Saturday 19 June 2021

Decoy (1957)

Decoy was a syndicated 1957 cop drama that has considerable historical interest, being the first American cop series to feature a woman as the lead character. It’s also unusual for American TV of that era in featuring some actual location shooting with some great New York street scenes.

Officer Patricia “Casey” Jones (Beverly Garland) is a New York policewoman. She doesn’t have a regular assignment. Like a lot of her fellow policewomen she gets assigned to various squads when they need a female officer to go undercover.

The series only lasted for one season (of 39 episodes). The obvious explanation for this is that it tried to be fairly realistic. Policewomen didn’t spend most of their time beating up bad guys or shooting them. When assigned to plain-clothes work they just went undercover and tried to blend into whatever environment they found themselves in, either patiently gathering evidence or equally patiently for a criminal to take the bait (the policewoman being the bait). Which means that it’s a much less action-packed series than something like M Squad. The insistence on not making Casey an unrealistic action heroine was admirable but would not have helped the ratings.

It’s not hard to see why none of the networks were interested - they would have had no idea what to do with a series such as this which is too unconventional and low-key to fit neatly into the cop show genre.

The show’s biggest asset is without a doubt Beverly Garland, an extraordinarily talented actress who should have become a major star but it just never happened for her. The format of the series gives her plenty of opportunities to stretch her acting wings. An undercover policewoman like Casey had to be an actress of sorts, constantly playing different rôles which of course means that Garland gets to vary her performances (and she does so very skilfully).

She also has to be tough and she has to be sensitive and occasionally she has to be vulnerable. All of which Garland manages with ease.

It also has to be said that Beverly Garland is very glamorous. And when she gets undercover assignments that require her to play up the glamour she’s very very glamorous indeed.

At the end of every episode Casey breaks the fourth wall and gives us a spiel about the work of policewomen. This sort of thing (along with voiceover narration) was a common but irritating feature of a lot of 50s cop shows. Of course the producers needed the coöperation of police departments so the spiels occasionally sound like public relations releases.

The scripts are, on the whole, extremely strong and despite the half-hour format they have a lot more complexity than you might expect. They’re pleasingly varied - sometimes very dark, sometimes slightly whimsical. And on occasions they’re not afraid to address tricky ethical dilemmas.

It’s fascinating to compare Decoy to Police Woman. Police Woman is a wonderfully entertaining series but Decoy is more interesting, more psychologically complex, more realistic and more intelligent. It can be dark but it can be hopeful as well. And while Angie Dickinson has enormous charisma Beverly Garland is in her own way just as memorable.

Episode Guide

In Stranglehold a sailor has been murdered and a woman, Molly Orchid, has been picked up trying to pawn the dead man’s watch. The police think her boyfriend George did the killing but they know nothing about him apart from his name. It’s Casey’s job to befriend Molly and find out who George is. It turns out to be a much more dangerous job than she expected.

The Red Clown is an episode that offers a clue as why this series only lasted one season. Casey is trying to track down an errant husband so that he can be forced to pay child support. Casey has visions of reuniting father and daughter but finds that putting families back together isn’t so easy. It’s not a bad story. In fact it’s very good. I admire the series for showing a policewoman working the sort of unglamorous everyday cases that a real policewoman would have been involved in. It’s just not a cop show story. There’s no crime, no arrests, no guns, no-one is in any danger. It’s just a cop trying to bring a father and a daughter back together. When you compare it to contemporary cop shows like Dragnet or M Squad you can see why a lot of viewers were going to be alienated or mystified. In TV in that era a series that did not fit genre expectations was going to have trouble finding an audience.

In The Phoner Casey has to trap a man making obscene phone calls to a woman named Betty. It could be more dangerous than it sounds, for both Betty and Casey. An effectively tense episode.

To Trap a Thief starts with Casey on a routine assignment, trying to catch pickpockets. Then gunfire breaks out. It’s the aftermath of an armed robbery. The robbery itself is far from routine. $17,000 was stolen but the thieves only had $7,000 on them when apprehended. What happened to the other $10,000? Suspicion falls on veteran cop Frank Torrino. As part of the investigation Casey poses as a blackmailer but what she uncovers is not what she expected. It’s a solid story but what makes this a typical (and very good) Decoy episode is the compassion for human weakness.

Dream Fix
deals with a junkie, a young woman who might lead the cops to a big-time dealer. Casey goes undercover as a nurse at a rehab hospital. Another typical Decoy episode with the emphasis on the human side of police work.

The Savage Payoff deals with sports betting and rigged basketball games. Casey goes undercover to befriend a player whom the cops suspect is involved. He’s a nice boy and Casey hates to think he might be mixed up in anything dishonest. Another story in which right and wrong is not something straightforward.

Casey finds herself behind bars in Deadly Corridor, posing as a prisoner to solve the murder of an inmate. She might find the answer but she might not like it. This one gives Beverly Garland a chance to do her tough girl thing. Not a bad story.

In Escape into Danger Casey arrives home after a long shift to find that one of her neighbours has committed a murder. Mary Waleski has killed her violent alcoholic husband and now Mary has fled. But there’s something really important that Mary doesn’t know, so Casey has to find her. A good tense story with an interesting twist - the police are hunting a woman they know to be innocent.

Casey is launched into high society in Necklace of Glass. She’s the bait in the trap for the man responsible for a series of jewel robberies. It’s the kind of job she’s done before but you can’t always be sure things will go smoothly. A good episode which gives Beverly Garland the chance to show how glamorous she can be.

In Scape Goat Casey screws up badly. She and a male detective had to go to the airport to take a woman into custody (the woman had been extradited from Canada). Casey followed her instincts and took the cuffs off the woman. Casey was wrong, but she was also right. Her instincts told her correctly that this woman was no ordinary criminal. Now Casey and her colleague are in race against time to prevent a tragedy. This is another Decoy episode focused on the emotional pressures that can lead a person to commit a crime. And it’s another solid episode.

In Two Days to Kill Casey has to act as bodyguard to a 18-year-old named Selma who is a vital witness against her hoodlum boyfriend. It’s only for two days but it’s a long two days for Casey. She and Selma are just not going to get along and Selma is going to be trouble. A darker episode, and a good one.

Queen of Diamonds
takes Casey undercover as a photographer in a night-club. Her job is to find evidence that will break an unbreakable alibi. There’s a complex romantic triangle involved as well, and conflicting loyalties that could play out disastrously. There are complications from the past and the past can haunt the present. A very good episode.

My Brother's Killer starts with Casey getting a very lucky break. An incident that is absurdly trivial could lead to the capture of a man wanted for his part in an armed hold-up that ended in murder. That lucky break isn’t as straightforward as it seemed and the result is a remarkably dark, brutal suspense-filled episode with some real film noir atmosphere. A truly excellent episode, the best of the series so far.

In Bullet of Hate a teenage girl is driven to murder her cruel aunt, or at least that’s how it looks. Casey isn’t so sure. She’s spotted quite a few clues that tell a different story but she’ll have to move carefully to find evidence to support her suspicions. There’s certainly plenty of festering hate in this overheated melodramatic episode. Decoy is usually a bit more subtle than this.

Casey infiltrates a major shoplifting gang in Death Watch. Her job is to find the man behind the operation, which she does only she finds out that he is involved in a lot more than shoplifting. She also has to deal with a punch-drunk young ex-fighter. This episode deals with evil but as usual with some touches of complexity. Unfortunately it’s an episode that should be suspenseful but the suspense falls a bit flat.

In Odds Against the Jockey there’s murder at the race-track. This one has a decent mystery plot and Casey is charmed by a loveable rogue who may be a killer. It’s fairly light-hearted but stylish and slick and overall it’s a very good episode.

A model is murdered in the garment district in New York in Dressed for the Kill. She wasn’t a very popular model. Casey goes undercover as a model to find the killer (there’s no point in having a series about a beautiful policewoman unless there’s at least one episode in which she has to pose as a model). The mystery in this one isn’t too challenging but it’s a decent enough episode.

In An Eye for an Eye Casey goes undercover as a junkie after a female junkie is murdered. The police want the murderer and they want to break up the narcotics ring that was supplying her. It turns out the dead girl’s brother was involved in the drug ring. It’s a story of loyalty betrayed and it’s not bad.

The Challenger is a boxing story, dealing with mobsters trying to take control of a young boxer’s career. Casey gets involved when she encounters the boxer’s wife. The problem of course is that no-one in the boxing game is prepared to talk to the cops but Casey isn’t giving up. A reasonably good and rather dark episode and one which emphasises the difficulties the police face when people make the mistake of thinking they can deal with criminals on their own.

In Across the World an import-export business is dealing in more than just machine tools and the owner of the business is murdered when she finds out too much. Casey goes undercover as the new owner and finds herself in the middle of some complicated double-crosses. And she gets beaten up for her trouble. Not a bad episode.

The Showplace
deals with a bar that is a front for prostitution although this is implied rather than stated outright. One of the girls has been murdered. Casey has to find the killer, preferably without getting herself killed. A decent episode.

Reasonable Doubt is interesting. The police have one suspect for an armed robbery and they want to nail the guy’s brother as well. Casey has to find the evidence to prove the brother’s guilt but she’s not comfortable with the lies and manipulation in which she has to engage in order to do so. It’s rather surprising for a cop show in 1957 to be so honest about the methods of the police. There are several layers of betrayal in this extremely good episode.

Night of Fire is an arson case. The chief suspect is one of the office girls, a former patient in a mental hospital. This one gets just a tiny bit preachy but there’s some good stuff with alibis.

In Saturday Lost Casey has to help a woman who has lost her memory. Her memory loss is real enough but maybe she’s lost her memory because there’s something that she really doesn’t want to remember. A good story.

In High Swing a drug overdose leads the police to a robbery racket and, as so often in tis series, we’re dealing with criminals who are tragic rather than evil. And Casey discovers once again that when you work undercover you get inside people’s lives. A very good episode.

A high-stakes gambling club is the target in Earthbound Satellite, but the operators are very clever indeed. Casey is of course undercover but she’s without backup. There’s some fun 1950s high-tech stuff in this story and it’s another case which for Casey has a rather bitter-sweet ending. A very good episode.

In The Sound of Tears a rich young man is shot by a woman in Central Park. She really wanted to make sure of the job - she shot him six times at close range. A cop on the scene let her get away. There is one clue - a dachshund which may belong to the murderess. Another story that combines mystery and emotional depth.

Ladies Man
starts interestingly - a woman carrying a cardboard box on the subway, but it’s a deadly box. And the man who gave her the box has to be found. There’s a good tense climax in a cabin in the woods. A pretty good episode.

Cry Revenge starts with a woman reporting threatening phone calls from a pair of hoodlums. Casey is assigned to protect her and discovers there’s a complicated family drama going on as well. There’s a daughter who wants revenge and there are illusions that would be better off being shattered. The police case against the hoodlums collapses but that family drama will have unexpected consequences. There’s a crime story here but it’s the family dynamics that really matter, with Casey remaining mostly in the background. Another emotional story but it works.

In The Gentle Gun-Man a cheap hood named Danny gets killed in a bungled robbery but it’s his gun the police are interested in. Lots of similar guns have been used in recent robberies - guns that have been so cleverly doctored that they are completely untraceable. Casey poses as Danny’s widow to try to find the source of these guns and she learns that sometimes criminals can be not just sympathetic - they can be really really nice people. But she still has her job to do. A very good episode.

On the surface Night Light is about upscale jewel thefts but it’s really about the complex relationship between a father and his son. Nick (Martin Balsam) is a crook and a loser but he loses his son. Unfortunately that’s going to be very bad for the kid in the long run. Casey wants to solve the case but as usual she’s more interested in the human cost of crime. And that’s really what this series is all about. A very good episode.

In Fiesta at Midnight Juan Ortega is fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico and now he’s facing a murder charge. He has an alibi but the police can’t find the girl who can confirm it. All Juan can tell them is that her name is Maria and she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. The alibi stuff is handled well and the clue that leads Casey to the solution is clever. A good episode.

The Lieutenant Had a Son is another domestic drama episode. A soldier is looking for the son he abandoned five years earlier. He finds him but the result is a heart-breaking tug-of-love story. These are the stories that Decoy did very well, accepting the complexities of domestic situations in which nobody is actually the bad guy but there seems to be no way to resolve the situation with someone getting hurt. As so often Casey doesn’t see her job as being to arrest people but to persuade them to do the right thing. A fine episode.

In Shadow of Van Gogh someone is producing high quality forgeries of Van Gogh paintings. The forgeries are so good that it’s almost as if they’re being painted by someone who really thinks he is Van Gogh. Which proves to be the case. But Casey’s job is not to find the forger but the man behind the forgeries. This is a reasonably successful attempt to explore the strange world of art. Maybe it’s a bit too respectful of that world but it’s more successful in getting into the mind of a struggling artist. A good episode.

In Tin Pan Payoff Casey discovers that the music business is a world of glamour and excitement but also a world of heartbreak, treachery and murder.

Blind Date starts with a woman involved in a minor traffic accident. The police find $125,000 in her suitcase. The woman was supposed to deliver that money somewhere and now Casey is going to deliver it instead. It’s a good plan, if it works. Another solid episode.

The Come Back is a racetrack crime story involving counterfeit betting slips. Casey thinks she’s figured out how it’s being worked but she has to go undercover, as a crooked cop. This is another character-driven drama with Casey finding as so often that the case revolves around all-too-common human weaknesses. A good story.

First Arrest is a semi-comic episode. Casey is talking to a young policewoman who has just made her first arrest and feels bad about it so Casey recounts the slightly farcical and slightly sordid story of her own first arrest and how it made her feel that she was using and manipulating people (which in fact she was but that’s what the job is all about). An OK episode at best.

The Lost Ones starts with Casey visiting girl just out of reform school. Casey hopes she’s going to be OK now but it’s not to be. Elsa has shot and killed her violent, drunken father. And now she’s armed and on the run. This is a dysfunctional family drama, with the question being whether the dysfunctionality is going to destroy the whole family. As usual with Decoy the emphasis is not on Casey solving a crime but on her attempts to help people put their lives back together.

Final Thoughts

Decoy is hampered a little by the half-hour format but it still manages to be an emotionally grown-up and very engaging character-driven cop drama. And Beverly Garland is terrific. Very highly recommended.

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