Let’s revisit “Nightmare”

A young, mentally handicapped woman is raped and her attackers may go free when their case may not hold up in court.

Lisa Graham: Diana Scarwid, Nick Manning: Gerrit Graham, Mitzi Graham: Karen Morrow, Mousy Loomis: Zachary Lewis, Ass’t DA Sims: David Knapp, DA: Jim Gruzalski, Al Martin: Carl Weathers, Mr. McDevlin: Jerome Guardino. Written By: Steve Fisher, Directed By: Randal Kleiser.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a compassionate episode about a rape and its terrible aftermath, and the triumph of the often fragile human spirit. It’s also a story about the dehumanizing, desensitizing nature of fundamentalism, in which rules must be followed no matter the cost (we see this in the court scenes). Both these are recurring themes throughout the series and addressed in depth in other episode summaries, so let’s investigate another long-running idea that is much less flashy and entertaining but still important: the perils of nostalgia, or specifically, what happens when we rely too much on sentiment or a rose-colored view of the past, or fear change too acutely. “Nightmare” is a wonderful example of how people are caught up in their own assumptions and ideals, even at the cost of real growth.

“Starsky & Hutch” is and was very modern in its approach. It marks a significant change in the way popular culture was presented to the masses. Brash and bold, it upturns old assumptions left and right and shows us how contemporary life (as seen through the lens of network television, mind you) has profoundly changed in the last decade, and largely for the better. The series tackles tough political and moral issues, shows men being emotional and caring toward one another, and casts a cynical eye on the once-immovable concrete foundations of the old elite – bankers, politicians, lawyers and even the police themselves. Starsky and Hutch are part of the new breed of idealistic, sensitive, skeptical heroes whose moral compass necessarily points far to the left. And as if to emphasize this point the series repeatedly goes out of its way to show us that the old ways weren’t as great as they seemed, and reliance on old-fashioned “ideals” do not work well in these times.

I would say “Nightmare” is a perfect encapsulation of this, and it begins with a beautifully-written and acted set-piece about Starsky diligently searching out an old toy store he remembers from childhood in order to find the perfect present for their friend. The two argue about memories and changing times, with Hutch calling out Starsky for his persistence in finding something that is no longer there (the scene includes Starsky doing a delightful Harpo Marx-like trailing of a pretty blonde walking down the street). Uncle Elmo, once purveyor of children’s toys, is now selling adult novelties, and continues with the introduction of the angelic Lisa whose developmental and intellectual delays keep her permanently in little-girl stage while her body grows into adulthood.

This episode shows that change can be a malevolent force as well as a positive one, bent on destroying innocence. But it can also be a mistake – sometimes a fatal one – to continue to act as if nothing changes. “You know what they say, don’t you,” Hutch comments. “You can never can go home again.”

When Hutch suggests they go to another toy store, making the sensible remark that the owner would know Lisa, Starsky accuses him (not for the first time) of being a man without a heart. “There is a thing called loyalty”, he fumes, which of course means he’s more or less faking this display of temper, because if Hutch understands anything, it’s loyalty. (It’s also in stark contrast to the scene in “Las Vegas Strangler” where Starsky says he’s “sick” of Hutch’s extreme sense of loyalty.)

In one of the finest and funniest scenes in the entire series, we see the laundromat bust, a high-spirited, perfectly performed set piece which necessitates, to fans’ delight, Starsky undressing. “Of all the high falutin ideas,” Starsky gripes, even though Hutch’s idea to walk directly into the line of fire is a brave and practical solution to an urgent problem.

Hutch’s acting skills are showcased once again – he’s totally convincing when he walks, whistling, into the hold-up. Both guys show a remarkable willingness to adapt to the situation and adopt unconventional ideas and techniques. Note how his cowed reaction gives the thug with the gun an ugly flush of power, which is a great little detail. In fact the whole scene is filled with amazing details: the old lady with no teeth, the towel found on the clothing line, the “drop it, sweetheart,” shouted by the beat cops at Starsky. It has both brutal realism and cinematic flair.

Although nothing emphasizes how times have changed more than when Hutch goes into his pocket for his badge and the two uniformed cops do not start blasting away.

Starsky and Hutch are not in their regular beat because they don’t know the whereabouts of the toy store, and the uniformed cops don’t recognize them following the arrest in the laundromat when surely every cop in the neighborhood would recognize the infamous duo (they do in “The Fix” when Hutch is spotted running down the street by the squad car). And they’re not familiar with Uncle Elmo’s new adult book store either. But it is Starsky’s childhood neighborhood, despite the fact we are told in several episodes that he was raised in New York. This could mean Starsky was born in Los Angeles and then moved east with his family to New York at a fairly young age, perhaps around the age of ten or so, but that would go directly against later episodes such as “Targets Without a Badge”. When he tells Lisa he played in his back yard his tale could be judiciously altered (“I played on the fire-escape/dirty stoop/grimy storeroom” not being entirely appropriate for his purposes), as people tend not have a back yard in New York. In “Shootout” Starsky mentions he lived over an Italian restaurant in an apartment. My speculation is Starsky came out to Los Angeles on summer holidays, perhaps to visit his uncle’s family (“Snowstorm”, “Jo-Jo”), and got to know this particular neighborhood very well.

In this episode, as in the series as a whole, Hutch is clear-eyed and cynical, Starsky is more likely to be stubbornly sentimental. Hutch lectures Starsky on how things inevitably change, speculates the singing goldfish grew up and their voices changed. He also comments the bratty kid at the toy store will grow up and Lisa will stay sweet. “Kids grow up…the world marches on.” With Hutch, Starsky seems to revel in a certain kind of childishness. He quotes outlandish “facts” from books, appears credulous and trusting, tends to dislike change and is more conventional, sulks when upset and is cheered by silly things like ducks and toys. Hutch may act impatient at his partner’s ways (and Starsky may exaggerate for effect) but the dichotomy allows him to be the protector, the parent, teacher and sage. It also allows Starsky to relax and be himself. With his wholehearted affections and fetishistic objects, and the childlike wonderment in spite of the violent, dangerous world he inhabits, Starsky is not just a sentimentalist. He is a complicated character whose quirks and compartmentalizations are every bit as self-preserving as Hutch’s prickly exterior. How to be a good cop and not let the darkness consume you is something every detective and officer in uniform struggles with, and both Starsky and Hutch deal with this struggle in different but equally successful – and sometimes unsuccessful – ways.

Starsky’s act, if you can call it that, is somewhat dispelled by the intensity of his concentration when he plays with the trains. He really is enjoying himself, and not like a serious train-collector either, but immersively like a child. When confronted by little Tommy saying, “this is for kids. You’re not a kid. Starsky replies easily, “I’m buying a present for a kid. I’m going to a birthday party.” Amusingly, he isn’t actually buying anything: Hutch is in the background, diligently looking at proper girly presents for Lisa. One imagines a few moments before this scene opens, indulging his partner. The all right, play with the damn trains. Later the kid says, pointing, “are you with him?” Meaning Hutch. “Yeah,” Starsky says, with obvious pride, quirking a smile, as if acknowledging the question is that your dad? “He’s my partner. We’re policemen.” “Policemen” being a phrase like “fireman” or “astronaut”. A word a child might use, Starsky inhabiting, briefly, that marvelous space between past and present.

“Having problems, little boy?” Hutch says, when things go wrong. As ever providing the sarcasm (here, gentler than usual) for his own complicated reasons.

Hutch later comments that things will be all right, that by next year the boy who makes trouble for Starsky at the toy store will have outgrown both the train-set and Lisa. Starsky, who has obviously not outgrown anything, still makes an effort to concede to Hutch’s need to instruct. Who’s the adult now?

Two points of interest in the story thus far: we are never tipped off that Lisa is not a child, and for all that kid’s peevishness in the toy store, notice how he too accepts Lisa for exactly who she is on the inside.

One of my favorite little exchanges occurs when Hutch relates the doll’s attributes to Starsky, beginning with, “You punch her in the stomach she says ‘ma’”. Now, I may not know much about dolls, but punch her in the stomach? “You pull a string in the back that says ‘don’t touch me I hardly know you’”, continues Hutch, making this up. All this is highlighted by a very annoyed woman watching two men fuss with a doll. The whole scene is starting to look like a metaphor for their undercover work with hookers, junkies and abused women. The kicker is Hutch holding up a pink gingham dress. “How does this look, huh?”
“I like you better in red,” says Starsky.

Filming notes: Glaser and Soul reportedly went crazy while shooting the scene in the toy shop, putting rattlesnakes down people’s backs and having a pea shooter war.

How do Starsky and Hutch know Lisa and Mitzi? The relationship seems very mature, as if they’d all gone through something together. Given their record of volunteering with youth, could be it be that they knew her through some kind of outreach or school program? And yet other cops, especially Dobey, are especially invested Lisa, and seem very fond of her. Dobey has gone to the trouble of buying a gigantic panda bear, despite his admonishing the guys about soft-hearted cops ending up broke. Was Frank an ex-cop, maybe, or one of the support staff? Heart-attack at fifty-four sort of thing?

Nick and Mousey wait for Lisa to come by. Nick seems to know Lisa because he remarks “she’s fair game, just like any other girl.” He knows she’s different and wants to capitalize on it, knows her daily routine. It seems their paths have crossed in and around the bus Lisa has ridden every day for two years, because he tried to steal the cash box from that bus before. But why does Lisa catch the bus at the lot, rather than the stop? The driver senses they shouldn’t be there before he knows of trouble, so obviously there aren’t a lot of pedestrians.

The buses in the lot say RFD but the driver’s hat says MTL.

I’ve been thinking recently about the terrible prescience of having Lisa’s rape take place on an empty bus. A bus is a critical detail here. Not only is it the one form of transport that brings together all kinds of people, a culturally and socially rich environment enabling all kinds of unlikely meetings to take place, in car-centric Los Angeles particularly it is a mode of transport largely for the poor, the disadvantaged, the very young. But it is the spate of recent rapes on buses that makes this scene even more horrible than it already is. In many countries in which women are denied the ability and the right to drive, a bus is a life saver and a death trap all in one. Women are harassed, stalked, and otherwise bothered on buses all the time; in many restrictive countries a bus is the only place a woman interacts and is dependent on her (male dominated) society. In Mexico, a self-styled vigilante who calls herself Diana the Hunter rides the buses in rural Mexico, targeting and killing men who have defiled female passengers. As I write this, I hear on the news that a young Turkish woman was raped and murdered by the driver as she was the last one on the bus in the evening.

Back at the station, the guys are wrapping Lisa’s present, and from the sight of Starsky’s exaggerated yelp of pain when Hutch ties the bow around his finger, and Hutch’s equally exaggerated irritable, “Keep your finger there, will you?” this is a comedy routine that has gone on for several minutes before we join them. One can imagine the other cops’ private reaction to the undercover detectives clowning around and wasting time in the squad room. It most likely runs the gamut between “what a coupla great guys” and “fuckin think they’re movie stars”.

The bus driver picks out “Robert Emmett ‘Mousey’ Loomis” from a large mug-shot book containing thousands of photos and Hutch not only knows who he is, he knows the guy’s habits and tendencies. This is impressively knowledgeable. Both Starsky and Hutch pick up on the “they” when the driver complains about the cash box “they” tried to steal and Starsky reveals the same encyclopedic knowledge of small-time hoods because he immediately knows who Mousey’s partner is. There is a small procedural slip up though, when the driver remembers the pale curly hair and Starsky gives him a mug book with only one photo on it showing a man with similar hair, which could be seen as leading.

Hutch says it doesn’t make sense when bus driver identifies Mousy as a rapist. Hutch comments, “From what we’ve heard from the joint from the time that he spent in there, he has a tendency to go the other way.” Hearing about Mousy’s sexual preferences, at least while in prison, is fairly detailed information. How much information do Starsky and Hutch get from the joint anyway? Huggy is usually pictured as the snitch-above-all-other-snitches, but there are a lot more that we never see, which is too bad. An episode in which the detectives visit a prison would be really great.

There are seat belts in the Torino but they’re never used.

I understand the kind impulse, but that is way too much for a girl to endure in one day. I’m surprised they all thought it was a good idea, and that the doctor actually recommended it – severely traumatized, then a birthday party. All the adults involve show a great deal of emotional tone deafness to Lisa’s anguish. They are trying to jolly her out of something that should have been understood and acknowledged, which is another example of a kind of fear of change that can prove paralyzing. Lisa has changed. But no one wants to admit it.

There is perhaps no more touching and heartfelt statement than when Hutch tells Lisa they may want to hurt her attackers but they never would because it would make them no better those they detest. “We’re policemen, you know?” he says gently. Given the current state of police-related violence throughout the United States, this attitude is both heartening (fiction is always a panacea) and bitterly ironic.

I try to see each episode without what I sometimes call enlightenment bigotry, a judgmental discomfort that extends from smoking in hospitals to blatant sexism. But even so, I cringe every time I see Huggy’s latest enterprise, the sad, dimly lit pet store. I hate to think where he got these poor animals and how he can possibly adequately care for them, and what happens when he loses interest or too much money and moves on to something else. Still it’s amusing when Huggy refers to a crow or raven as an African canary. But thinking about this scene, if Huggy’s so anxious to bust the “scum”, why does he wait for Starsky and Hutch to find him? A phone call would have been quicker.

Mousey Loomis has a low intelligence and is easily manipulated. In a sense, he’s as much a child as Lisa, once can easily imagine him as poor, uneducated, probably from a troubled, violent home, with undiagnosed learning problems, kicked out of school and easy pickings for an amoral predator like Nick Manning. As an aside, I’m always astonished at the manhandling Starsky gives him – Glaser really goes to town with an exhibition of physical power here, dragging 150-lb Loomis along like he was nothing.

Loomis says Manning plans to kill Lisa so she can’t identify him for the crime. This might not have saved Manning at all, since Lisa was examined at a hospital and even in the late 1970s there was such a thing as a rape kit, with careful collection of blood, semen and other samples that could have led to prosecution. I’d also like to think Lisa bit him, which would have also been useful too. Plus there was the bus driver as witness. Later, uber-evil Assistant DA Sims suggests no jury would convict, but there is a strong possibility they would. With a mountain of psychiatric evidence, character witnesses for Lisa, plus Lisa’s own affecting testimony and the lengthy criminal record of Manning (plus his grotesque smirk, which I bet he can’t hide even under duress) I tend to believe they could win their case. I also think Mousey is the weak link here – with the proper interrogation, a few incentives, he could be the key to the whole trial. It’s really a shame trying to turn Mousey isn’t part of the story here.

Starsky holds his gun in his unusual way: palm over the top, fingers loose and high.

Lisa alone in the house: why 911 was invented.

Because rape is such a contentious and unremitting horror, it’s always interesting to see how the it’s portrayed throughout the decades. Here, we see how the victim of the crime is revictimized on the stand, with lawyers relentlessly chipping away at her dignity and self-esteem, cruelly twisting truths into lies and questioning the moral character of someone who has been raped by suggesting it was encouraged or consensual. I believe the title refers not only to the act of rape but the experience of not being believed or taken seriously by those in authority.

The fact that this is a pretrial rather than a trial is an interesting one. Perhaps the parties involved are assessing Lisa’s ability to be cross-examined, or maybe there are numerous issues to be resolved before trial can begin.

The role of comforter and protector are shared equally between partners, as Starsky does the dirty work during the arrest and Hutch goes to Lisa. This changes when Starsky coaxes Lisa from her despair during questioning, talking her gently about how great it is to be ten, and the “Doodletown” of his childhood, with Hutch at a respectful distance. Notice, though, Hutch’s comfort of Lisa consists of gently-administered Hard Facts (they can’t beat up her assailants because that would make them just as bad, and besides, they’re Policemen and have to follow rules) while Starsky’s consists of a distracting fantasyland that makes the real world go away.

I always find it interesting that Mitzi allows Starsky to take over the immediate care of Lisa. It shows a woman who has learned to relinquish control if necessary for the good of her daughter. She calls herself “selfish” a little later on but this is a practiced, even specious joke I’m sure she’s made often as a kind of justification for her choices. Truly, though, I think Mitzi letting Starsky take over at this moment is about as unselfish as it gets.

Diana Scarwid’s performance is perfect here. Not only does she have the delicate, nearly transparent look of a child who has spent most of her life indoors, she has a sweet and endearing way of repeating words spoken to her, murmuring them to herself as if to memorize them, incorporate them into her own vocabulary. We see it here particularly when Starsky tells her about Doodletown. When she repeats his words you can almost see them coming to life in her imagination. It seems like a genuine way Lisa might find her way through the world. I would love to know if this is scripted or Scarwid’s own uncanny instincts.

I love Dobey’s crooked grin when admitting that the guys could bring Nick Manning in on another charge. He’d been laying back while the whole assaulting-the-lawyer scene went on, and now he pretty well gives his blessing for anything slightly illegal the guys might do. Which brings up the issue of how Dobey views his reckless detectives and their methods.

If he isn’t calling the station but rather a personal number, Huggy calls Starsky, not Hutch, with the tip. How often does he seem to favor one over the other?

It’s nice to see a young, handsome Carl Weathers, looking like he’s about to go to the opera in both his scenes.

When a beaten Manning makes his accusation, nothing much is done about it, not even by DA Sims, who acts like he believes it’s possible Starsky and Hutch might be guilty of assault. It’s possible their hands are examined for wounds, their alibis checked, but we never see it. A serious accusation like that should have at least caused them a visit to Internal Affairs.

Oh, the exemplar of masculine power: Starsky and Hutch breezing past a secretary crying out, “You can’t go in there!”

“What do we know about law and order and graphs and charts?” Starsky says, when the he and Hutch have been left waiting over an hour, both chewing hard on gum (which, in itself, is unusual; what, was there a dusty pack in Hutch’s pocket just in case of long, frustrating waits like this one?) Which is a bit ingenuous, because they both can be very analytic and contextual in their thinking although this sentiment does drive home the idea of being outside the norm.

Is there no moment more thrilling than when Dobey says “Go get ‘em” and Starsky and Hutch burst out of the room like they’ve been shot out of a cannon? Interestingly, though, this is one case that doesn’t depend on Starsky and Hutch gathering evidence, making deductions or tracking down the bad guys. All that had been done in the first fifteen minutes of the episode. Rather, they spend most of their time hampered by regulations and made to wait.

“Fioremonte Bail Bonds” is an inside-joke on location director Gene Fioremonte’s name.

How much of Mitzi’s statement that she loves being a mommy and is glad Lisa will never grow up a real feeling or a rationalization for circumstances that can’t be altered? While nothing would be gained by Mitzi mourning the loss of something that will never happen, her speech to Hutch as they sit at the table still seems a tiny bit saccharine in an episode that is, elsewhere, very honest.

Two gifts from earlier in the episode reappear: the puppy from The Ark and the train set, which Tommy, the bratty kid at the toy store, insisted no girl would ever want. I wonder, though, if giving Lisa a puppy has more weight to it than the scene might suggest. It might imply that Lisa is in fact older now, these experiences, as horrible as they were, have ushered in a new kind of maturity. This new phase is marked by her ability (and interest in) taking care of something even younger and more vulnerable than she is.

Of the four major players in this episode – Lisa and her mother, Starsky and Hutch – Lisa herself is the only one who acknowledges that change, even unwelcome change, is inevitable. She does it when she asks Hutch if she was raped because she looks older than she is, when she cuts her hair in order to destroy her beauty, and also when she overhears the callous Sims talking about “mental deficiency” and cries out, “It isn’t something I don’t already know!” All these things point to a level of self-awareness that does her credit. Instead of frankly acknowledging the dichotomy of experiencing the world as a ten- year-old while looking twenty, the adults around Lisa are intent on keeping her safe and happy and to a large extent insulated from any hint of adulthood. Understandable, even laudable, but Lisa herself is capable of handling both realities simultaneously.

You can read Hutch’s mind when Mitzi talks about the joys of having a child who never grows up. “How about two children?” says Hutch. “He’s all yours,” says Mitzi, and Hutch laughs. It’s one of the most charming tags in the series, allowing us to see just one of many sides to Hutch’s complicated feelings about his partner, in this case paternalism mixed with a kind of exasperated fondness. In his own way he is as sentimental as Starsky, only less overtly. Would he ever want Starsky to grow up? My guess would be no.

Clothing notes: of course, no clothes are the best clothes when Starsky does the take-down at the Laundromat. The guys look great in the court ensembles, Harris tweed jacket and emerald turtleneck for Hutch, a great corduroy jacket and jeans for Starsky. They both don their iconic leather jackets in the final confrontational scenes.

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4 Responses to “Let’s revisit “Nightmare””

  1. Wallis Says:

    Interesting dissection of the themes of youth/innocence and nostalgia. I personally have always been very taken with the way Starsky can so swiftly go from innocent and childlike to serious and self-aware, which as you say, definitely suggests it’s a deliberate way of compartmentalizing to cope with the hardships of his life and job, which he is free to indulge in around Hutch.

    I always thought the actress who played Lisa did an amazing job. You can barely remember she’s acting while she’s on screen.

  2. Phoenix Says:

    I’ve been faithfully following your blog episode-by-episode as FETV airs them. However, the cuts are deep, with many of the scenes you describe so vividly completely missing. May I ask which DVD series you have? I see a new (released Nov 2014) Complete Series set from Mill Cross, but I’m hesitant to purchase if the cuts to it are the same as what I see on FETV. Are the 4 different seasons boxes from Sony the ones you’re writing your posts by?

    Also, many thanks for the insights and absolutely lovely comments about the series from you and your followers. I’ve avoided the fanfic sites because they don’t capture the essence of the series as it interests me. You and yours, however, touch on precisely the same reasons I appreciate S&H. You’ve all enriched my viewing pleasure immensely. Thank you!

    • merltheearl Says:

      Hello Phoenix, I have a variety of sources to see the series, including online. I’m not sure what FETV is but heavy editing is a problem for many viewers. I believe the new DVD set is probably what you should get. And thank you for your kind words about the blog.

    • Lioness Says:

      Phoenix, I hesitated a long time in buying the DVDs until, finally, they were given to me as a gift. I have the Mill Creek set and it seems to be mostly unedited. I say ‘mostly’ because I can’t remember back to the 70s. But I watched a few episodes on COZI TV and noticed scenes missing from episodes I watched on YouTube. The Mill Creek does include those edited scenes. Hope this helps.

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