Saturday 20 February 2021

The F.B.I. season 2 volume 1

The F.B.I. returned for a second season in late 1966 (there would eventually be no less than nine seasons). At this stage the key cast members - Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Inspector Lewis Erskine, Stephen Brooks as Special Agent Jim Rhodes and Philip Abbott as Deputy Director Arthur Ward - were unchanged.

I’ve been watching a number of American cop/private eye series of this era recently. It was very much the Heroic Age for those genres. While the criminals sometimes offer some degree of psychological complexity the heroes are very much straightforward heroes with no hints of moral ambiguity. Authority, whether represented by the police or the F.B.I. or the government, is never questioned. At the beginning of each episode we are assured that the Bureau is there to fight the enemies of the US Government and we are naturally expected to assume that the US Government’s enemies are the enemies of all decent people. In 1966 it was reasonable to assume that contemporary audiences would accept this unironically.  Perhaps it was their tragedy that they accepted authority without question, and perhaps it’s our tragedy that we are unable to do so.

Which sounds like I’m being snarky about this series. In fact it’s sophisticated, polished and very professional. It’s very good television indeed, with fine scripts and fine acting. It’s simply made with certain assumptions that audiences today will find slightly difficult to accept, and which would in fact be increasingly questioned even a decade later.

Lewis Erskine is by no means a two-dimensional character. He’s decent and honest and honourable but he’s rather complicated. He’s a very driven man, a man with certain obsessions and a man who has largely sacrificed his personal life for the sake of his career. He doesn’t complain about this. He Iikes his job and believes it is worthwhile and important but at times you get the feeling that he’s not a guy who is going to cope very well when retirement times comes around. He might perhaps be just a little too dedicated and single-minded. But he doesn’t qualify as a flawed hero of the type that would become commonplace in the 70s, and he also doesn’t qualify as an eccentric hero (in the way that 70s cops like McCloud, Kojak and Columbo are to varying degrees and in different ways eccentric heroes). Erskine is very much a regular guy. The most unconventional thing about him is that he’s so very conventional.

I feel a little bit sorry for Stephen Brooks. I like his understated performance as Jim Rhodes and Rhodes is the perfect foil for Erskine. However there was just no way Brooks could compete with Efrem Zimbalist Jr’s star power and charisma so inevitably Jim Rhodes became a sidekick rather than a partner and in the second season he was more often than not relegated to the background. It’s no great surprise that Brooks departed the series at the end of this season.

Quinn Martin’s productions tended to be a bit more character-driven than other American heroes of that era. While the heroes of The F.B.I. are conventional heroes and while there’s  a definite sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong there is at times a genuine attempt to examine the psychology of the criminals (and even the spies) and even the psychology of the victims. This is not a series that accepts the there can be any excuses for crimes or espionage but at least there’s an awareness that people do things for a reason.

If you’ve been avoiding this series because it sounds like it might be a bit too old-fashioned with a bit too much in the way of simplistic Cold war politics and a perhaps way too much glamorisation of the F.B.I. then my advice is to think again. It’s an intelligent grown-up series and the scripts really are extraordinarily good (and consistently so). And Efrem Zimbalist Jr really is a joy to watch. In his own distinctive way he has amazing amounts of charisma and Lew Erskine is a great character.

The first couple of seasons have been released in half-season sets but they were longish seasons (twenty-nine episodes in the second season) - the season 2 part 1 set includes sixteen of those episodes.

Episode Guide

The Price of Death is a kidnapping story and this series includes a lot of those. They somehow always manage to make them interesting, with at least a couple of twists. And of course as always it’s remarkably well-executed with some very fine acting by the supporting cast.

The Escape starts with a spectacular and deadly shoot-out as a prisoner, Larry Drake, escapes from custody at a small airport. The Drakes are quite a family. Three brothers, plus the older brother's wife. And they’re not exactly one big happy family. Which may be a help to the F.B.I. but it makes the situation much more dangerous and much more volatile. A very good episode.

The Assassin starts with the killing of a police officer in Manila. Before he does he reveals sketchy details of a plot to assassinate well-known peace activist Bishop John Atwood. The hunt is now on but it’s a double hunt, with shadowy assassin Anton Christopher stalking the bishop while being stalked in turn by the F.B.I. and both Lewis Erskine and Christopher are accustomed to being successful hunters. An otherwise routine story is enlivened a couple of interesting character studies. William Windom is excellent as the cynical but world-weary assassin who feels that his career is nearing its close. The bishop is stubborn, arrogant, egotistical and generally insufferable and he’s actually a less human and less sympathetic character than his would-be killer. Tom Skerritt as Christopher’s political zealot assistant and Rhys Williams as the bishop’s trusted friend who has his own agenda add further interest and make this a fine episode.

The Cave-In deals with sabotage at a mine in New Mexico. The mine was about to close, until a new vein of tungsten was discovered. Since tungsten is of vital strategic important the F.B.I. is called in. Naturally they suspect commies but that doesn’t seem to fit. The sabotage was too amateurish. A second act of sabotage triggers a cave-in and half a dozen miners, along with Social Agent Jim Rhodes, are trapped. Solving the case is pretty easy but the real focus is on the attempts to rescue the trapped men. A decent episode.

Vendetta is a spy story. This time it’s not just commies the Bureau is after but Nazis as well. In fact it’s Nazi commies. A suspected war criminal apparently commits suicide but an Israeli investigator doesn’t believe he’s really dead, and that he’s now a communist agent. Spy stories often deal with themes of betrayal but this one focuses on guilt (both appropriate and inappropriate) and fanaticism (of at least three different kinds). An interesting if not entirely successful episode.

In Anatomy of a Prison Break Erskine goes undercover as a con in a federal prison to try to foil a big prison break. The guy behind the plan is a real genius. He’s so smart he’s currently serving a lengthy sentence for his last brilliant plan. He may not be as clever as he thinks he is but he is ruthless. He killed the last inmate he suspected of being a stool pigeon. Erskine can probably derail his plans, if he lives long enough. This is great stuff.

In The Contaminator a communist spy accidentally sets off a nuclear reaction at a research facility. It’s a really really tiny nuclear reaction but it’s enough to contaminate everybody in the room, including the spy. This is a fine manhunt episode with some great wilderness location shooting with the nuclear contamination problem adding some spice.

The Camel's Nose is a surprisingly sordid tale of corruption and defence contracts, and murder. It starts with a plane crash that was no accident. And Deputy Director Arthur Ward has a personal involvement in the case which could prove awkward. Of course in this series there can never be a hint of corruption within the government (and we get some speeches assuring us that the F.B.I. especially is utterly incorruptible) but big business corruption was a different matter. Not a bad story.

With The Scourge we’re in organised crime territory. The Mob is using juicers (loan sharks who charge astronomical interest rates) to gain control of legitimate companies. One such company is Towner Industries but the head of the company is too scared to testify against Johnny Albin, the juicer in question. Erskine and Rhodes think there may be another way to get the evidence they need. Another very good episode.

In The Plague Merchant a biochemist indulges in a little harmless industrial espionage, stealing samples of a new hand lotion. Only it’s not hand lotion, it’s a killer bacteria that could kill millions. The script goes to great lengths to convince us that of course it wasn’t developed for bacterial warfare (there are lots of peaceful uses for killer bacteria that could kill millions), but other wicked nations (never the United States) might use it for that purpose. It’s another story featuring a villain who isn’t villainous, just na├»ve and mostly sympathetic. Quite a good episode.

Ordeal starts with a robbery but it’s no ordinary robbery. What was stolen is not nitro-glycerine, which would be bad enough, but a new experimental form of nitro-glycerine which is even more unstable than the regular kind. It’s destined to be used in a revolution in South America. Carl Munger is finished with driving that kind of stuff but he’s out of work and his wife is pregnant and he needs the money real bad so he’s driving it to the coast. And Jim Rhodes his long for the ride. It’s dangerous enough in ideal conditions but everything that could go wrong, everything that could jolt that nitro into exploding, does go wrong. This episode is obviously inspired by the classic 1953 French suspense thriller The Wages of Fear and it’s tense exciting stuff. A very good episode.

In List for a Firing Squad communist spies are at it again. A Hungarian agent, Istvan Sladek,  has obtained a list of the names of American spies in eastern Europe and the F.B.I. has to get the list back. This is a surprisingly nuanced episode. Even Erskine admits that from Sladek’s point of view he’s a patriot serving his country and a brave man, just as Erskine is. And the F.B.I. puts Sladek’s girlfriend in a ghastly position of conflicting loyalties. There are different kinds of betrayal. Is it worse to betray your country or to betray love? A disturbing and intelligent story.

The Death Wind is a tale of danger on the high seas. And possible even greater dangers elsewhere. An ageing tramp steamer bound for Port Spencer in Hawaii hits a World War 2 mine and sinks. In the mid-60s wartime mines still caused such problems occasionally. There are however some complications in regard to that mine, and the ship’s cargo causes even more concern. Quite a clever little story.

The Raid is a siege story with multiple hostages. A dying informant alerts the Bureau to the presence in Los Angeles of Scott Martin, a bank robber on the Ten Most wanted list. Martin and is gang are holed up in a motel in the suburbs. Lots of tension in this one with the complication of a girl who may be a hostage or an accomplice and a boy who is definitely a hostage. Amazing amounts of gunplay in this episode. The drive-in scene is very good. Great episode.

Passage into Fear is a spy thriller set on a train, always a winning idea. And it works pretty well here. A witness in an espionage case has panicked and run and both the F.B.I. and the members for the spy ring are after her. Plenty of excitement and suspense in this story, and Erskine is put in as difficult moral position. Very good stuff.

Final Thoughts

The F.B.I. offers clever literate scripts involving people who have believable motivations for the things they do, whether they’re right or wrong. This is intelligent sophisticated entertainment mixed with plenty of entertainment value. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Hawaii Five-O season 3 (1972)

The most surprising thing about the third season of Hawaii Five-O, which screened on CBS in 1970-71, is that there is absolutely no sign of any drop-off in quality. The second season had been marginally better than the first and by season 3 everything was humming along nicely.

The four key cast members are unchanged. My feeling is that James MacArthur (as Danno) and Zulu (as Kono Kalakaua) in particular were growing steadily more comfortable and more confident.

Hawaii Five-O works for the same reason Mannix works. Both CBS series had charismatic lead actors. Both boasted high production values with a fair bit of location shooting. Both were extremely slick and very professional productions. Both combined action and glamour and both were fast-moving. They look expensive. In both cases the scripts were generally very strong. Both featured terrific guest stars. With those ingredients success was pretty much guaranteed. They were representative of a type of television that the Americans were remarkably good at making at that time.

Steve McGarrett and Joe Mannix also have a great deal in common. They take their jobs seriously, to the point that they have no time for a family life. They are very good at their jobs. And they are both hyper-masculine heroes. They’re so supremely comfortable in their masculinity that they have no qualms about revealing their sensitive sides. They are the absolute antithesis of the anti-heroes and flawed heroes who were increasingly featured in movies in the late 60s and early 70s. These are heroes in whom the viewer can have complete confidence.

As the 70s progressed American crime series would feature more oddball heroes (Frank Cannon, Columbo, Sam McCloud, Kojak) and flawed heroes (Jim Rockford). Hawaii Five-O and Mannix can be seen as the last hurrah for the old-fashioned all-American hero.

Hawaii Five-O is also interesting for the light it sheds on the stresses caused by rapid development. Hawaii had grown wealthy due to tourism but the native Hawaiians were losing their traditional way of life and some were not sure if it was worth it, particularly since they weren’t necessarily the ones getting seriously rich. Hawaii had become, to an extent, a troubled paradise. Hawaii was also getting some of the other dubious benefits of progress, such as organised crime and the drug culture. The series has a considerable amount of sympathy for those who were sceptical of the benefits of progress. Hawaii Five-O tackled social issues quite often and mostly tried to be fairly balanced.

One thing I really like about this series is that when Five-O are trying to trace a telephone call we actually get to see how it’s done, and in one episode we get to see the ingenious ways in which criminals can thwart such attempts. In fact the series is quite good at showing details of forensic stuff. It’s that kind of attention to detail that gives the series a realistic feel, even when some of the plots are quite outrageous.

Hawaii Five-O is also a series that occasionally veers into spy thriller territory, or into stories that deal with international intrigue or power politics. This gives it a distinctive feel among cop shows of the era.

Episode Guide

And a Time to Die… kicks off season three. Starting the season with a Wo Fat spy thriller episode is a pretty sound idea.  This time the Red Chinese master spy is trying to stop a CIA agent from revealing China’s nuclear secrets. The plan to assassinate the agent almost succeeded and he’s now in a coma in hospital.

The challenge for Wo Fat is to find a way to kill the agent with seems impossible since the entire wing of the hospital is sealed off. But Wo Fat has a plan to force the neurosurgeon to do the job for him.

Wo Fat is of course a wonderfully entertaining character. What’s interesting is that he’s not a two-dimensional villain. He believes the survival of his country is at stake so ruthless measures are justified. And we do see a human side of the Chinese master spy in his story. Wo Fat is also, in his own way, an honourable man. If he makes a promise he will keep it. The local CIA station chief is every bit as ruthless as Wo Fat and arguably less honourable. This is not the only Hawaii Five-O episode to take a slightly sceptical view of the CIA and other intelligence agencies and it’s obvious that McGarrett does not altogether trust spies, of any country.

In Trouble in Mind there’s a bad batch of heroin on the island. A really bad batch, cut with arsenic. McGarrett thinks that Michael Martin, pianist for popular jazz singer Eadie Jordan, might be involved. The fact that Martin slugged Kono when Kono tried to search his car adds weight to that suspicion. The truth is more complicated but McGarrett doesn’t want to see it. TV series that try to look sympathetically at social problems usually fall flat on the faces but this one works because it doesn’t pull its punches.

The Second Shot has a great opening pre-credits sequence. It establishes that something pretty bizarre is happening, wth a man apparently setting himself up as the target for an assassin’s bullet. We have no idea what’s behind it but we’re immediately interested. The plot of this episode certainly lives up to the promise of that pre-credits sequence. It’s a deliciously devious political thriller story. An excellent episode.

In Time and Memories McGarrett meets an old flame but she looks more and more like the obvious suspect in her husband’s murder. This is a good murder mystery plot with a rather neat solution plus we get some glimpses into McGarrett’s private life. Good episode.

The Ransom is yet another kidnapping story but there’s a twist. In trying to rescue the boy who’s been snatched Kono gets kidnapped as well. Which as you can imagine makes McGarrett pretty mad. Another good story with plenty of tension.

Force of Waves is a real misfire. McGarrett is nearly killed when a boat blows up. A rich businessman who has just dumped his wife for a younger prettier model is killed in the explosion. There are multiple suspects but the solution manages to both obvious and ludicrously far-fetched.

The Reunion of the title is a reunion of World War 2 veterans. Someone is threatening the life of a Japanese businessman and it seems that three of those WW2 veterans could be suspects and the roots of this case may go back to 1943. If the story of the veterans is true, which it may not be. Not a bad episode although the ending is not going to surprise anyone despite some heroic efforts at misdirection.

The Late John Louisiana takes Five-O to Maui where a hoodlum who works for gangster Harry Qon has been killed and a young couple have vanished. Is it part of a gang war? Is it connected to the murder of another gangster, John Louisiana? This one is quite complicated tale but it’s a clever story of love and betrayal.

The Last Eden is occasionally in danger of getting preachy but fortunately that element is kept reasonably well in check. A sewerage plant is blown up and a Hawaiian singer (and part-time ecological activist) is the prime suspect. But there’s just too much evidence pointing to Jimmy (the singer) - McGarrett doesn’t trust cases when they seem to have been made too easy for him. Not a great episode.

Over Fifty? Steal is unusual for Hawaii Five-O, being a whimsical mostly comic episode. A daring but oddly considerate elderly jewel thief leads McGarrett and his men on a merry chase and even McGarrett can’t help admiring him. A very enjoyable story.

Beautiful Screamer makes use of a device, having one of the detectives personally involved in a case, which I think is usually a mistake. Two young women are murdered. There’s a link between them but that link can’t possibly provide a plausible motive. So what could the real motive be? The plot does include some reasonably clever touches and the alibis are very clever. All in all a reasonably good episode.

In The Payoff a falling out among thieves might lead to murder, possibly even several murders. But all Five-O have to go on is the shooting of an anonymous drunk at a sleazy rooming house. It’s going to be a matter of slowly and methodically putting the pieces together. There’s no room for brilliant leaps of intuition in this story, but just patient thorough routine police work. But it’s also an exciting race against time. A good episode.

In The Double Wall a prisoner named Ritchie is badly injured and before dying makes a deathbed confession to another prisoner, Harry Kellem. That confession would have cleared Kellem of the murder for which he is serving a life sentence, but no-one else head the confession. Kellem goes crazy, takes a shotgun away from a guard and holds the prison doctor hostage. He insists that McGarrett reopen the case or he’ll kill the doctor. McGarrett figures there is a chance that Kellem is innocent but he has only hours to prove it. Lots of race-against-time tension in this one with the added bonus that McGarrett has no way of knowing just how much time he’s got. All he knows is that he hasn’t got long. Not overly original but well executed.

Paniolo is a cowboy story. Frank Kuakua is a cowpoke down on his luck. A shady land developer is trying to force him to sell his cattle ranch. Frank would rather die than give up his ranch, and sadly it may come to that. One man is dead already. And yes, back in 1970 there were cattle ranches in Hawaii. This one is on Maui. While it doesn’t have a particularly strong plot this episode does have quite a few things going for it. There’s some spectacular location shooting on Maui (which is great because most episodes of this series are set on Oahu). And to get his man McGarrett will have to saddle up his horse (literally) and get together a posse (literally). That’s enough to make this a pretty interesting episode.

Ten Thousand Diamonds and a Heart is an elaborate heist story. Old-time gangster Willard Lennox bust Sheldon Orwell out of prison. Orwell speciality is masterminding spectacular robberies. McGarrret knows Orwell is going to be planning a big score but he has no way of knowing what the target will be. All he has to go on is some cigar ash and some marble dust. While Orwell lays his plans for and rehearses his big robbery McGarrett patiently sets about trying to out-fox him. A terrific episode.

To Kill or Be Killed is one of a number of episodes dealing directly or indirectly with the Vietnam War and it takes a surprisingly strong anti-war stance. It begins with a mystery. A young man, not long returned from the war, falls from the balcony of an apartment to his death. Or was he pushed? There is certainly evidence suggesting foul play. What puzzles McGarrett is what was going on in the next door apartment. As in several other episodes McGarrett clashes with the military authorities. This is also a family drama. It’s a highly emotional episode but without ever feeling manipulative or sentimental. A very very good episode.

F.O.B. Honolulu is a two-parter, and it’s a Wo Fat episode which is even better. A Marine corporal arrives in Honolulu on a flight from Saigon, for R&R leave. He brings with him a souvenir - a Buddha. He is murdered and the Buddha is stolen. But he was no Marine corporal. And what did that Buddha contain? This is not just a spy story - there are lots and lots of spies in this one, all sorts of spies. And a plot that may endanger the entire Free World! The target is - the US dollar. And all those spies are in competition and trying to double-cross each other. Including a beautiful but deadly lady spy. An excellent episode with plenty of twists (and a great deal of mayhem).

In The Gunrunner arms dealer Ben Cunningham’s wife is kidnapped in a commando-stye raid. Cunningham kills one of the kidnappers. Cunningham is a legal arms dealer but since the dead kidnapper was a foreign national from a country in which separatists are planning an armed rebellion McGarrett can’t help suspecting that Cunningham is being pressured into supplying arms to the rebels. So this is an international intrigue rather than a straight crime episode. This blending of crime and espionage elements is one of the things that made Hawaii Five-O such an interesting and unusual series. A good episode.

Dear Enemy opens with small-time conman Ray Tobias just off the boat from Australia who meets with an unfortunate accident. He’d been a witness in a big murder trial a year earlier in which senatorial candidate Fred Whiting was convicted of murdering his mistress. Mrs Whiting claims Tobias had evidence that would force the case to be re-opened. McGarrett isn’t convinced but he is interested. And he gets more interested. A reasonable episode although motive is the weak link in the story.

The Bomber and Mrs. Moroney is a siege episode. A guy is paroled from prison and sets off to Five-O headquarters, wth a stack of dynamite, to see Danny Williams. Danny isn’t there but the guy takes a bunch of hostages, including Chin Ho. It’s a bad situation - there’s no way for Five-O to get in without blowing everyone up and the explosives are connected to a timer. Time is running out. Among the hostages is Mrs Moroney, a very feisty old lady who isn’t scared of hooligans with guns. Plenty of tension in this very good episode.

The Grandstand Play is a two-parter. A woman is murdered at a ball game. Gary Phillips, the son of baseball legend Lon Phillips, was seen in the vicinity. Gary is 17 and good-natured but he’s slow. McGarrett doesn’t think Gary killed the woman but he does think Gary saw something and is too frightened to talk. But someone else knows Gary may have seen something. Five-O will need to find Gary before that person finds him. The problem here is that there’s not enough plot to justify a two-parter and it’s all a bit too predictable. A disappointing end to an otherwise very strong season.

Final Thoughts

The third season of Hawaii Five-O is polished quality entertainment. A hit series at its peak. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Danger Man: Storm Over Rockall (TV tie-in novel)

One of my more recent enthusiasms has been chasing down the various tie-in novels that were produced to accompany TV series. My latest find has been the third of the six Danger Man tie-in novels, W. Howard Baker’s Storm Over Rockall (published in 1966). Which is pretty exciting given that Danger Man (or Secret Agent as it was known in the US) is in my view one of the best TV spy series of all time.

These TV tie-in novels started to become a big thing in the 60s. One of the things that is interesting about them is that they often have a subtly different flavour compared to the TV series on which they’re based. In a novel of course you could get away with a bit more sex and violence but there are often other differences. The producers of a TV series were subject to a lot of pressure from the networks in the US. Even a British series could be affected by American pressure if you wanted to have a chance of selling it there. Return of the Saint was a good example of a British series that had to be made much less violent than originally intended as a result of such considerations.

The writers of TV tie-in novels had by contrast a greater degree of freedom. The result was that the novels were sometime closer to the tone that the producers originally intended the series to have. A notable example is Michael Avallone’s The Birds of a Feather Affair, the first tie-in novel based on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., a series that suffered from pressure from the network to make it zanier and more light-hearted. Compared to the series Avallone’s rather good novel is much darker and more hard-edged.

The trick of course was to make use of this greater freedom while still capturing the essential feel of the TV series.

Storm Over Rockall is an original novel but some similar ideas were used in the TV episode Not So Jolly Roger (which happens to be an excellent episode).

Someone is trying to sabotage a British rocket program known as Phase Y. It could the Russians. Interestingly the British intelligence services seriously consider the possibility that it could be the Americans. That’s an interesting difference from the TV version. ITC were keen to sell the series in the US so such a suggestion would have been unthinkable in the TV series.

All that is known is that a pirate radio station is broadcasting coded messages in the form of music. The messages are believed to relate to the acts of sabotage and also to anti-nuclear protests. Those protests may well be organised by the same people carrying out the sabotage. Pirate radio stations, usually broadcasting from ships anchored just outside British territorial waters, were a big thing in Britain in the 60s and were a way of circumventing the BBC’s monopoly. They provide ideal background for spy fiction.

John Drake is sent to find out what exactly is going on and to neutralise the problem, by any means necessary. Including assassination. This is another interesting contrast to the TV series in which Drake is a man who only resorts to violence when there is no alternative. Drake’s reluctance to use violence was something that the star of the series, Patrick McGoohan (a man of very strong moral views) insisted upon. The novel in this case may be closer to the original conception of the character as a “licensed-to-kill” James Bond type of figure.

It’s also intriguing that in this novel Drake is used on missions that officially don’t happen. If something goes wrong the British government has plausible deniability. They will disavow any knowledge of his activities. In the original 1960 TV series Drake’s position was also slightly ambiguous (in fact even his nationality was slightly ambiguous).

Drake has one important lead which takes him to a discotheque called The Deeper Dive. He slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. In the process he gets a number of beatings for his trouble and has the requisite number of narrow escapes from certain death. As expected the trail eventually leads him to the pirate radio station and we get some mayhem on the high seas.

The ending is very Bondian indeed. Patrick McGoohan would not have approved.

This is very much second-tier spy fiction. W. Howard Baker is no Len Deighton. It is however a reasonably competent espionage tale. Obviously it’s going to appeal mostly to fans of the TV series who should enjoy its glimpses of a slightly more ruthless John Drake. So if you are a Danger Man fan it’s recommended.