Stone acting in a manner which in fact is wildly out of character. And he’s not just behaving out of character, he’s behaving unsympathetically and first time viewers might Ewell have decided at this point that he’s a jerk. On the plus side the action finale in the subway is extremely well done.

The First Day of Forever has a very simple plot. Several prostitutes have been murdered and Bev Landau has a very lucky escape. It becomes obvious that the killer is not killing the girls at random - he is stalking particular girls and he’s going to go after Bev again. Keller is assigned to babysit her. We already know the identity of the killer so the focus is on how the cops are going to catch him, but that part is very straightforward. The real focus is the uneasy relationship between initially disapproving cop Keller and the high-class but somewhat jaded hooker Bev. This episode is a weird mix of moralising and anti-moralising. Bev is a very sympathetic character. She even wins over Keller. But network TV in 1972 could not be seen to be too sympathetic towards prostitution, hence the very awkward ending. This episode is mostly interesting for what it says about American TV at the time - trying to be grown-up but being afraid of offending delicate audience sensibilities.

45 Minutes from Home
begins when middle-aged pharmaceuticals salesman Russ Rankin picks up a girl, or she picks him up. She takes him back to the houseboat where she lives, she tries to seduce him. The upshot is that he flees, and he’s facing the prospect of a murder charge. But there’s a plot twist (not an original one but it’s handled fairly well). More interesting are the psychological twists, including subjects that were quite daring for 1972 TV. A fairly effective episode.

Whose Little Boy Are You? presents Stone and Keller with a puzzling case. It starts with a report of an attempted burglary. A guy got in through a window into a bedroom where a little boy was sleeping. It’s clear that this was no burglary. Stone suspects a case of child molestation but that doesn’t add up either. Maybe a kidnapping? But the parents are nowhere near wealthy enough to make that convincing. Someone wants the boy, but why? It turns out that this is a case of an adoption that has become very messy, and with a troubled Vietnam vet now gone AWOL there’s the potential for real trouble. This is an episode in which almost everybody is a villain, and yet none are really villains. And there’s no easy way out for anybody. The ending is not quite what you expect. Quite a good episode.

Tower Beyond Tragedy starts with a murder. Then we see a wealthy very cultured man named Amory Gilliam meeting an escort, a girl who looks remarkably like the girl we thought we just saw being murdered. Amory is a strange guy. OK, he’s middle-aged but he’s quite good-looking and he’s clearly very wealthy and very charming, and genuinely cultured. He’s a man who should have no problem at all attracting women, even young beautiful women. So why is he hiring an escort? The escort, Kim Ahern (Stefanie Powers) wonders that too. The answer is that Amory does not want just any woman, he wants the perfect woman. He knows exactly what this perfect woman will be like and even knows what she will look like. It’s a sort of Pygmalion thing - he wants to find a woman he can transform into his ideal of perfect womanhood.

It’s an intriguing and original idea for a TV cop show episode. Once again the series tries to tread carefully, going to great lengths to ensure that we don’t think Kim is a prostitute. If you want to be picky you can point out a few things that stretch credibility, but it’s trying to do something different and ambitious and mostly it works.

In Hall of Mirrors Stone is injured on a case involving a murder at a fruit market. Keller takes over the case, with rookie detective Jim Martin to help him. Martin’s hotheadedness and obvious dislike of Mexicans proves to be a real problem in a case in which all the witnesses are Mexicans. There’s a reason for Martin’s behaviour but it’s not totally convincing. When you watch the episode you’ll realise why David Soul is ludicrously miscast. It’s another episode that tries to deal with people as complicated individuals who are not wholly bad or wholly good but it’s a bit of a misfire.

In Timelock Bobby Jepson gets work release from prison and within hours is charged with murder. Mike Stone used to coach Jepson at football and is convinced he’s innocent. Surprisingly Keller agrees with him - he thinks the evidence against Jepson is pretty thin. Time is of the essence in this story. Jepson has just 32 hours to find a job or he goes back inside and there’ another race against time that Mike Stone doesn’t know about yet. This is another episode focused on characters rather than plot, which is just as well because the plot is very routine. An OK episode.

In the Midst of Strangers
involves a political assassination, or that’s how it looks. Actually the guy fell victim to a clever gang of slick upmarket thieves. They’re very well-dressed thieves, with nice shoes. Those shoes were a big mistake. There are a few nice touches in this story and some lighter moments. A very solid episode.

With The Takers we have a well-constructed mystery plot with multiple suspects, all with convincing motives, and we’re dealing with alibis and keys and witnesses whose testimony is truthful but likely to lead Stone and Keller down the garden path. Two young women living a glamorous swinging lifestyle are murdered - with no less than eighteen shots being fired. A very effective episode.

Stone and Keller tangle with a gypsy family (incongruously named the Fergusons) in The Year of the Locusts. The gypsies are bunco artists, and very clever ones, but they have never been involved in anything violent. Now there’s evidence they were mixed up in an armed robbery that ended with the killing of a security guard. This is yet another episode that focuses on character rather than plot. The patriarch of the family is a crook but he has a code that he lives by - stealing is fine but violence is wrong. He thought he’d taught the family that code but now some of them may have betrayed that code. Mike Stone doesn’t approve of the Fergusons but he has a certain perverse respect for the old man. Mike understands old school criminals who live by an old school code. A good episode.

The Bullet begins with the fatal shooting of blackmailer. There’s a witness but he refuses to co-operate. The plot is not wildly original (in fact the reluctant witness is an old standby  for TV writers) but the grounds on which the witness bases his refusal to offer any help are interesting and there’s some reasonably effective suspense. An OK episode.

A Trout in the Milk is one of those ill-judged attempts American television in this period made to grapple with subcultures. An artist with a seamy reputation falls from a window but maybe he was pushed. Yale Courtland Dancy, a black performance poet, may have been involved but he tells Stone and Keller all sorts of tall stories. A black model named Janaea may also have been involved but there are a couple of other possible suspects as well. It’s unlikely that any of these people are telling the truth. It’s not that bad a story if you can endure the performance poetry.

There’s mayhem on the high seas in Deathwatch. A fishing boat finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A man ends up dead. There’s a people-smuggling racket. There’s a man torn apart by guilt. And there’s a hovercraft chase! A very good episode.

In Act of Duty a stake-out to catch a rapist ends disastrously. The rapist still has to be caught and rookie cop Sheery Reese makes things a lot harder by disobeying orders. Not a very original story but it’s handled well and the ending is effectively tense. An OK episode.

In The Set-Up hitman Nick Carl, who had been assumed dead, is spotted at the San Francisco airport. Since a key witness is about to testify against mobster Johnny Harmon (for whom Nick worked for years) the cops put two and two together. But things are as simple as they seem. The plot has some rather neat and unexpected twists and turns. And, being a Streets of San Francisco episode, there’s a strong focus on character. Nick Carl is a complicated guy. A very fine episode.

A Collection of Eagles is a solid if unspectacular police procedural story. It involves a plan to substitute fake coins for an extremely valuable coin collection. The emphasis on scientific evidence is a plus and the strong supporting cast is headed by Joseph Cotten and John Saxon (at his most sinister and creepy). Overall, fairly entertaining.

A Room with a View seems like a conventional gang war story but it does have some odd twists. Bookmaking kingpin Hoyt Llewellyn instructs his on-payroll hitman Art Styles to take out a guy called Roy Chaffee who is about to squeal to the cops. Only it’s Roy’s brother who is the first target. Styles commandeers an apartment from meek but secretly romantic schoolteacher Mary Rae Dortmunder. From her apartment he can lie in wait for Chaffee. This is where the story gets more interesting, as a weird dynamic develops between the hitman and the mousy schoolteacher. Since Mary Rae is a closet romantic who has never attracted any attention from men before she develops a bit of a  romantic daydream obsession with the hitman. But what about Styles? He’s never had anyone care about him before - is there still a human being inside this killer-for-hire? So while there are a couple of very neat plot twists this is really a story focused on two very unlikely people thrown together. It’s a slightly oddball but very good episode.

Deadline is a standard inverted mystery. A woman journalist is killed, we know the identity of the killer but the police are presented with clues that point in the wrong direction. And Mike Stone has personal reasons for being reluctant to admit that the clues might point in a totally different direction. One of the suspects is an actor and he’s rehearsing Othello and that is a vital clue. There are some nicely tangled motivations. A solid episode.

Mike Stone gets taken hostage by a gang of juvenile punks who’ve just killed a cop in Trail of the Serpent. He’s under a lot of pressure but so are the punks. Will they crack before he does? Is there any way he can get through to just one of them? A reasonably tense episode with an effective ending, spoilt slightly by the overly contrived epilogue.

The House on Hyde Street
again puts the focus on character. A group of three boys break into an old house. An eccentric old man lives there and there are rumours that his brother, now dead, killed a child many years earlier. The neighbours are not convinced the brother is dead. And one of the boys does not return from his little adventure. Stone and Keller figure that there are a lot of secrets in that old house, which is filled with an extraordinary collection of junk. The neighbours are angry and hysterical and Stone and Keller will have to come up with some answers quickly. The viewer doesn’t know what really happened in the old house either. So it’s a story about suspicion and hysteria. Sometimes suspicions have a foundation in fact, sometimes they don’t. It’s another very good episode with an excellent ending which is then undermined slightly by the contrived epilogue (which is starting to become a pattern with this series).

In Beyond Vengeance Mike Stone’s daughter is on a bus returning from college in Arizona. She gets off to be met by Mike, her roommate Valerie stays on the bus and gets murdered. Figuring out the identity of the killer is easy, because he wants Mike to know who he is. Mike sent him to San Quentin twelve years ago and the guy wants revenge. But proving that he killed Valerie seems impossible. It’s now a game of psychological warfare between the killer and Mike and Mike is starting to come apart at the seams. If there’s one writer’s trick I dislike it’s bringing a cop’s family into a story. To me it’s cheap emotional manipulation. Having said that this is still a reasonably good cat-and-mouse contest with considerable doubt as to who is the cat and who is the mouse.

The Albatross starts with a child killed during a burglary. The burglar is quickly captured but can’t be brought to trial because of a legal problem with his confession after his arrest - he didn’t hear his rights because he’s deaf. Stone and Keller will have to come up with some convincing new evidence but meanwhile the father of the child decides he’s going to take his own vengeance. It’s a double race against time for Stone and Keller since the evidence they need might not be there much longer. Not a bad story, the legal technicality is quite clever and the portrayal of the would-be vigilante killer is interesting. 

Shattered Image gets Stone and Keller mixed up in politics and they come up against some very powerful people. Fast-rising Commerce Department official Fed Marshall, a man with political ambitions, is killed with a spear gun on board a pleasure cruiser owned by a shipping magnate. A senator who’s been grooming Marshall to take over his senate seat and Marshall’s ambitious personal assistant both want the murder investigation quashed. And the murdered man’s widow is an old friend of Mike’s. This business of having Stone’s friends and family involved in his cases is starting to become a disturbing habit. It’s a solid enough story although you won’t have much trouble figuring out the solution.

The Unicorn presents the cops with a problem. A gunfight on the docks has left two men, including a cop, dead. And what was stolen? Two boxes of cobra venom. A product useful only to a handful of companies involved in esoteric medical research. There is no black market in cobra venom. No-one with any sense would steal such items. Obviously there’s something else going on. Catholic priest Father Joe Scarne, who runs a mission at the docks, has a problem too. He knows where one of the thieves is hiding out but he can’t tell his old buddy Mike Stone. The “Catholic priest torn between his duty to God and his duty to the law” thing has been done many times but at least here it’s done reasonably well. And there’s a complication that Father Scarne doesn’t know about. Apart from that it’s a reasonably tense episode with a desperate man with a gun who may not have enough sense to save himself when he can. Not a bad episode.

Mike goes undercover as a Skid Row bum after three winos are murdered in Legion of the Lost. The murders all follow the same pattern. Stone and Keller suspect that there’s more to it than just winos getting rolled for small change or for kicks. They also suspect that ex-boxer turned bum Jake Wilson (Leslie Nielsen) is involved in some way, as well as a young wino named Paul, who turns out to have an interesting history. A good solid episode to close the season and it’s fun to see Mike Stone cadging quarters from Keller while undercover.

Final Thoughts

The Streets of San Francisco is typical of American crime series of its era - extremely well-crafted but occasionally let down by contrived scripts. It’s the chemistry between Malden and Douglas, and the San Francisco locations, that lifts this series into the above-average bracket. Recommended.

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