Episode 57: The Action

Starsky and Hutch set out to avenge their friend Ted, who’s badly beaten when he stops paying off crooked gambler Hilliard.

Freddie: M Emmet Walsh, Hobart: Ken White, Eberly: Carmine Caridi, Julie: Melanie Griffith, Daimier: Marc Alaimo, Ted McDermott: James B Sikking, Hilliard: Richard Venture, Professor: John Carradine, Ellen McDermott: Julienne Wells, Toni: Quinn Cummings, Ginger: Mary Steelsmith, Barmaid: Victoria Ann Berry. Written By: Al Friedman and Robert Swanson, Directed by: Ivan Nagy.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

One of the things television always gets right is economy of style, and “Starsky and Hutch” always delivers in this respect. Time limitations has its perks, and in this series the opening shots are usually wonderfully evocative even though they only last a few seconds. This time we get a view into the exclusive Malborough Health Club, the kind of outmoded male bastion only peripherally connected to fitness. The camera pans across multiple mirrors on the ceiling and down to the naugahyde sofas where men are drinking and listening feverishly to the horse races – some men in suits, and some in tennis shorts. The mirrors make everything seem topsy turvey and a little unreal, a perfect metaphor for this episode, which strives to reveal the squeamish hold of gambling addiction on an otherwise ordinary man. I particularly like the view into the misty, featureless drop into either the club’s pool or its squash courts. Whichever it is, it implies there is no discernible horizon here, no end to this claustrophobic environment.

Hilliard is another personification of Guys in Suits as the ultimate evil. He has a private office, lush plants, vaguely imperial art and a big barometer on the wall, everything you need in this particular world to be a criminal mastermind. What’s worse, his impersonal technology – intrusive security screens and buttons to summon various goons – make him seem even more dehumanized than the usual gangster.

Why is Ted so flippant when he blows off Hillier? He must know how powerful he is. Hillier offers excellent advice – “if you can’t swim you shouldn’t jump in over your head”, advice Ted should have listen to months ago. Instead he laughs and says, “I could have this place busted wide open.” Threats like this are foolhardy. Ted is shocked when confronted with a thug in a t-shirt – gearing up for the “workout” he’s about to have – but honestly he shouldn’t be.

When Ted says he could bust open Hillier’s operation, what is he implying? He’s not a cop, he’s the newly-promoted Vice President of something-or-other. A bank, perhaps, or an insurance company. His threat to Hillier is said in a snotty way meant to imply he knows cops, that they are at his beck and call. Both Starsky and Hutch act equally friendly with Ted, as if they have known him for a long time (and have met him together), although there is no back story. They both do the grabby, flirty thing with his wife, usually the truest measure of affection for an unavailable female. But how do they know this guy well enough to risk their lives for him?

James Sikking is unusually muted in this role; he’ll really spread his wings as the manic Howard Hunter in “Hill Street Blues”. This whole episode is a gold mine of undiscovered or under-appreciated talent: M. Emmet Walsh is unforgettable from “Blade Runner”, Melanie Griffith went on “Working Girl” and other classic, 80s-flavoured roles, there’s classic American actor John Carradine hiding in there somewhere, Quinn Cummings, adorable daughter of the McDermott’s, goes on to be nominated for an Oscar in “Goodbye Girl”, and who can forget Marc “The Neck” Alaimo’s intense appearances as a variety of intergalactic villains in the Star Trek series.

As they walk to the McDermott’s apartment, Starsky tells Hutch “working on the street must have warped your mind,” when Hutch is cynical about being set up a blind date. Actually, in this case, Mrs McDermott has ulterior motives when it comes to getting the guys over, she wants them to help get Ted out of trouble. Which means Hutch was correct all along. I don’t know why she just didn’t come out and ask them before they arrived in the first place. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble, and better yet, would have kept Julie out of the picture altogether.

Riling that little girl up with all that shouting and wrestling and pillow-throwing and then ordering her to bed seems mean, somehow. I’m hoping they remember she’s in bed and waiting for a story when they all rush to the hospital after the phone call.

There’s some great back-and-forthing as the guys wrestle for the interest of Julie; Starsky, with a lot of effort, wins. Hutch, capitulating, mutters, “have a nice time.” Starsky laughs, seemingly more amused by his win over Hutch than the prize itself. The skirmish for the girl is interesting: for one, Ted’s wife seems awfully cavalier about letting her fairly young and inexperienced sister-in-law loose with two avaricious – and promiscuous – single men. When Julie talks about the time seven years ago when they all went skating (which implies seven years ago Starsky and Hutch were already in a partnership) Hutch mutters, “and he got frostbite in his mouth” while Starsky exclaims, “yeah, and you got cocoa all over my letter sweater!” This all seems very Freudian, compounded by Hutch’s “hope you have crop failure” when it’s clear to him that he’s been outmaneuvered. How many metaphors and images can one pack into a single moment? Many, many.

Hobart from Vice is another instance of a career police officer who seems more comfortable behind a desk than on the street, the sort of officer Starsky and Hutch love to humiliate. Along with the Cultured Crime Boss, the By-the-Book Jerk From Another Department is a much-loved, much-used archetype in the series. The guys are openly derisive (“you couldn’t get into a Girl Scout picnic with a basketful of brownies,” Starsky drawls), and if to prove their superiority they’re especially masterful in this scene to the point of actual bullying. They insult Hobart, physically dominating him, and he becomes increasingly sullen and resentful, which only makes their behavior worse. Dobey as usual has to play school marm. It’s not just Hobart’s look that makes him a figure of fun – there are plenty of older guys who have a serious gambling problem, and with his gray hair, three-piece suit and hangdog expression he would actually be more convincing in the role than the two detectives might be. Rather it’s his stiff, artificial, stick-up-his-ass attitude that ruins his chances of blending in, or getting along. Throughout the run of the series there is not one single colleague from another division who is as independent-minded, brave, honest and or as morally pure as Starsky and Hutch are. Rather, they are irritable, defensive, weak or corrupt. I suppose, from a writing point of view, it’s much more fun that way.

Hobart says they have had the club under surveillance for six months, and have raided it more than once. This makes Hillier’s strategy with teaching Ted a lesson a little bit sloppy. If he knows he’s on the cops’ radar, why beat Ted up and dump him where a passing patrolman can find him? If they wanted him to pay up, then a less showy (and less incapacitating) method would work better. Threatening the family – especially that cute kid – would keep Ted in line, keep his mouth shut, and ensure faster payment. Lying semi-conscious in a hospital bed means he’s no good to anybody.

At the conclusion of the scene Hutch, who has so far left the worst of the bad attitude fall to his partner, tells Dobey: “you’re looking at a couple of aces in a world full of jokers”. He says this with a mix of pride and matter-of-fact and nicely says “we”. Is this really the partners’ secret motto?

The guys play Asshole Gamblers to the hilt when they saunter into the health club. Starsky, faking a call to a bookie, calls Huggy. He must have the number memorized, so why have it written down on the money band? Anyway, Huggy answers the ring with a hilarious “Huggy Bear’s haute cuisine that won’t split your spleen”. Starsky, in character, does his bit about the fake horse race and then hands the handset to the bartender, rather than hang up the phone himself, which is a very funny, unnecessary extra bit of spoiled brat attitude. Both Starsky and Hutch adopt such reprehensible, annoying, supercilious characters when in undercover one wonders how much repressed anger really does simmer in their darkest places.

“First-class joint” is right – that is an extremely good security camera – all-color and variable close-up.

The sweat race. Can’t even muster a comment about that one.

Nobody at the Malborough Club makes any comment about these two strangers from Atlanta that appear to do everything – everything – together. Naiveté, or seen it all before?

The radio race of Salty Babe is interesting in that it shows how ordinary people get suckered into losing it all. Starsky didn’t intend to put money on the horse, it just happened, and look how they all get caught up, momentarily, in the possibility of sudden riches.

The show is particularly good at portraying oddball street characters with multidimensional personalities. No evil is truly evil, no good is completely good. People make do and improvise, they’re capable of great largess while falling prey to the most basic vices. The Professor is a perfect example of this: loquacious, philosophical, venal and tricky.

Is there another “love interest” more unappealing than Julie McDermott? The crazy car dealer from “Class in Crime” is a close second.

Of course, once in the gambling den, clumsy Hutch (happy to smoke) takes a major tumble when the truck pulls away. Starsky, more physically aware, hangs on.

The actors, in preparation for the gambling scenes, were trained by professional gamblers, and it’s a thrill to see how gracefully and confidently Hutch throws the dice. Note too how he completely controls Starsky in an amusing shadow-side to the action: micro-managing him, as it were. Pulling his hand back when Starsky attempts to blow on the dice for luck, taking away the money Starsky produces, refusing to let his partner participate in any detail or ritual. He’s actually quite mean about it, in the same way he was mean in the Las Vegas two-parter. How much of this is acting for the sake of the undercover operation, and how much of this is his overly-excitable, sarcastic, manipulating nature?

Although Hutch played a minor role at the start, allowing Starsky to take the initial lead (making the phone call, flashing the cash, talking to the henchmen and the lackeys, making a scene), once the actual gambling begins he’s all over it. Hoarding cash, rolling dice, allowing Starsky to be his good-luck fairy (or not), and more or less acting as if Starsky is a sidekick, and a minor one at that. Still, when it comes down to the crucial bit, Starsky is the one entrusted with the dice switching. Why not Hutch? Does he not trust himself?

When Hutch says to Ted “it seems to me you have everything you need … you have a beautiful family, a good job, a comfortable home,” is he making a comment about what it takes to make a man happy? Or just Ted, in particular?

If they want to catch Hilliard with his “hand in the candy jar”, i.e. taking the money from the moving crap game, then why do the guys insist on cheating to win big? Wouldn’t it work better to not raise suspicion by losing as usual, and then get the bag man at the end with all the cash?

Why does Dobey insist on getting in on the bust, driving the car with Hobart? It’s not really his job and there have to be a hundred other cops better suited to do what he’s doing. Both his boys have been in similar situations before and you don’t see Dobey running off to join in the chase. Why now? He seems ill at ease in the car, maybe questioning his own judgment. This points to Ted being part of the police force in some capacity, after all. Dobey seems to have a vested interest in helping him as much as Starsky and Hutch do. It would be nice if the script gave us a clue to Ted’s relationship with the LAPD but then again this is part of the charm of the series, and part of the challenge of interpreting it. Afterward, having been derailed so expertly, he must have felt like a chump.

Starsky mutters “Indians” to Hutch when it becomes horrifying clear they have been blindsided. An interesting choice of words and typical of Starsky, who often has ready-made Western vocabulary at the ready.

The guys are caught, rounded up by gunpoint, and forced to a remote location to dig their own graves. Before the first shovelful of dirt is even thrown Hutch starts an argument that leads to them being able to swing at, and then viciously overpower, their assailants. Do they have, in reserve, a “when-they-make-us-dig-our-own-graves” plan? Unlikely. Did one signal to the other with a series of looks about how this was going to go down? Or did Hutch merely start his routine, trusting Starsky was going to pick up on it right away?

What in the hell are they all drinking in the end? Ted hands Hutch what looks like a large scotch on the rocks, but then he loads a tray with five other gigantic glasses of the same amber drinks. Mystery. Also, Hutch is terribly clingy with Ted’s wife, to the point of eyebrow-raising speculation.

Clothing notes: Hutch is a standout in his cream jacket and open-necked olive shirt, plus sun-and-star necklace. Undercover, he wears some flashy outfits, usually consisting of multiple sweaters and wooly scarves, and his “cheap sheep” vest. Starsky is his usually understated self in a tan leather jacket we never see again, and some super cool shades.

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10 Responses to “Episode 57: The Action”

  1. King David Says:

    The producers do seem to make S&H do odd things which defy logic just for the sake of TV drama.
    I often think to myself that if I were to have S&H at my disposal to go into a situation, I would be saying “how would this happen logically?” “What would x do?” “Why don’t they do that?” “How would it come about that S&H cotton onto that being ‘wrong’?” as I would love to write a novel one day, and have it credible.
    I deplore 2-dimensional characters and 1-dimensional plots, so to see 3D elements with the S&H relationship, alone among things in the series, is gold.

    • DRB Says:

      Not just S&H do odd things for the sake of TV drama: what were the crooks thinking– putting shovels in the hands of 2 strong athletic men? If you’re going to make someone dig his own grave, you better have a machine gun and lots of distance between you and your victim. These guys were lucky not to be killed when S&H attack them.

  2. Dianna Says:

    Unfortunately, too many people sort of move in and take over when someone is in a crisis, and watching Starsky do this at Ted’s hospital bedside makes me rather uncomfortable. His body language suggests that he, not Ellen, is the most important person in Ted’s life.

    Starsky may not have Huggy’s new phone number at The Pitts memorized yet, or maybe he has the number written down for show, but I am astonished that he did not clue Huggy in that he might be making a fake phone call about betting.

    Julie is disturbingly young to set up with either of the, as Merl points out, promiscuous detectives. In fact, at the time Melanie Griffith was just over half Glaser’s age! Maybe Julie has had a crush on Starsky since that seven-years-ago skating rink event, and begged Ellen to reintroduce them. Or maybe Ted doesn’t know what his wife and sister are planning.

    I’m glad Julie places her boundaries firmly by dumping the ice into Starsky’s shirt in response to his reaching into her cleavage. It serves him right!

    Starsky & Hutch’s suppressed smirks at the first meeting with Hobart are fun to watch. They don’t really need to be particularly close to Ted to be willing to risk their lives, because they do that for people they barely know.

    The Professor’s fake erudition breaks down when he says “persona non grato,” because he should say “grata.” Hard to say whether this is the character’s mistake or the actor’s. Oddly, in response to the Professor’s polysyllabic babbling, it is Hutch, not Starsky, who says, “Can you translate that?”

    Continuity glitch: The way that the loading and closing of the truck is shown, the truck has to move between when people go in and when the doors are closed, so Hutch should have stumbled sooner.

    Despite Hutch’s controlling the ritual of the gambling, when the roll is really important (with the switching of the dice), he lets go and lets Starsky do it. So my theory about this — both here and in Las Vegas — is that Hutch doesn’t often let himself simply have fun, so when they gamble just for the sake of gambling, he wants the fun for himself, but when the chips are down, so to speak, he knows to rely on Starsky’s dexterity.

    Thank you for the delightful detail about Soul and Glaser training with professional gamblers.

    The guys don’t need an explicit “when-they-make-us-dig-our-own-graves” plan, because all they need is an agreement that, “If we have our backs to the wall, and you think of a way to start a distracting argument, I’ll take your lead.”

    It is a bit odd that while they are being forced to dig, Hutch still has his scarf stylishly arranged around his neck.

    At the beginning of the episode, when they start the wrestling and pillow-throwing with the little girl, they might not have known it was her bedtime, but when Starsky plays liar’s poker with her and Julie at the end, he certainly knows that there is someone in the family with a gambling problem, so poker is probably not the most appropriate activity. I am glad that the dinner party at the end is early enough that the little girl can participate in it this time!

    • merltheearl Says:

      As usual, Dianna, you are able to provide even more enjoyment with your acute observation. I have to go back and look at the scarf in that grave-digging scene. Trust Hutch to make the most of a bad situation, sartorially speaking.

    • Blunderbuss Says:

      “[Starsky’s] body language suggests that he, not Ellen, is the most important person in Ted’s life.”

      You know Dianna, if taken at face value, this fact could actually be really interesting. Maybe there’s a reason more substantial than bossiness for why Starsky’s concern for Ted is so weird. After all, like many of their really-good-friends-who-were-never-seen-before-and-are-never-seen-again, we know so little backstory on the McDermotts and on their relationship to Starsky and Hutch and why and how they are so close, that the field for speculation is wide open.

  3. Louie Says:

    How old is Julie anyway? I thought when I first watched it that she seemed to be a teenager, so Starsky sticking his hand down her blouse was even more lecherous than maybe was intended. Hopefully he was just getting carried away with his sleazy undercover role rather than genuinely getting off on copping a feel, but then again, sexual restraint has never been on Starsky’s list of virtues. Good thing she shut that down hard.

    Starsky and Hutch do seem to have a near-endless supply of old friends who only seem to crop up when the plot demands. However, most of these are drawn fairly convincingly, while it’s hard to suss out the nature of their relationship with Ted. Ted and his family seems to fall more on the side of family friend they have a strong history with and may not see very often, rather than people who they have frequent contact with (like, say, the Walters family). I agree with Dianna that they would risk their lives for anyone, even someone not very close, if given an excuse and the ability to do so.

    • M Lynn Walker Says:

      I thought the money shoved down Julie’s blouse was totally in character for a big time gambler and his chickie runner. Telling her to buy herself a black negligee clearly implies she’s . . . um, in his employ. Julie’s reaction with the ice was funny, but it could have blown the whole scam they were running if Starsky had been less stoic.

      What I had a problem with is one tail car, with lots of other vice squad cars somewhere in the offing, ready to close in. Why werent they all in radio contact, with the other cars following on parallel streets just in case of a blockage or a blown tire or an accident? Ah, the exigencies of script-writing.

  4. Laurie Says:

    They did something similar to the “dig your own grave fight” when they were captured and under the gun and went into the voodoo bird routine in the Voodoo Island episode.

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