Archive for April, 2014

Let’s revisit “Murder at Sea”

April 5, 2014

The two detectives go undercover on a cruise ship to investigate two drug-related murders, but find more than they planned when they stumble onto a meeting of syndicate bosses.

Helen: Lynne Marta, “Oxey”: Pepper Martin, Commodore Atwater: Will Geer, October Moss: Jennifer Shaw, Eric Snow: Timothy Himes, Edna Zelinka: Kay Medford, Bertha: Carole Ita White, Kitty: Devon Ericson, Harvey Schwab: Ed Begley Jr, First Officer Stafford: Ron Moody, Captain LaRue: Jean-Pierre Aumont, Patsy Cairo: Paul Picerni, Nicky Cairo: Charles Picerni, “Crazy” Joey Fortune: Jose Ferrer, Marty Simon: Robert Walden, Mr. Jensen: Burr DeBenning, Clint Takahashi: Richard Lee Sung, Lord Harry: Zakes Mokae, Tina: Marianne Bunch, Hubert Stuffy: Richard Hack, Lily: Gari Hardy. Written By: Ron Friedman, Directed By: George McCowan.


Let’s get our business over with first: the issues of maritime law. You’ll have to make allowances for my lay-person grasp of things, but just who is allowed to investigate a crime committed on a cruise ship is dependent on many factors. Sea law is partially reliant on which flag the ship is flying under. And because maritime law is difficult to define, with many countries having differing laws, criminal activity is usually investigated on a case-by-case basis. Logically, Starsky and Hutch would never be allowed to go undercover to investigate a suspected drug-smuggling operation involving multiple countries; that would be a case for the FBI at the very least. Criminal activity while in international water is only one part of the picture. There are “internal waters” (the port and canals of a particular state) which have jurisdiction over federal laws. “Territorial waters” (twelve miles from its coastline) and “contiguous zones” (twelve to twenty-four miles from its coastline) allow for the nation’s laws to be considered. Only in international waters does the ship’s flag dictate the laws. Many ships are registered through Liberia or other countries for this reason. Cruise ships are another matter again. Crimes against a passenger may be prosecuted by the city in which the passenger purchased the ticket rather than the internal or territorial area. Many regulations, however, are recent ones. During the time period in which “Murder at Sea” was filmed things were considerably looser. As far as the crimes committed on board this particular ship, it would likely be a gigantic pain requiring years and years of international legal wrangling. The captain’s murder may have occurred in international waters, and the attempted murder of all the passengers in Mexican territorial waters could be deemed an act of terrorism, since it involves the likely mass murder of innocent civilians, but that word, while around in the 1970s, had not yet been clearly defined. Nellie Brown would also be charged with attempted murder, and the assorted gangsters with criminal conspiracy. Whatever the legal outcome, Starsky and Hutch would be in and out of court as witnesses for a decade.

Cruise ships have changed remarkably in the years since this episode. Recent statistics have suggested cruise ship passengers has increased by a staggering 2,000% since 1970, most of that growth occurring after 1980. And with that came larger and more elaborate ships until the new mega-engorged Fantasy and Grand Princess-class behemoths do not even remotely resemble the rather modest ship Amapola. The Amapola dining room looks more like a cafeteria with its low ceilings and cheap dinette sets, and the simple cabins and unadorned decks are very different from today’s multiple swimming pools and vast glitzy ballrooms.

Amapola being the scene of a crime involving cocaine smuggling is nicely done, as “amapola” is Spanish for poppy.

This is the second double-episode in a row and features friends of Glaser and Soul – Soul’s mentor Will Geer, old pal Ron Moody (from the wonderful and strange 1974’s “Dogpound Shuffle”) Lynne Marta as the mysterious Nellie Brown/ Helen Carnahan, stunt coordinator and Glaser’s double, Charlie Picerni, and his brother, Paul (The Untouchables), and even an unbilled cameo by Glaser’s love and wife-to-be, Elizabeth Meyer (memorably sitting at Takahashi’s table during the talent show). Like most of the double episodes, this one is not exactly helped by the format. Would it have been a better episode if it was tightly fitted in an hour, minus the dumb gags and extensive back-story? Maybe, or maybe not. I confess I would have dearly missed the “talent show”.

The two-week shoot was a working vacation for Glaser and Soul, with some of the passengers filling in as extras. It was not an easy shoot, though, particularly the bomb search scene which was filmed in tight quarters with boxes that were weighted for the sake of reality and it was probably oppressively hot and putrid. One cute inside joke is Glaser and Soul’s smirk when Huggy says the line about being the “Houdini with soul”, since Glaser filmed a biography of the great Harry Houdini and is literally with Soul.

I am one of those people completely spooked by masks and so I’m a big baby when it comes to the first scene of the episode when Jensen kills Snow. More savvy viewers than I could probably name the character’s mask this is but my guess would be an ape from the Planet of the Apes films. I uncovered my eyes long enough to wonder why he bothered with a mask at all, since the docks were deserted and it was more than probable there would be no witnesses, and even if there were and someone provided the police with detail of the mask, why would he keep it? This leaves open the speculation Jenson did not intend to kill Snow, but merely wound him – gangster style – as a way of ensuring his silent loyalty.

Helen Carnahan does something really dumb in this first scene: she turns on her car’s engine and squeals away following the stabbing death of her contact rather than simply ducking down and waiting it out. The killer had no idea she was there and would have run off, allowing her to check if purser Eric Snow was still alive and perhaps provide lifesaving first aid, or at the very least phone the police anonymously. Her lack of common sense is a bit frustrating. Throughout the episode she continues to make questionable decisions: lying to police, striking out at Starsky and Hutch, getting herself into a complex and dangerous situation that gets way over her head, and even her final act of revenge, while nicely done and perversely brave, has not been well thought out by someone who presumably has had years of thinking to do. Although we eventually come to understand her motives, her general sense of judgement is way off.

Hutch stops the ambulance attendant and spends a few seconds lifting the sheet and staring at the victim’s face. This is presumably after the scene, and victim, has been carefully investigated. Is he just double-checking his notes (“victim is male caucasian with brown hair”) or is he looking for a flash of inspiration as to the motive for the murder?

No longer the sole province of sailors and criminals, times certainly have changed for tattoos. Harry Persons is seen as an outsider and a genial weirdo, hanging out at the docks for customers, his “special” – a hilarious pastiche of the worst of tattoos, a spider and heart thing, with “born to make whoopee” emblazoned across it – making the guys cringe. Starsky’s refusal of Harry’s offer of his “special” is wonderful, especially through his east-coast drawl: “Nah, too common. Everybody’s got hawts and spidahs.” (A joke, incidentally, for his partner only: they grin at each other, briefly forgetting why they’re there.)

I like the perfectly timed joke about Hutch being a kid fifteen hundred miles from the sea and yet managing to be a sea scout. “How’d you manage that?” Starsky asks. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. All we need is a rim shot.

It’s a beautifully choreographed fight scene as Starsky and Hutch are attacked out of nowhere, and a creative use of two sets of legs. But security honcho Oxey’s actions make absolutely no sense, no matter how he tries to spin it. If he’s port police, why not call for backup when he’s attacked and beaten unconscious? Why not shout “stop, police!” when he spots two strangers on the ship? Both these precautions are the very least an officer of the law should do in that situation. Perhaps he’s been impaired by a concussion into acting rashly.

Repeats: the guys repeat Oxey’s name several times, emphasizing the implication he is tough and dumb as an ox. Then they also repeat the word “commodore” several times as if to emphasize the unusual antiquity of the word. Hutch repeats the name “Clark” later, as if to emphasize how fake it sounds.

The commodore’s office comes right out of a Victorian novel. Dark wood paneling and velvet and lace curtains blot out the sun, brandy snifters, model ships, brass telescopes and other seafaring relics clutter the room. This does not seem reasonable in a busy international port. The commodore himself is a nasty old man – he flicks out his tongue when mentioning the singles scene – but was probably intended to be old-fashioned and even charming at the time. He also claims not to know “one-tenth” of the men on any of the ships but appears to have instant recall of one of Snow’s many girlfriends, down to her hair color.

Why does Helen Carnahan bother putting on her shoes to answer the door? You’d think she should cover up her skimpy “yoga suit” or whatever that is, rather than just slipping on a pair of shoes in her own carpeted apartment. However she does, eventually, put on the world’s ugliest skirt.

Not that it matters much, but October Moss says she and Eric Snow broke up weeks ago, and that he was so violent during their relationship she was forced to take on a roommate as protection and company. Then why is she a sobbing wreck to hear of his death? I can accept she may just be the most tender-hearted person ever but it still seems a tiny bit histrionic. She asks none of the questions (“Why? How did it happen?”) that most heart-broken people might ask, and in the next scene we see her as cheerful and lively as if nothing bad had ever happened.

Why to the guys assume Huggy will know Eric Snow? He’s just a small-time coke dealer and not very important. Huggy’s reach probably doesn’t extend to the shipping trade. And yet they head for him all the same, and ta-dah, like magic, he knows all the answers. It’s amusing when they leave Huggy in his straight jacket, but all the same, once you think about it, it’s more cruel than funny, as this pranking the prankster could lead to something genuinely dangerous. They don’t even look back, either.

Starsky and Hutch leave Helen alone in an apartment in which the horrible murder of her close friend has taken place. There is no attempt to secure the scene or make sure Helen has psychological help or even a place to stay until the blood has been cleaned up. It’s best to assume we simply don’t see the more procedural side of things. Let’s imagine that just out of sight an army of scene-of-crimes technicians and helpful family services liaison officers are waiting to take over as soon as the detectives leave.

Just how does an undercover operation go against the commodore’s grain? It seems to be the upholding of the law and preserving the reputation of his ships would be first on his list.

Is the hand-painted Mexican pottery collection Starsky tells the Commodore he is thinking of starting the same one he’ll be talking to Rosey Malone about in the future? And also why does the Commodore looks so startled, then amused, then doubled up in riotous laughter, at such an innocuous comment? He then says the two detectives are “picturesque” and Starsky looks uncertain, as he should. The point remains Starsky comes up with this story about pottery knowing it will turn the tide in their favor. How is it he is so perspicacious in this instance? Does he guess the commodore is helpless in the face of whimsy, or what?

“Now all we got to think of is what kind of cover to use,” Starsky says once their assignment is confirmed. And without much of a beat Hutch says, “I got it.” And thus Hack and Zack are born, “songs and laffs”. One wonders exactly why Hutch was so quick to come up with such an elaborate and ridiculous undercover guise. Couldn’t they have just been passengers, or better yet crew members so they could have access to the closed-off parts of the ship? Why this, this weird vaudeville act? Is this something Hutch has been wanting to do for ages? In “The Shootout” tag he seems to be barely tolerating his partner’s own songs and laffs routine but now he’s anxious to participate. Maybe he’d been thinking for years, gosh, I really want to do a song and dance routine, but how?

It’s very funny that the photographs on the sandwich board are the famous posed publicity shots of the two actors, a bewildering merging of real and fiction with meta-real and meta-fiction.

Hack and Zack meet Mr. Takahashi (played by an actor of Chinese and not Japanese descent, an annoying miscast of its time). Right off the bat Hutch can’t pronounce his name and in fact throughout the episode will mispronounce that name in a hundred creative ways (showing David Soul’s verbal dexterity). Starsky whispers “Japanese” to Hutch and Mr. Takahashi, rightly indignant, says he’s a “red-blooded American from Houston, Texas”. Making things worse, Starsky puts his hands together, bows, and utters what sounds like a genuine Japanese phrase of apology. And it all goes downhill from here, because at this moment the episode takes off its detective hat and puts on its clown shoes.

It’s all aboard the double-decker entendre as Hutch sees the Bayside Singles girls bouncing down the gangplank and says to one of the girls, “don’t you have nice large … signs”, presumably referring to the t-shirt she is wearing. She says, “so do you,” and Hutch glances down at himself and grins, “thank you very much.” Suddenly, from the grim reality of a murdered coke dealer, the shows veers off into sexual shenanigans, mariachi music, eccentric passengers, and inane games of Simon Says.

Hutch, in a sudden case of nerves (as Zack? Or himself?), does a strange performance by repeating “Clark, clark, clark”, like a duck.

It is amusing to see Charlie Picerini, as the brother to mobster Clark, give Starsky a meaningful glance as they walk by.

Why is it that neither of them want to be “Hack”? What’s the difference? Anyway, as usual, Starsky loses. Hutch gives him the name “Hack Tuppleman” as a sort of ultra-Catskills moniker, for his own private amusement.

Uptight singles club manager Harvey Schwab is seen as a cuckold and a prude. His girl Kitty is what would then be called a nymphomaniac, a giggling ditz whose nonstop (and nonpartisan) promiscuity is played for laughs. Both these typically 70s characters make me more queasy than ocean swells.

For such a central character, Helen Carnahan is all mixed up. I always get the feeling writer Ron Friedman likes her but has no idea what to do with her. She gets First Officer Stafford to ask Starsky and Hutch to meet her in her cabin even though there is absolutely no reason for a) involving the ship’s crew or b) alerting Starsky and Hutch to her involvement. They have no idea she’s there, so why tell them? When they meet her she’s obstructive and combative, refusing to say who she really is or what she wants, or why she went through all that trouble to get them to her cabin in the first place. Why arrange a meeting only to throw up all kinds of road blocks, especially if she wanted to be left alone to perform the one task she swore on her father’s grave she would do? Later, Helen tells Starsky and Hutch they have “no jurisdiction here.” Do they? The ship is probably still in territorial waters and they could possibly arrest her for impeding an investigation if they wanted to.

Hutch can’t help but be sanctimonious about knowing “navy time”, but for most of this show this is the only evidence of his habitual superiority.

How come it takes so long to get a passenger list?

Starsky comments, “You don’t kill a couple of people to cover up some misdemeanor convictions.” True, but if that is all it was, it wouldn’t warrant sending in two undercover detectives either.

It’s interesting that both Captain and First Officer are both so obnoxious and bad-tempered. And also that Hutch, rather than Starsky, is the one trying to control the situation through extreme politeness.

Games like Simon Says and scavenger hunts and lukewarm jokes about marriage and bathrooms seem lame, even for the times, except if you’re somewhere between eight and twelve years old.

Elizabeth Mayer is transcendent in her scene, with her thick golden-brown hair and deep tan, simple black dress and large pendant.

Amateur Hour: Hack tells a whole lot of really bad jokes, but there is a genuinely funny one when Kitty slides between them on her way out and Starsky says, “maybe she’d like us to stand closer together.” After introducing “Mrs. Edna Zalinka from Columbus Ohio” (the marvelous character actress Kay Medford) Hutch finally gives up on the whole stupid charade, throws his paper in the air, and walks off with Starsky. Wonderfully, you can just discern in the darkness that he puts his arm protectively, and affectionately, around Starsky’s waist as they walk out together.

Starsky overhears the gangsters colluding in secret. He then continues on his way, abruptly cold-cocked by Nicky Cairo’s gun, and abandoned, stunned, in the hallway. Now what was that all about? There’s no hint Nicky saw Starsky climbing up to see the meeting. If Nicky did see Starsky peeking in, knocking him down and then abandoning him isn’t very practical. It brings attention to the beating in a way that isn’t helpful to the gangsters. And it’s not as if Stafford interrupted the attack either, since he comes along some time later. So why did Nicky do a half-assed job on someone he obviously saw as threatening? Why not kill Starsky and put him in a closet somewhere?

Hutch remarks they have the “biggest meeting of the syndicate since Appalachia”. The Appalacin Meeting was a held in the home of mobster Joe “the Barber” Barbara in New York in 1957 and attended by an estimated one hundred mafiosi from three countries. The meeting came to an abrupt halt when law enforcement became suspicious of all the fancy cars arriving in the small town and raided the event. While this is historical fact, it’s still absurd to think of a bunch of gangsters stupid enough to draw attention to themselves with their insistence on luxurious automobiles.

You would think two seasoned criminals would be able to kill someone (in this case, the captain) and hide the evidence of wrongdoing, if only to buy them time. The scene is left disarranged and bloody, possibly alerting Starsky and Hutch faster than it should have.

The choreography is great in the scene in which they run up the stairs, Starsky turns the corner slightly ahead of Hutch and then in a split second grabs him, pulls him back, Hutch’s hand on his elbow – which stays there while they listen in on the treacherous plot against them.

Hiding in Helen’s room, Starsky does a funny thing. he draws the curtains over the portholes, then glances through them, as if someone might be looking in. I guess old habits die hard, but then again in a later scene Starsky is able to crawl onto a handrail to see inside Cairo’s stateroom, so perhaps it’s not as crazy as it seems.

“The world’s getting killed around you and you’re out there busting heads and playing macho,” Helen scolds Hutch. “The minute the stakes get too high you drop the case, turn tail and run.” This is a searing indictment but completely without evidence. She’s been angry at them since she slipped on board and there is no reason for it. How does she figure they’re “playing macho” and giving up? Why angrily accuse them when she knows nothing about what they’re doing?

Helen tells them it was October Moss who told her about Eric’s involvement in the case. So why didn’t October mention this when she learns her ex-boyfriend had been murdered?

The captain is dead and no one on board seems to notice.

I’m not sure taking three hostages through busy passageways down to the hold of the ship is more private than a state room. It looks far less comfortable for these unctuous gangsters – no chance of a meal or a shower, nothing but pallets and hard chairs to sit on – and has a far more likely chance of being interrupted by some innocent maintenance man or engineer. When we later learn what is in store for the group it makes a lot more sense for Joey Fortune, but you still have to wonder why Patsy Cairo, apparently the brains here, fell for the “second location” excuse.

Jose Ferrer is wonderful as “Crazy” Joey Fortune. Perfectly cast, his deep suave voice and physical power – undimmed in late middle age – is impeccable. I love it when he’s caught following the dune buggy chase and he tries to play the victim card, raising his hands and putting on a pathetic waver. This is one canny fox.

Starsky and Hutch know a lot about demolition. They talk easily about impact switches, delayed fuses, directional fuses, pressure sensitive detonators and trembler switches like they’ve just completed a course at the academy.

Now comes my favorite plot twist in the entire two-hour episode, when bad guys are forced to cooperate with the good guys to save their skins.

Stafford finds the captain dead and makes his way down to the meeting room, rifle in hand. Note that he doesn’t attempt to engage any other crew to help him, but blunders into the situation by himself.

The first bomb has gone off and apparently it doesn’t cause any damage at all, since First Officer Stafford seems only peripherally aware of it and we later see Mrs Edna Zalinka from Columbus Ohio happily anticipating more fun and games. No panic in sight. I understand that for budgetary and time reasons the script could not show mass panic, but there must have been a way to suggest it.

One of the funniest lines in the entire episode is said off-camera, when Helen/Nellie cries out, “what can I do!” and Hutch says dryly, “I don’t know.” I laugh every time I hear it, and not only because it’s delivered so perfectly, but because it underscores (in a mean way, admittedly) how useless she is. Stafford does deputize her, however, so she has something to keep her occupied.

“Hey!” Starsky stops them both dead in their tracks on the way to diffusing the bombs. They both stop, turned to each other, momentarily still. “See ya around,” Starsky says. Versions of this wonderful partnership moment, in which life-threatening danger is both acknowledged and then set aside for the greater good – can be seen if at least three other episodes.

Then, as abruptly, the show puts on its crime hat again. A beautifully-filmed and thrilling bomb-hunt is on, the guys leaping over railings and climbing up and down stairs with incredible agility and speed, working seamlessly together in incredibly cramped quarters. No jokes, no wasted time. The background music is nicely done and not too intrusive, and the naturalistic lighting makes it all seem very, very real. Both actors are fully committed to this long, mostly silent action sequence and as a result it is a genuinely stressful experience. This episode was taped after “Little Girl Lost”, during which Soul broke his ankle, so he does all the running and jumping with an injury and probably in great pain. There is a creative shot of the two forehead-to-forehead – actually bracing on each other – pulling the bombs up the ladder.

The sea explosion clip is from the 1958 WW II film “Run Silent, Run Deep”. Rigging an explosion like that would have been unthinkably expensive for a television show; one can’t help but think how CGI has changed everything in that regard.

One of the best chases in the series, Hutch (“I was raised in one of these”) driving a dune buggy and Starsky hanging on for dear life (a scene that they actually re-filmed on their day off after the two stars weren’t pleased with the first take).

Do Starsky and Hutch have their guns on the Amapola? Hutch appears to have his trusty Python after the dune buggy desert chase, but there are no signs of either gun on board. Given what they wear, it would probably been too much of a nice big sign.

And what, finally, becomes of Nellie Brown? Lynne Marta’s finest moment in this double episode comes as she stares murderously at Joey Fortune following her failed assassination attempt. Her large expressive eyes are quite frighteningly cold, and for a moment she is stripped of all the narrative entanglements the writers have strung on her and is pure, in a sense: purely herself, no longer Helen or Nellie Brown, no longer a faux-reporter or a pretty girl entangled in something she doesn’t understand, but Vengeance herself, white-hot and focused. It’s a great moment. If we accept that Starsky’s father was also a citizen gunned down by the mob (possibly as a union man, like Nellie’s father) Starsky and Hutch’s silence on the matter is touching and beautifully underplayed. Unfortunately she is left behind when more pressing matters come to the fore, and is summarily dropped from the story, her fate unknown. I do have a problem with her planning skills, however, as mentioned earlier. She was clever enough to worm her way into October Moss’ confidence and affection, get Eric Snow’s information, and work out how Snow was tangentially involved with Fortune. So why shoot Fortune while he’s standing in a room filled with people capable of shooting back? Why not glean his address in Acapulco (or wherever he’s hiding out), track him down, and shoot him there? Her actions are rash and suicidal – or maybe that’s the point. This is an issue common with the series: they set up a highly motivated killer with a complex story and then forget them three-quarters of the way through as concentration shifts to Starsky and Hutch. Not necessarily a bad thing – concentrating on Starsky and Hutch is never a bad thing – but it does give rise to all kinds of questions that cannot be answered except in our imaginations.

There is a long tag featuring Huggy’s magic show, although why the ship is docked and yet passengers are on board in evening clothes being entertained is not really explained. Are they being held back for questioning? Starsky and Hutch are very funny as they try to hide their anxiety about their friend’s prowess, inching toward the back door to make a run for it. The sword goes in and Bertha screams and this is supposed to be the punch line? A possibly injured woman or – at the very least – a woman screaming for a “comically” unrelated reason (one can easily picture a rubber mouse or some other scare surfacing from the inside of that box). No matter why Bertha screams, you just have to ask: what’s so funny about that?

Clothing notes: at the start, Hutch wears his memorable blue plaid shirt-jacket and tan pants, Starsky his leather jacket, a tan/pink button shirt and leather jacket, and, onboard, the jean short-shorts we’ve seen before and since. The cruise makes white pants a welcome sight, and Starsky looks great in his hippie-style Mexican shirt in the all-aboard scene. Both look fairly respectable in Cruise Director formal wear as they work the dining room. But the star of the show has to be Hutch as Zack in tinted aviators and a fantastic brown jumpsuit with many zippers.