Now Playing: THE ROCKFORD FILES
ROCKFORD's second episode, "The Dark and Bloody Ground," is an interesting mystery based upon an arcane copyright law (still on the books?) that ruled that if an author sold the rights to his novel to a third party, but died before the copyright had lapsed, then the third party lost those rights--regardless of how much they had paid for them or how long they had them--and the rights reverted to the late author's spouse. I imagine this was a piece of trivia screenwriter Roy Huggins had picked up somewhere along the road and filed it in the back of his head as a possible story hook. He gave it to Juanita Bartlett, who penned her first ROCKFORD FILES teleplay from it.
Michael Schultz, one of episodic TV's first black directors, helmed it. He was quite inexperienced in television at the time, which may explain why he never did another ROCKFORD. The episode plays pretty well, but much of the dialogue is obviously post-synched, and a car chase fills almost half an act, which may have been the editor's way of padding a short episode to an appropriate length. It sounds like I'm looking for evidence of Schultz's incompetence, but I'm really not. The episode has three (!) car chases that are staged well and one scene between Rockford (James Garner) and Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) that's full of exposition, but Schultz stages it (in a very small set) with a lot of movement, humor and characterization.
Beth (pictured above), an old flame of Rockford's (as we learn through some clever dialogue asides and the natural chemistry between the actors) and an attorney, enlists the detective to help prove the innocence of her pro bono client, a woman accused of killing her husband in a motel room. I say "enlists" rather than "hires," because Beth attempts to coax a freebie out of Jim, who says he doesn't "do charity cases" and eventually compromises on a fee (that we know he ain't gonna get paid anyway).
Rockford eventually finds the real killer, but not before a suspenseful desert chase that finds him being pursued and nearly run off a mountain by a semi in an action sequence probably inspired by DUEL, which was a Universal TV-movie telecast just a couple of years earlier. Interestingly, the sequence plays mostly without music, just as DUEL often did. (Also of interest is that this is one of the few ROCKFORDs not scored by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Dick deBenedictis did this one.)
Gretchen Corbett was a Universal contract player who went on to appear in many ROCKFORD episodes. Despite their age difference, she and Garner were believable as a couple, although they were mostly "just friends" on the show. Corbett was definitely an important part of the ROCKFORD "family"--the show's beloved supporting characters that helped the show stand out from other crime dramas of the period--but was dropped from the series in later seasons. Reportedly, it was because she had played out her contract with Universal, which did not want to pay her a higher fee to come back as a freelance guest star. It's too bad, because she certainly was missed.