Archive for November, 2013

Starsky and Hutch: the Pilot, Revisited

November 29, 2013

After two young people in a red-and-white Torino are killed by hired hit-men, Starsky and Hutch try to figure out if they were to be the real targets.

Fat Rolly: Michael Lerner, Captain Dobey: Richard Ward, Frank Tallman: Gilbert Green, D.A. Mark Henderson: Albert Morgenstern, Zane: Richard Lynch, Cannel: Michael Conrad, Coley: Buddy Lester, Ms. Knebel: Carole Ita White, Steele: Don Billett, Patty: Karen Lamm, Elijah: Douglas Fowley


Viewed in hindsight, this pilot episode is especially rich in thematic content, beautifully filmed and ambitious in scope. Let’s also acknowledge how breathtakingly beautiful both actors are, and not blandly beautiful either but full of character, mature even, simultaneously relatable and impossibly perfect, and how that must have hit the viewing public when this movie debuted in 1974/5. It’s also interesting to see what was right from the very beginning in terms of the characters of Starsky and Hutch and what changed over time, and it always impresses me how Soul and Glaser were able to create such realized identities with so little to go on. So many habits and mannerisms are there from the beginning: the guys’ opposite tastes in cars, food, and exercise, their unity and trust in each other, their swinging bachelor lifestyles and hard-nosed reputations, their unerring moral compass and extreme dedication to the job (“Hutch and me are willing to risk getting burned out on the street, but it would hurt like hell if we lost sitting on our tails,” Starsky tells a roomful of bureaucrats), their reliance on Huggy Bear, and a generalized distrust in institutional authority. Also consistent over time is Hutch’s idealism and Starsky’s practicality. Starsky is the hedonist, Hutch the self-abnegator. Starsky is instinctive, Hutch is disciplinary. It’s only in future episodes do we get a fuller and more complicated picture of this marvelous partnership. That Hutch, despite his car, is flash while Starsky, despite his, is sensible. Or how when cornered by authority figures, Starsky tends to adopt a mock-friendly we’re-all-friends-here attitude while Hutch attacks frontally. How Starsky likes to play the fool, Hutch the sophisticate, both adopting personas that give them a kind of psychic comfort despite all evidence to the contrary. No, these more subtle things will have to wait. For now we are treated to a broad-stroke but surprisingly accurate – and beautiful – portrait of two young men fired up and ready to take on the world.

The episode opens with stunning quiet, a slow pan over the twinkling dark of Los Angeles. Two gangsters sit in a car discussing a John Wayne movie. This grotesque contradiction between the genial conversation and what they are about to do is striking. Also, when they joke about the two kids smoking dope in the car, they compare themselves to John Wayne, putting themselves in the hero category of this particular movie.

The first scenes with the two guys are ripe with the sort of camaraderie we come to expect, but with the addition of a certain amount of newbie tension. They like each other, are extraordinarily at ease in each other’s company, but it’s all performative, more or less showing off, as if they still have something to prove to each other and the world at large and maybe don’t quite trust or understand the force of their loving bond. Given the variable chronology of the partnership as well as the sense they are still getting to know each other thoroughly, one may guess they have been partners for about a year at this point.

It’s kind of cool that an entrance to the gym is in the back alley, and up a fire escape. Also, Starsky does not seem to worry about parking (and then abandoning) his unlocked car in the middle of a high-traffic inner city alley. He also has no problems interrupting the furious punching of a guy fifty pounds bigger than he is in order to joke with his partner; for many first-time viewers in the gawky throes of adolescence this display of ease and self confidence would have been awe-inspiring.

If the bad guys in the opening compare themselves to heroes, Starsky in his conversation with gym manager Vinnie seems to allude to being on the wrong side of the law. He does this by challenging Vinnie: “aren’t you ever curious about what me and Hutch do for a living?” and Vinnie nervously says he doesn’t want to know: “I got no questions!” This idea – that what is good is often bad, and what seems bad can be good, is something the series will explore over its four year run, during which a variety of crooked priests, wise junkies, soft-hearted prostitutes and evil police officers will prove time and time again that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Compare the checklist Starsky and Hutch go through in Hutch’s car to the one they go through right before Hutch’s mad dash to save Joanna Haymes in Season Three’s “The Psychic”. Here, it’s playful and thorough – including a Señor Wences joke, delightfully enough – two guys who can’t wait to get out onto the street and do their thing. In the later episode the checklist is more rushed, shot through with emotion, more a grim joke than actual inventory.

Note the mug book with the pasted-in photographs and handwritten information, including a hand-drawn mustache on one of the mug shots. It’s a relic of the pre-computer age and has a nearly animistic power; I wonder where it is now.

The rousting of Coley is an obviously meant to give us a primer on how this new breed of cop is different than the old guard. They are less interested in arresting people for minor offences than nudging them on the right path. Coley going back on his word to stay out of their beat is more “immoral” to them than the crime he has committed. This liberal attitude is compounded later when they are called into the captain’s office on an urgent matter and interpret it as annoying nonsense, probably nothing more than a bunch of uptight suits lecturing them on accounting matters or fine-print regulations. This is both childish and profoundly revolutionary – ignoring this call may have gotten them killed, since Dobey is calling to warn them about an impending hit, but it also frees them to pursue their own brand of street-level justice.

At the big speech at Fat Rolly’s bar, a scene that crackles with energy and wit (and the scene Glaser auditioned with for the role) Starsky is in charge, both physically and verbally intimidating, with Hutch as glowering got-your-back. Early on, Starsky appears to be the hothead, Hutch the hang-back-and-watch. Throughout the series they change as the situation demands.

I don’t know why, but it cracks me up when Starsky retrieves the pieces of paper and goes through them he says, “Let’s see what we got here.” He pulls out the first one and announces, in an it-figures tone, “French!”

Not that there’s any justification for it, but Rolly is simply not fat enough to inspire so many fat jokes and a cruel nickname.

Up to now, it’s been the Glaser show. He’s shown many sides of his character: boisterous, funny, determined, tough. But abruptly the spotlight comes to Soul, who has his first real moment in the episode, and it’s magnificent, not only because the writing is so good but because we get to really hear how he is able to use that distinctive honeyed voice. “There’s something you should know about Starsky and me,” he says quietly, radiating menace. “We’re not like most partners. You know there’s usually the one guy who’s kind of folksy, who wants the best for everybody, you know the Pat O’Brien kind of guy.” “Yeah,” Rolly says, encouraged by the friendly tone Hutch is taking.
“And then there’s the other guy, the rough-em-up hard-nosed kind of guy. But that doesn’t work for Starsky and me. You see, we’re both hard-nosed, Rolly. And we don’t like it when people don’t give us everything we want.” This is the truest statement anyone has ever made about the partnership. That is, they’re not complimentary, not opposites, not good-guy-bad-guy, not mirror-image. They’re the same person.

Coley wasn’t arrested for something he did – pickpocketing – but Rolly is arrested for something he didn’t do – public intoxication.

It’s said the stolen Torino was driven out to the beach where the shooting occurred. And yet the shooting obviously happened high on a hill overlooking the city. Why the mix-up?

Hutch is mistaken by officious bureaucrats for Starsky in the mistaken-identity briefing.

During the meeting, the men from Internal Affairs and District Attorney Henderson are sour-faced bullies who make their dislike of Starsky and Hutch obvious. When Henderson says the hit may have been an attempt to stop Starsky from testifying he says it angrily, accusatory, as if Starsky is at fault. Of course we find out later what secret Henderson is hiding, but his bad attitude is a puzzle. Is it just because Starsky and Hutch are young and lighthearted, seeming not to take this seriously enough? Does he dislike and distrust them because they’re as close to being hippies as it’s possible to be and still carry a badge?

Why, with two different actors, did they stick with the name “Dobey” after the pilot? It would make more sense, and work as well, to have their captain just be a different man with a different name.

I swear the woman being wrestled out the door and spewing Spanish invectives says very clearly “son of a bitch!” just as she leaves the room.

The squad room is never shown in this pilot episode, but the booking room and other large, busy areas of the police station are, including the mortuary. (A note about the sets: they are beautifully filmed, realistic, and complex. As the series goes on some of this is lost and the sets become cheaper looking, perhaps because of the camera technology used for a television series). When Hutch goes down to see Rolly when he’s released, he spies him making a phone call. Rolly only dials four numbers, which implies he’s dialing someone inside the department. This is a major clue and Hutch should have waited a little longer to eavesdrop rather than interrupting him with a menacingly friendly, “Calling your bookie again?”

One clue that Hutch was married twice (Nancy and Vanessa) is that he tells Starsky that Nancy used to run back inside, thinking she had left the water on. Vanessa would never do that. For one, she’d never make that mistake. For another, she wouldn’t care if she had.

Elijah: a lovely scene in which Hutch gives him a dollar “just in case,” and Elijah, excited, runs to his friend in the alley, thereby smashing a bottle on the ground. One wonders if that smashed bottle, symbolizing the absurdity of fate, was planned, or just a wonderful accident. (Hutch’s giving Elijah the money apparently was an unscripted detail).

“How ‘bout that alley?” Hutch suggests as they try to outsmart their tail. “That’s a fine idea, Ollie,” Starsky says, Hardy-like. This is another long-standing and much-cherished joke, and it foreshadows many of their (interchangeable) partnership quantities: Ollie the obnoxious boss, Stan the long-suffering sidekick.

When does a tail become a chase? And what would be the point of either one? Following the nicely cinematic chase through the gloomy streets, Starsky and Hutch leap onto their pursuers (Starsky riding his like a rodeo bull) only to find out that crime boss Tallmann wants to meet with them at his mansion. It seems to me this could have been accomplished without all the fuss. Same too with the abruptly violent way Starsky and Hutch deal with the two heavies escorting them to the steam room – they are attacked and thrown back down the stairs even though both detectives then politely follow the instructions and disrobe for their meeting. If this is just a knee-jerk reaction to symbolic castration, I’m certain their guns would have been returned to them at the front door on the way out; Tallmann isn’t interested in making enemies at this point and they know it. So if they meant all along to obey the rules, why attack the goons? For fun? To preserve their tough reputations?

There only two notable females in this episode and both involve discomfort on the part of Starsky and Hutch. One is the smirking secretary handing over the towels and the other is Patricia Talbert’s roommate who says she prefers a man to be physically fit. This minor theme of female sexual desire being either embarrassing or pathetic will be restated many times throughout the run of the series.

A Havana cigar in a sauna: is this good for it, or bad? I can never remember the humidity rules. Also, the leather chair worries me slightly, and not only because of the uncomfortable image of a damp bottom getting stuck to it.

Tallmann gives a philosophical speech about the absurdity of being found guilty “two years after I’m dead”. If this is the case, why is he so disconcerted about being framed for the murder of Starsky and Hutch? It would most likely take far longer to prosecute such a circumstantial case as that.

There are many actors in this episode we will get to know well in the next four years: Michael Lerner, Richard Ward, Gilbert Green, Richard Lynch, Buddy Lester, Douglas Fowley and Michael Conrad.

Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall and universal darkness buries all. “Voltaire, 1744,” says Zane. Fat Rolly says nervously, “I knew that.” But in fact it’s from Alexander Pope’s “Dunciad.” Is Zane testing Rolly, or is he just an idiot? Interestingly, this is the first of two examples of hitmen duos, one of whom is a book-reading quasi-intellectual and one is a brutish thug (here, and “The Shootout”). This quote, though, is apt: as Elijah remarks earlier, the end of the world has already happened and this is hell.

It’s great when Hutch makes Starsky repeatedly laugh during their rain-soaked stakeout. As an aside, this looks like the single most uncomfortable shoot in the entire series, wet and cold and miserable. I can easily imagine the two actors, as they rocket to superstardom, being less inclined to do this sort of thing.

On the subject of cold and miserable, this entire episode is shot in a kind of gloomy darkness entirely at odds with the accepted image of Los Angeles being warm, sunny and bright. Was it a deliberate choice to go against that image? The newspaper article that inspired William Blinn was about two detectives who work only at night, and originally he wanted to shoot the series at night as well, but production complications and costs made the idea untenable. Maybe this gloomy cityscape is a way of approaching the original vision.

Continuity error, as Starsky isn’t wearing his famous sweater when he first emerges from the pool.

The guys spend an inordinate amount of time in towels, soaking wet. This is Hutch’s third time in a towel, and Starsky’s second.

“Who are we supposed to trust?” Starsky says when it becomes clear there is a rat in the department. “The same people we always trust,” Hutch says. “Us.” This is a wonderfully intense moment – the audience at the time would see for the first time how truly connected the two are, how deep the friendship is – and variations on this conversation will happen repeatedly over the years.

Two amusing things at the porn theatre: the fact that Starsky buys popcorn, and the old lady putting salt on the tomato and munching away like she’s at a church picnic.

Dobey isn’t as consistently written as the main characters are. Starsky and Hutch suspect Dobey may be in on the plot to kill them, but this is the last time they ever suspect him of anything nefarious. It’s interesting when they rely on Huggy to give him the scoop on their captain rather than relying on their own instincts: apparently he’s “a pretty good cop. But he likes the ponies too much.” This gambling side of Dobey is never mentioned or seen again.

In this pilot episode Huggy is subtly different than he becomes later. Here, he is quieter, more intense, more “other”. When he emerges out of the shadows at the theatre he’s as slithery as a snake. He seems less savory, somehow, and more dangerous.

Starsky mentions a kid he played football with in high school, series creator William Blinn’s inside joke about the origin of Starsky’s name. Blinn also directed an episode of The Rookies featuring a character named Huggy Bear.

Patricia Talbert is identified through her fingerprints. Did she have a criminal record?

Patricia Talbert spells Henderson’s name with a little heart in place of the “o” on her class schedule, a clue that is not commented on but is there to see for the observant viewer, and it speaks volumes about what is going on.

Starsky and Hutch wonder aloud why Patricia’s effects were not entered into evidence. Although we know this is an inside job, the question remains: just how far does Henderson reach into the department? Yes, he is the District Attorney. Yes, he has political power, and is involved in most aspects of policing. But able to squash primary evidence? Able to stall the investigation into a brutal double homicide? This would mean he’d have law enforcement officers willing to do his bidding, from the scene-of-crime investigators to the legal team in his own department, and maybe one or two nosy journalists as well – a Son of Sam-type killing with all the elements of youth, beauty, drugs and sex would be just too juicy not to be front page news. And yet Henderson makes it all go away. Could it be the Bay City police are just too beleaguered by a high crime rate to stand against him? Was it just easier to take the bait he was offering?

Stopped by a black-and-white, Starsky is called “Hutchinson” by the contrite officer. Starsky explodes in the now-familiar “I’m Starsky, he’s Hutch” refrain; one wonders how the police officer mixed them up while looking at Starsky’s identification, unless he was carrying Hutch’s badge. Not outside the realm of possibility, but still. Also, notice how sanguine Hutch is throughout this incident. In later episodes he would more likely be the one to become explosively angry.

The action scenes at the end of the episode are suspenseful and believable, despite the lack of blood. Of note is the loud, almost distorted sound during the gun battle in the underground parking lot, which will be echoed, remarkably enough, in the very last episode of the series, “Sweet Revenge”.

In all the shows in which there is a shooting, fatal or otherwise, wouldn’t Starsky and Hutch be suspended with pay, pending investigation?

The grand old oak is rotten at the core: It is important this series begins with an episode about internal corruption, and supposed good guys who are not good at all. It’s part of a recurring theme of the dangers of authority, and the importance of staying on the outside of orthodoxy. It’s something overtly stated both here in the very first episode, and in “Sweet Revenge”, the very last. That there is a certain rarefied social and political strata that, once grasped, has a cruelly homogenizing effect on all who grasp it. A kind of hellish ledge upon which lawyers, judges, police officers, and criminals from the lowest hoodlum to the most powerful mafioso all sit, clustered together and united in their amorality.

It seems Henderson chose to use Starsky not because he had any specific beef against him but because he thought Starsky was an easy mark: inexperienced, unstable, with peccadillos that made him vulnerable to exploitation. He also thought nothing of using and then discarding a beautiful young woman who had everything to live for. This is the arrogance of the institutional elite, and in this way he perhaps even worse than old-world gangster Tallmann. But why does Henderson bother with this elaborate plot in the first place? If he wanted to get rid of a clingy young girl who could make life difficult for him, why not arrange an accident? He obviously has the brains and the resources to have her drown in the surf or die from an overdose, any number of things that wouldn’t raise the interest of the police. But no, he wants to rid himself of her and bring Starsky and Hutch down, or at least inconvenience them to an extraordinary degree. Just what his motivation is remains a mystery. Does he really despise them all that much, as evidenced in their one meeting near the beginning of the episode? Throughout, Henderson is a murky villain. His death – shot in the hallway – seems beside the point. He drops out of the frame and that’s that.

I wonder, though, how he managed to get everything to work so perfectly. Yes, he got Cannel and Zane off in return for being bad-shot hitmen, but how on earth did he get a car-stealing juvenile delinquent to successfully convince a good girl like pre-law student Patricia to get in a car with him, especially if she was still in love with her professor? And pregnant, to boot? Prior to their ill-fated date the two did not know each other.

Tag: So much for me-and-thee, when Starsky wants to be paid back for paying Hutch’s gym membership by being taken to dinner, and suggests a chili place. Hutch gives him the look. When Starsky says he’s dubious about Hutch following in his car to the place, Hutch says, “Trust me” and then drives in the opposite direction.

Clothing notes: the sweater makes its debut, and I miss the knit cap Starsky wears although it only works for very short hair and not the exuberant mop he eventually grows. He also wears a semi-long khaki army coat that looks great. His clothes seem more East Coast than California, marking him as an outsider in a way Hutch is not; this impression fades fast in the next few episodes. Let’s now take a moment to appreciate what Hutch is wearing during his workout in their first scene together, and what he is not wearing in the second. Hutch is spectacular in his caramel-brown leather jacket and aviator shades. Starsky wears brown suede cowboy boots and not the soon-to-be iconic Adidas.