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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Don't Cluck It Up
“This Case Is Closed” originally aired as a special 90-minute episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES. Unfortunately, Universal’s DVD splits it into two separate 60-minute episodes, the same as when it airs in syndication. I’d rather have it in its original form, since Part 2 begins with an extremely long “Previously On” prologue that Universal added to pad the episode for an hour timeslot.

I’m guessing Stephen J. Cannell wrote it as an hour, because the episode really drags at two. Director Bernard Kowalski can’t be blamed for the interminable driving scenes that slow the pacing almost to a standstill nor for the pointless little pieces, like Rockford hailing a cab or stock footage of a medical emergency, used to stretch the episode beyond what the story could hold. Maybe it plays just fine at 90 minutes, but the two-hour version seen in reruns and on DVD is a letdown.

It’s really too bad, because the kernels of a good episode are here: an interesting mystery in which the audience doesn’t have any more information than Rockford does, some wry dialogue (mainly between Rockford and his various kidnappers), more cunning use of the Firebird, and a coup in guest star Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE), the 69-year-old film legend who did not often do episodic television, but reportedly did “This Case Is Closed” as a favor to executive producer Meta Rosenberg.

Cotten plays Warner Jameson, a nasty millionaire who hires Rockford (James Garner) to find some dirt on his daughter’s fianc?, Mark Chalmers (Geoffrey Land, a regular in junky Al Adamson movies). A trip to Newark, New Jersey lands Rockford in a heap o’ trouble with the local cops and some finger-breakers who may be mobsters or may be Federal agents. Back in L.A., Rockford is kidnapped twice by members of organized crime, but is rescued the first time by F.B.I. man David Shore (James McEachin, who the season before starred in his own private-eye series, TENAFLY). Meanwhile, chipper Sue Jameson (Universal contract player Sharon Gless) has no idea her father is investigating her fianc? or that Mark may be the target of Mob hitmen.

Viewers may have been pissed off a year or so later, when Universal used the same script for a SWITCH episode, but with Robert Wagner playing “Rockford”. Ironically, Sharon Gless was a regular on SWITCH and got to play the same script twice.

The first time NBC aired “This Case Is Closed,” its competition on THE CBS FRIDAY NIGHT MOVIE was THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS, a 1972 mystery starring James Garner. THE ROCKFORD FILES topped it in the Nielsens.

Posted by Marty at 10:52 PM CDT
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I'm Betting You've Got A Smart Mouth
As proof that humor and characterization were more important to THE ROCKFORD FILES than its plots, “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” ends with its plot unresolved--a rarity in network television, where executives like their stories tied up in neat little bows. And it’s not an example of writer Stephen J. Cannell forgetting about plotholes; Rockford (James Garner) makes a joke about the open-ended story point at the closing freeze-frame.

A pesky journalist named Sandra Turkel (Sian Barbara Allen) hires Rockford to find her beautiful friend Charlotte, the ex-girlfriend of a dead mobster. Charlotte has vanished with over a million bucks of the hood’s money, and among the people who want it is a suspicious Treasury agent named Harry Stoner, played by George DiCenzo, just a couple of years away from his “role of a lifetime”: district attorney Vincent Bugliosi in HELTER SKELTER.

Much of the episode’s humor is contained in Rockford’s confrontations with the appropriately named Stoner, a man who, by his own admission, has no sense of humor. Their first great scene occurs after Rockford, angry at the stranger who has been tailing him all day, throws his Firebird into reverse and smashes it into his pursuer’s sedan. Before Stoner can recover, Rockford pulls him out of his car, reaches into his coat, and tosses his gun away. Perfectly performed by Garner is Rockford’s complete turnabout from indignation to sycophancy when he discovers the guy he’s roughing up is a Fed. He even straightens Stoner’s jacket and runs off to fetch his pistol. Rockford's not too proud to grovel when it means avoiding a night in jail or a sock to the gut.

One element that set Jim Rockford apart from other TV private eyes is his skill as a con artist, which Cannell, co-creator Roy Huggins and Garner obviously nicked from Bret Maverick. Rockford disguises himself as a coffinmaker, a Federal agent and a shrink in this episode, aided by one of the series’ most interesting props (and one we didn’t get to see very often after this). Here we learn that Rockford drives around with a portable printing press stashed in the backseat of his Firebird, just in case he needs to whip up some instant credentials.

Also in this episode are character actors John Crawford (who appeared with Garner in the great THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY), Dick Cavett lookalike James Murtaugh (now often seen as a judge on LAW & ORDER) and Angus Duncan, who played creepy Dr. John in the WIP classic SWEET SUGAR (“Dr. John is invincible!”). Jerry London, who made the classic KILLDOZER the same year, directed his first ROCKFORD FILES episode.

Posted by Marty at 12:39 AM CDT
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Saturday, June 10, 2006
Well, If Anyone Would Know... would be Richard Dawson. I've seen enough FAMILY FEUD to know that.

Posted by Marty at 5:07 PM CDT
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Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Um. Ouch.
Yikes. I'm a little sore right now. I played basketball after work. Well, more like we shot baskets, but we did it for two hours. That was two hours of being on my feet, chasing rebounds, jumping around, no sitting (or very little). My shot is terrible too. If I were to hazard a guess as to my shooting percentage, I'm sure it's under 20%. There was some ugly hoops going on this evening. Still, it was a good time, and I enjoyed a tasty pork chop sandwich at Esquire afterward.

So you were asking for more ROCKFORD FILES reviews? Yeah, you were.

OK, so now that everyone is gone, here's "Exit Prentiss Carr". It would be interesting if somebody were to keep count of all the times Rockford was either arrested or just harassed by the police. Jim manages to avoid the clink in this episode, but the small-town detectives played by venerable character actors Warren Kemmerling and Mills Watson (later to portray a more comedic corrupt cop in THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO) do rough him up a little bit (“I bruise easy.”).

One important lesson taught by 1970’s TV is that you should never, ever pass through a small town where nobody knows you. Particularly if that town is located in the South. Just about every TV detective ended up poking around one--Mannix, Cannon, Charlie’s Angels--and it always led to trouble. Not as bad as the TV-movie NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY, where two luscious coeds ended up in a womens’ work farm after getting raped by sheriff Chuck Connors and ogled by pervy warden Robert Reed, but bad enough.

In this episode, Rockford enters Bay City in search of Prentiss Carr, the husband of Jim’s old flame Janet (Corinne Michaels, who also appeared in many shows billed as “Corinne Camacho”). Rockford finds Carr dead in a motel room and tells the Bay City cops--omitting the part about actually being in the room. The cops call it a suicide, even though the evidence Rockford saw there was obviously that of a murder. He accuses the cops of being corrupt and his client of being her husband’s killer. Typical of a Roy Huggins story, the plot is more complex than that, throwing in blackmail and a late-act red herring.

It’s a pretty good episode with good dialogue and another car chase (every episode up to this point had one). Cult movie fans will enjoy a brief wordless performance by the delicious Roberta Collins, a pretty good actress who never really got out of B-movies. She’s probably most memorable as one of the convicts in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, the sex-crazed con who tries to seduce a man by pointing a knife at his junk and warning him, “Get it up or I’ll cut it off!” Director Alex Grasshoff was a three-time Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary who turned to episodic dramatic television around this time, presumably for the bucks and the comfort of steady work. In 1974, he also worked on GET CHRISTIE LOVE, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER and THE ROOKIES.

Posted by Marty at 9:12 PM CDT
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Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Only 900 Miles There And 900 Miles Back
Spent the evening with LD, Train Guy and their wives grilling huge steaks and watching SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT on DVD. Life don't get much better than that. Considering the many times I've seen SMOKEY and the countless evenings at Tres Hombres my friend Jerome and I spent reenacting entire scenes from the movie, I've got the whole thing pretty much memorized by now. How anyone could ever get tired of Burt Reynolds telling cops to "f.o." while jumping bridges in a sweet Trans Am, I'll never understand.

SMOKEY II--not so good. SMOKEY 3--the less said, the better. The only thing that interests me about the third movie is the rumor (is it more than that?) that it was originally shot as SMOKEY IS THE BANDIT with Jackie Gleason donning Burt's cowboy hat. The result was reportedly unreleaseable, forcing Universal to lure in Jerry Reed to drive the Trans Am and play the Bandit opposite Gleason as the sheriff. Reynolds came in for about 12 minutes to shoot a quick cameo, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 3 died a deservedly quick box-office death. Now that I have it on DVD, I wonder if I'm brave enough to revisit it. I would definitely watch SMOKEY IS THE BANDIT if a bootleg copy existed.

A lot of great television is coming out on DVD these days. So much that I can't figure whether or not I should buy it all. Partially because of cost and partially because when the hell would I watch it all? I'm simultaneously working my way through Season 1 of THE ROCKFORD FILES and Season 2 of THE WHITE SHADOW now. My three favorite western series are either just out or coming soon on DVD: THE BIG VALLEY, THE WILD WILD WEST and THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. BRISCO COUNTY is an absolute must-buy; I've been waiting for this set ever since it was rumored back in the '90s that star Bruce Campbell had recorded audio commentaries for them. THE WILD WILD WEST has a lot of extras, including commentary by Robert Conrad, which may make Season 1 (the b&w year) a sure-buy too. THE BIG VALLEY, a great show, basically a gender-switched BONANZA with matriarch Barbara Stanwyck looking over her three sons (and daughter Linda Evans), another I want to catch up with. Perhaps that's one I should Netflix (as I'm doing now with WHITE SHADOW).

A definite must-buy is one of my favorite shows, period. Season 1 of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is coming to DVD in September. When it was first announced, I expected Paramount to start with Season 2, which was the year Peter Graves took over as the star. However, the studio is starting from the beginning, when the great Steven Hill headed a cast that also included Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus. Hill proved to be an enormous pain in the ass for everyone involved with the series, including executive producer Bruce Geller, who fought to cast Hill against the vehement wishes of CBS execs who didn't want him. Hill was basically fired before the season even ended, which was likely fine with all parties. Graves, already a dependable TV actor, became an international star through running the Impossible Missions Force for the next six seasons, so I'm sure he was happy to get the gig.

Extras or not (and none have yet been announced), M:I is going to be in my Top Ten DVDs of 2006. I like the box design, although I don't know why Paramount didn't use the original show logo. I have no idea where this one came from. Was it for the first Tom Cruise movie?

Posted by Marty at 11:01 PM CDT
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Monday, June 5, 2006
Hypocrisy or Bigotry? Does It Make A Difference?
So President Bush is pushing for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriages because of "activist judges" that overrule state laws that prohibit them. Isn't that exactly what Brown v. Board of Education did in 1954? The Supreme Court decision that overruled state laws that demanded black schoolchildren and white schoolchildren be segregated? Or how about Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned Virginia's law against interracial marriages? That was nine "activist judges" striking down a bullshit law, a law that attempted to tell American citizens who and who they could not marry.

Is there an intelligent person anywhere who believes the justices in the Brown or the Loving cases were wrong? How can someone possibly agree with those landmark civil rights decisions, and yet come down on the side for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriages? And cite "activist judges" as the reason?

Is it possible that George W. Bush and the (mostly Republican) senators in favor of the amendment hate blacks just as much as they hate homosexuals? How about you? Do you despise "activist judges" that rule against unfair laws written out of bigotry and hate? Do you believe blacks and whites shouldn't marry?

Posted by Marty at 8:43 PM CDT
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Sunday, June 4, 2006
More Fi'dies. Approximately.
LD listed some of his Top 50 in the Comments section awhile back. They're pretty good ones too:

"Deserve's got nothing to do with it."--Eastwood, UNFORGIVEN.
"We all got it comin', kid." Eastwood, UNFORGIVEN
"Fuck the bonus." Rutger Hauer, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE.
"No you won't." Charles Bronson, 10 TO MIDNIGHT
"What heart?" Gabriel Byrne, MILLER'S CROSSING
"It's a cold sore. It only acts up around morons." Gabriel Byrne to the Dane in MILLER'S CROSSING
"I'm a mean vindictive sunuvabitch." Charles Bronson, 10 TO MIDNIGHT
"Nothing's gonna' stop us now!" DIRTY MARY & CRAZY LARRY
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." Rutger Hauer, BLADERUNNER
"He's a pacifist. And you know he has emotional problems, man." "You mean beyond pacifism?" Goodman, THE BIG LEBOWSKI
"I . . . I'm cooperating here!" William H., FARGO
"I'm an eccentric millionare." Charles Bronson, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
"They're afraid — she's afraid — of me, you, him... all of us. Farmers. Their families told them we'd rape them. Well, we might. In my opinion, though, you might have given us the benefit of the doubt." Yul Brenner, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
"All right, we waste him. No offense!" Hicks, ALIENS
"I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." Gen. Ripper, DR. STRANGELOVE
"You sounded . . . taller on the radio." Buford T. Justice, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT
"Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." Sinatra, MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
"Never have anything in your life that you can't walk out on in thirty seconds flat, if you spot the heat coming around the corner." De Niro, HEAT
"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." De Niro, TAXI DRIVER
"You think I'm funny? Funny how? Funny like a clown?" Pesci, GOOD FELLAS
"So pretty please with sugar on top, clean the fucking car." Keitel, PULP FICTION
"AK-47--when you absolutely, positively gotta' kill every muthafucker in the room, accept no substitutes." Sam Jackson, JACKIE BROWN

The Gabriel Byrne mentions remind me of my favorite Byrne moment, which is in a bad Schwarzeneggar movie called END OF DAYS. A minion of Satan (or something like that) possesses Byrne in a trendy restaurant and forces him to leave (so he can blow it up). On his way out, he sees a sexy woman on a date. He stops by her table and impulsively puts his hand down her cleavage to fondle her breast while he kisses her. The date gets pissed, the neighboring diners are shocked, but the woman appears to like it. A few minutes later, they're all killed in the explosion. I've always wanted to do that since watching that movie. Make out with a hot stranger in public, not blow up a building.

Posted by Marty at 1:00 AM CDT
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Saturday, June 3, 2006
La Contessa
The beautiful Susan Strasberg was the main guest star in “The Countess,” in which she played Debbie Ryder, a former gangster’s-girlfriend who jumped bail in Chicago and ran off to Europe, where she met and married a count. After her husband’s death, she met another man, a rough-and-tumble American businessman (played by Art Lund, memorable as the corrupt cop who gave Fred Williamson such a hard time in BLACK CAESAR), married him, and moved to Los Angeles with him. There, she runs into smarmy Carl (game-show regular Dick Gautier), who recognizes her from her Chicago mug shot and blackmails her. “La Contessa” hires Rockford to get Carl off her back, which leads to a memorable scene where he tries (unsuccessfully) to physically intimidate the thug on a private beach (“I’ll come back here and pound sand down your throat.”). Carl is shot to death by a sniper, and police lieutenant Diel (Tom Atkins, later a John Carpenter regular) makes Rockford the #1 suspect.

Co-creator/producer Stephen J. Cannell was still working on ROCKFORD’s trademark idiosyncrasy in this episode, which was one of the first to be filmed and looks a lot like Universal’s other crime dramas of the era like MCCLOUD and MCMILLAN AND WIFE. Artie Kane scored it, probably because the studio wasn't yet on board with Cannell and Mike Post's idea of a rock-based score, something which was unheard of in TV crime dramas at the time.

Cannell and star James Garner were still trying to get as much character-based humor into the show as possible, against the wishes of the network, which wanted a straight-forward private-eye show. That ROCKFORD was something entirely different is evident in a scene in which Rockford, on the hook for Carl’s murder, tells Debbie that he’ll spill her secret to the cops before he’ll let them toss him in jail for murder (to which she replies, “Chivalry really is dead, isn’t it?”). Rockford is a moral man, but he ain’t about to let that stand in the way of a murder rap. Sounds like a common case of self-preservation, but there ain’t no way that Mannix or Richard Diamond would reveal a trusted secret just to save their own asses.

Look closely and you’ll see a blond James Cromwell playing a tennis instructor. According to the Internet Movie Database, this ROCKFORD FILES may have been his first television role, although he went on to several guest shots as Archie’s work buddy Stretch Cunningham on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Cromwell did tons of TV shows and small parts in movies until finally achieving great mainstream success (and an Oscar nod) twenty years later as Father Hoggett in BABE. Cromwell continues to rack up credits, including a regular gig on SIX FEET UNDER, Eddie Albert’s role in the LONGEST YARD remake, and the late, lamented Captain Stacy in the upcoming SPIDER-MAN 3.

Posted by Marty at 11:33 PM CDT
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Friday, June 2, 2006
Toothpaste Is A Legitimate Expense
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.

Posted by Marty at 3:27 PM CDT
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Thursday, June 1, 2006
Ugliest Unis Ever?
Here's lefty Fred Norman's San Diego Padres Topps card, I think from 1973:

That is a lovely shade of brown, isn't it? It meshes well with the baby-food yellow. '70s fashions rule.

Not to pick on Norman, who was actually a pretty decent pitcher. He's one of the few major leaguers to have "Hubert" as a middle name. He was a switchhitter--unusual for a pitcher. He was short and didn't throw hard. He sported what seemed to be a permanent 5 o'clock shadow. And he stayed in the majors for a long time--16 full or partial seasons.

Norman was a member of the 1975 and 1976 World Champion Cincinnati Reds, primarily as a #4 starter. He won 12 games both seasons, but none in the World Series. He retired in 1980 at the age of 37 with a lifetime record of 104-103 and an ERA of 3.64. Not a bad little career. Except for when he had to wear those nasty-ass Padre uniforms.

Posted by Marty at 3:41 PM CDT
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