Archive for November, 2010

Character Studies 15: Why Does Huggy Do What He Does?

November 25, 2010

One of the best aspects of the series are the glimpses of the varied street-life populating Bay City and its few desultory blocks of bars, corner stores, gas stations and empty lots. While these streets are populated by an always entertaining and sometimes grimly realistic parade of street characters, no one embodies the down-and-out, the wily or the eccentric like the various informants used by the two detectives. These guys are different from the mostly hostile witnesses squeezed hard for voluntary, urgently needed information, like Carla in “Survival”, Sid in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble”, the engaging John-John The Apple in “The Collector”, or Fat Rolly. Instead, these guys are professionals, however reluctant, guys so down on their luck they’re selling information to the cops at grave personal risk. They all appear to have no personal grudge against cops themselves, despite routinely being hassled and shaken down; mostly it’s a whining “not you guys again!” when confronted (there’s a lovely scene in the pilot movie in which hard-luck sometime-informant Coley is subjected to the friendly menace of the two detectives). Interestingly, three – Micky in “The Fix”, Lou Scobie in “Survival”, and Freddie in “Starsky’s Lady” – are actually blackmailed by Bad Guys in order to lure Starsky and Hutch into harm’s way through the promise of false information, highlighting the dangers of relying on someone only too willing to sell you out for a couple of bucks. But we always have the feeling these treacherous double agents are doing so only because they have hit rock bottom, and wouldn’t ordinarily want to hurt the two detectives. One gets the feeling Starsky and Hutch are among the few cops who treat their informants and other street-level acquaintances with something approaching respect, if not downright affection. One of the most realistic aspects of the series (keeping in mind realism is not really what “Starsky & Hutch” is all about) is the fact that the detectives are heavily invested in, and reliant on, their informants. Best guest-snitch? With a bad case the DTs, bags under his eyes black as tar, my vote goes to Micky in “The Fix”, wonderfully played by Gene Conforti.

But of course the ultimate snitch is Huggy Bear himself, who for unknown reasons opens heart and home to the two detectives. Beautifully and unforgettably played by charismatic Antonio Fargas, he’s the rickety third stick propping up the show, a classic narrative device and plot convenience, purveyor of coincidentally invaluable information helping the story along while providing a glimpse into the street culture of Bay City. Huggy’s spirited fashion sense, snappy dialogue and poetic turn of phrase provide some of the most entertaining moments in the series. I do understand the problematic aspects of this character, and I acknowledge the subtle and not-so-subtle underlay of racism here and in every single instance of American popular culture produced by powerful institutional forces (such as television networks), but things quickly become complicated when we look at historical antecedents, other “helpers” from Steppin Fetchit to Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, overtly submissive but covertly subversive characters who exaggerate or invent helpfulness while secretly being in control. That in itself becomes a troubling stereotype and a subject worthy of close discussion, but let’s narrow our focus to Huggy Bear himself and see the man himself rather than the issues he represents.

“Antihero” is a word describing someone who is heroic despite lacking the traditional heroic qualities such as courage or morality, and I wish there was such as word as “antifriend”, because Huggy so perfectly embodies it. He is a friend despite having few traditional “friendly” traits, a guy who is as much embarrassed and frustrated by his relationship with Starsky and Hutch as he is warm to them, a guy who is acutely aware of the social and economic gulf between them, who often has competing interests in whatever is happening, and whose interactions are about 80% combative or at the very least light-hearted to the point of belittling. I cannot recall a single instance of Starsky, Hutch and Huggy being on completely equal ground in any social setting. Huggy is always the helper: providing information, doing favors, behind the counter or bringing the food (even in the tag to “The Avenger”, whether or not he provided the picnic cooler Huggy is the one fussing with the blanket and handing out the drinks while his friends mock-argue about biorhythms). This is a major issue, but Huggy is not just a helper. He’s a perceptive and complicated guy making the best of things, his on-and-off-again bar The Pits as well as various street-level businesses marking him as a legitimate entrepreneur as well as a hustler. And a hard worker too: you always see him pushing a broom, working tables, organizing staff and a thousand other mundane tasks, and his myriad sidelines can’t be too easy either. Even though he’s always able to make a buck, willing to do anything and anywhere, he continues to be the main informant to Starsky and Hutch. Why he does this is never revealed. Huggy can’t possibly get paid enough to make it worth his while; at most it’s fifty bucks here and there, and cohabiting with two detectives can’t be good for business. Sometimes you get the feeling he’s doing it for moral reasons – he’s quick to tell Starsky about Slater in “Survival”, a slimeball so bad other slimeballs want him off the street – and sometimes for friendship reasons (most remarkably, helping to dry out Hutch in “The Fix”), and yes, he obviously finds the detective business exciting, which explains his naïve foray into the trade with The Turkey. But most times you get the feeling he feels his role is an inconvenience, an embarrassment, a yoke he is forced to wear. He can be grumpy, obstreperous, stubborn and unhelpful, but he always comes through in the end. It’s interesting to speculate what Starsky and Hutch did to deserve this kind of allegiance, because frankly they’d be lost without his help.

Is it simply because providing information enables Huggy to keep the cops off his back? He makes no secret of his nefarious activities, like providing a hot watch in “The Trap”, and having various ladies of the evening lounging at his bar (most likely at his behest, although he is referred to as a pimp once by Hutch, in “Iron Mike Ferguson”, a comment more satiric than factual, as Hutch probably knows full well Huggy is more of an enabler than an enforcer). He is also seen hawking what looks like stolen merchandise and involving himself in various underground gambling operations (involving mice, hilariously). There are many hints the relationship between Huggy and the two detectives is primarily one of mutual back-scratching. This, at least, is how Captain Dobey sees it; he is suspicious of Huggy and loathe to accept his help (most vividly in “Bloodbath” but also in “Iron Mike Ferguson” and “The Fix”, among others) and seems embarrassed by Huggy’s colorful patois, perhaps because it represents the ethnic identity Dobey feels is an anathema to dignity, ambition, and acceptance in the wider (and whiter) world (an irony, since Huggy is dignified and ambitious, and his social power, while limited, is well established and genuine).

Despite being introduced in the series as a loner and an outsider, Huggy is often depicted as a family man, constantly surrounded by various cousins and other relatives, and is (improbably) invited along for the ride at Playboy Island because his grandmother and large extended family live there. However, these family connections always seem more like entanglements than loving bonds, fraught with obligation and danger (“Kill Huggy Bear”, “Murder at Sea”, “The Vampire”, for example). Family, in Huggy’s world, can be a rather loose affiliation: in “Huggy Can’t Go Home” we see this vividly, as father-figure JT exerts tremendous control over guilt-ridden Huggy, who seems helpless to escape the quicksand-like hold his old neighborhood has over him. Perhaps this is another clue in our mystery, because it appears Huggy has a natural disinclination to cut his ties no matter how they cut into the flesh. This shows how his loyalty with a capital L is an Achilles heel and why he is unable to part ways with the two troublesome detectives, whom he may view as family too (more “family” than “friend”, perhaps, if we understand that some relationships persist in a kind of preordained and non-voluntary way, independent of choice, both burdensome and tenacious to the point of inviolability).

The series ends with an homage to the informant and his uneasy, troubled relationship to the law: the unfortunate Lionel Rigger, played by Ted Neely, in the first part of “Targets Without a Badge”. Huggy trusts Starsky and Hutch to help Lionel, who has information about a crooked judge. They attempt to protect him, but fail. Following Lionel’s murder, Huggy explodes in a rage that seems to have been simmering for years, yelling “Lionel was a nobody as far as you’re concerned”, “just a snitch”, that “you let him down”, “you used him”. Explosive grief aside, this is a great scene precisely because it illustrates how complicated Huggy’s rationale for what he does is. He isn’t a one-dimensional sidekick, he isn’t an endearing oddball or the Groovy Black Guy brought in for ethnic legitimacy. He’s contradictory and conflicted, and by that yardstick becomes the embodiment of The Informer: a real-world Charon, the ferryman who navigates the rivers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Charon didn’t volunteer for this job and a snitch doesn’t either. It’s a grueling necessity, a cosmic pay-back for earthly transgressions. Just what Huggy’s transgressions are remains a mystery.

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Episode 51: The Crying Child

November 20, 2010

Hutch’s lady, Carol, a schoolteacher, enlists their help to try to save a battered child from further parental abuse.

Carol Wade: Dee Wallace, Janet Mayer: Linda Dano, Sgt. Peterson: Rosalind Cash, Guy Mayer: Meeno Peluce, Eddie Mayer: Michael Lane, Franklin: Al White, Vikki Mayer: Nancy McKeon. Written By: James Schmerer, Directed By: Georg Stanford Brown.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Even though the series as a whole has always tackled difficult subject matter, Season Three is marked by more “big picture” episodes and socially relevant themes, perhaps after gaining enough popularity to establish itself as a cultural lighthouse of sorts and perhaps, I’m guessing, in reaction to the criticism of its violent content (criticism that is, and was, damaging to the series’ artistic integrity). Followed by millions, respected by few, producers may have felt it was time to inch out onto the limb of Controversial Subject Matter, possibly in the hope of gaining credibility. Gay rights, child abuse, political asylum, African-American injustice, divorce fall-out, global pandemics, and the powers of the media are just some of the topics tackled head-on. All this points to a more external focus that results, in many ways, in a lessening of emphasis on Bay City and its gritty, often eccentric street life. 

There are many instances during this series that make us realize what a dynamic and changing time the late 1970s was. Youth culture may have undergone its transformation a decade earlier, but this series is set in the rigidly institutional old-boy world of the police department, judges’ chambers, city hall and criminal emperors who wear a suit and tie at nine o’clock in the morning. Things here are slow to change and the prevailing politics are conservative. But now things are shifting, and Guy Mayer’s case nicely illustrates this. Like the gay-themed “Death in a Different Place”, even acknowledging the existence of domestic battery is a triumph of sorts. There is a strong element of frustration with the way things are, politically, socially, and legally. The show makes it clear an abuser can also be a victim. Family members are either absent or unable to speak; Carol fears being fired if she accuses a parent and is somehow proven wrong. The child himself has withdrawn into self-blame and silence. The rising divorce rate and its attendant custody battles have added fuel to the fire. The whole episode is about the gray areas of life, things being more complex than previously thought, even down to this detail: the detectives’ surprise that macho Eddie Mayer is a potter, a predominantly female-oriented art-form. Times are changing, and fast.

The fact that this episode begins – nonsensically – with the scene from “Nightmare”, including the apropos-of-nothing comment about Lisa’s birthday party, emphasizes how ad hoc and lazy this series can be.

In “Tap Dancing”, Starsky complains about stopping a robbery while dressed in their disguises as cowboy and an “Arab with funny shoes.” This time, Hutch is the one who crabs about stopping a robbery dressed as Laurel and Hardy. The guy they arrest – a single dad with two kids, pulling a sad snatch-and-go from a local shop to feed them – sets up the theme of this show: what people will do to save their family, even at the cost of dignity, legality and community standing.

The guys process this arrest and go on to their appointment at the school. But on the way they’re talking enthusiastically about pulling out milkshakes, hamburgers and fries – one assumes this is for the children of the arrested father at the convenience store. Another example of things not being as they seem: the shoplifter as victim of the larger, more nefarious crime of economic deprivation.

This is the most overt depiction of the Oliver Hardy-Stan Laurel routine we see during the series. Of course it’s Hutch who plays the bossy, clueless Hardy and Starsky as the intelligent, put-upon Laurel.

Hello, script continuity person: Guy calls Hutch “Ken” when he hasn’t been introduced to him. 

Funny how Starsky and Hutch are about to do a play for third graders – not the most discerning of audiences – and yet take practicing so seriously they do it when left alone for a few minutes, even though it seems this is a much-loved, much-honed performance already. All the little nuances are there, no need to go over it again. And yet they do – and it all involves a formalized, stylized version of their actual relationship, being grabby with each other, teasing, taunting, and setting each other up for maximum derision which ends in a torrent of giggles.

What’s the point of the rehearsal at the school? I understand how much visual appeal it adds to have two cops who “look like clowns”, as Guy succinctly puts it, but on a practical, narrative level, why go all the way to the elementary school to practice in an empty classroom, days before the actual event? And why in costume?

Do Starsky and Hutch have a moment of contemplation as they remember Hutch’s play backhanding of Starsky in front of Guy before they knew of his abuse?

Hutch’s relationship with Carol is non-romantic to the point of being chaste. They have zero chemistry together. What, with her sweet little scarves and earnest uprightness, is she too goody-goody for Hutch’s liking? When we come to the later episode “Hutchinson for Murder One”, you can see how far to the dark side he’s willing to go.

More “seventy-five per cent” material: Dobey jokes, “I thought you wanted to get an early start on that two-day leave to Tahoe.” Hutch says to Starsky, with maximum guilt, “Maybe next month, huh?”

Gold star for direction: Georg Sanford Brown’s camera shows Starsky and Hutch approaching the house from behind the lacy curtain, emphasizing their journey behind the veil of suburban oppression.

When Starsky looks around the living room, he very carefully lifts the lid on the decorative container and looks inside. You just know he’s looking for evidence of drug use.

Janet Mayer misdirects suspicion in a series of clever ways: she immediately condemns child abuse as “vile”, then preempts suspicion by naming herself as a suspect by saying “why would I work, so I don’t have to put them in a daycare center, if I were abusing them?” (although this statement makes absolutely no sense, the children spend so much time alone after school, which has become more or less a daycare, because she works.) Add to that the giant crucifix in the living room, and the obvious, needy love Guy displays as he runs in and hugs her. Then, when Guy’s marks are revealed, she enlists the children’s help in pointing the finger at their father and dissolves into attractive tears. Notice how Starsky and Hutch keep looking at each other throughout this scene to gauge the relative truth of the matter and to see how the other is processing the information. How many of us have someone we trust so completely as to be both mirror and magnifying glass during the tense negotiation through life?

You can excuse Hutch for the fundamental mistake of questioning a child in front of a parent. Procedures for this sort of delicate interview are not well understood, even to this day. There’s a lot going on here, from guilt and shame to an older sibling’s complex peacemaking tactics, including a child’s ability to fabricate, a psychological minefield.

Both child actors are good in this episode but Nancy McKeon’s glassy silence is pretty incredible.

There’s an interesting dynamic at work when Starsky and Hutch return to the school a few days later when Guy has suffered even more horrendous physical abuse. Starsky bolts from the room and Hutch, after reassuring the children, follows him out. They don’t talk a lot, and from the outside their interaction seems both brief and bitchy. But how it looks is not how it is. Rather than stay behind strategizing with Carol, which would be the practical thing to do, Hutch is compelled to solidify, or coalesce, the experience with his partner. Even if nothing overtly happens, it’s only when they sit together can both understand what is happening and gather the necessary energy to put it to rights. It’s an unconscious act and one Hutch would vigorously deny, if you asked him.  

The best line in this episode is when Starsky says, “we have a lot to learn.” It’s a humble admission from someone used to being in charge and having firm opinions about how things are.

Lazy set dec: we are forced to conclude these are a bunch of pretty slow third graders because the same lesson is on the board every time Starsky and Hutch are there.

What is Starsky and Hutch’s knowledge of “Juvenile Hall” based on? In “Little Girl Lost” Hutch can’t stand the thought of Molly being there, and here they can’t stand the thought of Guy and Vikki there, to the extent they put Carol in potentially troublesome or even illegal situation by having her take the children to her house.

It’s great when Starsky says they might have to give Mayer “a polygram test”. What, and see what kind of music he likes? He actually says “polygram” twice. It’s a Glaser miscue and nobody cares.

Interesting that throughout this terrible case, Starsky is preoccupied with finding Franklin, the hapless shoplifter with the two kids, a job.

The arrest of Eddie Mayer involving the over-the-shoulder toss is a lovely bit of choreography, and look how relaxed they are when they do it. Mayer is at least four inches and a hundred pounds bigger than they are.

The truth is discovered, as it often is in this series, in a long silent look between Starsky and Hutch. When Mayer’s work records show he must be innocent of the first beating, Hutch murmurs, “well, who else?” and the two of them stare into each other’s eyes – time itself seems to stop. It’s a great moment with real magic – you can almost hear them speaking to each other – and often repeated throughout the episode.

Why do they take Eddie Mayer to the child welfare office rather than the police station if they’ve arrested him? This may be a procedure issue I’m not aware of, but it seems to me he should be taken down to the station and booked, and then questioned in an interrogation room with the requisite recorders in place, rather than taken to this rather informal environment.

It’s extraordinary how both Glaser and Soul are able to change their body language – and by doing so change the atmosphere in the room itself – when they learn the truth about their combative prisoner. Both turn from powerful adversaries to gentle allies the moment they turn back to Eddie and Sergeant Peterson. Look how Hutch lowers himself into the chair, carefully, cautiously, like a man facing a wounded lion he wants to help. Starsky is even more subtle than that: he changes his demeanor completely just by standing there. Emmys all round!

When Eddie explains why Janet is abusive to the kids, we believe it when he describes her nightmarish childhood. But when he draws the conclusion that she “hates all men”, which is why she focuses her rage on her son rather than daughter, why does this seem wrong somehow? I’m no child psychologist, and I certainly don’t claim to understand why mothers abuse their children, but it’s difficult to see how Janet would punish her young son for the crimes of her father. He’s a baby, still, prepubescent and unthreatening. If I were Eddie I’d suggest she lacked control as a girl and now seeks to exert that as a woman in the only way she knows how. Maybe she suspects her ex-husband favors his son and so hurting that son is a way of exerting revenge. Maybe Guy reminds her of herself at that age. Whatever her reasons, I don’t think hating men has anything to do with it.

Does Starsky tell Janet Mayer she’s going to be charged with felony child abuse and “attempted murder”? Glaser slurs the line and it’s hard to hear. If so, this is a dramatic charge and one they’ll find nearly impossible to prove.

It’s ironic this episode is called “The Crying Child” when Guy doesn’t cry, not even once, and Vikki doesn’t either. The only person crying is the abuser.

While filming, one of the child actors became upset during a scene, and natural-dad Glaser ended up taking it upon himself to reassure all the children and make sure they were okay during the rough shoot. The original script included in the tag the bit the guys practice at the beginning, performed at a party for Guy where it’s also revealed that his father is engaged and will get custody of the children.

Tag: it’s fun to watch Glass-Half-Full Starsky try to cheer up Pessimist Peterson. He displays a typical cop’s attitude at the close of a case: it’s over, move on. And Starsky is particularly good at compartmentalization; it’s Hutch who’ll lie in bed that night and worry. A police officer’s job is done when the handcuffs slap on, but for social workers, lawyers, psychiatrists and correctional workers the work is just beginning. Peterson and Starsky seem to have a little thing going and perhaps it led to dinner and drinks that night. 

Clothing notes: Hutch looks great in his khakis and green leather jacket with the puka-shell necklace. Starsky wears the same thing in two back-to-back episodes: plaid shirt (unusual for him), black leather jacket and jeans, plus his Chinese coin necklace. Hutch appears to have borrowed this shirt in later scenes.

Episode 50: Death in a Different Place

November 12, 2010

Starsky and Hutch investigate why their old friend and colleague John Blaine was found dead in a hotel in a destitute part of the city, and uncover a plot that involves another cop.

Alec Corday: Don Gordon, Nick Hunter: Gregory Rozakis, Orrin Lawford: Dick Davalos, “Sugar”: Charles Pierce, John Blaine: Art Fleming, Margaret Blaine: Virginia Leith, Peter Whitelaw: Colby Chester, Murph: Allen Joseph, Maxine: JoElla Deffenbaugh, LaVerne: Shelley St. Clair, ME Ginny Simpson: Adrien Royce. Written By: Tom Bagen, Directed By: Sutton Roley.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This episode is groundbreaking for its compassionate and sensible look at what was then considered the most provocative immorality in contemporary society. It’s almost inconceivable now to imagine how acceptable, even mainstream, was homophobia in the late 1970s. It was hatred of the murderous, “they all deserve to burn in everlasting hell” sort, even in the liberal entertainment la-la land of Los Angeles. Hatred against the LGBT community was so pervasive, so sickening, and so much a part of the norm that violence against these people didn’t even register as a hate crime. Assaults against gays were under-reported and under-investigated, and I point here to the notorious Upstairs Lounge arson in New Orleans which brutally killed thirty-two people a scant four years before this episode was filmed. Speaking later of the charred remains of the victims, some still clinging to one another, the chief of police joked that the ashes would have to be swept into “fruit jars”. Similar jokes were said and repeated by journalists and witnesses to try and minimize or dismiss the tragic event. Which makes this episode even more special and endearing: writer Tom Bagen has written a complex, nicely-realized, unsugar-coated story which also happens to include a slice of contemporary gay life in middle-class America. He doesn’t turn “gay lifestyle” into some vanilla concoction, he includes a relatable “everyman” hero who just so happens to be gay, and doesn’t overdo the exoticism either but instead reveals the seamier (and glitzier) underside of the culture with refreshing candor that would have been brand new for about 99% of the viewing audience at the time.

I’ve thought a lot about Starsky’s “negative” reaction to hearing John Blaine’s secret. Having him share Hutch’s sensitivity might score political points, but it would make the episode more bland, and unrealistic, than it should be. We wouldn’t get to enjoy his eventual enlightenment, and see that people’s attitudes can change from ignorance to acceptance to something even better when it comes to gay rights or anybody’s rights for that matter: the acknowledgement of commonality, that everyone is part of the same spectrum of humanity. The joke at the end implies both Starsky and Hutch, rather than “tolerating” homosexuality – a patronizing term that always gets my back up – are in fact empathetic and inclusive in a way that is far more understanding. But Starsky’s initial response is more complicated than a reflexive yuck. All signs point to his having a typical, even traditional upbringing, and with that comes traditional assumptions and values, so yeah, a knee-jerk distaste might factor into his reaction. But my guess is this isn’t just about being disturbed by his mentor’s hidden life, it’s also about his own ignorance of it, that someone close to him was able to lie so successfully to loved ones. I see his disappointment as much professional as personal, Starsky thinking I’m a detective, and I didn’t see that?

Opening scene: okay, we know it’s a heat wave, and it looks miserable, but should Hutch really threaten Starsky with the dissolution of their partnership when the Torino overheats on those asphalt-melting highways? The first spoken lines in most episodes are wonderful in that they encapsulate the guys’ personalities so well, and in this episode there is no exception: Starsky gets out of the car with a conciliatory “Yeah, wait a second,” and Hutch with a furious, “YEAH ALL RIGHT!!” Hutch then says it’s time to choose between the car and him. Hutch seems to conveniently forget his own car would be even worse in these conditions, a fact that Starsky, martyr-like, does not mention.

I wonder what John Blaine thinks of the old-married-couple repartee Hutch and Starsky indulge in at his door. How Hutch is perennially frustrated by the car, how amazed he is that Starsky offers to pay for drinks, etc. Does he think to himself, jeez, these guys are gayer than I am?

There’s a lot of addiction references in this episode and an honest reflection of what was and is going on in the gay community. For instance, Sugar Plum is on stage, nattering away. Just as Sugar says she has no drinking problem at all because she has “no problem drinking at all,” John spills his drink. Jack Ives displays his “drinking problem” spilling champagne on himself out of glasses and spilling wine on himself while drinking straight out of the bottle. It’s a good, economical encapsulation of the issue.

Just how many drinks did Blaine have? He is drinking a martini when Hunter propositions him. Hunter buys him another drink when he spills his scotch and water on Blaine. Blaine refers to “all those drinks” having “really hit me tonight.” It may be that he drank more than usual that night. But more likely it was Hunter dropping something in his drink which makes Blaine at first sloppy and careless, and then nearly comatose. Blaine is a career police officer. Even taking into account these are his off-hours, he doesn’t seem the type to drink to the point of blackout, especially in a public place. This is far too vulnerable a position to be in. Note just how cautious he is when meeting potential-trick Jack Ives, even though he’s cute and seemingly available. Also, owing to his generation and his profession, most likely he’s a drinker and not a drug addict. Dobey later says “everybody takes pills” but is seems unlikely these barbiturates are Blaine’s own.

The whole seduction-in-a-gay-bar scene is overlaid with a touristy sort of wonderment that comes close to outright esoteric. Remember, this is the first look at a gay bar many viewers would have ever had and I would dearly love to know how many thought satan’s lair! and how many would have thought, hey, that’s actually rather pleasant (and how many 8-to12-year olds perked up and thought I’m feeling a tingle of recognition). Because, for all the dreary, faintly desperate atmosphere of casual pickups and ageing performers, it’s also rather lovely. The close-ups, the music, the sparkles and misty murmuring, it’s as colorful as Oz.

It’s nice to see Gregory Rozkaris again, after his memorable role as the junkie in “Pariah”. He’s just as good here.

I appreciate the intelligently presented scene when the two ladies of the night enter with the camera fixed on the semi-conscious youth staring into nothing; one of the girls gives him her mostly-smoked cigarette and he takes it. This tiny segue is a further illustration of the world this episode is trying to illuminate for us: a lonely, somewhat bleak place where narcotic escape can be a necessity, and small gestures of kindness are the thin threads holding it all together.

It’s very touching that when Dobey says, “John Blaine’s dead” all the detectives in the squad room come close and listen in, with obvious distress.

It’s always interesting when fleabag hotels have high falutin names, as if to mitigate their surroundings and cast a benevolent light on their patrons. The hotel John Blaine stays in is the St Francis.

Director Sutton Roley gives us a great news-footage-like POV in which the Torino arrives at the crime scene. First we hear police-radio chatter, then the camera’s lens draws back to reveal the busy street, with the iconic Torino pulling up. There’s Starsky, flashing his badge, which we witness partially through ambulance windows. It’s immediate, jarring, and effective. Mr. Roley passed away three years ago and this from a beautifully written on-line eulogy by Stephen Bowie: “I used the term “legendary” in the header, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.  More than any other director of his generation, Roley was known within the industry for his exuberant visual sense, a near-constant use of skewed angles, distorted lenses, long takes, elaborate tracking shots, and bold compositions (as with many of his contemporaries, the influence of Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane” was paramount).  This led to conflicts with more conservative producers, cameramen, and actors, but when Roley encountered equally adventuresome collaborators he could produce some of the most dazzling imagery ever composed for TV.” Roley’s style (he will go on to direct four more episodes) is never better shown than in this wonderful scene.

There’s a female coroner at the crime scene, Ginny Simpson (ably played by Adrien Royce) who, along with the gay subtext of this episode, shows how times are in the process of changing.

Sutton Roley strikes again in the staging of the crucial scene in which the truth is revealed about Blaine. Shot from below, both actors in profile, the summer heat beating down, it’s a great, compressed scene and beautifully underplayed by both leads. I like how Hutch knows about Blaine before Starsky does, and you can see him briefly holding back before he says the word “male” when listing the attributes of the person Blaine brought to his room. Starsky, predictably, begins to offer excuses, but Hutch seems to accept the fact immediately. Shift to the outside looking in, in exact imitation of how it looks from the “outside” when considering someone’s secret life. Only Hutch understands the gender of the trick is irrelevant: “buy it or not,” he tells Starsky, “Blaine’s dead. And he was with another man.”

It’s slightly heavy-handed but still necessary when the interior shot of Blaine’s house lingers on the wall of trophies, citations and medals he won throughout a distinguished career. Every member of the viewing audience at that time – and some still now – needs reminding that bravery, dignity and wholesomeness of character has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

There’s a brief, interesting glimpse into Starsky’s complicated view of things when at the Blaine household he picks up a photo of he and Blaine. “John taught me how to fight,” he tells Hutch. “Bloody nose and all.” It’s difficult to imagine a more physical activity than that, head-locks and free-throws, lots of bodily contact. What’s going through Starsky’s mind when he realizes this?

Former Hollywood bombshell Virginia Leith gives a great, understated, notably dry-eyed performance as John Blaine’s widow.

“A man is dead, Mr. Whitelaw,” Hutch says when their witness becomes obstructive. “I don’t care whether he’s gay or straight. Labels don’t mean a thing.” Whitelaw looks at Hutch immediately sees his honesty. He then looks at Starsky and just as quickly realizes there is a shadow of discomfort there too, the sense both detectives have wandered into unfamiliar territory, and unfamiliarity can sometimes cause a kind of defensive unease. As both a gay man and a politician, Peter Whitelaw has a nearly supernatural knack for digesting a complicated situation. Get this man to Washington, stat.

When Peter Whitelaw talks about the injustice facing gays, he looks accusingly at Starsky, who says he doesn’t think Whitelaw has to stand of the platform of homosexuality in order to campaign for social change. Whitelaw glances at Hutch, who seems … what? Embarrassed at his partner’s naiveté? This dialogue is still going on, in one form or another, to this day: the often unconsciously homophobic assertions people make when they say I don’t care what you do as long as I don’t have to see it, or I don’t see why they have to have a parade or variations along that theme. It’s a pernicious attitude that is difficult to change and equally difficult to define, and the fact that it is done so well here – in about seven seconds, and beautifully underplayed – is another feather in this episode’s cap.

Charles Pierce, one of the greatest and most admired female impersonators of the twentieth century (and a kick-ass actor too) leaps into his scene like a racehorse born and bred to burst out of the gate. Throughout this episode he’s riveting: charismatic, confident, startlingly bitter. It’s fascinating to see an actor turn on a dime between glamorous star and scrappy street-fighter, but he does it time and time again, and he’s a marvel to watch. (Please see a more detailed tribute to his skills in “Character Studies: Five Perfect Cameos”.) I especially love Sugar’s speech to Hutch about where he was during the night in question, culminating with complimenting Hutch’s “gorgeous hair” saying he was going to bleach his the same color. Starsky reacts in a humorous way to Sugar’s comment, while Hutch has a moment of genuine wounded pride, one of those micro-expressions Soul is so freakishly good at. “It’s not bleached, it’s natural,” he says. Starsky is amused out of his grumpy mood, and Sugar whips off his wig. “What a coincidence! So’s mine.” Half in Sugar’s voice, half in his own. One of the wonderful aspects to this scene is that even though we all know he’s a female impersonator, it’s still startling to see when the facade is dropped. I still remember the delicious thrill of it, watching for the first time all those years ago.

Sugar, for all the “let’s all just get along” attitude, nevertheless protects bad-boy Hunter, to the point of covering up a crime. Why? Is this a live-and-let-live approach, or does it reveal a profound mistrust, or even (most likely warranted) hatred of the police?

The chase scene with Hunter is another standout piece of direction: in this case the camera is hand-held, rendering everything jumpy and discordant.

There’s a deeply uncomfortable silence before Dobey says, “the department is under a lot of pressure right now to let gays on the force.” In the next breath he says, “So the department is not anxious to let the world know that one of its finest might have been a homosexual.” Dobey is making two opposing statements, which pretty much underscores how complicated it all is. What, do you suppose, is Dobey’s own opinion on this matter? It would have been interesting to hear it, although that’s asking a lot from a script that is already generous enough.

“I don’t want to know about it!” Dobey cries out as the guys say they’re going to fight to the end. Is this an early version of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

It’s too bad Blaine is presented as such a cardboard figure. Not enough screen time is given to the real person; all we know about him is in the eulogizing. There is no time to develop his character, or to know much about him other than the depth of his lonely misery.

The Gay Decorating Theme seems to start with beading curtains in the doorway. The Green Parrot has them at the bar doorway and upstairs. Orrin Lawford has them in his place as well.

What is Corday’s history with Starsky and Hutch? Hutch is immediately suspicious and hostile while Starsky glares in the background. Yet when Hutch asks Starsky later what he knows about Corday, Starsky says not as much as he should. What tips Starsky and Hutch off about a fellow cop they appear to have heard nothing negative about?

How does Hunter know Corday killed Orrin Lawford? How fast does news travel on the gay circuit?

Both Starsky and Hutch have substitute father figures with secrets, who ultimately disappoint and come to a bad end. There are a lot of contrasts as well as comparisons if we look at the Starsky/Blaine relationship and the Hutchinson/Huntley relationship in the later episode “Birds of a Feather”. Blaine shields Starsky from his problems while Huntley tries to pull Hutch into his. Blaine’s death saves Starsky from having to risk a gesture of solidarity that could have hurt him, professionally and personally, while Huntley’s actions force Hutch to take a public stand. The presence of both these older male figures – and their profound impact – underscore the fact both Starsky and Hutch accepted a mentor in their lives at some point. Perhaps the patriarchal structure of the police department encourages this kind of relationship, because it is not commonplace in most men’s lives. Of note, too, is the fact that neither Starsky nor Hutch have a father to speak of. Starsky’s is long-dead and under suspicious circumstances, Hutch’s is simply nonexistent. We can add Huggy Bear to the mix here as well, as his own father-figure JT Washington also drags him reluctantly into a dangerous, emotionally volatile situation (“Huggy Can’t Go Home”).

Dobey seems amazed at Starsky and Hutch’s access to Corday’s file. “You got Corday’s file out of Narco?” Getting an officer’s file didn’t seem to be too much of a problem for Starsky and Hutch when they got Mike Ferguson’s file from R & I. It would be interesting to know how much access officers have to their peers’ records and cases.

Huggy’s immediate recall of Sugar’s address is extraordinary. How is it he can keep all this stuff in his head?

When Starsky asks him to go undercover, Huggy makes an extraordinary statement. “I’ve been undercover all my life”. Although this is brushed aside with Starsky’s hilarious “as a gay dude in the Green Parrot”, one wonders what Huggy means. Huggy doesn’t say “for years”, which may refer to his (not so secret) life as a police informant, he says “all my life”. You have to ask the question, undercover as what?

As an aside, why do the guys need Huggy at all? Surely they could have gone together, with Hutch lounging at the bar fending off the inevitable admirers; they really don’t need to drag Huggy onto the dance floor. It serves no purpose and it puts their friend in harm’s way. Is it because they feel uncomfortable going as a pair, considering the implication? Too much pressure to dance together? If this is the case, why not take another detective with them? Another trained (and armed) professional would be very helpful in this case and Huggy doesn’t add much to the equation other than being sharp-eyed (and accommodating). Are there no departmental rules for engaging regular citizens in potentially dangerous situations? Just like girlfriend Molly’s sleuthing in “The Collector”, yanking amateurs off the street to help in the apprehension of dangerous criminals makes me nervous. Whatever the reason, Huggy shows great forbearance just showing up, ready to work when he doesn’t have to, and really shouldn’t.

I love the dueling gold medallions Hunter and Sugar wear.

Hutch seems to think dressing like the aristocracy counts as a gay disguise, as he shows up at the Green Parrot with a tweed cap, scarf, and sunglasses. Later, in “Targets Without a Badge 2” he shows up in much the same outfit, which now becomes his unemployed look. Hutch seems to believe – to his credit – that if you’re going to be on the margins of society, you might as well look like a Rothschild doing it.

How much time has Hutch been dancing with Huggy before Hunter, Sugar and Corday show up? Does he enjoy it at all? He seems to. When he’s propositioned by the silver fox on the dance floor he takes it in stride, touching the guy with elaborate, dare I say flamboyant regret on the cheek as he passes. One wonders at his relaxed and open attitude, which is both praiseworthy and frankly amazing, considering the times. This is one of Hutch’s finest moments as a human being and goes a long way to rehabilitating his reputation as contentious and difficult. It’s as if he just doesn’t care about what anybody thinks. In fact, he likes the attention. Doesn’t matter where it comes from – a compliment is a compliment.

This may be the best tag ever, especially since Hutch is being so wonderfully provocative with his partner. He also understands that the best way to educate is through empathy, and the following exchange perfectly illustrates this:

Hutch: “Starsky, would you consider that a man who spends seventy-five per cent of his time with another man has got certain tendencies?”
Starsky: “Seventy-five – you mean three-quarters?”
Hutch: “Right.”
Starsky: “Yeah. Sure. Why not. You mean that was the case between John and…”
Hutch: “No, no, that’s the case between you and me.”
Starsky: “What?!”
Hutch: “Well, figure it out. In a five-day week, there are about eighty waking hours, right?”
Starsky: “Yeah.”
Hutch: “We work, eat, and drink about twelve of those hours, right? That’s sixty hours a week, seventy-five per cent of the time we spend together and you’re not even a good kisser.”
Starsky: “How do you know that?”

The funny thing is, with the after-hours socializing at the Pits and other places, weekends playing basketball and going camping and fighting off Satanists, plus all that double-dating and taking naps at Hutch’s place, it’s more like ninety per cent.  And while we’re at it, when Starsky says “John and …” what does he mean? John wasn’t with anyone, but perhaps Starsky was just listing off the names of the people at the Green Parrot.Hutch starts this amusing conversation in the first place because he is trying (subtly, sensitively) to rock Starsky’s conventions a little, perhaps dislodging the very last trace of prejudice his partner may have. And when Starsky makes his little joke, we know he has succeeded. Starsky being in the back seat during this exchange is another funny little joke, no doubt staged by either cast or crew.

Episode 49: Murder Ward

November 2, 2010

Starsky and Hutch investigate a string of deaths at a hospital for the mentally ill.

Jane Hutton: Suzanne Somers, Freddie Lyle: Joey Forman, Miss Bycroft: Fran Ryan, Dr. Matwick: Leon Charles, Bo: HB Haggerty, Switek: Ned York, Victor: Sam DeFazio, Charlie Deek: Blackie Dammett, Albert: J Christopher Sullivan, Jackson: DeWayne Jessie, Howard: Robert E Ball. Written By: Anthony Yerkovich, Directed By: Earl Bellamy.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Very often the series perfectly reflects changing times and attitudes of the new more liberal era, never more than in this episode’s approach to the care and housing of the mentally ill. Predicated on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, the seminal 1975 film based on the 1962 book by Ken Kesey (Skylar and McMurphy are similar types, irrepressible and ingenious), this episode carries on themes borne out of 1950s “Snakepit” fears of mind-control and isolation torture and a 1970s distaste for corporate-funded pharmaceutical management. Very often – here, as elsewhere in popular culture – patients are seen as more eccentric than ill, their “craziness” an offspring of creativity and spirited individuality, which the Evil State feels threatened by and wants to quash.

There is an unusual amount of instances in which the mentally ill are featured in this series. From Commander Jim to Larry Horvath, to the kids in “Starsky’s Lady”, to Lisa in “Nightmare”. Not to mention vampires, Satanic cult members, mass murderers, crazed scientists, men driven insane by the loss of a child. Is this a mug shot of Los Angeles? Or an accurate accounting of what really drives criminal behavior?

Other than the neat sound effects, there is absolutely no reason to bring a patient in with the ambulance sirens blaring.

It is really necessary to put a psychiatric patient in chains around his waist? Was he really that badly behaved in the ambulance? Starsky is forced to wear this extreme form of restraint until he is taken to his room and released (by Hutch, which indicates keys to the restraints are held by all the staff members).

I like how Starsky does his “crazy” hair. Also, he taps into his nearly superhuman agility, managing to outwit a nurse, two ambulance drivers, two orderlies and another nurse in the hallway. Crashing into his partner seems accidental but probably isn’t – it may be more of a happy how-ya-doing after a few days apart, an instant re-cementing of a partnership, which again shows a remarkable physical comfort level between the two of them.

Wouldn’t Skylar’s fake mustache be confiscated by the doctors and paramedics before he ever got to the hospital?

Playing disruptive is an interesting choice for Starsky to make. By running around and making a lot of noise he’s far more likely to risk being incarcerated or sedated, therefore useless to Hutch. All the guards and nurses will be forced to keep a watchful eye on this troublesome patient. And sure enough, the first thing they do is shoot him full of drugs so that he sleeps deeply for the first twelve hours. It would have been a better route to be a placid, zoned-out, unthreatening type. Far more likely to be ignored or forgotten by staff, and therefore free to roam the halls.

Is there a reason Hutch is wearing his admittedly cool shades in a dark hallway? To make himself seem more intelligent? Wouldn’t regular glasses work better?

Hutch tells Nurse Bycroft he’d been there a week. If this is really the case, he didn’t get very far in his investigation. Was Starsky recruited to get things moving?

I like when Freddie, in the guise of a Chandler-esque detective, mentions his “rod”, and Starsky involuntarily looks down, crotch-level, with an expression of dubiousness.

Every time they say “Hansen” it sounds, amusingly, like “Handsome”.

Another energetic performance by the wonderful live-wire Blackie Dammett as Charlie Deek. Hutch, who normally has a nearly photographic memory for perps he busted in the past, doesn’t recognize the man he and Starsky busted a year or so ago (later Charlie explains it’s because he looked like a “freakin’ prophet” at the time of his arrest, i.e. with a full beard).

One more note about Charlie: why is he allowed to be free at all? He’s got full access to hallways, common rooms, offices and the grounds despite being charged with a horrendously violent crime, and maybe more than one. He isn’t medicated to keep him in check, isn’t searched for weapons, and his wild-eyed lunacy is on full view. Ease of plotting aside, where is the logic in this? There are many such issues in this episode, lapses in common sense, but then again psychiatric institutions were shadowy, unreal places for many average viewers of the time. Mental and neurological disorders were not well understood and those suffering with such illnesses were heavily stigmatized, their symptoms seen as monstrous, opaque, unpredictable, often fantastical. The writers were taking advantage of this, playing fast and loose with the facts in order to present their story.

At the card game, the poem quoted is a George Dillon translation of Charles Baudelaire’s grisly and haunting “The Man Who Tortures Himself”.

Matwick seems to have a particular liking for Hutch, to the point of having a little crush, talking to him about his secret experiments when he probably shouldn’t. Hutch does his part, flirting up a storm with his sunny grins and his cogent comments about the adrenal gland experiments – pretty impossible for Matwick to resist. Director Earl Bellamy nicely plays this up by having their repartee filmed in extreme close-up, during which Hutch looks particularly fetching.

Hutch mentions “Van Kleef experiments”. This could mean Lambertus Theodorus Van Kleef, a late Victorian pioneer of radiology. Whoever he is, Matwick dismisses him with a classic narcissist’s sneer.

But the question remains: when Matwick mentions his behavior modification experiments, does Hutch make the connection with the suspicious deaths at the hospital? He should, but his behavior leads me to wonder. He seems very casual with the doctor and doesn’t press for details. He asks the question, but when Matwick prevaricates Hutch simply smiles and walks away. Perhaps this is part of Hutch’s plan, as he suspects Matwick will withdraw if he shows too much interest. But he does seem to take this golden opportunity very lightly.

The cockroach races Starsky invents must be inspired by Huggy’s Mouse Downs of shows past. One wonders if Starsky ever tells Huggy about this, reminiscing over a beer about the time he staged the “First Annual Cabrillo Cockroach Derby.”

Switek dials three numbers when he calls his drug connection from the office where Jane is hiding. It must be an extension in the building. Who is his buyer?

Where do you suppose inmates of a mental institution would get hold of beer as a prize? Nobody seems to question this.

How much is Starsky’s horror that Nurse Bycroft “murdered” the cockroach “Cabrillo Kid” acting or actual? He does seem genuinely stunned. Any why would she do that in the first place? Yes, stomping on the insect is a tidy encapsulation of the Bosses stomping on, or otherwise violently curtailing, the freedoms of those in their care, and for that it makes for potent symbolism.In reality, upsetting her patients to the point of mutiny isn’t exactly a therapeutic way to go.

Note the shadow on the wall behind Matwick as Switek asks him for the drugs. It makes Matwick look very large, when in fact he is a regularly sized person. Compare this scene to the one of Starsky and Hutch talking in the door way of Starsky’s room earlier and all you see are black silhouettes against the bright light of the hallway. Two uses of light and shadow: one to emphasize a ballooning ego, and one to illustrate depth and authenticity. In fact this entire episode is artistically lit, with shadows dancing everywhere, and stark blackness intersected with bright light (open doors from dark rooms into bright hallways, for example). One of the few times in the run of the series in which atmospheric effects play a prominent role.

The guys are, somewhat surprisingly, not threatened by reporter Jane Hutton and her own undercover work. Hutch even tells her she “wouldn’t make a half-bad cop”. They ask her for help and don’t get in her way.

Hutch takes off the bed-cover off Starsky’s face, and Starsky gives him a humorous look. Then Hutch returns it with one of the kindest, most affectionate smiles we see from him. Possibly a hint as to how difficult it is to abandon his partner in the hospital when he is forced to leave after his shift.

Starsky is endearing as he morphs into a noir detective with the help of two detective novels Orderly Handsome gives him, defaulting to his execrable Bogey impression and chomping on a toothpick (match?) like a cigar. The shocked at-last-someone’s-like-me look Freddie gives him is touching.

Starsky is immediately restrained following the discovery of Switek’s body in his room, and it’s implied the restrains will be there for at least 12 hours, as Matwick says he’ll have a “private session with him tomorrow”. Why? It must be an act of purely punitive vengeance, since Skylar isn’t at all violent. Later, in private, Hutch removes the horrible cloth bit they put in his mouth, and then doesn’t replace it when he leaves. I guess neither of them care at this point if Hutch is suspected of interference.

How come no one calls the police when they find Switek? I can accept the notion of all doctors and nurses enmeshed in an evil conspiracy against outsiders who would most certainly put the kibosh on all those Nazi-like human experiments. But the cleaning staff? The powerless orderlies? You better believe rumors would fly through the hospital, from the cleaners to the gardeners to the kitchen, even to the canny eavesdroppers like Freddie. As we see, phones are easy to access. Was Switek hated so much there was just an all-round general shrugging, as if he deserved what he got?

When Starsky explains his plan of going ahead with the case for moral reasons despite the risks, Hutch exclaims, “what am I going to do with you?!” It’s a moment of half-exasperation and half-admiration, and it goes a long way in illustrating why Hutch – rigid, controlling, acerbic and inaccessible – is in this partnership.

Hutch is taking a strait-jacketed Starsky for a stroll in the wheelchair, Starsky complains about an itch and Hutch, quite nicely and beyond the call of duty, is prepared to scratch it, which is pretty much the definition of friendship, if you ask me. But no, it’s papers Jane has stolen, stuffed into Starsky’s pant leg. Put there, one assumes, by Freddie himself, because it’s doubtful Starsky would be free of restraints at any point. So what’s the excuse Starsky uses on Freddie to get him to put the papers there since it’s obvious he won’t be getting to them any time soon? Does he know Skylar has a compatriot somewhere? Or did Starsky just say, “I’ll read them later”?

But how does Freddie know it was Jane who dropped off the papers in his room? It appears, from his position in the bed, that he never sees her clearly. But it’s possible, given his later accurate suming-up of Switek to Starsky, that Freddie already guessed Jane was one of the good guys, out to help things at the hospital. Despite his cherubic demeanor and difficulty telling reality from fantasy, he has both intuition and intelligence.

Jane has a barbiturate poisoning, enough to send her into a coma. And yet she seems to recover pretty quickly, and with no ill effects, if we guess that the time between the attack and her arrival with the birthday cake is about four to six weeks. This seems improbable, since such a powerful dose of poison would likely have lingering neurological effects. Matwick tells Starsky he “discovered” she was a reporter – but how? Charlie Deek tipped him off to who Starsky and Hutch were, but who told him about Jane? Did she stash evidence of her identity in her room, perhaps?

I like how Matwick’s badness is emphasised by his refusing to use shortened forms of names. He calls Charlie Deek “Charles” and Rudy Skykar “Rudolph”. It’s a stiff formality that makes him seem impossibly dweeby, as well as nasty.

When will the bad guys learn that Hutch does not go down easy? Matwick gives him enough poison to knock off a horse and Hutch still makes a valiant run for it, much the same way he kicked the car door open in “The Fix”, stayed alive following a horrifying car accident in “Survival” and kept the masquerade going in “The Game”. Now, even semi-conscious, he manages to help Starsky take down a gun-welding homicidal maniac.

When he initially runs right into the path of a tied-down Starsky, should this be considered coincidence or fate? He had no idea Starsky was in danger, at the time. And it’s a big hospital.

Nurse Bycroft has a wonderful moment when she approaches Starsky, hog-tied on the table. She puts down the syringe. She then runs her hands through his hair. Then says to herself, “It’s gone too far.”

Cabrillo has loose security. Patients wander the halls at all hours, wander the parking lots, make fake phone calls to staff, enter unlocked offices and apparently do as they please.

Who killed Switek? And who attacked Jane? Was it Matwick, or maybe homicidal maniac Charlie Deek? Matwick had access to barbiturates for Hutton while Deek was armed with a knife and would likely kill Hutton rather than medicating her. Matwick does complain about Jane being a reporter who needed managing: “She was a reporter I discovered. She would have caused all sorts of trouble.” But these are guesses only; nothing is ever explained. Matwick was enraged that Switek was blackmailing him, but he never mentions it and the case remains a mystery.

Tag: Hutch comments that it’s Babe Ruth’s one hundred forty-sixth birthday. Actually the Babe was born in 1895, making it his eighty-second birthday. His comment is more of a joke than an informed guess. Still, one wonders why the guys came bearing a birthday cake with decorations and “three dozen woofahs and tweetahs” if they really didn’t know whose birthday it was. Did the bakery only have a birthday cake left, and they thought, well, who cares – we’ll make something up? Or did they know it was Bo’s (notice how they give him the special hat, and he grins) and Bo himself is just too shy to say anything?

Of course, Hutch has to blow something in Starsky’s face.