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My Television Diary: 6/10/12

10 Jun

The Rifleman (2:29, “Shotgun Man”), April 12, 1960

I’ve been on a film noir kick lately. I love the style— the shadows, the darkness, the suspense of wondering when the hero’s impending doom will finally come crashing down on him. But as usual for me nowadays, I’d rather get my fix from a tidy 25-minute TV episode than from a movie that pads the same basic story out to three times that length. And I’d rather find something new than watch the same handful of movie classics over and over. But TV noir isn’t as easy to find.

Director Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame did a lot of television work, particularly on The Rifleman. He made more than four dozen episodes (nearly a third of the show’s total), and he deserves a lot of credit for making it stand out from all the other TV westerns. Complementing Lewis’ shadow-heavy visual style, and Herschel Burke Gilbert’s somber music, is a recurring theme of impending death. Our rifle-slinging hero Lucas McCain is a magnet for violent, grimly obsessive gunmen itching for death— ostensibly McCain’s death, but in many cases you have to wonder if these guys even care deep down who dies, as long as somebody does.

The “Shotgun Man” of this episode is a half-blind old ex-convict, newly sprung from the pen. His only ambition now is to kill McCain, and he means to do it with a powerful shotgun that never leaves his hand. Whereas McCain’s modified Winchester fires repeatedly with speed and precision, the Shotgun Man’s weapon blows a cannonball-sized hole in anything he shoots at, including chameleon-eyed barfly Jack Elam.

In short, McCain’s Bang! is outclassed by Shotgun’s BLAMM!!!, but our Rifleman has more going for him than just a weapon. Among other qualities, he’s got right on his side. Plus, it’s his show. Shotgun came to town looking for death. He finds it.

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M Squad (1:05, “Face of Evil), October 18, 1957

Death is also busy in Chicago— very busy— and that’s why there’s an M Squad, an elite crime-fighting team of which only one member ever matters. That’s Lt. Frank Ballinger, a police detective played by the young and remarkably lanky Lee Marvin.

M Squad is more reliably noir than just about any other show, and if Dragnet‘s Sgt. Joe Friday had been conceived by Mickey Spillane, he’d be Frank Ballinger. He’s a laconic, street-wise, chain-smoking, fedora-wearing gumshoe in the classic pulp fiction tradition. He gets shot occasionally, and roughs up a suspect when he needs to, but he always gets the job done.

The job this time is to catch a serial killer who’s been roaming one particular neighborhood on sweltering summer nights, killing one woman after another. The husband of one victim looked up at the window and saw the killer, but can only describe what he saw as a “face of evil.” The hunt is on— and it’s a good one, with red herrings and a surprise ending.

I can’t tell you too much more about the episode without giving it all away, but any fan of hard-boiled detective action should enjoy it. On top of everything else, I loved it for the array of character actors, including Werner Klemperer, Madge Blake, Barney Phillips and even Russell Thorson from radio’s I Love a Mystery. Besides, it’s always fun to watch how Lee Marvin moves in these M Squads. His suit disguises how skinny he was in those days, and when he walks his arms swing and sway, like a slack marionette.

If you’ve read the Amazon reviews for the pricy DVD set of the complete M Squad, you know that the image quality leaves something to be desired. The quality varies from episode to episode, and they’ve all been transferred from 16mm prints, since apparently the original 35mm elements are now lost. Somehow these episodes are consistently light on contrast, including this one. (The framegrabs here have been Photoshopped to fix the contrast.) M Squad is such a good show that I recommend it to anyone, but if you’re picky about image quality, you’ll need to be forgiving.

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Gang Busters (2:xx, “The Red Dress”), late 1952

Together again— and for the last time— are Tom Neal and Ann Savage, stars of the landmark noir Detour (1945). I’d like to think that this casting was more than accidental, but it doesn’t seem likely; both were well on their way down the career ladder at this point.

Anyway, Gang Busters was just about the perfect show for them to appear in. Unlike most crime shows of the ’50s, this one is all about the crooks— the police only appear near the end, as faceless, nameless instruments of justice. Until then, crime runs wild. While Gang Busters had been a long-running success on radio, the TV version reminds me more of the carnage-crazy crime comic books of the early 1950s. It’s all about tough guys and rebels who live by their own rules, making lots of easy money by taking it from suckers and chumps, letting the bullets fly where they may. (And then they get killed, or sent to San Quentin.)

Gang Busters appeared throughout most of 1952 in Dragnet‘s time slot, alternating with Jack Webb’s show. Ratings were high, but the show disappeared near the end of the year, and now nobody seems to know why. Maybe NBC was taking heat for the show’s ill-concealed glamorization of crime, or maybe creator Phillips H. Lord was proving too costly or difficult to deal with. Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, this is a great episode, though the payoff is a little less than the build-up had promised. Tom Neal walks out of prison and into the arms of his moll (Savage), who’s kept their criminal gang together while he was in stir. She’s got big plans for new heists— and for a romantic future with him. But he’s lost that lovin’ feelin’, and things don’t end well for either of them.

Like the radio version, TV’s Gang Busters always concluded with a “be on the lookout for” announcement about a real-life crook on the loose. Oddly, the choice for this episode is Theodore Cole, an Alcatraz inmate who in 1937 escaped from one of the island’s workshops, reached the cold, current-swept waters of San Francisco Bay and was never again seen in this world.

It might be on YouTube or somewhere, but this episode can be found, in nice shape, on Alpha Video’s Gang Busters Volume 3.

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