Archive for January, 2011

Episode 56: Manchild on the Streets

January 23, 2011

Starsky and Hutch must keep Junior, the son of a friend, from avenging his father’s death at the hands of a racist rookie cop.

Junior: Brian Whitley, Jackson Walters: J Jay Saunders, Dr. Sammie Mason: Sheila Frazier, Mrs. Walters: Dorothy Meyer, Maurice: Maurice Sneed, Officer Raymond T Andrews: WK Stratton, Vivian Fellers: Helen Martin, Dewey: Fuddle Bagley, Mrs. Hong: Shizuko Hoshi, Clayborne: Chuck Hicks. Script by: Rick Edelstein & Steve Fisher, Directed by: David Soul.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a brilliant episode and in my top five, if I had a list. Fearless, angry, gentle and humane, it attempts to tackle huge subjects with grace and economy. It’s also one of those episodes (in fact, every episode that deals directly with race in America) that is a bitter reminder of how little has changed over the years. It’s with a sense of weariness and unease that we watch this episode, each anguish leading to the next, and the next. Inevitability makes this a tragedy in the classical sense; Starsky and Hutch can only make small alterations and corrections, trying their best against a boulder that is tumbling down a hill taking everything with it. The fact that they succeed even in these small ways is truly heroic in my books.

The harmonica soundtrack is courtesy of Andy Kulberg, Soul’s friend and bandleader.

The basketball game: surely one of the most joyous scenes in the entire series. All participants playing as hard as they can, the guys are especially good, with the physical grace actors often have. Notice how Hutch grabs Starsky around the waist to hold him – illegally – while the ball is in play. Notice too how it’s Starsky and Junior against Hutch and Jackson: the kids against the adults.

Soul’s direction always maintains a viewer’s interest. He has a very active, personable style, never bland or stodgy. The scene in which Andrews shoots Walters is thrillingly direct. The shocking events unfolding quickly, cleanly, with minimal editing. There’s no rushing here, the scene takes its time, and it’s easy to see this director has a fellow actor’s empathy with all the players.

Maurice’s actions in the beginning of this episode shows that often it’s stupidity rather than malice that creates so much suffering. Maurice Sneed’s performance is great, full of nuances so fresh and immediate it seems improvised. Look how he pretends to have a chauffeur as he pulls up, and blows an elaborate kiss to Mrs. Hong. He’s a fantasy rich man with the world at his feet, intoxicated as a way of muffling feelings of hopelessness, boredom and despair. He’s so rubbery and giggly he’s almost funny, but not quite – there’s more than a hint of cruelty and racism as he shuffles his way through the grocery store. I’m going to take a sidebar here and comment that racism is not the sole province of one group of people or another, everyone is afflicted by it to some degree, and here Maurice’s antagonistic and ignorant treatment of Mrs. Hong is evidence that this is a complicated, frustrating, and pernicious evil that knows no boundaries. And so, too, with the incendiary n-word which will later detonate in the tragic scene of murder; Maurice will later casually use it to his fellows at the bar he frequents, reminding us that language is racism’s handmaiden, benign to some and malevolent to others. Okay, let’s get back to the action, and oh-so-high Maurice’s stumbling takeover of the Chinese-owned corner store. And the victim of the car-jacking that leads to the terrible event? He’s drunk too! (The clueless Dewey, played by the marvelous – and marvelously named – Fuddle Bagley). Rather than wrong or right this whole situation is just plain sad. Dewey doesn’t realize his car was stolen. Maurice doesn’t even think he stole an actual car. Maurice uses the banana he stole as the “gun” in the robbery – absurdity piled upon absurdity.

Funny how Hutch introduces himself to Sammie as “Hutch”. Not Ken. He uses his nickname almost as a pseudonym, a way of disguising or reinventing himself. “David” is used way more often than “Ken” regardless of the speaker. It’s a stretch but not a long one to imagine Hutch is using this nickname to divest himself of his past, for whatever reason.

Jackson and Junior have a shouting match over the pills and it gets violent. Jackson makes the fatal mistake of not cooling down before accusing his son. Starsky pulls Jackson’s arm, says he’ll talk to Junior, and Jackson lets him. Allowing another man to father his son means he has a very high regard for Starsky. Is this because he fears his own temper, is really bad at the paternal dialogue thing, or does he trust Starsky that much?

Given the cultural and economic divide between Walters and Starsky, it’s likely they met while serving in the armed forces. Long boring hours in training, away from familiar territory, and for a uniting, if nebulous, cause, explains how two very different people become friends. They certainly didn’t meet recently. Starsky and Hutch don’t have a lot of time for friendships outside the job, and this one has a mature, complicated feel as if it has gone on for years.

Of the two, who’s closer to Jackson, Starsky or Hutch? Jackson talks to Hutch first about the drugs, but lets Starsky confront his son. My theory, without proof, is that Starsky is the social glue here. He knows about Sammie before Hutch does. He flirts with Mrs. Walters. He’s at home enough to insist, amusingly, on chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla. Junior’s insolent with him, which suggests a high degree of familiarity. And it’s Starsky who spends time with Mrs. Walters in the aftermath of the shooting, giving support.

There is some interesting early tagging on the wooden gate at the Walters place.

On his way to his ride, does Jackson call Starsky “Sarge” or “Starsk”? It sure sounds like Sarge, which would give credence to my met-in-the-service theory.

Note how the Jackson home is in the shadow of a giant industrial building. It gives a surreal in-between quality to the neighborhood, the impression that things are about to change, and not necessarily for the better, and that the Walters family are living on borrowed time. Nicely done, location scouts.

Andrews and his partner are “Apple Three” when responding to the car involved in the grocery rip-off: literally and figuratively they’re as far from “Zebra Three” as it’s possible to get.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the camera takes inventory of the ethnic, economic, and social diversity on the assembled faces, while showing how a blank, disbelieving horror has united them.

The confrontation between Starsky and Raymond Andrews, with its brutal and innovative twist, is a pivotal scene in this episode and metaphoric of the series as a whole. At the time of its initial airing, I had never before seen a man slap another man and I bet you hadn’t either. Slapping is much, much different than punching. For one thing it takes a shorter preparation, and seems more personal. It’s less about strength and more about emotional outrage. In a way, it’s a feminized act of violence, more social condemnation, or protest, than any other form of violence. A punch just stops you cold, a slap instructs. “The nigger’s lying,” Andrews says and Starsky slaps him BANG without any warning at all. Hutch looks shocked and puts his hand on Starsky’s inner arm, the other hand covering Starsky’s hand and starts to pull him away. “You,” Hutch says with undisguised hatred to Andrews, “You wait here.” And then puts his arm around Starsky’s waist and literally drags him from the scene, Starsky’s eyes shooting daggers the entire time.

When Starsky and Hutch load Jackson onto the ambulance, they turn around. Beautifully staged, Jackson’s hat is pitifully in the foreground. All the witnesses – a motley collection of down-and-outs, the disenfranchised, the poor and ignored – stare at them. Judged for their failure to prevent a social injustice, Starsky and Hutch exhibit no defensiveness. Rather, they shoulder the responsibility. “You gonna kill him too?” Mrs. Fellers says to Hutch as he leads Dewey away. Hutch humbly accepts the shot.

My interpretation of Andrews’ partner is that he is stolid and unimaginative but pretty decent, stuck mentoring a young officer with grave defects and determined to stick it out. He viciously kicks aside the impediment to his car as they prepare to leave the scene and my view is this anger is directed against Andrews, who has royally f–ed up his day and doomed them both to weeks of paperwork and desk duty. It’s a nice character study and worthy of note, even if it isn’t flashy, although other viewers may have a different take on the character.

Interestingly, neither Andrews nor his partner are seen again. They vanish into irrelevance as the story shifts to the consequence of the shooting. The episode makes its point about institutional racism and leaves it at that.

The patrol car honks at Starsky to get out of the way and he deliberately doesn’t. Look how long he waits before moving out of its range. It’s one final act of loyalty to Jackson Walters – Starsky is telling Andrews he is going to be an impediment for awhile yet – and quite touching in its simplicity.

Hutch is talking to Dobey. He says, sensibly, “unless Andrews is suspended, publicly – and I mean in the press and on the tube – you are going to have trouble on the streets.” An accurate observation, especially as of late, with the beleaguered LAPD suffering so many PR nightmares. Although Hutch is correct, Dobey is also convincing when he argues the other side.

Because David Soul is directing, the camera naturally focuses on Starsky. There are some lovely shots of him sleeping in the hospital while they wait for word on Jackson. The whole death scene is filmed without any words at all. When Starsky and Sam leave to go back to the house Hutch tells Starsky he’ll talk to Andrews, and Starsky does an incredible thing. He touches Hutch on the back of the head, his neck, ruffling his hair. This is not a gesture people normally make, not even very good friends. As with many scenes in this episode, it’s in no rush to conclude, lingering as Hutch stands alone with the shadow of the swinging door on the wall.

The whole show is filmed in the midst of junk, slapped-together fences, broken appliances, old couches. Big rigs and skyscrapers, and Halloween jack-o-lanterns strung up on spindly trees.

When Mrs. Walters sees Starsky and Sammie on the porch, she says cannily, “have you two been out on the town?” and you can tell she has harbored a fantasy of the two of them getting together, which makes the whole scene even more poignant. Sammie is an interesting character: educated, driven, polished. Even though she calls Mrs. Walters “Mama”, she isn’t a relative, as evidenced by Maurice calling her “that lady” who “rents a room” in Junior’s house.

Hutch has a very funny silent-movie scene with the pushy Mrs. Fellers looking over his shoulder as he types the report.

When Mrs. Fellers attacks Dobey for propping up the white man when he insists justice will be done, one can see the continual difficulty Dobey is in, stuck between black culture and the mostly white world of management. He’s uncomfortable but not especially good at dealing with his discomfort, tending to bluster, lose his cool.

Maurice does a repeat of his garrulous, loose performance when he saunters into the local bar: laughing, wobbling, trying to steal a beer. He can’t possibly know his part in the death of Junior’s father when he sees Junior there – he’s inept and maybe tragically foolish but he’s not a psychopath, and if he knew he was involved, even peripherally, he’d go into hiding or at least avoid Junior. There must have been a lot of gossip in the neighborhood, the murder of a good man at the hands of a racist cop, but no names, no specifics, and so Maurice doesn’t even think he’s part of the equation.

Strikingly, as Maurice does his complex moves through the bar, he casually uses the dreaded n-word as he greets his cronies. It’s slipped into the dark, jumbled atmosphere like a little moth, seeming to belong even if it causes (in me, anyway) a frisson of unease. This is indicative of the ambitions of this episode: it means for us to think hard about how language shapes culture, how it frees and imprisons, how it wounds and who is in power and who isn’t.

There’s Ollie the teddy bear, rented out for this scene and sitting in judgment in Sammie’s room when Junior steals her keys. His right arm is raised, as in alarm.

“When your daddy dies,” says Starsky, “it’s awfully hard to see straight.” This from a cop about to bust someone for stealing drugs – a very sympathetic view and not necessarily shared by other cops. Later, he asks Sammie not to phone the authorities when they go in, another gesture of solidarity with the Walters family.

There is no tag in the traditional sense in this episode. It ends with a meeting with Junior, who is told Andrews has been sentenced to 90 days suspension without pay for the shooting death of Jackson. That means the police board found him innocent on the most serious charges, probably charging him with minor procedural irregularity. Despite numerous witnesses, he got away with it. “That’s jive,” Junior says quietly, which is an understatement.

Clothing notes: Starsky wears his great orange shirt with the white placket. Hutch wears his moon and star necklace, plus the green t-shirt and green leather from Gillian, and worn throughout the second and third series.

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Episode 55: The Collector

January 9, 2011

Starsky and Hutch try to track down a vicious new debt collector working for loan shark Oates, in part to protect the indebted father of Hutch’s girl, Molly.

Jack Cunningham: Robert Viharo, Annie Oates: Susan Tyrrell, Molly Bristol: Toni Kalem, Lee Bristol: Dave Shelley, John “The Apple”: Danny DeVito, Joe Garras: Jack O’Leary, Frank Carroll: Richard LePore, Minnie Kaplan: Marki Bey, Mike Todesco: Robert Rodriguez. Written By: Don Patterson, Directed By: Ivan Nagy.

NOTES AND QUESTIONS:

It’s not often Starsky and Hutch are overshadowed by secondary characters but in this episode, written by Don Patterson, both are eclipsed by beautifully drawn, scene-stealing foes. Annie Oates, faded former child star and loan shark, swans around in bustier and kimono outfits and smeary, teary glamour-gone-wrong, making Norma Desmond look tame by comparison. Jack Cunningham is a full-blown psychopath with a rich fantasy life, wearing thousand-dollar suits and jaunty carnations. Actors Susan Tyrrell and Robert Viharo make the most of their screen time, chewing the scenery, as they say, and their scenes together are riveting and unforgettable.

What’s Lee Bristol doing threatening a goon like Joe Garras with a loaded gun when two cops are, like twenty feet away? Or does this make him feel twice as safe? In the right, as it were?

I like how Molly says, in response to her father’s grumpy question, “what is this, an after-hours club?”: “Hutch and Dave have a three-day weekend”, using her boyfriend’s nickname rather than his given name.

Hutch and Molly’s relationship seems similar to the one Hutch had with Carol Wade in “Crying Child”. He’s quite formal and courtly with her rather than the romantic suitor he can be, and has been, with other girlfriends. Come to think of it, both guys seem to like Molly’s dad more than Molly. Starsky, on the other hand, is positively smoldering with his unnamed friend-for-the-evening.

Robert Viharo narrowly misses the fame achieved by the similarly charismatically creepy Christopher Walken. Especially with his first lines, delivered in his faux-Irish lilt: “Well, bye-bye then, Joe.” As wonderfully sinister as anything achieved in film.

Hutch shows up to the crime scene jogging, which is quite eccentric for a guy supposedly on the clock. He’s not even out of breath either, bouncing up those stairs as if he’s on springs. And note, too, the not-so-oblique criticism said by Hutch as the two detectives walk toward the crime scene, “I told you not to answer your phone this morning.” Since Hutch was home to receive Starsky’s call that they were needed, this implies he thought to himself, you know, I should just jog there, kill two birds. This is strange on many levels. A) sweaty is not professional, especially if duty requires you to interview people B) using up valuable energy on the run over means you may not have any left if a bad guy makes a break for it over the fence and C) strapping on a big heavy piece like a Magnum .357 is impractical while jogging, which means you’re not armed when showing up fight crime.

Garras’ miserable, low-life apartment has a maid? She apparently discovers the body, according to Todesco. Perhaps he means manager, rather than maid.

Another appearance by the inscrutable Mike Todesco, played by Richard Rodriguez, who haunts a few of the crime scenes in this season. Todesco, with his distinctive silver swath of hair, is a cynical, complicated guy with some kind of not-altogether-pleasant history with Starsky and Hutch. It’s never explained, but this is the fun of it. Watch him in “Class in Crime”.

Like the identity of Annie’s collector Joe Garras, Hutch knows the endearing John-John, but Starsky doesn’t – the collector is working Hutch’s neighborhood. Starsky and Hutch’s professional lives don’t overlap in every instance, and it’s interesting to speculate on how much they operate independently of each other. Starsky has no idea who Joe Garras is. Or Annie. And yet he doesn’t seem too surprised his partner has all this information.

Isn’t it eerie that Viharo’s Jack Cunningham smiles even when he’s alone in the car, with no one to see him?

Cunningham is careful to arm himself with a revolver when approaching Annie’s house, a precarious-looking ark perched high in the center of a junkyard. His reason for arming himself isn’t clear. He doesn’t intend to hurt either Annie or the barking dog, he means to ingratiate himself. Does he carry a gun because that’s how he comforts himself, the way some people chew on a soggy unlit cigar long after they’ve quit smoking? Or does he believe Annie will be impressed by this masculine appendage?

Why do Starsky and Hutch set up such an elaborate scene to get John-John? Starsky, chewing gum – which he almost never does (the only other exception is during the waiting scene in “Nightmare”) – flashes a $50 and sets up a bet, meanwhile Hutch (still in jogging suit) lounges in plain sight. John-John is quick to assess the situation – “hey, what are you guys doing to me?” he complains – and the jig is up. But why the jig in the first place, when all they did was want to ask him a few questions? John-John doesn’t need to be blackmailed into giving information; he gives up so quickly. But perhaps the guys weren’t sure about that and decide to give him a hard time, although they usually have a life-and-let-live policy about small-time crooks.

When Starsky and Hutch leave Annie’s after their first meeting, you can clearly see Starsky’s arm around Hutch – actually clutching his arm – as they descend the stairs. Affectionate, or spooked by the height of the stairs?

It’s a great scene with Starsky, Hutch and Dobey, the comedy doors and the cups changing hands. Nicely choreographed to make the scene sing in a way it wouldn’t otherwise.

There’s another velvet curtain on a bar? Just like the one in last season’s Latin bar in “Velvet Jungle”, Huggy’s Pits has a blue velvet curtain instead of a door. What is this, some Los Angeles it’s-always-summer fashion statement?

“Come on Huggy,” Starsky says, “the lady is suffering from acrophobia.” Huggy asks what that is and Starsky explains it’s a fear of heights. To me the lady seems to be suffering more from agoraphobia that acrophobia – a fear of open spaces. Still, it’s a puzzle how Starsky got that bit of information in the first place. Annie, or Catherine, is a recluse, her habits not likely to be known by many, and also this is not in Starsky’s neighborhood.

The guys tell Huggy his liquor license has expired, and Starsky says laconically, “congratulations on your closing”. This sounds like a threat, and it’s surprising, considering all Huggy has done for them in the past.

A citation, a promotion, and a raise in pay for Minnie doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a sexist, depressing world for female police officers. And Starsky and Hutch do nothing to improve things with their stupid behavior.

Hutch’s crabby comment that “I don’t like blondes” when Molly offers to go in disguise to Jack in a wig is an egregious lie if there ever was one. He only dates blondes. Is it because Molly as a blonde would be more sexually attractive to him and he’s resistant to that idea?

Getting Molly on board makes an interesting narrative twist, but it’s entirely unnecessary and overall a terrible idea. Why wouldn’t Dobey insist on employing an actual police officer undercover, especially after a murder, a bombing, and the possibility of arresting a notorious hit man? Deputizing a citizen says more about the lack of female officers than anything else when Molly is forced to assume this dangerous role, but really, there’s no reason to draft a young girl into the role of someone desperate for cash. In the first place, it’s too dangerous. In the second place, there’s no evidence Jack Cunningham would be more sympathetic to a female more than a male. In fact anyone would do, which is why they tried for Huggy. In the third place, Molly’s testimony in court – if it came to that – would lack the weight and validity of a trained officer and might even be dismissed by a canny defense as hearsay.

The girl with the corn rows, short-shorts and roller skates who wobbles through the scene is completely mesmerizing. I can imagine the crew talking her into doing the pass-through. And is that her in the last scene too? Has to be – she soars joyously down the sidewalk as it pans over Lee Bristol’s convenience store.

John-John the Apple’s unusual nickname is never explained, but it’s fun to guess. Is it because he’s from New York, small and round, or is it because he’s a sweet guy? Maybe all three? He’s an appealing character in a show filled to the brim with them. In his first scene he gives the old lady her cane back and is a gentleman about it. He’s also nice to “Heather” and tries to talk her out of borrowing money. He wants to help a young girl “in trouble.” He says he doesn’t want to take Joe’s money anymore, because Joe is in over his head. He greets people on the street and chats up folks who buy his stuff. He delivers newspapers to cars. He makes that funny joke about his place not being a library, but a “losing proposition.”

Hmm. Molly is very, very good at going undercover as a drug-addled kid in trouble. She really throws herself into character. And yet, throughout the episode, she’s sort of bland. It’s only when she tries her hand at police work does she shine. A future in law enforcement, perhaps? Or the stage?

Jack Cunningham’s speech at the diner is a fascinating piece of dialogue. It’s filled with inconsistencies and startling truths. He tells “Heather” he hopes her (nonexistent) baby’s eyes aren’t too beautiful, like his were, and then implies his beautiful eyes (and yes, they are oddly beautiful, gleaming madly throughout the episode) caused him a lot of trouble from the ruling nuns of the convent in which he was confined. He says his father smuggled him out of the convent in a suitcase and took him home – at fourteen, according to the story. Colorful use of language, or outright lie? “Didn’t want me being an altar boy,” he say, which implies “took me away in a suitcase” is just an expression. His speech is sputtery and confused, but delivered with unnerving passion. There’s a whole lot more to this rambling monologue than meets the eye. One can only speculate: convent, abandoned or neglected boy, nuns, rage turning to violence … you get the picture.

And yet, oddly, he’s urging Heather to “try the convent”, the very place he was supposedly rescued from. Perhaps he believes the convent would be a better, safer place for a girl.

This whole ruse is predicated on the idea Jack will be charitable. And he is, which doesn’t really fit with the rest of his character (and his profession). His entire reason for being here, remember, is based on greed. And yet it somehow fits – when he says “you don’t even have to pay it back” you believe him.

“There’s only one thing he wants from Annie,” Hutch says to Dobey, meaning Jack Cunningham. By this he means the legendary stash of dough under the mattress. And yes, it’s true – mostly. It’s not all-the-way true because Jack doesn’t shoot Catherine Oates (and her magnificent dog) when he could have. A few blasts with a silencer and all the money is his, and with a minimum of fuss, and you can bet no one would know she was dead for weeks, if ever. No, he makes a big deal about taking over her collection business, making waves and endangering himself with showy stunts like blowing up bathrooms. And for what? If he wanted Annie’s money only, he could have gotten it.

When Starsky tells Hutch in preparation for the take-down, “you know how I feel about dogs,” is he expressing a fear/dislike of dogs? Doesn’t want to tangle with Duvcha specifically? Does he uses this line as an excuse to say “no” to Hutch’s plan?

Let’s enjoy the unforgettable scene with wiping meat on the gun, complete with Jack’s grossly sensual sniffing of his own meaty hands. Then Catherine and Jack in the bedroom. She’s lying on the bed, Jack kneeling beside it. She asks Jack if he has ever had sex with a woman, with the answer apparently no. “Spent your whole life singing in a choir, huh?” Jack looks embarrassed, unable to answer. But is he interested in what she’s offering? Maybe, and maybe not. He gets into an awfully vulnerable position with the teddy bear and everything. She’s quite sweet, weirdly, and sincere. And Jack is in some kind of psychological purgatory, on the verge of committing an act of violence, yet held in check by her proposition.

I like how Catherine fakes an English accent to mimic Jack, even though he’s Irish.

What does Jack think he’s going to do with all that money under the mattress? Knowing something bad is happening – cops probably – he stares, paralyzed, then starts shoving bits of it in his jacket pocket. But really, on some level, he must know it’s all over for him.

“That’s the least of your worries,” Hutch says in a perfect Irish accent, to Jack, in what may be a sly acknowledgement that Jack’s accent is fake.

The tag is just an excuse to let off steam. Of course Hutch knows not to put mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich, particularly for someone with a Jewish heritage. Anybody knows that, and Hutch knows that more than most. And he’s never before offered to ladle out the condiments, but look how eager he is here. He’s doing it solely to siphon off energy, to annoy and irritate. Look at the vehemence in which he strokes the mayonnaise on the bread. Calling Starsky “Gordo” for no reason I can think of. And Starsky calling himself Gordo, as if to ameliorate the veiled insult by owning it. When Hutch is in a good mood, he must Destroy. This is one of the most profound and frustrating parts of his character, although it seems to work for Starsky. It certainly works for me.

Clothing notes: Hutch wears his stunning star and moon necklace, and is in an unusual all-black outfit in his scene with Molly at the station. The blue jogging suit is a standout. Starsky wears a black leather jacket and changes to his classic black canvas jacket, while Hutch wears the green leather jacket and high-waist pale jeans that emphasize his long lean figure.