Archive for September, 2010

Episode 46: Murder on Voodoo Island

September 27, 2010

Starsky and Hutch go undercover to a tropical island to investigate a billionaire recluse whose cohorts in business are mysteriously dying. But when a federal agent is apparently killed by voodoo, even Hutch begins to believe the superstitions that have Starsky thoroughly spooked.

Charlotte Connery: Samantha Eggar, Walter Healey: Craig Stevens, Janice Regan: Joan Collins, Inspector Godfrey: Roscoe Lee Browne, Papa Theodore: Don Pedro Colley, Philippe: Tommy Madden, Johnny Doors: Paul Picerni, Phil: Dave Madden, Jerry: Louis Nye, William Thorne/Bert Regan: Lane Allan, Magic Minnie: Jinaki, Pussycat: Patricia L McGuire, Silky: Anitra Ford, Easy: Dana House, Meghan: Linda Thompson, Debbie: Debra Feuer, Baron: Jophrey Brown. Written By: Ron Friedman, Directed By: George McCowan.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a fairly campy, one-note double episode and everyone can agree that it is not among the series’ finest. Personally, I could watch Glaser and Soul read the phone book and be entertained and no doubt enlightened to some degree; but that said several points in this ambitious, confounding and confusing double episode try even my patience. But my mission is not to pick and find fault and dismiss or demean any episode of the “Starsky & Hutch” canon, but to take the clay and wrest something joyous and affirming, no matter how hard I have to work. And sometimes it is hard work. There are haters in this world and there are those to whom pettifogging is a sport and a pastime; I am neither of those. The best thing I can say about this episode – and it is a rather glorious legacy – is that it so perfectly captures its cultural era. That briefly giddy, unabashedly hedonistic, sexually-charged, recklessly apolitical offering to a public desperate for escape and still naively believing the good-humored sun-drenched idiocy of this world is both reachable and something worth reaching for.

Some filming notes: Soul jumped into the moving car himself in the final scenes involving the rescue of Bert Regan, but the crowd that had gathered to watch kept applauding and ruining the take. In the beach scene the waves were supposed to wash over Starsky, waking him up, instead they began to wash him out, much to his and Soul’s amusement. Mishaps occurred while filming, including Soul wrenching his back while jumping from the boat, the car windshield shattering during the stunt dive and cutting Charlie Picerni’s hand badly, and a jeep overturning and injuring two stuntmen.

Opening scene, and the guys are off-duty and heading to, of all places, The Jungle Club, the stripper bar from last season’s “Bounty Hunter”. Here we are, on a cold wet night a year later, and the place appears to have changed ownership: what was all tiki and titillating is now low-key and verging on classy, with not a stripper in sight.

The Master At Work: It’s a joy to watch Hutch listen to his partner’s soliloquy on the joys of camping to the pretty waitress: his face veers from sarcastic to amazed to infuriated.

Well, it turns out the waitress is a lure, leading the boys back to her place where Dobey and Healey from the Justice Department are waiting – in an incongruously glamorous, expensive hotel room. Hmm. Was all that really necessary? Dobey says the decoy was crucial to protect their safety, but why not have a messenger slip them a note as they sat at the bar? The fake waitress must have had to keep up the charade during the twenty-or-so minutes it took to drive to the hotel, ramping up the sexual tension to ensure their willingness to comply. Both boys must have arrived at the location in a state of what could be mildly termed as anticipation. All for naught. The guys recover admirably, but when Hutch says reasonably, “what’s going on?” Starsky starts laughing. A rare Glaser break in character, or is Starsky thinking of something else?

If the Justice Department and the FBI can’t breach Thorne’s security, why do they think two local detectives can do it? As amazing as they are, what do Starsky and Hutch have at their disposal that these more outfitted and capable teams don’t? Considering the murder has connections, superficially anyway, with African-Caribbean spiritual practices, why not engage the help of detectives more familiar with such things? It would contribute mightily to this episode’s believability if some link between Starsky and Hutch and this case were made in the first place.

Healey’s droning on about Thorne’s mansion overlooking the Island Hotel, which he also owns. Starsky slyly says to Hutch, “Sounds kind of familiar. Ha. Ha.” He looks at Hutch as if Hutch knows just what he is talking about. What are they referring to?

The SLOBs are singing drunkenly in the hotel lobby, Starsky and Hutch turn away from the thought of a twelve-hour flight in a very small, very smelly, very noisy airline cabin; Starsky looks at Hutch and groans, “I’m sorry.” It’s a small, lovely moment and one can only imagine what Starsky is apologizing for: his singing, his intention to hog the in-flight peanuts, his insistence that they take this stupid undercover assignment in the first place? All of the above?

It’s nice to see our friend Anitra Ford as a too-smart-for-this-job Playboy hostess, barely tolerating the grinning company of Fred Night and Ed Day.

Why, with all the security for Thorne’s estate, is there an unguarded road at the back of the property?

Healey is accosted by a well-approximated version of a Papa Legba, the Vodou intermediary between the spirit world and the mortal world. He’s usually depicted as an old man with a cane, a straw hat, a pipe, and sprinkling powder or water. Back in Los Angeles, Healey said devil dolls were given to the victims sometime before they died, yet Papa Theodore lays Healey’s doll on his dead body. This slip seems to mean all the “voodoo” in this episode is made up on the spot.

What sort of place is Playboy Island, anyway? The signs are in Spanish, the Inspector speaks French and has an English accent, and everyone else seems to be vaguely Bermudan or Dominican. The Vodun depicted is Hollywood-style voodoo rather than Haitian or coastal West African. And yet the island resort appears to be owned by Hugh Hefner.

Both the words “fakir” and “bokor” have been used by Starsky and Hutch to describe Papa Theodore. The word “bokor” is correct, as it refers to a houngan (a male Vodun priest or sorcerer). The word “fakir” is a Muslim or Hindu ascetic. In any case, since “Voodoo” is a Hollywood invention based on the Western African religion of Vodun, the whole point is a little moot.

One thing this episode does get right is Minnie as a “griot,” a storyteller. The jury remains out on her “lucky charms,” “hexes” and “love potions.” The protection amulet she gave Starsky didn’t work that well – he is just as susceptible to danger as anyone else, maybe  more so.

Do the guys really have to be that obnoxious in their undercover identities? Is this some mutual acting-out they’re doing or is all this Hutch’s invention, a kind of homage to the late-and-lamented Hack and Zack? One has to wonder how much hidden tension is released through bad clothes, vulgar jokes, rude behavior, fanny-slapping and inappropriate laughing.

“Sterling Amadeus Godfrey”, Chief of Police on the island (played by the always elegant character actor Roscoe Lee Browne in ascot and pressed khakis) is the sort of more-English-than-English performance he specialized in during his long and distinguished career. It’s an odd, funhouse-mirror stereotype of the African man that, to me anyway, is as provocative as any yes-massa cliché.

In keeping with the tradition, Chief Godfrey mixes up who’s Day and who’s Night.

Hutch plays golf well. Starsky doesn’t. Hutch tries to teach Starsky golf, but is interrupted by the two goofs they traveled with, Phil and Jerry (played respectively by Dave Madden of “Partridge Family” fame and hard-working character actor Louis Nye); both veteran actors seem to be having an inordinately good time, and why not? Easy gig, hotel paid for, all the umbrella-drinks you can drink. The only thing missing from this scene is Starsky getting a hole-in-one on his first swing – his beginner’s luck with Hutch as the long-suffering teacher is one of the series’ most treasured jokes (“Las Vegas Strangler”, “Iron Mike”, “The Game” “Satan’s Witches”).

You just don’t see blackface in the latter half of the twentieth century, especially on a show espousing the ignominy of race relations in contemporary society. Ron Friedman, what were you thinking? How can anyone possibly justify this? At the script read-through, didn’t anyone at the table raise a tentative hand and say “um, guys …?” It might have been someone’s stupid idea as a way to sneak unnoticed into the party, but wouldn’t a couple of guys in grease-paint stick out more than if they hadn’t had the “disguise” in the first place?

Starsky doesn’t even know he, Huggy and Hutch were supposed to sing – why in the heck does he think he’s in blackface, anyway? Fashion statement? Improvisational sunscreen? The choice of “Somebody Bad Stole the Wedding Bell” as a song nicely foreshadows the bogus marriage between “Thorne” and Charlotte Connery, which is a good detail but frankly it’s a wonder why nobody at the party, not even gangster Johnny Doors, is alerted by the weirdness of two white guys doing unrehearsed Calypso. When they’re booed off the stage it’s only because they don’t know the words to the song and not because they’re uninvited guests. They manage to avoid being tossed out on the street with a rousing limbo (Starsky is very flexible).

Healey had the narcotic powder flicked into his face and it seems as if it took over an hour for him to succumb to its effects (the same with Johnny Doors, later). But Starsky and Hutch are immediately overtaken by it. This may be a plot divergence one should probably forgive for the sake of narrative trajectory, but still the question remains: what exactly is in that powder, anyway? It appears to be a narcotic, a hallucinagen and some sort of willpower-crushing stimulant. I’m not saying such a magical powder doesn’t exist – there are many mysteries still in tropical narcotics – but it still is conveniently all-purpose. And while we’re on the topic of magical things, I’m always amazed at the good-natured effort both Glaser and Soul – trained, serious actors – put into the overcome-by-poison scene. They throw themselves gamely into the silliness, jerking and twitching on the floor, ego be damned. Good for them!

Part Two:

Let’s try to ignore the uncomfortable prostitution vibe throughout this double episode, particularly when it comes to the “spa” scene early on with hired girls escorting the largely older middle-class men in and out of the steam room. Why Janice the photographer has to meet the guys while wrapped in a towel is beyond me. Surely there are other, less nude-inducing, rooms to meet in (and safer, too, maybe somewhere away from the hotel, perhaps?)  This scene reflects the series’ producers understandable preoccupation with the physical beauty of their two stars, which makes me wonder why every episode doesn’t just start with the guys getting out of the shower in the morning. Here, Starsky is obliged to ditch his shirt in the steam heat, which makes it worth while, to Janice anyway.

“You saw what happened in the square today!” Johnny Doors exclaims to Starsky and Hutch. He’s referring to having Papa Theodore throw the powder in his face and declare he’s now a dead man. How does he know Starsky and Hutch were in the market that day? He couldn’t have seen them.

What is the rational explanation for the Papa Theodore’s performance with the likeness dolls, resulting in Starsky attempting to strangle Hutch? Is there one? The episode flirts with the idea that something genuinely supernatural is going on, yet the whole oeuvre of the series is that of practical, hard-headed realism. There have been many cases throughout exposing various psychic charlatans: prophesying Simon Marcus, crystal-ball seer Madame Yram, full-time thief and part-time satanist Ezra from “Terror on the Docks”, ballet-teacher-turned-vampire Rene Nadasy, all of whom are revealed to be quacks; the sole exception is reluctant-psychic Joe Collins. Could this incarnate of Papa Legba actually be the real thing? Starsky really is under a spell of some kind, it’s the source that remains a mystery. Papa Legba could be simply a talented herbalist, but if the explanation is as simple as a tropical hallucinogen, how powerful and purposeful can a drug be that would compel Starsky to attempt to injure or kill his best friend?

Theodore is obviously financially gaining from his participation in the criminal scheme, because there’s no other reason for him in which to participate. Helping the rich white man on the estate out of the goodness of his heart seems highly improbable. Therefore, he is not a spiritual man but a mercenary one, and the worst sort too: one with access to, and talent in, hallowed rituals. His chant commands Starsky to attack Hutch with “two hands” (“deux mains”), and includes a warlike anthem of the Caribbean, one the natives sang about attempts to ward off the Spaniards (“lama samana quana”). Starsky has a corresponding dream in which he pricks his thumb, part of the curse. Post-hypnotic suggestion might work as an explanation for his extraordinary behavior, and yet there was no opportunity for Theodore to hypnotize Starsky.

It becomes obvious, when climbing the rocks following being washed up on the beach, the blond half of the partnership has suffered a pretty brutal sunburn. Take after take in the hot sun, and one imagines there wasn’t a lot of sunscreen lying around. Or if anyone knew what sunscreen was.

It’s genuinely horrifying to see Starsky attempting to murder Hutch, and silently too, which somehow makes it seem worse; fortunately the two are evenly matched and only manage to throw each other off the cliff. Good thing they don’t dash themselves on the rocks below. What is it about the water that manages to break the spell? And yet it does. Or else Starsky breaks it himself, with his own strong will. Voodoo, it seems, is no match for this relationship.

For his part, Hutch puts the whole murderous episode behind him, and very quickly. For his part, Starsky doesn’t even express regret, apologize or anything, although it’s warranted. Both under a spell, perhaps? Or motivated, for the sake of both friendship and ongoing case, to put the whole matter aside for the moment?

Why invite Janice Regan to the wedding at the estate? What possible point would it serve? Without her, the fake ceremony could have gone unchallenged. Janice could have spent fruitless years looking for something she would never find. For an international collection of criminals, and occult practitioners as well, this whole affair is shoddily managed.

The fact that many of the hookers – excuse me, hostesses – were in on the plot against Thorne, leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe yours, too. There’s nothing in it for them, except perhaps a small payout, and people have died horrible deaths. Including law enforcement officers. How much was there to gain, anyway? Or is this more of Papa Theodore’s hypnotic doings?

A little person in a white suit, a topical island, a mysterious denizen with power and money. Sound familiar?

Nothing is overtly made of actor Tommy Madden’s turn as a loyal servant, but it does beg the uncomfortable question of just why writers are using people with dwarfism, as well as practitioners of “voodoo”, as threatening, mysterious, and unfathomable. Why not throw some giants and white tigers into the mix as well, while you’re at it?

“Someone’s getting married,” Starsky says, hearing the distant organ. “Well, it ain’t us,” Hutch replies. Rim shot, please.

Led away under a pointed gun, you can see the two start to think about ways of escaping their predicament. Starsky is the first to throw out a clue: “Of all the rotten luck,” he says. Hutch picks upon this and says it “makes me sick”. Starsky then goes for it, throwing himself on the ground in a mock voodoo attack hoping to surprise their captor into making a mistake. Of note are the interesting things Starsky calls out in his “seizure” which proves his surprising knowledge of Vodou: “Papa Legba” (primary intermediary between the loa and mortals), “King of Voodoo”, “Oh Damballa” (the most important of the loa, often depicted as a serpent), “Big bad hoodoo” (African-American folk magic), “With horn of toad and eyes of dummy” (recipe for a hex) “Oh tall blond man, distract this dummy” (a plea, obviously, to the Nordic god, always in the vicinity).

How did Huggy and Godfrey know to be waiting in a motorized boat at the exact right moment? An incredible coincidence, and one that lessens the impact of the genuinely scary, messy, dangerous-looking car chase.

Clothing Notes: Dobey is sporting a stylish goatee in the early scenes before the journey. The guys are able to be in a state of semi-undress during their time on the island – diving, swimming, climbing rocks, etc.

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Episode 45: Starsky and Hutch Are Guilty

September 15, 2010

A lawyer hires look-alikes Simmons and Hanson to go on a crime spree in order to discredit Starsky and Hutch’s testimony in an upcoming trial.

Sharon Freemont: Lauren Tewes, Chief Ryan: Val Avery, Nikki: Michele Carey, Judy Coppet: Shera Danese, Mr. Klemp: Henry Sutton, Mrs. Marlowe: Dorothy Meyer, Lennie Atkins: Sy Kramer, Hanson: Gary Epper, Simmons: Kipp Whitman, Fifi: Mary Jo Catlett, Kate: Jean Bell, Nurse: Suzanne Gormley, Eric Ronstan: Don Keefer. Written By: David P Harmon, Directed By: Bob Kelljan.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

A third, privately owned Torino had to be rented as backup for this episode (the owner was also invited to watch as a guest of the studio) because of the need for an identical car.

In the station’s hallway, Starsky is talking to an aging ex-boxer he remembers from childhood, obviously giving him words of advice or encouragement. Hutch comments, in the dry tone reserved especially for his partner, “for a hard-nosed cop you’re not doing your image any good.”  Other than nicely tying in with Starsky’s nostalgic compassion, this is pretty well the theme of the episode: reality vs. image. This episode could be, on some level, a comment on the criticism that the show was nothing but imagination-murdering violence. The Boob Tube, and all that. From the disdain and scorn many critics expressed at the time you’d think they were watching another show.

Starsky asks Hutch, “Do you trust me or not? Hutch replies, “With my life, yes. With your choice of women, no.” It’s amusing to think Hutch would consider Starsky’s choice in women worse than his own. They’re both equally bad and sometimes equally good.

In the opening scene there are no stuffed animals on the filing cabinets, as there are in other episodes. They must all be hidden somewhere: later Hutch pulls a Mickey Mouse out of the filing cabinet.

Chief Ryan and Captain Dobey are both called “Chief of Detectives.”

Hutch tells Dobey Captain Ryan doesn’t like the way he and Starsky comb their hair, the way they dress and doesn’t think Starsky’s joke was funny. That’s a far cry from what Ryan is really thinking about them when he says, “This time you got sloppy. This time you got two witnesses.” He seems to be equating a personal distaste with the way they look with moral and ethical corruption, which is extreme. And even more interesting is the fact that Starsky and Hutch, who say they have “great respect” for Ryan, can’t see he not only disrespects them, but seems to genuinely despise them as well.

Hutch defends Starsky’s police academy speech. He could have been in the audience in support of his friend, or he might have been standing beside him at the dais waiting to go next.

Hutch gets his notebook to prove to Ryan when they last saw Newton. But hardly ever in the series do we see either Starsky or Hutch write down information anywhere.

How did Chief Ryan get as far as he has in the department when he shows a complete misread of Starsky and Hutch’s characters? When he says “this time we got two witnesses,” he has certainly thought they have gotten away with some pretty terrible behaviors in the past in addition to being flamboyant or unconventional. One wonders how his aggressively negative attitude about their basic character jive with the fact Starsky got a commendation and invitation to speak at the Academy. Ryan could be one of those grumpy “things have gone way down hill since I was a lad” types, and his view of the two detectives a general part of this view on life.

Chief Ryan distrusts Starsky and Hutch, but it is Starsky who comes to distrust Ryan, thinking right away he is out to frame them. While in this episode Starsky seems more distrustful of people than Hutch, in other episodes they switch roles.

Starsky and Hutch said they stayed fifteen minutes, from 2:55 to 3:10. Mrs. Marlowe said she saw them leave at 3:30. It makes the most sense that she saw the real Starsky and Hutch arrive and the fake ones leave. But this doesn’t jive with what the viewer sees Mrs. Marlowe see. Did she see two sets arriving and only one leaving? Or did she miss the real detectives arrive AND leave, and only see the fakes?

This is one of many times in which the Torino is a problem. Really, it’s a real hazard when it comes to detective work.

“There’s no use arguing with the TV,” Starsky says in frustration, upon leaving Mrs. Marlow, which could be a comment on the perils of stardom as well.

It’s strange seeing Dorothy Meyer as a threatening character before her memorably radiant performance as the lovely Mrs. Walters in the later episode “Manchild in the Streets”.

Reluctant witness and homebody Lennie Atkins is played by veteran character actor Sy Kramer, who may in future bump someone off my “Memorable Cameos” list. He’s so frightened by the idea that he’s just allowed two murderous brutes into his apartment he seizes into a fear so palpable you can almost smell it. Eyes watering, face paling, his entire body winces into a corner. When he apologizes, his voice trembles so badly it’s as if he’s vibrating. It’s a brilliant performance. One note about the scene: there is absolutely no call for Starsky to pause and lean into the poor man, giving him a steely, intimidating look, if he and Hutch are trying to prove they are benevolent would never harm a witness. If Lennie Atkins hadn’t peed his pants before, he would then.

Both the fake Starsky and the real Starsky like to work on models. The real Starsky: ships, in “Fatal Charm”. The fake Starsky: cars.

Nikki is played by Michelle Carey, who really is more pleasant as the madame here than she will be later as the creepy car saleswoman in “Class in Crime”. She asks Hutch (wistfully) if he wants her future address; he replies “no.” Starsky seems put out that she doesn’t ask him the same question.

Would Nikki really get the real Starsky and Hutch mixed up with the fake ones? First of all, she is used to seeing men in the dark, so her identification skills must be high. And the fake Starsky puts out a cigarette just as he knocks on the door, which Nikki would smell that and know the real Starsky, just a couple of minutes ago, didn’t smell like that. At this point we must acknowledge how large a role fear and disorientation plays when people remember things. And also the inescapable reality that people only see what they expect to see, which is why eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

Hutch, rather than Starsky, seems to be a magnet for unwanted women letting themselves into his place and wanting to cook him dinner. Does Hutch later underestimate Diana in “Fatal Charm”, due to his experiences with poor Fifi in her “I Need All the Friends I Can Get” sweatshirt?

There are two vacuum cleaners portrayed, and Hutch trips over both of them. (Here, and in “Blindfold”)

The ten thousand dollars Hutch discovers in the envelope is a little problematic. Later it’s discovered to have come from a bank heist, which means either Simmons or Hanson were involved. But how could Sharon Freemont convince either guy to sacrifice so much money for a little evidence-of-guilt window dressing? They knew they would never see it again. Unless the money is Freemont’s, and she’s willing to throw it away. Which brings up another couple of issues: where would she have gotten it, and why would Simmons (as “Starsky”) be trusted to dump it on Hutch’s table and not abscond with it? That’s a ton of cash. It’s possible he didn’t know how much was there, and it’s also possible Sharon Freemont was paying them more. But more than ten thousand each? Just what was this “junior partnership” at the law firm worth to her, anyway?

The double for Hutch is Hanson; that’s the second time the Hutch/Hanson names are used. The other is “Murder Ward”. Gary Epper, who plays Hanson, also is the stunt double for David Soul.

I like how Starsky blames Ryan “for this whole mess”, and throws open the door to Hutch as an invitation to walk through it, and also to accept this idea. Hutch does.

Why does Sharon remind Starsky about their dinner date when she so clearly hates him? It’s unnecessary to the scam she’s got going, and involvement with him could spell disaster for her nefarious plans. Does she get a sadistic kick out of it, or what? Maybe Hutch is right when he says he trusts his partner with his life, but not his choice of women.

It’s a cloudy wet day when the guys investigate the strip club. The daylight is starkly cold, almost blue, and very different from the typically diffused, golden glow one associates with the series, and it’s a striking contemporary look.

Fake Starsky takes a real chance tormenting sober citizen Mr. Klemp in broad daylight. Why bother? Hitting the unfortunate girls was bad enough. Kemp might be shrewdly perceptive, and bring the whole enterprise crashing down. Is this a case of a career criminal (“three time loser”, according to Sharon) revealing his stupidly overconfident side?

Judy Coppet, the massage parlor madam, is so unusually good-looking she merits research. Turns out she’s played by Shera Danese who went on to a certain amount of fame playing different roles in “Columbo”, eventually marrying the show’s star, Peter Falk. Good one, Shera!

When Ryan suspends them after their apparent roust on a strip club, the camera abruptly shifts to extreme close up. Pores-as-big-as-craters close up. Of course the guys handle this well, but Ryan looks terrible, as any mortal would.

“The guys call him skinny,” Starsky says of Oscar Newton, “but the ladies don’t”, which is a nice dirty joke somehow snuck by the TV censors.

This is the first and perhaps only time a suit-and-tie-wearing bureaucrat with a hate-on for Starsky and Hutch (Chief Ryan) is revealed to be someone capable of making reasonable deductions, including changing his mind – and softening his bad attitude – to allow for a grudging respect for the two detectives.

It really is surreal to see two Torinos chasing each other through the dismal streets of LA. How did the fake Torino get the same license plates as the real one? And why bother with this complicated detail when even the most perspicacious witness might not get an accurate plate number?

It’s great how the guys go after their own doubles. And apparently Fake Hutch takes his role seriously enough to have the same gun as Real Hutch, which involves a lot of homework. Both Hutch and Starsky have genuinely hilarious reactions upon apprehending their doppelgangers. Hutch is, as usual, regally certain of his double’s inferiority to the glorious “original”. Starsky is, as usual, openly amazed at the resemblance, like a kid at a magic show.

For the mastermind of this caper, Sharon Freemont, disappears into irrelevance in the wake of the chase and capture of the lookalike stooges. The series is very often guilty of this kind of narrative shortcut – starting from the pilot episode, when the other Evil Lawyer Mastermind D.A. Mark Henderson vanishes without a trace following a tidy little takedown. Freemont’s motives and strategies are never fully realized, which is a shame, because she’s one of the most psychopathic criminals of all, someone willing to destroy two police officers to get a plum position at her job. And all with a sunny grin and pixie haircut.

Tag: What does Hutch mean when he tells a tipsy and singing Starsky, “She must have been an owl”? Is it because Starsky’s singing is so bad it sounds like one? Or is it so very late at night? “When I was a kid,” Starsky insists, meaning Fats Domino (who Hutch, unusually, seems to denigrate) “that Fat Man was king.” Nicely bringing the episode around to its initial scene, in which Starsky defends the honor of a childhood hero. Both men have cleaning ladies. Bachelors or not, is this unusual for detectives?

Starsky’s apartment is broken into, his stuff is tossed around and some of it is missing. Starsky is understandably upset but Hutch is laughingly dismissive (until the comedic note is struck: his own tennis racket is missing, and suddenly he wants to launch a full-scale investigation). This whole scene seems to be to be rather offhand. During the run of the series both have suffered at the hand of brutal criminals with long memories. Both have been broken into and threatened, Starsky nearly killed (“Coffin”). How come neither detective thinks this may be one of those times? If I were them, I’d back out slowly, gun drawn.

Clothing notes: during the hospital scene the guys really go to town in clashing, obnoxious clothes, Starsky wearing the cut-offs he wears in every other episode requiring shorts. They both look better than they have a right to in their BCPD janitorial overalls, Starsky’s pant-legs insouciantly rolled up to reveal jeans. I like how Dobey wears an ascot on Saturday morning to play golf with Ryan. And Sharon really did a good job scouring those thrift stores; the fake Starsky is wearing the same shirt the real Starsky wears in a later episode, “The Specialist”.

 

Character Studies 14: Keystone Cops

September 5, 2010

Both David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser are natural comedians, influenced by silent film greats such as Chaplin and Keaton, which strikes a welcome and rather unexpected note in a show intended to be a hard-headed police drama. There are many nifty little Chaplinesque moments in the series: Hutch’s pratfalls, Starsky’s candy-machine wars, loaded looks and double-takes, the many creative ways the two get entangled in each other in the rush to either give chase or attempt inconspicuousness. David Soul in particular has moments of sheer genius, deft bits of physical tomfoolery enriched with pathos, as Hutch falls victim to hubris time and time again. I’m thinking of his scene in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” as he attempts to get into character as a hit man, “Stage 17” when he complains about being edited out of the movie, and in “Long Walk” when he struggles with stage fright while Starsky cheers him on. Plus the hundreds of wonderful small reactions, those wounded looks and raised eyebrows when he thinks people are acting foolishly around him (particularly his partner). These are rich, beautifully realized goofball moments and every one of them is precious.

But there are many more instances where humor becomes less subtle and more heavy-handed, resulting in a general sense that the show has lost its way. A kind of giving-up, a lack of self-respect, like wearing pajamas to the grocery store. For me, there are just a tad too many lady wrestlers, Playboy bunnies, voodoo curses and biplane chases. “Tap Dancing”, “Playboy Island”, “Dandruff”, “Satan’s Witches”, the entire first half to the two-part “Murder at Sea”, “Huggy Bear and the Turkey”, “Omaha Tiger”, “Murder on Stage 17” and “Photo Finish” are basically superficial, despite the presence of crime. “Dandruff” and “The Groupie” are campy nonsense, pure and simple; not even burglary and murder make a dent into the sparkles and plastic. For every harrowing episode like “The Fix” or “Gillian” there is a bit of fluff like “Foxy Lady”. Even more consequential episodes like “The Vampire”, “Ninety Pounds of Trouble” and “The Las Vegas Strangler” are marred by a hollow, gratuitous jokiness. I may hazard a guess, too, that the wacky undercover personas Starsky and Hutch adopt (the variety of gum-chewing Texans, swishy hairdressers, sanitation department party-boys and hard drinkin’ cowboys) might well be a symptom of a refusal on the part of the series’ creators to accept the possibility of television becoming a transformational or important medium. The goofiness becomes a kind of apology to the viewing public, an ingratiation, an insistence on lovability or at least inoffensiveness. Look, we mean no harm. It could be a response to the criticism of the violent content, it could a nervous dilution of the natural intensity both actors bring to the depiction of their relationship. It could be the general tenor of the times. But whatever it is, it’s also a shame. Hack and Zack are charming, but how much better could this show have been if there had been fewer “songs and laffs” and more of the blistering, uncompromising power in “Coffin”, “Vendetta” or “Strange Justice”?

Episode 44: Murder on Stage 17

September 3, 2010

Starsky and Hutch go undercover as stuntmen on a movie set where actor Steve Hanson’s life is being threatened by Wally Stone, an old comic friend believed dead.

Steve Hanson: Rory Calhoun, Wally Stone: Chuck McCann, Julie West: Susan Cotton, Harry Markham: Jeff Goldblum, Shotgun Casey: Layne Britton, Blackie: Read Morgan, Ruth Willoughby: Toni Lamond, Charlotte Rogers: Sandy Herdt. Written By: Ben Masselink, Directed By: Earl Bellamy.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Don’t judge a book by its cover. In the opening scene ruggedly handsome actor Steve Hanson seems okay because he’s nice to the dog, but when he sees the water delivery man his true nature shows itself: he’s cool and distant, calling him “obnoxious”, although Wally-as-waterman only attempts to engage in friendly banter. Is this meanness for its own sake, a movie’s star’s aversion to the nobodies around him, or is this a bit of psychic accuracy, some unconscious part of Hanson recognizing his nemesis? In the next scene, in the station, Steve talks cavalierly and insincerely about the death of his “best friend”, Phil Lovatt, but shows neither concern nor grief for his death. In fact, the only reason he comes forward at all is because he believes he’s next in line to be murdered. He says he has a lot of money invested in the movie and he doesn’t intend it to go “down the drain.” Do Starsky and Hutch ever notice Steve Hanson, rather than being a charming old-fashioned movie star, is actually a thoroughly unpleasant fake? They don’t seem to, or perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. Still, I’d love to see the scene where Starsky turns to Hutch and says, “I loved all his movies. Too bad he’s such a creep in real life.”

Why doesn’t Steve recognize Wally when he sees him close up? He tells Starsky and Hutch he saw him right after his stay in jail, and he couldn’t have changed that much in a short time. Is it because Steve is so entirely self-absorbed he doesn’t see anything he doesn’t want to? Wally isn’t wearing that much makeup. Steve knows Wally well enough to know his sister’s married name, which makes one wonder if he slept with her too. (Now that would add fuel to Wally’s raging fire.) Steve’s inability to recognize him is even stranger when Wally says later that even Friendly the dog remembered him, “licked my face”. Conceivably the dog would be six or seven, ten at the outset (he does not appear to be infirm). That would mean Steve had seen Wally not less than ten years previously.

How would a washed-up actor like Steve Hanson get a director like Harry Markham? Harry’s young and hip, obviously an artiste – Hutch compares him to Bergman – and yet here he is, directing a cowboy movie, and a pretty bad one, too. Maybe he thinks he’s going to make an ironic post-modern take on the decline and fall of chivalry. If so, it appears he doesn’t achieve his goals – in the end, at the conclusion of the screening, rather than being baffled or impressed everyone is lukewarm, full of false cheer. (Markham is either a no-show at the the screening or hiding somewhere, probably too embarrassed to be associated with this film.)

Another inside joke along with Shotgun Britton is that Starsky and Hutch’s main sets were on ABC’s Stage 17.

The scene in which the guys emerge in full cowboy gear for the first time is a perfect encapsulation of the game: Hutch pretends not to know who Kate Jackson is, and Starsky pretends not to know who Ingmar Bergman is, saying “Ingrid?” just to twist the knife, which of course works, because Hutch furiously corrects him. Perhaps this irritable little exchange lessens their anxiety.

Of course Hutch trips – twice – on the stairs. No, three times. Four, no five times coming up the stairs to the stunt.

The stunt coordinator can’t possibly know they’re cops, and not professional stuntmen because it would compromise the undercover operation if he did. But the guy acts as if he knows because he’s annoyed by their lack of skill, and rushes them through the routine. And by the way, wouldn’t they’d have a few pointers from an old pro before going undercover? In other situations they’re well-prepared and convincing, but in this case they look like total dweebs. Seeing their incompetence, the coordinator never says, “hey, don’t you guys know what you’re doing?” Instead, to his buddy, he calls them “wiseguys” and “jerks” and conspires to teach them a lesson by genuinely fighting them (why? If he knows they’re cops and trying to solve a murder, why antagonize them? And if he thinks they’re merely inexperienced stuntmen, why risk injuring them and therefore risking the shooting schedule?). Of course this “joke” has a satisfyingly turnaround when Starsky and Hutch proceed to beat the crap out of both of them. Interestingly, Starsky twigs first and Hutch resolutely takes more than a few punches to realize he’s being set up, and to reacts accordingly.

What a treat it is to see a young Jeff Goldblum as Harry Markham, the ironic, preoccupied director of this fiasco. Markham is pleased with the fighting scene.  “Print it,” he says. Does this mean Starsky and Hutch’s characters were supposed to win this particular fight? What if they weren’t, would Harry have liked it anyway? And just who were they supposed to be playing in this movie? Or maybe this is just “Scene 12: Generic Fight on Balcony”.

Wally carries water across the set, he’s also on the bicycle following the death of Steve’s dog. While this is psychologically accurate, as many murderers exhibit extreme narcissism and grandiosity, a film set is a very secure place, guarded by security and crew. Later, Starsky speculates it must have been an actor because “how else could he gain access to the studio?” Well, conceivably he would have had to pass the checkpoint with proper identification and a valid reason for being there – none of which Wally has. Just having an Equity card doesn’t guarantee you a free pass. The only explanation is that Wally managed to sneak onto the lot days or even weeks previously, carving out a cosy little nest for himself in the little-used prop locker. There’s electricity down there, so a hot-plate and a bed would probably suit him just fine.

When, at the conclusion of their first long conversation with Steve, Hutch gets up, Starsky holds up his hand, indicating he wants help. Hutch pulls him to a standing position but it’s harder than he expects, and he – I’ll call him Soul, because this seems to be a break in character – laughs and then seems briefly unable to remember his next line, but soldiers on. Completely charming.

Hanson says Pete Elexy, husband to ill-fated Jane, died a few years back. Was Wally involved in that death as well?

The most genuine emotion Steve Hanson shows is when he tells the story of Wally Stone being spit upon by an outraged former fan. He seems truly upset by the unfairness of it, as well as the fact his former friend came begging for twenty bucks. Why, then, did Hanson cut ties with poor Wally following this poignant encounter years ago? He says he went to Europe and put the past behind him. You would think he’d care enough to help support his unfortunate friend, either financially or at least by keeping tabs on him. As the guys leave, Hanson seems to want to say something more. He opens his mouth, then abruptly changes his mind. What do you think he was about to say?

There is a question lingering here about Hanson’s involvement in the whole Elexy murder story. He insists Wally Stone was a “sweet guy” and seems to implicitly support him as well as express sorrow for his fall from grace. If Hanson had any direct association with the incident, i.e. guilt, wouldn’t he have diverted suspicion by throwing Wally under the bus at this point, even if it’s to cast aspersion on his character? “Wally Stone, well, he was an odd duck and I couldn’t really trust him” would have done the job nicely. But Hanson doesn’t do this, implying he is innocent of the charges Wally eventually levels. Either that, or he is so arrogant he doesn’t for a moment believe he is in danger of being found out. Frankly, anything is a possibility in this very oblique, confusing episode.

Harry Markham wants Hutch for a “bit”. The classic “here comes McCoy now” thing which is, to me, one of the most endearing scenes in the canon, not only because it’s cute and funny but because you can see the joy the actors take when given the chance to do classic comedy. Markham’s decision can only mean he’s noticed Hutch’s good looks and wants to use them. He mentions the “unfortunate accident” and pushes a script at him. Is Hutch expected to read the lines left open by Phil Lovatt? Does this mean he’ll have to drive the stagecoach, too? Notice Starsky isn’t the least bit jealous; if anything, he’s thrilled. Imagine Hutch if the situation was reversed.  Would he be as thrilled for his partner, or try to sabotage him? I can just see it. “Are you sure you want to do that, Starsk? Do you have any idea how many millions of people will see you? Do you really want to make a fool of yourself?”

Layne “Shotgun” Britton, does his first of two cameos, here as an assistant director named “Shotgun”. His extravagant clothing is notable. He’s terribly funny in his little role.

Dobey arrives at his office complaining of having to get out of bed in the middle of the night. Why did he put a suit on? Or better yet, just call Starsky and Hutch with the Sierra Springs information from a bedside phone? Did his sandwich detector go off?

If they couldn’t prove Wally pushed Jane out the window, what did he go to jail for?  It was bad enough to have a woman spit in his face later, but Steve says, “They never proved that Wally pushed” Jane.

It could be my dirty mind, but when Steve accepts Julie’s invitation to her trailer late at night (what a mere script supervisor is doing with her very own trailer I’ll never know) he seems awfully eager. He goes over, pours himself a drink and seems very pleased with himself. What’s he anticipating from someone he says is “like a daughter”? Also, what would Julie still be doing at work so late? Unless Harry Markham is known to demand midnight script meetings, she should be home. If she’s from out of town, is it usual for production crew to stay on set?

Why doesn’t Wally just shoot Steve? Why the time-consuming and potentially preventable fire? He had access to the security cop’s gun, and there was no one around Steve’s bungalow, so he could have set that on fire, or simply walk in and start shooting. He doesn’t act sensibly. His plans are fussy and prone to miscalculation. He takes far more time with costumes and accents than he does with what he ostensibly came for. Was he like this with the other five murders? Even the final “big act”, his enemy walking down the fake street, he fires from a totally improbable angle. He could have waited in Julie’s trailer and blown him away when he walked through the door. That’s what I would have done.

Chuck McCann once again, as in the earlier episode “Silence”, plays an intensely hermetic, misunderstood, lonely individual struggling with mental illness issues. He’s an interesting actor, compressed and explosive, and his characters are clownish and vaguely disquieting. He’s supposed to be misunderstood and even sympathetic, but the viewer is never quite able to trust his motives. His tragic character is much more interesting than Rory Calhoun’s blandly imperious Hanson.

Starsky is Steve’s double in the film, but he’s the wrong height and build, and has those dark curls. What sort of movie is this, anyway? Who’s in charge of continuity?

There is something amusing about the clatter of tea cups and saucers and the tinkling of spoons in the scene with Wally’s sister.

It’s not entirely fair for me to point this out – after all, it must be terrifying in the extreme – but when Wally points the gun at Julie and tells her to get into the cart, she should have turned and run. It’s harder than it looks to fatally shoot someone who is running away.

Wally’s tiny ponytail is mesmerizing.

Why does Steve Hanson have a bungalow and a trailer? Hutch has to ask him where the trailer is, which means he hardly ever uses it.

The Hero: Steve Hanson says it’s time he was a real hero instead of merely acting as one. There is an underlying bitterness to this statement that is very interesting to me. Even though I doubt his guilt in the Elexy murder, his determination to be the hero might mean he has been a coward in the past. Perhaps he’s disappointed in himself for not supporting Wally more publicly. Perhaps he knew more about the murder than he ever let on. Maybe he lied in court. Maybe he is thinking back over a lifetime of arrogance and oblivion (the opening scene with the water man certainly underscores this). Maybe he feels helping Julie is a way of erasing paternal failings in the past. But perhaps there is a more cynical take on this. Hanson is getting old, is out of money, and admits this movie is his last hope. Even though he seems sincere when insisting he go himself, what better publicity that a “real life” walk down Main Street? The press would go bananas, and the resulting publicity would rocket him back into the public eye. Whatever his secret motivation, if any, he looks unconvincing walking toward his trailer, despite Starsky’s warm encouragement. He keeps looking around and obviously talking into the microphone. Wally’s not stupid, the set-up is obvious, but he shoots anyway.

Hutch says he has a “full view” of the area and can’t see anything, yet Wally is standing at his full height with a rife not fifty feet away. Normally Hutch is more vigilant than this. Was there no time to grab a pair of binoculars when they were grabbing their walkie-talkies? Ask other security guards to get into position?

It’s not clear why Starsky has Hutch’s gun. In one scene Hutch is ahead, with his gun in his hand. Next shot, he’s behind Starsky, with no gun. When they confront Wally, Starsky has it. Strangely, when showing Wally he’s unarmed, instead of dropping Hutch’s gun, he hands it back to Hutch, possibly because he doesn’t want to damage his partner’s prized weapon by letting it fall to the concrete floor. Wally doesn’t scream “drop it!” but he should have.

Wally says the critics compared him to Chaplin and Starsky says “better!” The look Hutch gives him is priceless: don’t push it, buddy, he seems to be saying. However, throughout this scene Hutch is silent, willing himself to be invisible as he lets Starsky do what he does best: gently paint a nostalgic picture as a way of softening the situation. He does it here, in “Vendetta” with a retired baseball player, in “Sharman” with his old flame, and most remarkably in “Partners”, as succor to Hutch.

Tag: Hutch does a great job of being a spoiled superstar in camel coat and shades, upset that his scene was cut even though both acknowledge – in a sideways sort of way – that his performance was terrible. The tag provides an interesting glimpse into Hutch’s relationship with his mother. He may have told her about his part in the movie, knowing she’d boast about it to others, but maybe he’s done it to avoid more important subjects, like whether he’s ever going to get married again, or whether or not he’s in danger of getting killed. Funny how Starsky, in addition to giving comforting advice on how to lie to mothers has also made the effort to save the bit of film featuring his partner. He must have gone to quite a lot of trouble to get it, and it’s reminiscent of his presentation of the new car to Hutch in the tag of “Survival”.