Thursday, February 26, 2009

“…a special detail of the Chicago Police …”

When classic television fans received the scuttlebutt back in June of last year that Timeless Media Group had plans to release a DVD box set of the 1957-60 crime drama M Squad, there was much rejoicing that this rarely-seen but fondly remembered half-hour series (starring Lee Marvin) would be made accessible on disc. Initially, Timeless’ plans were to release a collection containing 100 episodes (sort of a “Best of” deal) but the company decided to make a public plea asking collectors to sift through their holdings and check if all 117 episodes could be accounted for. Vintage TV buffs came through in the clutch, and the set was readied for a street date of November 11, 2008 with a SRP price tag of $119.98; a hefty tariff to be certain—but if one is diligent and patient enough, eventually you can luck into a discounted bargain (which I did—Buy.com offered the set for $55.78).

I think the $55.78 tag suits this set because I’ll be honest with you right from the start: many of the episodes included are of iffy quality, though there’s not one among the ones I’ve seen so far that I could call “unwatchable.” (Having to scour through attics, basements and crawlspaces to put together the whole enchilada, you’re naturally going to have to expect that some shows aren’t going to be pristine.) Truth be told, I like the fact that some of the M Squad episodes are a little on the beat-up side; it’s sort of like tuning into an obscure UHF station (with an analog TV, natch) to watch a series that a majority of stations wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, preferring to showcase That 70’s Show instead. The only time I’d ever seen M Squad was when it was once featured as a one-shot oddity on TVLand—a cable station that now prides itself in showing edited-for-TV movies and Extreme Makeover as part of “television’s heritage.”

M Squad premiered on NBC-TV September 20, 1957 as a Friday night crime drama produced by Latimer Productions and filmed in Hollywood by Universal/MCA’s TV arm, Revue Studios. Sponsored by Pall Mall Cigarettes during its three-year stint, it was a Friday night staple for the network until the mid-season of its last year on the air, when it was moved to Tuesday nights at 10:00pm. Lee Marvin, an actor who was making a name for himself as a villain in feature films like The Big Heat (1953), The Wild One (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), essayed the role of Lt. Frank Ballinger—a Chicago plainclothes cop assigned to “M Squad.” It was never really fully explained during the course of the series just what function “M Squad” served in relation to the Chicago Police; in the premiere episode of the series (“The Golden Look”) it’s described as “a special section that can be assigned to any department” and in “The Matinee Trade” (11/08/57) it’s “for the special cases and the dirty ones.” Ballinger’s superior was Captain Grey (originally Inspector Grey), a tall, burly individual (even taller than co-star Marvin, who was no slouch in the long-and-lanky department) with a basset-hound face played by character actor Paul Newlan. In Squad’s first season, Marvin’s character didn’t always answer to Grey (due to his being shifted around from department to department) but by mid-season Grey was established as the “boss,” and in the second season Newlan received credit right after Marvin’s name. (Both men had an incredible rapport with one another, and would often punctuate their scenes together with amusing throwaway bits—a good example is in the second season opener “More Deadly,” in which Grey and Ballinger discuss a case and Ballinger keeps elbowing Grey away from a cooling fan. At the end of their conversation, Ballinger gets up and hands his superior a paper fan, which Grey uses to fan himself a couple of times, and then does a double-take.)

M Squad did for Chicago what Dragnet did for Los Angeles…and what Naked City would later do for New York City. The first season episodes emulate Dragnet’s output in many ways (though Dragnet’s plots were culled from actual closed case files, whereas Squad was left to the fancy-free flights of the scribe’s imagination) but it wasn’t long before Marvin put his individual stamp on M Squad, creating a cop with a sardonic sense of humor and a barely-concealed streak of violence. When Ballinger was collaring a miscreant and his life was being threatened—he didn’t resort to any namby-pamby “shoot-‘em-in-the-hand” Lone Ranger crap; he shot to kill, knowing that innocent bystanders were at the mercy of his prey should said prey go completely crazy-go-nuts. If he didn’t have to shoot anybody, however, rest assured said suspect would receive a pummeling unparalleled in the history of television cop shows. A very good example of this is a second-season episode entitled “Dead or Alive” (09/26/58): a journalism school graduate (Judi Meredith) overhears Frank make a remark about capturing a couple of thrill-killers “dead or alive,” prompting her to unleash a bleeding-heart screed in her father’s newspaper about the police endorsing unorthodox methods to capture what she believes are a pair of just “misunderstood” youngsters. Ballinger, on the other hand, has the experience on the force to discern that these budding young sadists (who are holding a sickly old man as a hostage) should be taken in with as little violence as possible…but if they resist arrest, there’s nothing wrong with putting a bullet into their collective brainpans if their actions are a threat to the public at large. Marvin, in essence, played Ballinger in the same manner as his big-screen villains: they were rat bastards…but they displayed enough charm and charisma to make you overlook all that.

Many of the best M Squad episodes feature the Frank Ballinger character going undercover to smoke out a suspect—and Marvin approached these “identities” with the ferocity of a Method actor (“What’s my motivation in getting this punk to spill the beans?”). Contrast this with Jack Webb’s Joe Friday—who pretty much remained Joe Friday in every undercover masquerade he took, be it short-term cook or porn merchant. An example of Marvin’s playful approach to his undercover work can be found in “The Hard Case” (11/15/57): Ballinger’s old buddy (Howard Negley), once a baseball player and now retired and working as a night watchman, has been accused by a jewel thief named Harry Slaughter (Ray Foster) of being the inside man on one of Slaughter’s capers…and since the jewels haven’t been recovered, the cops have swallowed Slaughter’s story. But Ballinger is convinced that the watchman is telling the truth, and arranges to pretend to be Slaughter’s cellmate (“Lloyd Nelson”) in prison in an effort to get him to tell the truth:

SLAUGHTER (laying in his bunk, then dropping out of it onto the floor): Hey, Nelson…what’s your charm over Bicker?
BALLINGER: He’s just a big bag of wind…the day I get out, I’m gonna look him up—and he knows it…
SLAUGHTER: And that Elmer! That’s the first time I saw him stand up to Bicker…
BALLINGER: Elmer’s a good boy…he’s gonna join up with us when he gets his diploma…
SLAUGHTER (annoyed) What about me? Ain’t we got some talkin’ to do?
BALLINGER: I don’t know…you sure goofed that heist job
SLAUGHTER: I got a tough break, that’s all…how was I to know they put on a special guard?
BALLINGER: You was supposed to find outthat’s how…
(Two guards approach Slaughter and Ballinger’s cell and the two men quickly stop talking. One carries a clipboard, not looking up as he reads—the other inspects the cell.)
FIRST GUARD: 1572…Slaughter…Nelson…
SECOND GUARD: Check…
(The two guards move on, and when their footsteps get softer and softer the two cellmates resume their conversation.)
SLAUGHTER (low tones): I was workin’ alone, Nelson…that’s what was wrong…that’s why I want to team up…
BALLINGER: I still say you shoulda been smarter
SLAUGHTER: I was smart. Smarter than the cops and the whole lot of ‘em…
BALLINGER: Sure you were…so you got ten years and nothin’ to show for it…if you’d been any smarter, you coulda got life
SLAUGHTER (craftily): Suppose I was to tell you I got twenty thousand out of it…stashed away and waitin’ for me…
BALLINGER (looking at him): I thought the watchman got that!
SLAUGHTER: Sure, that’s what I told the cops… (Looking around and lowering his voice) I had this bag of diamonds in my hand, see, when I heard someone come in the store…so I hid ‘em!
BALLINGER: You ain’t so dumb at that!
SLAUGHTER (laughing): You should seen ‘em! They tore the store apart tryin’ to find ‘em…
BALLINGER: I’ll bet…

Ballinger is able to get Slaughter to come across with the location of the diamonds (telling him a story about a buddy who did something similar in Seattle only to return three months after the heist to discover the building had been torn down) but has a bit of difficulty in getting the news to the prison’s warden because the corrupt guard known as “Bicker” clues Slaughter in as to Ballinger’s true identity, setting our hero up for a proper beatdown. Fortunately, everything comes out in the wash—I love the Warden’s apology for having a guard like Bicker around for so long, by the way: “…I’m sorry about Bicker…I should have spotted him before.” (Knowing what I know about Chicago cops at that time, however, it would have been difficult for the Warden to spot an honest one.)

In “The Alibi Witness” (12/06/57), an ex-con named Wally Gardner (Edward Binns) is identified as a robbery suspect, even though Gardner maintains he’s innocent and has an alibi—a witness (Robert Simon) who was giving him a light at the time of the robbery—to prove it. The twist in the story comes when the witness claims he’s never met Gardner (and it is revealed just why he maintains this claim), leaving the ex-con up creek de la merde. “Blue Indigo” (01/17/58) is an interesting entry—and notable for appearances from OTR vets like Lillian Buyeff, Larry Thor and Barney Phillips—about a psychopath who kills blonde females while listening to the title tune. And in “Dolly’s Bar” (02/07/58), TDOY fave Claire Carleton is a gin-joint proprietor who is trying to keep a secret about her past (a secret that a Walter Winchell-like columnist used to blackmail her until his death) from being revealed; Janice Rule plays a up-and-coming stage ingénue and Joe Flynn has a funny bit as a safe expert who, upon opening the deceased columnist’s safe and finding it empty cracks: “Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.”

Writer Merwin Gerard borrows liberally from The Desperate Hours (1955) to create the half-hour “Hide Out” (03/28/58); a fun entry in which Ballinger once again dons his undercover duds—this time playing the part of boyfriend to Carol Grayson (Stacy Graham), who being held hostage with daughter Lori (Terry Burnham) by desperadoes Luke (Jack Elam) and Pete Castro (the ubiquitous Dick Miller). The presence of cult icons Elam and Miller—plus the “romantic” antics of Marvin (his rapport with Burnham is good, too)—make this episode a lot of fun; DeForest Kelley plays Ballinger’s partner, a role he would repeat in two other first-season episodes (“Pete Loves Mary” and “Diamond Hard”). And there’s a wealth of guest talent in “The System” (05/30/58), an entry that spotlights Ballinger’s undercover turn as a shoe salesman (“Frank Lang”) looking for an illegal floating crap game managed by hood Eddie Constantine (Tol Avery). Rose Marie is a gin-joint owner who steers patsies to Constantine’s game, Ted de Corsia is a patsy planning to roll the operation in a winner-take-all gambit, and Paul Maxey (Lassie, The Peoples’ Choice) is a out-of-town businessman who proves most helpful in steering Frank to Constantine’s hideout—an apartment rented to the gambler by Columbia comedy two-reeler doyenne Ann Doran.

As of this post, I’ve watched the entire first season of the series and a few installments from the sophomore year; the second season is a lot more snappier and in many instances more violent—and it was also in Season 2 that the familiar Theme from M Squad (written by Count Basie) was introduced:

The first season theme, composed by the show’s musical director, Stanley Wilson, was a bit somber and sounds like it would be a perfect fit for some forgotten film noir of the 1940s. If Theme From M Squad sounds a little similar to the music that was featured in the series Police Squad! and The Naked Gun movies, it’s because M Squad was the inspiration for those spoofs (although the shot of the police siren is a nod to another series, N.Y.P.D.):

Watching these first season episodes, I spotted a virtual who’s who of TDOY favorites: Bruce Gordon, Henry Brandon, Gail Kobe, Stafford Repp, Wally Brown, Bobby Driscoll, Mike Connors, Werner Klemperer, Kevin Hagen, Barbara Pepper, Madge Blake, Morris Ankrum (often cast as Ballinger’s superior when Grey wasn’t around), Barry Atwater, Angie Dickinson, Jean Carson, Dave Barry, Raymond Bailey, Sid Melton, Whit Bissell, Lyle Talbot, Jean Willes, George E. Stone, Dan Tobin, Jeanne Cooper, Joe Maross, Kent Smith, Ruta Lee, Marian Seldes, Whitney Blake, Herb Rudley, Stanley Adams, Alan Baxter, John Hoyt, June Vincent, Vaughn Taylor, Amzie Strickland, Charles Bronson, Gloria Talbott, Jim Davis, Paula Raymond, Philip Ober, Fay Spain and Larry Blake. The OTR contingent is also well-represented with Tyler McVey, Ken Lynch, Peggy Webber, Herb Ellis, Olan Soulé, Ralph Moody, Russell Thorson, Lawrence Dobkin, Roy Glenn, Harry Bartell, Jeanne Bates and Sarah Selby.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a DVD box set more than the M Squad collection, even though the varying quality of the material earns it a caveat emptor…and I have to admit I often have to stifle a snicker during the show because all those years of Police Squad! have affected me to the point that I find myself expecting Lee Marvin to crash into some garbage cans as he pulls into the police station. Marvin’s exposure on the series didn’t hurt his movie career one bit, and if you’re a fan of the actor (as I unabashedly am) you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of this true vintage TV treasure.

6 comments:

mike doran said...

Somewhere in my collection of old TV Guides is an interview Lee Marvin gave during M SQUAD's run (don't remember the exact date; I'll check when I get home and get back to you). Like many of Marvin's interviews over the years, it's a hilarious read. One revelation that I recall: the location shots of Marvin in Chicago were "stolen", shot without official permission. Mayor Daley I was smarting over the standard movie-tv portrayal of Chicago as a crime paradise, and had forbidden any and all film companies to shoot in his "great citya Chicaga". "Da Boss" relaxed this unofficial ban not too long before his death.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I had read somewhere, Mike, that the filming ban wasn't lifted until Mayor Jane Byrne gave the OK to John Landis and Company when they made The Blues Brothers in 1980. I don't know how official that is, it's just something I read.

I mentioned the Daley deal to my father yesterday at lunch, who then went into a comical Claude-Rains-from-Casablanca tirade about the very nature of Chicago police corruption. Dad still has a jaundiced view of the Windy City's police force, having been yanked into a precinct with a buddy of his one time and introduced to the business end of a phone directory (he still has the lump today).

mike doran said...

Relying solely on memory here, they let Darren McGavin shoot some link-up shots for KOLCHAK in and around the Loop and NearNorth. This would have been in 1974 - within Da Mare's lifetime. I also vaguely recall a couple of low-budget features and tv-movies from that decade; the details escape me at the moment. Any other Chicagoans in the crowd, feel free to jump in.On behalf of my old home town, my apologies to your father. If he should get to read the Lee Marvin interview I mentioned earlier, my guess is he won't laugh so much as nod.

Bobh said...

Ivan,

Thoroughly enjoyed your "M Squad" article . . . . the show has been one of the great vintage TV "discoveries" for me. Lee Marvin just commands this show in a way that few leads in a television series have. I've completed the first two seasons and just started the third. I can't remember the episode title offhand, but there is a disclaimer for an early season 3 episode (with guest star Paul "Naked City" Burke) that is in pretty bad shape. So much so that Timeless actually has an on-screen disclaimer about the episode. It's still watchable though.

Bobh

Bobh said...

"Nightmare in Chicago" was a late entry (mid-1960s) noir that Robert Altman directed that ended up on TV and was filmed in the Chicago area, thought I can't recall if it was actually in the city. I haven't seen this film in, easily, 30 years but what love to see this on DVD. Really great character actors populate this film including Charles McGraw, Ted Knight and Philip Abbott.

Bobh

Anonymous said...

Bob, I'd love to see Nightmare in Chicago again! What a well-shot flick. The exterior shots for The Bob Newhart Show were permitted by Hizzoner. Perhaps he cut fellow Chicagoan Newhart a break.