Archive for the ‘Season Four’ Category

Let’s revisit “The Committee”

November 13, 2016

After Starsky apparently takes the law into his own hands, leading to a staged breakup with Hutch, he is invited to join a vigilante group of cops led by Internal Affair’s own Lieutenant Fargo.

Lt. Fargo: Alex Rocco, “Dirty” Nellie: Helen Martin, Ginger: Angela May, Sam Garner: William Bogert, Willits: John Ashton, Billings: Michael MacRae, Off. Knight: Bill Cort, Off. Williams: Tony Young, Millie: Muffi Durham. Written By: Robert I Holt, Directed By: George McCowan.

I’m in a particularly pessimistic frame of mind these days and it’s cathartic to revisit one of the most astute and cynical episodes in the canon. We see it all here in spades: the fascist broom sweeping away society’s “undesirables”, the surging anger of the white working class convinced his world has been irreparably damaged by so-called liberalism (in this case uniformed officers suspicious of long-haired detectives), back room deals made by powerful but unseen forces, the perverse belief in reactionary short cuts to justice (mainly by executing those who step out of line), the poisonous hatred inside the institutional elite. I see this episode as a political fable. Evil grows when those in power use expediency to solve problems, when they have lost their humanity, when they see criminal acts as the disease itself rather than as symptoms of a larger and more complicated afflictions of poverty, ignorance and mental illness (all of which are rectifiable, at least in part, if we really want to get serious about it). We cannot build walls and shoot those we feel have failed us, and we cannot squash the rights of the people to achieve our aims, however laudable they seem. We also must retain our humanness, quirks and all – emblematic of Starsky’s pet rock – if we are to survive.

As is typical, the first scene keeps it overtly casual, even humorous, while covertly laying out the thematic intent of the episode with the brisk precision of a lawyer’s writ. Here, Starsky and Hutch’s off-hours are soured by the trembling rage of a slightly-drunk Officer Knight (the drunk part is solely my supposition) who not only does not see or understand that the two detectives are actually strategizing, and is convinced their unconventional (read: hippie) ways undermine the very fabric of a law-and-order society. It’s quite a shocking intrusion out of nowhere, and by Starsky’s laconic pleasantries we can see that this has happened more than once. Knight, who has been watching Starsky’s playful interaction with Huggy for the last twenty minutes or so (and irritated, no doubt, by Hutch’s errant cue poking into him) accuses them of “goofing around” instead of making the streets safer, then demands to know how they would feel “if a 78-year old man died in your arms after you’d been mugged by some junkie with twenty-three priors”, as if Starsky and Hutch are somehow responsible for – no, have actually somehow worsened – this situation. This long-standing grudge has a back story that I would love to see.

Are Starsky and Hutch on the clock? Does Knight have a point, however misplaced it may be?

One wonders why Huggy doesn’t even touch the milkshake delivered to him, since it’s probably free (“He’s chocolate, I’m strawberry,” says Starsky, with a grin), but maybe the real question is why they’re drinking milkshakes at all in this tough cops-only hangout where tequila shots are probably the way to go. Incidentally a place not normally frequented by Starsky and Hutch. What are they doing here? Is The Pits temporarily closed, which explains why Huggy is out of his comfort zone? Will they ever be allowed back again after exposing the members of the committee, obviously longtime regulars of the place? And why is Huggy dragging around a carpet bag worthy of Mary Poppins? Not very cool.

I was at a loss to explain what game Hutch is playing, which appears to be table shuffleboard, as there are pucks, or shuckles. The use of a cue threw me until an eagle-eyed viewer named the game as Bumper Pool.

The cop-bar must be located in the basement of the suburban-looking restaurant.

“This makes us even for the information on the drug bust, huh?” Starsky says, accepting the pet rock Huggy sells him. It’s funny that Hutch is so caught up in his sarcasm about pet rocks he doesn’t seem to see the transaction for what it is, a payoff for information, which is proof once again that Starsky knows how to play, and Hutch, who is ironically playing a another game by himself, doesn’t. Instead, he razzes Starsky about coming over to his place to buy old 78 records. Which of course leads to another question: what’s he doing with 78s? Isn’t that a little old fashioned? So many questions.

Nellie’s absurdity amuses Hutch to no end, and it’s sweet to see how affectionate he is with her. And there’s a couple of gems hidden in the whole pet-rock exchange: one, that Huggy has been hawking his rocks there before. And two, that Nellie’s little comment – “it bit me” smacks of a joint venture in salesmanship, the plant in the audience who adds legitimacy and urgency to the pitch. Are Nellie and Huggy a team?

More on this fascinating opening scene: Knight’s accusation that Starsky and Hutch spend too much time goofing around and not enough time busting heads is an interesting – and rare – glimpse into what some of the boys in blue think of the plainclothes detectives. There seems to be jealousy, resentment, and a lot of willful misinformation about the way Starsky and Hutch work. The idea is echoed later when Starsky is called up to Internal Affairs and remarks to Hutch that “we’re not exactly their favorite team.” In the earlier episode “Snowstorm” the collective antipathy of Burke, Kolwitz and Corman was more overtly about the generation gap; here, it’s more political. It would be fun to see a “third-party” episode from the point of view of the regular cops on the beat, watching Starsky and Hutch from a distance. It seems as if, post-“Pariah”, their reputations have not improved too much. Later on, during the fake-fight scene, we see tables of uniformed officers witnessing the strife and yet not one officer stands up to defend Hutch or to calm down the scene. Is this because nobody wants to be involved, or do they just not care that much? This is not at all like the respectful relationship with the uniforms we see in other episodes, with Starsky and Hutch on first-name basis with those they work with.

The number 78 has an odd recurrence: Hutch’s records, the old man mugged. Something worn out and down to a bad end, maybe?

It’s also fun to watch what Starsky does when confronted with people who try to intimidate him: he slows down, acts casual, almost sleepy, while Hutch is immediately, and dangerously, defensive.

I would like to know how “Dirty” Nellie got her nickname. I hope it has nothing to do with the state of the bathrooms in her bar.

It’s Dobey himself on the radio telling them about the screams coming from the warehouse. I wonder what it is about the scene that tells him the situation relates to the case Starsky and Hutch are working on. Perhaps a witness gave a description of the two men.

Chasing Willets and Billings, Starsky holds his gun in his usual unusual way: fingers between barrel and body of the gun, not useful if sudden shooting is required.

Doppelganger moment: Hutch goes after the blond, Starsky goes after the dark-haired assailant. Also, I’m a bit surprised the rape victim seems to understand Starsky, when he goes to her, is a good guy and not a bad one. If it had been me, I’d be punching and biting if he tried to touch me.

It’s an old story about what real justice is, in terms of the law. Lawyer Sam Garner taunts the two detectives by saying their desire for moral rectitude comes close to vigilantism, and they counter by saying the system is too strict and inhumane. Neither of them, strictly speaking, is correct – it’s only when objectivity and humanity are in balance can we be a truly just society. Too much of one, and empathy is lost. But too much of another, and we run the risk of impartiality. I think Starsky and Hutch, on a better day, would accept this to be true. But this is not a good day.

In the office with Dobey, Starsky shows his best side when he calls the escaped Billings a “sicko” and says he should be in jail, or a hospital. Even in this small instance we can see that both Starsky and Hutch are aware of the role that mental illness plays in criminal behavior.

After confronting Willets in the courtroom, Starsky changes from his “court” jacket (corduroy with elbow patches) to his old leather jacket. Hutch stays the same.

In the apartment when the two rogue cops are given their assignment, there are several points of interest. A new gun is given to an officer, which makes sense in terms of ballistics, but where is the officer’s regular firearm? Also, that officer handles the holster with its gun, turning it up and down as if to stretch out the leather holster, and the image is suggestive of an erection. Which, if on purpose, is genius. Also, we get our first glimpse of pouty Ginger, who stares out at … well, at us. Fourth wall broken. It’s very strange.

Consider Hutch’s frame of mind when he orders Starsky a tuna burger with lots of mushrooms. It takes a lot of forethought and imagination to be that mean, and one wonders how much of Hutch’s conscious life is dedicated to inventing ways to either annoy his partner or distract him from his woes. On the same subject, he replies with “who cares?” when Starsky says his rock is “igneous” (which he pronounces, charmingly, “ignatius”). That is, formed by lava. Starsky looks at him and says, “you know, you’re very hard to get along with, sometimes.” Hutch pretends not to know what he means.

Sam Garner says he thinks the person responsible for gunning down three wanted men might be a cop, and he’s ready and willing to do anything he can to blow the lid off of a fraudulent investigation – note Lieutenant Fargo nervously chewing on a knuckle, hearing this, and starting to make ugly plans in his head. Confronted by his obnoxious personality, it seems as if Starsky and Hutch don’t listen or care about his suspicions, but later we see that Hutch has weighed this very carefully in his mind, which does him credit.

“Sorry Starsky,” says Lieutenant Fargo, “but I thought you should hear what the man had to say.” Starsky is the sole focus of the attention, both in Fargo’s office and later in Dobey’s. Why? It was Hutch who arrested Willets, who later claimed to be roughed up. Why the attention on Starsky? Yes, he makes a passionate speech in the hallway of the courtroom about justice, but it’s obvious Hutch shares his feelings. Still, everybody seems to really want to pin the blame on Starsky. What does this say about the attitudes toward Starsky as a person and a cop, as opposed to Hutchinson? Do people in and around the Metropolitan Division see Starsky as somehow more violent, or impulsive, than his partner? Similarly in “Snowstorm” the three older cops zero in on Starsky and call him “pushy”, wounding his feelings. If anything, Starsky is less likely to lose his temper than the notorious intemperate Hutch, and also less likely to do anything that might be construed as unconventional or renegade. As for Fargo bringing together accuser and defendant in his office, this seems like a grievous breach of conduct, procedurally speaking.

I think it’s interesting that Hutch tells Fargo, “You probably brought the man in here just to see Starsky’s reaction would be.” Hutch has terrific instincts, and his instinct in this case is to suspect something’s afoot. Hutch allows himself to be mollified by Fargo’s manipulative speech, and bonus points for that suggestion of a wink and a grin, the “secretly I know you’re one of the good guys”. Everyone wants to believe they’re understood and appreciated, and Hutch is no exception.

Starsky is hilariously fidgety when Hutch uses the phone. “Come on, this is Sunday!” he cries out. Another instance of Starsky’s holy-weekend position toward working, although they’re working anyway so why the impatience?

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking?” Hutch says to Starsky about one second after the shooting of Willets. Starsky looks shocked, then thoughtful. So, let’s break it down: within one second after a car chase and shootout Hutch has come to the conclusion that this chase was too odd, and likely set up by someone – probably within the police department – by telling Willets that Starsky and Hutch were about to hunt him down and kill him. Precipitating his flight, and the suicidal action of firing on Starsky. So this is a set-up, and a complicated one at that. From within the department. To get both or one of them called a vigilante, in order to distract attention from the real vigilantes. Who are most likely other police officers. No other explanation for why Willets is running. All this passes through Hutch’s head in a second. And in Starsky’s too, a second later.

It’s chilling to hear both Starsky and Hutch use the word “buddy” in contempt to each other. Hutch, the alarmingly good villain, is even more horrible in his sarcastic use of the word.

This episode’s power is predicated on one thing: how grievously transgressive it is to break up the partnership. This is manipulated by the decision to leave us in the dark as to the ulterior motives for the fight. Interesting, though, that the other cops are so quick to assume this is, in fact, real, that the pair have destroyed their relationship over a difference in opinion. Do they really think Starsky and Hutch are just like everyone else, and therefore have essentially the same utilitarian working arrangement as they do? Don’t they see them as having a deeper, more substantial bond?

The horrible fight the two have at Nellie’s bar is painful to watch, but it’s worth noting Nellie’s intelligent, watchful face as the drama unfolds. You can see that she’s taking everything in, and not accepting anything at face value. This is one canny bartender. Also worth noting is Starsky’s fleeting expression of concern and regret as he leaves (when seen in hindsight, of course).

Dobey says Willits has no convictions, yet he is listed as an accomplice on Billing’s arrest record.

Ginger was arrested, Hutch remembers, four years ago. According to her police record, she was also arrested about a year ago. Did Fargo get her off of that charge as well? Also, how in hell did Hutch remember her? The entire operation – from bar fight to dinner plans – has taken less than an hour, and Hutch has to pull one face out of tens of thousands in his memory banks.

Starsky’s apartment is stellar. It has great original art plus Matisse prints and others, lots of books, great textiles of all kinds, camera, plus lots of fruit for Dobey (he must be home some time to have fresh fruit); it’s all very urbane and sophisticated, in an earthy sort of way, cozy in a way that suggests Starsky enjoys his home. The tree stump side-tables are very fashion forward. Starsky appears to be a more domesticated sort than Hutch, or at least more deliberate in his decorating.

There’s a uniformed officer guarding Willets in Starsky’s bedroom. The way I see it, Starsky, Hutch and Dobey are united in the belief that cops are behind the spate of vigilante-style murders, so I would love to know why this particular officer has their trust. And let’s face it, Starsky is being very generous when he allows Willets to lie in his bed. He’s going to launder those sheets several times afterward to get rid of the stink, both literal and figurative.

It takes Starsky a moment to choose the wine for Ginger. That means he has a few bottles. When he finally brings it over she pours it and then says, “You have good taste.” If Ginger really does have a taste for wine and isn’t just making an obsequious, flirty comment (which is likely, I admit) this is in startling opposition to Starsky’s reputation as an unsophisticated rube.

Angela May playing Ginger is duplicitous and scheming. So, apparently, is Angela May in real life. She seems like a particularly miserable creature with her bee-stung pout and cringing, intensely squirming sexuality. That Pekingese-flat face and big weepy eyes are oddly compelling, and Ginger as a person isn’t all bad – she pulls back at the last second and urges Starsky to get out. (Angela May filed a paternity suit against David Soul several months later, but it was disproved.)

“Starsky,” Ginger says. “What is it. Polish?” “Something like that,” Starsky says, in the same offhand taciturn way he says to Nancy’s mother in “Terror on the Docks” when she asks if he’s Catholic and he says “no”.

Ginger mentions “maternal instincts” prompted her to kiss Starsky – which is really, really off-putting. But she isn’t the only woman to feel that way: Dr Kaufman in “The Plague” had a similar response, as did Kira in “Starsky vs. Hutch”.

Wouldn’t Starsky, Hutch and Dobey, when hatching the plan to catch the vigilantes, to bring the guy from top in on it from the beginning? Yet they don’t, staging the “show” in Dobey’s office at the beginning of the episode seemingly for Fargo’s benefit, showing they didn’t trust him even from the beginning. Yet, why wouldn’t they trust him, when he made such a passionate and convincing speech about being a cop for twenty-five years and still fighting for justice, etc? Seems to me there’s a missing scene in here, the one where the guys sit in the Torino and talk about how Fargo, despite all evidence to the contrary, reeks of something nasty.

Clues to just why Starsky and Hutch withheld their suspicions from Dobey can be seen in the fact that Dobey tells Fargo some details about the undercover case. He precedes this with the statement “No secrets between friends.” It’s a major tactical error. Hutch is far more comfortable in the role of undercover – coolly telling Fargo they have nothing on Ginger, while Dobey is nervous acting against IA and makes it clear he’s a weak link in the investigation by spilling information he shouldn’t.

What exactly does Hutch want Dobey to do when he hands him the phone? Give Fargo some fake name, drawing attention away from Ginger and the ongoing investigation? He thrusts it at Dobey with such authority I always immediately put myself in Dobey’s shoes and break out into a sweat thinking, “now what do I do?”

One of the main frustrations with the show is the lazy habit of casting the same actors in very different roles, sometimes only months apart. What, did they think no one would remember Alex Rocco when he shows up later as the hit man Callendar in “The Plague”? He’s a distinctive face and voice, and a noticeable so-deadpan-it’s-almost-wooden acting style, and it’s a shame the producers don’t consider how disillusioning this is. (Helen Martin also has another memorable appearance as Mrs. Fellers in “Manchild”, but at least both roles were relatively minor ones). The other really bad instance of this is casting Karen Carlson as both Gillian Ingram and Christine Phelps. Only Season Hubley doesn’t bounce back after “Starsky’s Lady” as a perky waitress or a gangster’s girl.

The sunset when they take Starsky to pick up Garner is really spectacular. And the fact it hasn’t changed when they exit the apartment shows you how fast they film.

Why are Williams and Knight planning a kidnap and murder while in uniform, and driving a squad car? I can see why from a cinematic standpoint, but from a practical one it makes no sense. Why not do it on their days off, in regular clothes, in a stolen car? Garner’s hair and possibly blood evidence is all over that squad car now, and sand in the tires would be traceable to the tunnels.

If I were Knight I wouldn’t be so quick to accept Starsky as a fellow committee member, not after working in his vicinity him for so many years, watching his bleeding-heart liberal hippie ways. Yet Knight is so sure of himself and his cause that he brings him in with all the pompous self-righteousness of the true believer.

Paul Michael Glaser is truly extraordinary in the tunnel sequence, and for the reason I admire him so much as an actor: he says very little as shocking, inexplicable, and truly sadistic facts become real to him: that he is expected to murder an innocent man, that the people he trusts and believes in – fellow officers – are really and truly a part of this, and that Fargo himself not only is involved, but knows of Starsky’s opposition to their plans and intends to torture and humiliate him to become “one of us”. Glaser’s face is relaxed, even slack, throughout, but we can read his emotions as clearly as if it is subtitled on screen. His eyes widen, then soften in bewilderment, then become hard as facets as he comes to a resolution about what he must do.

At the very end Hutch’s attitude toward the pet rock is nicely improved. Starsky is panicked: “I lost my rock,” he says, and dashes off into the darkness of the tunnel. Dobey is confused. “What’s he talking about?” Hutch’s reply is friendly, amicable. “He lost his rock, captain,” he says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, worthy of sympathy, but also amusing himself by downplaying the absurdity of the situation. Where is the cynicism? With Starsky not in the picture, there’s no need for it, and besides it’s more fun pretending to Dobey that he’s the crazy one for not knowing the score.

Tag: The episode ends abruptly, and without a joke, the clock simply running out. It’s great that Garner is not reduced to apologizing or making a speech about how he’ll change in the future or how the law needs to be responsive to victim’s rights, he simply reverts to his old irritating stuck-up ways which makes me love him even more and wish he’d popped up in other episodes. This series is not interested in sermons, and neither Garner nor the detectives give us one, but all the same there is a persistent optimism here and in other episodes that tells us that good will always triumph. I like how Hutch looks for a place to put his wrapper and then shoves it under Dobey’s phone. Dobey recommends them for a medal of valor for their work in this case, and he does that shy smile that shows how uncomfortable he is with soapy scenes.

Clothing notes: strikingly, Hutch wears a crushed-velvet black turtleneck in the scene in Starsky’s apartment. He’s also beautifully decked out in a blue turtleneck early on that makes his eyes turn to sapphire. Both wear leather jackets and Starsky wears a favorite burnt orange shirt with the white patch. Otherwise, all is usual, with the exception of Starsky wearing a nautical black-striped shirt in the tag (quite possibly the same one he wears in “A Long Walk”). In the hair department, Starsky’s is truly luxuriant, especially in the tag.

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Let’s Revisit “Photo Finish”

August 24, 2015

Starsky and Hutch mingle with the beautiful people to find a killer when Starsky’s girlfriend finds trouble after possibly taking a picture of the suspect at a party.

Marcie Fletcher: Brit Lind, Basil Monk: Graham Jarvis, Greta Wren/ Dora Pruitt/Who Knows: Sally Kirkland, Paula: Lois Areno, Nicole Monk: Shera Danese, Landlady: Fran Ryan, John Reinhart: Hank Brandt, Troy Braddock: Jayson Kane, Secretary: Anne O’Donnell. Written By: Robert E Swanson and Michael Wagner, Directed By: Sutton Roley.

NOTES AND QUESTIONS:

I have watched this episode many times and the more I see it the more extreme and more mixed my response. I like and dislike it in ever-increasing intensity, and the fact that this episode has the ability to do that is at the heart, I think, of the magic of “Starsky & Hutch” as a series. The more attention you pay to it, the more it reveals. If you want to see “Photo Finish” as essentially a piece of classic narrative (beta male kills alpha male in a spike of sexual jealousy) that’s fine. If you want to use this episode as an example of how the series has declined over its run, that’s fine too. Both these approaches do work. But this is the episode that will haunt you if you let it. It’s not as obviously campy as “Dandruff” and not an archetypal crime-drama like “Strange Justice”. It floats somewhere in the middle, a police procedural that has the thematic ambitions of The Great Gatsby – it puts forth the notion that the American pursuit of happiness has decayed into simple desire for gratification, that wealth is ultimately corrupting, that love and fidelity have lost their meaning, and that these terrible and sad facts can only be understood through the eyes of an outsider, someone who may desire what he sees (Starsky) but who understands that it is merely a façade (Hutch). The Gatsby correlation, genuinely deserved for 95% of this episode, crashes and burns in the last 5%, as the tag merely reinforces that wealth and status – or the imitation of it – is laudable and admirable, a reward for its own sake. This is why “Photo Finish” is so haunting. It constructs its purpose very carefully, but that construction is revealed to be both flimsy and expendable as the writer’s hand abruptly crumples it up and throws it away. Whether this is a forfeiture of the narrative or the clever upending of our assumptions is left to you to decide.

There’s something timelessly intriguing about outsiders (in this case tough street smart cops) infiltrating the nutty world of celebrity-obsessed American aristocracy. And I like the fact that the answer to the case lies in a tiny technical detail (the close-up of a photo). But what I have a problem with is the fact that from the start we see Starsky and Hutch tripped up or made to look foolish. Mostly little things, and centered around Starsky’s tuxedo and the implication that he is either too clumsy for, too unlucky for, or somehow doesn’t deserve, whatever it represents (social power, I presume). It’s irritating because it’s so patently unfair, and unfunny too, to see him subjected to such embarrassment. It’s not just that pesky rental tag that has all those ladies and gentlemen laughing, but the frog toy that rebounds into Hutch’s face, the brief second when the two detectives enter the News World foyer and go the wrong way, the whole doorbell stupidity in which they repeatedly get the wrong apartment. As well, they are belittled by their suspects and witnesses, who either shrug off their questions while leaving (Marcie and Nicole Monk), blatantly lie to their faces (Basil Monk and Dora Pruitt) or keep them waiting (at the News World offices). There is very little menace or breathtaking flashes of power, and the result is they are reactive rather than proactive, distracted by the specter of wealth displayed by the various spoiled, quirky characters around them. Yes, their motives for going to this party in the first place are good – Starsky up for an adventure, and Hutch anxious to make the acquaintance of the one “with the legs”, curiosity and libido always admirable – but times have changed. Only a year or two ago they were counterculture heroes whose youth, socially fueled anger and cynicism marked them as lefty hippie-types. Here, no one ever says “you two don’t look like cops”. Instead, dressed in freshly rented tuxedos, they seem a little too at ease with the kind of people they once viewed with distrust.

So here we go, watching Starsky and Hutch enter high society, with string quartets, endless champagne and barely disguised kinks of the well-to-do. This is probably the first episode in the Fourth Season to fully exploit this new “softer” direction, and it’s as glossy as you’d expect it to be, with a curiously empty denouement and plenty of unanswered questions. The director’s stylish idiosyncrasies permeate every scene, adding some interesting layers to what could be seen as heading-into-the-80s blandness, although honestly, the few seconds of Paula, “the one with the legs” striding  purposefully toward Hutch at the party has so much erotic punch I am always caught off-guard, sure that this is some kind of intense foreshadowing of something (nope, it’s just director Sutton Roley having fun). There are fine parts to this episode, particularly the unusual female assassin and the imaginative, dangerous idea of someone getting killed in a roomful of people. As well the photography is a good aspect to the story although it isn’t explored as fully as it might be (I wonder if Swanson and Wagner were inspired by the film “Blow-Up”; similarities include a glimpse into wealthy eccentrics, the art scene, sexual shenanigans, disappearing negatives, and a surreal lack of resolution). I don’t mind the mature sexual content but I do mind the stereotypes: the bespectacled villain whose frail appearance implies a weak character, the amorous “neglected” wife, the egocentric artist whose work is impenetrably weird. It would have been interesting to change it up somehow.

Sutton, You Dirty Dog: note the salacious slow pan from Starsky’s feet to his legs and up his midsection as Starsky stands in front of the mirror trying on a tuxedo, which seems as close as mainstream television ever gets to pornography. Only better.

In the church scene commencing “Terror on the Docks”, Starsky is odd man out. Here, it’s Hutch who has no business being in the clothing store watching his partner try on tuxedos. So why is he here? For the sheer enjoyment of providing commentary?

When Hutch strips his jacket off, revealing the imposing gun in its holster, the clerk gives a most delightfully subtle double-take. It’s safe to assume Starsky is likewise armed, that both are either on their way to work or just getting off shift. If so, how Starsky manages to resist taking a shot at Hutch, who’s been making cracks about how his partner resembles “a waiter”, and that he’d look good in “Lounge-Lizard Monthly”, is a mystery. He does make a comment about how Hutch looks like a “small tip” in his tuxedo – both a waiter joke and, I think, something murkier – which I think is pretty funny if somewhat oblique.

Despite his disparaging remarks, Hutch is in his glory in this party. He gets to demean his partner, play the superior one, and insult the upper class while mingling with the cultural elite he feels, secretly, are his equals. He also has a great line: Starsky comments that the rich are “really different” and Mr. Cool replies, “sure, they pay less taxes.” Later, he advises Starsky to “suck in your cheeks and take tiny steps” in order to fit in.

Why are Starsky and Hutch allowed at this party in the first place? A photographer at a society event should never bring a date, and adding someone else is beyond the pale.

This is an episode featuring an artist, apparently the biggest thing “since Warhol”, but why all the cheap insults about modern art? Starsky and Hutch gaze at a small sculpture consisting of two cans. Basil Monk, after staring at the sculpture with a peculiar expression on his face which could be greed or morbid excitement or some combination of the two, says with undisguised scorn, “My wife paid twenty thousand (for that)”, a remark which only serves to reinforce the general fear of middle-class American society that conceptual or modern art is fraudulent and ridiculous, and the people who make it (i.e. Troy Braddock) are pompous twits who are better off dead. Writers, you’re better than that.

Braddock (referring to himself in the third person) is portrayed as a blowhard and an unrepentant womanizer. He pulls down the curtain to reveal his latest “masterpiece” which either looks like the crappiest poster in the world or a contemporary John Currin portrait. Currin really is the biggest thing since Warhol and it’s fun to think that Braddock’s moony-eyed reclining lady is a similarly creepy commentary on the insular idiocy of the rich and beautiful.

Troy Braddock is shot. Hutch goes to the victim, Starsky goes to … the victim too. Why doesn’t he turn around and see who the shooter might be? Chances are good he could have glimpsed something. Instead, he wastes time watching Hutch check for a pulse.

A man is killed. What do Starsky and Hutch do? Talk passionately about the rip in Starsky’s tuxedo. I remember when, not too long ago, murder was a tragic event, a cause for righteous anger, even if the victim is unlikable or in the wrong. Remember the solemnity and dignity afforded low-life Packrat, in “Running” (Season Two) and Ginger in “Death Notice” (Season One)? In those instances, Starsky and Hutch felt a great deal for the marginalized and the lost. Where did that empathy go?

Marcie, following the shooting, is making a run for it in order to develop her now-precious photographs. Starsky, trying to hold her back, doesn’t seem particularly surprised by her selfishness; rather, he asks for her help in a quiet and professional way and continues to have a relationship of sorts with her. Throughout this episode Marcie is every bit as morally deficient as the Monks, with dollar signs dancing in her eyes. Her success as a photographer and the resulting fame is more important to her than justice. Starsky should call her on her total lack of humanity, but never does; in fact, in the troubling tag, her ambitions are celebrated.

Sutton, You Dirty Dog (Part 2): the hot dog lands in Starsky’s lap.

“A marriage counselor with a gun” and “an accountant with a gun,” are two phrases Starsky uses (here, and later in “The Groupie”). Of the two, Starsky might be far more cynical than Hutch regarding official institutions. He’s just quieter about it.

When Nicole Monk makes her sexual come-on to Starsky and Hutch, suggesting the desirability of their knees and openness to a threesome, Starsky and Hutch glance at each other’s knees with something like amusement. It’s nice to see this relaxed indifference to someone trying hard to be shocking; not only does it highlight their seen-it-all maturity, it echoes a joke earlier in the series when we see their willingness to both go over to Sally Hagen’s place for a similar reasons in “The Specialist”, and their later (admittedly ambiguous) declaration to Kira that it’s double or nothing (“Starsky vs. Hutch”).

The as-yet unnamed saboteur goes through Marcie’s negatives. Why make such a mess, ripping down strips and dashing jars on the floor? Wouldn’t nimble fingers make more sense?

It’s amusing when Reinhart demands they “drop the Farrah cover” because he has something more enticing. It’s a rare glimpse into contemporary culture this series usually avoids.

Among the unanswered questions in this episode – and there are a lot of them – is who called the police when Marcie’s apartment was broken into. And if a call was made to the police, why do Starsky and Hutch – homicide detectives – find out about this generic-looking break-and-enter in the first place, and why are there are no signs that other police officers have been there? Marcie yells, “What are you doing here, don’t you need a warrant to break down a door?” when she finds Starsky and Hutch in her apartment. Can police come into your house to investigate an obvious break-in and burglary when you are not home, and without permission? Starsky’s excuse was the door was unlocked. Was Marcie’s response to call her attorney a good one, and if it was, why did Starsky and Hutch feel they had the right to physically restrain her from calling that attorney?

The mystery here is not why the saboteur/Assassin is so desperate to find the photograph negatives in the first place. Of course she is looking to see whether or not Marcie accidentally got a good photograph of her and therefore could link her to the murder, even though she was in disguise at that party and would not be easily recognized as a known criminal. Since Starsky and Hutch went through the photographs already and talked to all the witnesses and staff, she would know she was not on anybody’s radar at all even if, stupidly, she allowed herself to have a memorable interaction with a guest just prior to the shooting when she stuffed money down her blouse. The fact that the guest was a cop would make her actions, in hindsight, even less professional. (There is a lot of stuffing-into-bras in this episode, incidentally.) No, the larger mystery is why she shot Braddock when she did, with the photographer standing right in her line of sight with the camera directly aimed at her. I mean, come on. We see the photograph later when Marcie makes the blow-ups of “Not-so Adorable Dora” standing in full view with her tray and the silencer.

So we eventually find out that the Assassin knows she has been photographed at the moment of the murder. She suspects this might be the case, and so ransacking Marcie’s apartment seems sensible, but why attempt to run down Marcie in the car and kill her? It makes no sense at all, not from a logical standpoint and not from a technical one either, as professional hit men (and women) do not act in such impulsive, emotion-laden ways. They are studied and methodical. If Assassin wanted Marcie dead, she could have easily just hid in her apartment, waited for her to come home, and shot her with a silencer. Then she could have searched her for whatever negative was there.

Marcie complains when Hutch asks her to make an enlargement in her darkroom from the negative. Why does she still have the negative in her possession? Starsky made it clear it was police evidence and should be at the police lab. If nothing else, there are safer places to keep it than Marcie’s bra. Contact with perspiring skin would have ruined it in seconds.

Again, we see that Starsky is not outwardly upset at Marcie when she obstructs police business. Not only does she treat him poorly, she outright lies to him. She also assumes it was Starsky and Hutch who broke up her place. These aren’t the actions of a real girlfriend.

The poster of Robert Redford in Marcie’s apartment is distracting. One wonders, if she likes blond mustachioed guys, whether her swift urging of Hutch to come to the party with her and Starsky really is less innocent than it appears.

Note assistant director Eldon Burke’s turn as the silent patrolman Burke, assigned to keep an eye on Marcie.

Why does Starsky call Basil “Funk”? Does insulting your prime suspect by forgetting his name really aid in the questioning, or is Starsky letting his distaste of the man show too much, especially after the “gamey” comment?

Basil Monk doesn’t drive, it scares him “to death.” And yet he has no problem driving the police remote control car all over the table, symbolic, perhaps, of a man who is more comfortable around artifice than he is with reality, gleefully controlling the police. Writers Robert Swanson and Michael Wagner go for the easy insult when they present him as a cringing bow-tie-and-glasses nerd with a major virility deficit. Imagine how much more interesting it would be to play against our prejudices, rather than revel in them. This leads us to another mystery. Earlier in the episode Nicole Monk says she “learned the hard way” that her new husband was a dud in the sack. This doesn’t ring true, as you and I know within fifteen seconds of meeting him that Monk is an unpleasant, greedy, twisted man with zero charisma or romantic aptitude. So what exactly is “the hard way”? Is Nicole just exceptionally stupid, or is she trying to convince Starsky and Hutch that she married Basil Monk for love, or the potential of it, rather than simply for his money? Why bother with the lies as it’s so patently obvious she’s in this for the dough?

Harvey, Basil Monk’s butler, is constantly being ordered about. Contrast the symbolism of Basil telling Harvey to “show the gentlemen out” as the camera focuses on the cymbal-clapping monkey toy Basil winds up. The toy has the same yellow vest and dark arms Harvey has on.

“Greta” breezily says Troy Braddock was a “gorgeous man, particularly in extremis.” This must be a slip of the tongue – she more or less confesses she was there, because otherwise why would she use that phrase? (Unless she’s referencing photographs of the body, which she could not have seen either, something Marcie should have picked up on). And even if she found him so, or found the idea of a corpse romantic rather than repulsive, shouldn’t she keep that sort of thing to herself?

Starsky and Hutch appear to have wandered into the magic forest of the rich: not only do they attend a party in which cans are art, and artists are amoral rakes, and people who buy art are childish misfits with weird pastimes, but they now enter a wealthy publishing empire in which plants have names and publishers are murdered behind their desks.

The scene in the publishing house is perplexing on many levels. Why the loud construction, the dust flying, actors having to shout at each other over the din? One interpretation (although the cynic in me wonders if on-set carpenters were there already, prepping the soundstage for “Barnaby Jones”) is that it fits in with the modus operandi of Assassin, who now has twice used loud sound to mask the act of murder. Firstly the champagne cork, and now hammering and sawing. But again this is directly in conflict with what the secretary says, that Reinhardt comes in late and works all night. I can’t imagine there are many people in the building at that time, at best a security guard reading a magazine down in the lobby. The secretary has just come in when Starsky and Hutch arrive to question her, so this is what, 8:30-9 am? So Reinhart has probably been dead at least since midnight. So that noise plays no part in his death. Why, oh why, do writers Swanson and Wagner needlessly complicate the narrative in this way? All they had to do was have the scene take place at noon, with the secretary saying Mr. Reinhardt is in his office, attempt to phone him, get no answer, and then enter the office to find him dead. Cue the fainting. And then she comes to and cries, “I don’t know … I was only away from my desk for a moment … who would do a thing like that?”

And if that wasn’t enough of a puzzle, we are also faced with the problem of why Starsky and Hutch do not simply badge the receptionist and demand to see the publisher right away, like they have a hundred times before. He’s a key figure in a murder, there’s no need for them to wait patiently, flipping through magazines. Again, this is a major issue I have with this episode, apart from the story holes. It’s the idea that Starsky and Hutch seem toothless here, ineffectual, and it’s much more disturbing (to me, anyway) than the narrative hitches, such as when Reinhart was killed.

Hutch tells Dobey about Basil Monk, “We ran a bank check on him. We had a warrant, don’t worry.” Dobey shoots back, “You always say you have a warrant.” Do Starsky and Hutch have a history of getting information without warrants? Has this caused the obvious problems later in court? Or is Dobey crabbing for the sake of crabbing? Monk’s account seems to be a great place to start an investigation, so why is Dobey peeved?

When Starsky tells Dobey and Hutch, “Any clown could have put on a black jacket and gotten into that party,” is he unaware of how easily he is setting himself for Hutch’s nasty, “Well, it worked for you, didn’t it?” Or is he aware of his self-set-up, and providing Hutch with a little fun?

Starsky and Hutch consistently ring the wrong apartment number when trying to reach Dora Pruitt. As mentioned before, this can’t possibly add anything like “realism” to the episode. It only makes them appear more disinterested than they already are.

Strangely Brazen Dora: she puts gun in holster on upper right thigh, then spreads out on bed in front of Starsky and Hutch, hiking her robe up to what could be an inch from disclosure without breaking a sweat. When Dora makes her sexual come-on (this episode seems soaked in this sort of thing) she doesn’t seem to worry about getting the wrong kind of attention. She puts on quite a show, to the point of actually nauseating both detectives (and how different is this scene from the earlier scene in “The Heroes” when Roxy basically acts in the same way and both Hutch and Starsky treat her kindly and without judgment?). Is she just lost in her role, or she driven to reckless behavior because of mental health issues?

When Starsky tells Dora “we have a couple of more questions for you” (emphasis mine) we know for sure that they already questioned her that night. Further proof that she should have left well enough alone rather than try to run down Marcie in the car. If she had simply pulled up stakes and left – she has already been paid, because we know Monk has taken $30,000 in cash from his account – and disappeared, how on earth would anyone ever find her? Without the messy burglary, the attempted murder by car, and the constant attempts to wheedle the photograph from Marcie, it’s unlikely Starsky and Hutch would have been inspired to study that photograph as carefully as they did, doing blow-up after blow-up until they saw the hidden silencer. “Dora Pruitt” is a pseudonym, she is not a suspect, and a vanishing waitress would be an irritant but not a major one for the police. Of course the answer is “Because, plot” since half the episode is depending upon these ever more desperate measures, but there could have been a better way to go about it.

Hutch throws Starsky to the wolves (or more specifically, the wolf) when he backs off from Dora’s invitation saying he’s a family man, but his partner likes to “mess around”. Hutch, earlier, made similar sport of hapless Basil Monk. Hutch has an excess of negative energy in this episode: in every scene he’s itching to hurt someone.

Again, Marcie is reluctant to really help as she complains about the cost of developing more photographs. This brings up an elemental problem: why isn’t the police lab doing this work? Making a civilian do this kind of crucial evidence gathering is downright illogical.

A note about photography: not articulated but nevertheless implied is the idea that a photograph is both factual evidence (the shot of Braddock) and a sneaky, sometimes-wrong interpreter of fact (the final scene in this episode, in which everyone is caught in poses of wealth and airs – along with a smiling “butler” – while actually possessing no wealth at all.)

Assassin leaves her wig and padded brassiere behind when she leaves. How dumb is that?!

Hutch asks the landlady (played by the wonderful Fran Ryan, in her third and last appearance in the series), “You got a permit for that cannon, Lady?” She says she doesn’t, but also can’t get ammunition for it. Is the lack of ammunition a moot point, in terms of a permit? The landlady seems to think so.

Starsky and Hutch set the Assassin up, even though we don’t see them coaching Marcie. Which is why, when she answers the phone (and says loudly “it’s her!” which makes me cringe every time I see it) it appears that she herself has invented this set-up. But it couldn’t be – Starsky gives her a congratulatory kiss on the cheek when she completes the call. Again, as with nearly every scene in this frustrating episode we are led to a secondary problem: just why Starsky and Hutch make this dangerous move when they aren’t even in place to protect Basil Monk, who is going to be in the direct path of a Very Dangerous Felon. The time signature is unknown here – Assassin talks on the pay phone during daylight, but goes to Monk’s mansion at night. But the detectives wouldn’t know that for sure.

It seems to me, and I admit this very reluctantly, that here Starsky and Hutch are guilty of two grievous errors. One is procedural and one is moral. They take a real chance Assassin won’t get there first and kill Monk. Two, and worse, they knowingly subject Monk to a terrifying experience for what could only be malicious fun at his expense. Basil Monk, reprobate that he is, does not deserve the pants-wetting terror of a home invasion.

Dora/Greta/Whoever wears a disguise when she breaks into Monk’s house even though they have had contact previously. She may just get her kicks out of looking nightmarish, or it could be that she has never revealed her real face to him for security reasons. Then she calls herself “the Snow Queen” which is perfect in this context, as Monk is very like a child, someone as corruptible as Peter from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Basil is alone in the mansion and sees the Assassin approach (that seems really improbable in a house that big, but whatever.) Notice that he’s wearing sunglasses at night. Why on earth is he doing that?

Motive Mystery: Hutch points out to Basil Monk, and Starsky, that Monk has purchased a lot of Braddock’s artwork. Shortly afterward, Monk comments about how an artist’s death increases the value of his work. Is this the motive behind Braddock’s murder, rather than the more obvious one of the cuckolded husband getting revenge against his wife’s lover? I ask this because it seems extremely unlikely that Basil Monk would be a blindsided by jealousy. He knows exactly who he is – a unlovable, weak little man whose vast fortune is the one reason Nicole married him. He knows this because it’s impossible for him not to know it. He may be deeply flawed but he isn’t stupid – he’s a shrewd businessman who knows he has spent his life acting like a child and profiting from childhood itself. He has shown no interest in Nicole as a woman, but rather a possession like all his other toys. Given his conscious decision to languish in mean-spirited immaturity (he’s a bully, a sulker, and a brat) I rather doubt that he has any sexual interest in her at all. Other than injury to his pride, he may not even care that she’s unfaithful to him. He may be well aware that she has been unfaithful many times, with many men. So did he kill Braddock because he was sleeping with his wife, did he kill him because of the value of his artwork, or was it just a happy coincidence the two motives intersected at this party?

Starsky and Hutch make the double arrest with all the intensity of ordering a cup of coffee, and lead their prisoners out of the room making small talk about what they have on for that evening (Hutch making a literal joke in response). We know they’re not going to worry about it, so we have to. So, motive. Jealousy might make some sense, Monk taking the risk of such a public hit, wanting to hurt his wife by forcing her to watch her lover die, although we see later this is an utter failure, as she’s disturbingly unmoved by it. While ignoring the improbability of someone as shrinkingly fearful as Basil Monk (“I’m a professional coward!” he whines) orchestrating a hit in a well-lit room filled with witnesses and a photographer, maybe Monk was playing at murder the way he plays with his toys and his expensive games of backgammon – the hobby of a psychopath bored by his trinkets and tired of being publicly shamed by his philandering wife.

Setting up the toys to make distractions is a cool way to get Assassin to use up her bullets, but that’s a staging trick and nothing to do with the trajectory of the narrative. One is reminded here of three other instances in which complicated trickery is used by Starsky and Hutch in order to exhaust or distract a shooter: in “Satan’s Witches”, “Silence” and “The Groupie”.

I rarely succumb to the temptation to rewrite scenes, even if they warrant it. But I can’t help but reflect on an episode that has similar aspects, Season One’s “Texas Longhorn”, also featuring a husband who kills in a fit of marital vengeance, albeit from the opposite side. But in “Texas” we get a complicated picture of a husband who lashes out for a variety of reasons, only one of which is fidelity, and we know this because there is a lengthy scene in which Zack Taylor confesses what he has done, and why he has done it. He gives a story about tragic inevitability, and seems to say that – in his heart – he has always had the capacity, and the impulse, to kill. He is cast in a heroic light, Starsky and Hutch admire and feel sorry for him. But Basil Monk could claim the same “honorable” impulse. At the very least he could explain himself. But he is not given the opportunity to be anything other than an abject loser. How great would it have been if Starsky and Hutch brought him into this showdown, promising protection if only he could coerce a confession out of the Assassin? Basil would at last be able to redeem his masculinity, at least in part, cop to his weaknesses (“I wanted him dead … I didn’t care how”) and do something for the greater good at the cost to himself. The conversation between the two villains in a dark room, each accusing the other and excusing themselves, would have been wonderful to watch.

Impersonations: The Assassin pretends to be silly Dora, a waitress who loves to party. She also assumes the identity of Greta Wren, a well-known magazine publisher. So who is she? More importantly, why does she exhibit such peculiar attention-getting behavior? Those elaborate, dangerously inventive personalities are so vivid that she comes off as both insane and highly intelligent. As far as villains go, she’s right up there with other colorful maniacs such as the “collector” Jack Cunningham and yet while we get a glimpse into Jack’s disquieting delinquencies during his long speech to Molly, we have no such hints here. But I must remark upon Sally Kirkland’s ambitious, nuanced performance – Dora and Gwen are such shockingly different personalities it still amazes me that they are played by the same actor.

I wonder, though, if this refusal to commit to answering questions of Monk’s motive and Assassin’s identity is an attempt by the series writers to approach storytelling in a less predictable and more postmodern way. Postmodernism basically reframes classicism as a means for self-referential irony (those Roman columns in shopping malls, the playful breakdown between “high” and “low” artforms) and as a way of rethinking of once-immutable concepts as meaning and truth. Universally understood language now becomes unintelligible “signs” to be interpreted or discarded by the individual. In this context, “Photo Finish” is a perfect postmodern artifact. Meaning is fragmented, answers are not easily found, modern optimism is seen as a failure, replaced with a kind of cynical weariness and a hollow, machine-like grasping for currency. Identity is mutable, motive is elusive, money is everything. Authenticity is replaced by appropriation, the concept of originality is deemed meaningless. Braddock’s artwork is profit-driven and his death is just another performance, Monk’s toy empire mocks the very idea of the cultural elite. This is what’s so charming and so frustrating about this episode – it’s quite possible these plot holes are artistic licence rather than lapses. If so, then this episode approaches genius.

All noble allusions to either The Great Gatsby or the perils of postmodernism abruptly come to a halt, however, when we hit the tag. The guys seem to have forgiven Marcie for her greedy ways. They’ve decorated a table at the Pits with flowers, silver and crystal, which is coldly emblematic of the series’ ambitions toward the upscale. Huggy, Mr. Bear, excuse me – another amusing but head-shaking instance of faux aristocracy after an entire episode seeming to reject it – appears with champagne in an ice bucket, with the very best line of the episode, “if you two looked any sharper, you’d be black.” Everybody is drunk. Starsky makes a telling Freudian slip when he says they wouldn’t take back his mangled tuxedo “for love of money” rather than “for love or money”. The love of money seems to be the overall theme here. He then giggles “that’s a baby” when Huggy presents his towel-draped bottle of champagne, which is wonderfully spontaneous. There’s also an uncomfortable joke about whether they want Huggy in the photo (whatever shall we do about the unphotogenic help?). Hutch can’t get the champagne cork out properly, and sprays his partner, which at least is reassuringly inevitable. Who’s the rube now?

Clothing notes: The guys look great in tuxedos, wrecked or not, and the Hawaiian and bowling shirts are Soul’s own (worn loose, to hide his back brace). This was the first episode filmed for the new season, and when Glaser and Soul exited their trailers in tuxedos for the first shot, they stared at each other for a moment and then spontaneously went into one of their Laurel and Hardy routines, with Glaser (of course) playing Laurel to Soul’s haughty Hardy, swinging an imaginary cane.

This was also a time when blowsy, lace-collared frilly fashions were de rigueur for women; at the party Marcie and others are dressed more like an Indian-flavored 1870s with high-collared pleated dresses with cameos, hair in heavy buns with tendrils. All the female guest stars in this episode are remarkably beautiful. At the party, special mention goes to the gentleman with the rather culturally questionable turban, making the scenes look more like a game of Clue than they really should.

Let’s Revisit “Captain Dobey, You’re Dead!”

July 18, 2015

Starsky and Hutch try to track down escaped felon and former cop Leo Moon before he can get revenge on Dobey, the cop who put him away.

Leo Moon: William Watson, Edith Dobey: Lynn Hamilton, CJ Woodfield: Lester Rawlins, Rosie: Claire Touchstone, Cal: Eric Sutter, Lola: Taaffe O’Connell, Pommier: Kurt Grayson, Norris: Bill Traylor, Frisco Fats: Lee McLaughlin, Sheila: Marla Adams, Mechanic: Michael MacRae, Fry: Michael Durrell, Ethel: Robin Raymond, Doyle: Marty Davis, Crenshaw: Duncan McLeod. Written By: Michael Fisher, Directed By: Michael Schultz.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Prison escapes and that prisoner’s declaration of revenge on the person who put him there are always great stories. Sometimes they are fictional and sometimes they are horrifyingly real, as evidenced by the recent high profile escapes in the news. This episode is a straight-ahead depiction of a not-too-smart guy whose lust for revenge makes him easily manipulated into doing dirty work. As with most in Season One, this episode has one foot in the staid cop dramas of the late 60s and early 70s (the staccato and heavy-handed expository dialogue, the fast narrative trajectory) and one foot in the progressive, more psychologically oriented approach that would soon change the way we see televised drama. The plot is classic but the way Starsky and Hutch move through the narrative – sophisticated, unpredictable, nearly feral – is genuinely new.

Time has not been particularly kind to the character of Captain Dobey. Watching now, we’re aware too acutely of how old fashioned he is, and the haunting professional failures (his decade-long inability to bring justice to the case of slain civil rights leader Issac Douglas, as well as his own partner’s murder in “Snowstorm”), the decision to leave his family in the protection of a sole police officer, even the fact that he lies to himself about his dietary habits (understandable, even lovable), all point to someone who is not all that self-aware. Very often Dobey has to have the case explained to him (“Death Ride”, “Targets”), and very often his unthinking tantrums actually hurt the investigation (“Bloodbath”, “Tap Dancing”). Of course we must acknowledge the triumph Dobey represents and has earned, that of the African-American in a position of power, and as well we must recognize the archetypal Authority Figure (especially one that occasionally dips into comedy, as Dobey’s does) is by its very nature an unfashionable constant, while the heroic figures of Starsky and Hutch have only improved over time. Awesomely progressive then, they still seem radical, and we can thank both the writers and the actors themselves for how fresh and contemporary these characters are. In fact we are only now appreciating just how radical they were and are – their fierce independence, enlightened humanism, and barrier-breaking love and loyalty to one another is still as rare a commodity now as it was then.

A couple of interesting issues arise immediately: one, those guys in the car are dressed very well, and very warmly, for this job. A suit and a sweater vest in what looks like ninety degree heat? As well, they are awfully casual as they wait for escapee Leo Moon. They don’t position themselves by the iron manhole cover, but sit in the car. Moon has to tap furiously to signal he’s raring to get out, and precious seconds are wasted while Sweater Vest gets out of the car, gets his crowbar, walks over and opens the vault; meanwhile sirens are loudly blaring away, which should have sent them scurrying into position long before now.

How does Moon escape, anyway? He seems to have merely crawled through a super-convenient concrete tunnel system, probably some kind of abandoned sewage outflow. It seems very close to the prison and isn’t even secured by razor wire. He’s not even dirty or out of breath.

What Happened Last Night: “Just admit it,” Starsky says to Hutch, swinging his gun in its holster around in a casual way, as they sit at their desks. “You’re just ticked off after what happened last night.”
“No I’m not,” Hutch says, but he’s lying. Determined to win, he throws Starsky a manual on ways to become right-handed. “If your best friend can’t tell you, who can,” he smirks, ever the genius at undermining. “Sooner or later you have to realize this world was designed for right-handed people,” he says, after a particularly graceful lope from his desk to Dobey’s to deliver a typed accident report, “you’re just out of step.”
“I do all right,” Starsky says, all earlier confidence disintegrating.
Hutch regards him coolly. “Aren’t you a little tired of doing just all right?” What precipitates this exchange are never revealed; it’s either a marvelous script extra or lost on the editing room floor, but nevertheless this nice little scene adds much to our understanding of the characters’ complicated, amicable, and subtle dance of not-quite rivalry.

As the photograph of Issac Douglas is developed, we see it bears a striking relationship to the final photographs of Martin Luther King. It’s a great moment when Dobey comes out of the photographic room at the station and stares longingly, not at the pretty young female cop, but at the chocolate bar she’s just bought from the vending machine. The guilt and desire, it’s all about sugar and fat. His sudden craving for junk food comes immediately after a loaded emotional moment, which is both illuminating and touching.

Starsky and Hutch display an impressive social intelligence when they come to the Dobey household to talk about the Moon escape. They don’t frighten the children, they include the wife, and then discreetly leave before a marital conversation has to take place. In fact, throughout the series, they’ve shown similar sensitivities to families, particularly children.

“Who’s the boss around here anyway,” Dobey murmurs to his loving wife. “I am,” she says, but notice he does what he wants to anyway, despite her wishes he stay home.

More expository dialogue as we get a hasty explanation of who Leo Moon is and why he’s gunning for Dobey. And here comes what I consider to be the secret heart of this episode, slipped in as if it means nothing: “We went through the academy together… The beat you guys have now is the one he had.” Here, in the space of a few seconds, we learn several astonishing things about Dobey. One of his best friends was murdered. And another close friend (“we went through the academy together” must be short-hand for the kind of camaraderie that comes from such an experience) was convicted of murder through Dobey’s testimony, which is a kind of cruelly necessary breaking of that friendship. And now, years later, Starsky and Hutch walk the beat Moon once had. Dobey must be both reminded of tragic events and feel as if, on some level, he has rectified the sins of the past by replacing a morally corrupt officer with two powerfully righteous ones. He is a deeply religious man. Does he ever see this turn of events in a spiritual way?

I wish Leo Moon’s crimes were more fully explained. It would be interesting to know how a cop could turn bad, and who exactly he killed, and why. And also how Dobey managed to be in a position to know what happened. Moon and Dobey were not partners, but Dobey was partnered with the tragic Elmo Jackson, whose murder is revealed in the later episode “Snowstorm”. We never know how these time lines intersect, if they do at all, and most times I do not like to draw links too strongly between episodes unless the writers themselves do. Each episode, to me, is its own island. That said, it’s impossible not to think about Elmo Jackson and how his murder, along with Moon’s murderous acts, affected Dobey psychologically. It could be that his intemperate bumbling has a lot to do with his perceived failures. And it’s not too much of a stretch to think that Leo Moon might have been working with Stryker, who eventually had Jackson killed, which would make Dobey even more complicit in events than he says.

“I used to leave my bike out when I was a kid too,” Starsky says genially, after Dobey shouts for the kids to clean up, another example of Starsky defaulting to child status, the free spirit in a world of grownups. “I’ll bet you did,” Dobey says, in a sudden burst of emotion bordering on anger. It’s a jarring moment, and discomfiting. Nerves, or something else? Does Dobey find it upsetting to see harsh police matters intruding on his private sphere? And if this is the case, why express it in such a passive-aggressive way?

Dobey’s house is protected, but he isn’t. He’s allowed to drive himself to the television station and back at night. Sure, he’s a police officer and should be able to take care of himself, but he’s also a civic official who has been behind a desk for some time. Doesn’t anyone see him as vulnerable to attack?

Ignoring a man’s outstretched hand is as nasty as it gets, and it shows that Pommier, even though he is an expert and a trusted henchman, is not one of the cool kids in Woodfield Industries, but rather an outsider who can easily be let go.

The Fat Man’s bad attitude as he wins at pool would eventually get him into serious trouble, wouldn’t it? Cackling and grinning as he beats some poor schlub at pool is eventually going to get him killed. As well, note the tiresome amount of fat-baiting on this show, aimed at this guy and then at Dobey (twice).

At the TV studio, Hutch delights in taunting Starsky about the left-handed “midget” Maxie Malone (such an offensive word I can hardly bear to type it) who ran the show he once attended as boy scout, insinuating it was left-handedness, of all things, that brought the host down in a hail of disgrace. This sort of extended, detailed torture takes a lot of imagination. What did Starsky do to “last night” to provoke this sort of elaborate reprisal? Beat Hutch at darts? At pool? At arm-wrestling? Attracting a girl attracted to lefties?

Isn’t Dobey worried about slander on Sutton’s show when he accuses Woodfield, along with showing his photo, of murdering Douglas? Or is this the reckless behavior of someone who no longer cares about the legal ramifications of lobbing as-yet-unproven accusations?

Going to the massage parlor to track down missing girlfriend Lola, we’re treated to a lovely little scene where the world-weary madam swans around with a cigarette cracking jokes and teaching her girls chess. It’s these details that add so much to the texture of any episode, even if its whimsical view of prostitution is a tad romantic. Although, as an aside, Leo Moon leaving both his name and phone number is a pretty stupid thing to do. The guy’s an ex-cop, but apparently any cop-like skills have rusted pretty badly in prison.

The actual working police aren’t much better if Moon can get the drop on one of them so easily, especially on a clear, quiet street. But while Moon is breaking in, we get to see Edith’s bravery and fast thinking as she wards him off and then dares to race into the night to find out why they were unprotected. I really don’t appreciate Dobey’s refusal to even look at his son Cal in the aftermath, instead ordering him to check on his sister. Hopefully there was a moment we didn’t see where he comforts and praises his son. Rosey’s shy tottling down the stairs and into Hutch’s willing arms shows again how natural and unaffected Hutch is around kids, and how Starsky hangs back, in most cases more effective at acting like a child and not a parent. Their tenderness toward the child – particularly Hutch’s beatific smile – is a beautiful sight.

At the airport, chasing down the lead of the rental plane that brought Moon to Los Angeles, Hutch is seen through an office window nonchalantly stubbing out a cigarette in the ashtray before he leaves. Although the man at the desk touches the cigarette himself while taking a call, it still seems as if Hutch either took it for himself or perhaps used it in one of his patented menacing moves, stubbing out the cigarette of someone he wanted to intimidate.

When Starsky and Hutch hear about the pilot, they immediately leap to understanding the large and complicated conspiracy that is in motion. This is some pretty impressive deduction.

Talking to the Mandalay Airport mechanic, Starsky and Hutch are particularly masterful. Starsky has his thumb hooked in the pocket of his jeans as he comes around and confiscates the tool the mechanic is holding. He does this in a mildly threatening way that would make anyone shake in their boots. Both are asking questions requiring uncomfortable answers. Hutch reaches out – like lightning – to grab hold of the guy’s wrist. Both are calm, focused and controlled, all business, no nonsense about left-handedness in sight.

Leo Moon tells Lola, “The Captain’s never late for Sunday service, right.” Dobey later tells Edith, “We’re going to arrive at church five minutes late, but we get better protection that way.” It seems as if Moon has misread his adversary. This points to a common thread in the series: how criminals, especially the Big Bosses, often crash and burn when over-protected, and over-praised, by their underlings.

The film negative is flipped in the car scene, showing the car being driven from the right side. Is this a glaring continuity error or a crafty comment on left-handedness?

Harold Dobey and C.J. Woodfield are both religious but there is a difference in how they view it. In Woodfield’s mind, religion and patriotism are merged into a militaristic code of conduct, necessary to to stave off the general downfall of American society. Dobey is a humble practitioner.

“Did I ever tell you about my aunt?” Hutch says, apropos of nothing while the three of them – the guys and Dobey – sit around the Dobey table drinking tea obviously prepared by Edith. Dobey has just been pessimistic and Starsky replies with a remark about always seeing on the bright side. Hutch laughs at Starsky, and then, in the aftermath of affection, is compelled to ruin the moment. “She was left-handed,” he says.
“What did your family do, lock her in the attic?” Starsky says.
Dobey demands to know what the hell they’re talking about, and Hutch says, “Did you ever notice about left-handed people, captain, that they’re a little strange.” And allows himself The Hutch Specialty: a smug chuckle. It’s a private, inward gesture both excluding and alienating, as if Hutch is conducting a secret conversation in his head. I always love this scene, Hutch suddenly resurrecting the subject of left-handedness right in the middle of the most complex, most frustrating part of the case. They can’t pin anything on Woodfield, the case is stalled, and so Hutch makes a little trouble, decompressing by casting aspersions at Starsky. And Starsky accepts this detour, instead of fighting back as anyone else would have. He knows what Hutch is doing.

C.J. Woodfield and the Collapse of the Confederate South: Woodfield is a rich old racist, suffering from what looks like the effects of polio and living in a vast suburban pile meant to look as plantation-like as possible. Played to the hilt by Broadway star Lester Rawlins, his slight frame, reptilian face and menacing southern drawl make him one slithery villain indeed. “I’m a simple man from simple roots,” he tells the detectives after an obnoxiously showy prayer as they sit with gleaming silver service and obsequious wait staff. This specious declaration is common to many of the gangsters at the apex of the food chain: they declare themselves to be regular guys who just happen to get lucky in life, whose riches haven’t changed their simple souls. Woodfield is an interesting variation on this because of his diminished physicality and the force of his religious beliefs, which bleat nonstop like Baptist hellfire. I wonder why these two embellishments, delightful as they are, have been added to his character. It could be the withering of his body echoes his moral withering, and it could be that a hypocrite of this magnitude plays well against the Dobey family’s simplicity and piety.

At Woodfield’s “breakfast” Starsky plays it with a measure of social awkwardness and bluntness ordering on rude, while Hutch goes for the smooth superiority that comes so effortlessly to him. He still, however, wants to have a little fun at the expense of his partner – you can see him intercept Starsky for the coffee pot, and Starsky’s annoyance. Hutch eats his oatmeal the proper way, spoon out toward the far end of the bowl, letting Starsky do the dirty work, threatening Woodfield and his crony. When Starsky makes a smart-ass comment about Woodfield serving “this mush”, you can see Hutch grin, enjoying his partner’s crude ways.

Dobey takes his son Cal for granted. He’s sharp with the boy while saving all his affection for his daughter. It puts one in mind of Jackson Walter’s relationship with Junior in “Manchild on the Streets”. Cal, like Junior, is sensitive. He’s putting up with his father without complaint during these extraordinary circumstances; he’s either afraid for him or of him. But, as time goes on, he’s going to become one surly, resentful young man, maybe in trouble, and Dobey will be at fault.

I can do without the sexual undercurrent of Lola’s tackle on the bed, with Hutch smirking, “Too much for you, partner?” as Starsky holds her down. I also wonder if Lola could have played it cool when she saw Hutch at the window, maybe lying her way out of trouble, but that’s pure speculation and perhaps unfair, because it’s clear throughout that Lola is not at all prepared for the dangers of this lifestyle, even Starsky remarks on her lack of smarts.

Is shooting Dobey at a church Woodfield’s idea? There are other, less public ways to do the job. I suspect it is because religion, and its perversion, plays such a big part in this episode, as Dobey declares he’ll give his thanks to the Lord following the shooting death of Moon. Also, the funereal decorations of coffin and hearse are amusingly reminiscent of the curtain swags at Woodfield’s home.

That’s some splendid act of subterfuge that lets Woodfield’s man Pommier sneak into the Dobey home under the auspices of Tri-State Telephone Co., fooling five police officers who should have known better.

Starsky tells Dobey that Pommier worked for Woodfield Industries for twelve years as a pilot and “explosives man”. What on earth would Pommier have to do with explosives in a seemingly legitimate business like that? It’s never said, but I wonder if the illegal awarding of contracts came about through the gentle persuasion of dynamite bouquets delivered to civic officials.

That is one amazing tackle Hutch does from the airplane to Woodfield’s man – fifteen feet at least, hard on the tarmac.

It’s interesting how much betrayal there is in this episode. Woodfield betrays Pommier, Lola betrays Moon, the aircraft mechanic betrays Pommier. In a sense, Dobey betrays Moon by testifying against him.

There are strong similarities between the two characters of C.J. Woodfield and James Marshall Gunther in the last episode “Sweet Revenge”. Both are older, lonely men without friends or family, whose vast empires are about to fall thanks to the relentless, pesky interference of Starsky and Hutch. A quiet servant comes to announce the arrival of the police, each man says thank you and asks to be left alone. There is a gun on the desk, and a moment of silent contemplation before the arrest, which I cannot help but draw comparisons to the cold realization in the Führerbunker. Both men seem to consider suicide at this point, even Gunther, who holds the gun on his lap and later points it at Hutch but in a way that feels more symbolic and sad than defensive. Woodfield arranges the disposal of his most trusted deputy, just as Gunther murdered his, without qualm or hesitation. Both men long for an imperial past when things seemed simpler. Both are beyond reason, psychotic, half in this world and half in some antediluvian fantasy. In both scenes Hutch is the first one through the door. Rights are read in a way that underscores this will be an above-board, fully legal arrest without a hint of vengeance, despite the enormous emotion beneath the surface. Lastly, we can see just how far the series itself has come in the space of four brief years: while well-written and well acted, Woodfield’s arrest is straightforward, a satisfying conclusion to the plot. In “Sweet Revenge”, the entire scene is swirling in a cerebral miasma, half-spoken thoughts and long intense silences, more real than mere reality. It is not satisfying in the traditional sense, but profound and sad. If this doesn’t make you grieve for the lack of a fifth season nothing will.

Tag: Dobey is tricked into admitting praise. We must come to the conclusion that Edith is the intelligent one in this family, no matter how many demure “yes dear”s she murmurs. Dobey refers to himself as “Chief of Detectives,” but later, in “Starsky and Hutch Are Guilty”, it’s Chief Ryan who has the title. Hutch tells Starsky, after learning that Rosey is left-handed, “One out of two ain’t bad,” a statement that remains a mystery to this day. Is he just making stuff up to bolster a non-existent competition persisting throughout this episode? Unable to resist having the last word, no matter what?

Clothing notes: Starsky is wearing a red hooded sweatshirt that looks fresh and modern. Hutch is wearing his green t-shirt, a short black leather jacket we don’t see very often, and the turquoise cargo pants that have made an appearance in other shows.

Let’s Revisit Our Character Overviews

April 15, 2015

The long view is always illuminating.

Part one: Hutch

So much of what we understand about Hutch we glean through a briefly-glimpsed shadow side, choices the actor makes with body language and tone of voice. Often Hutch is snappish or abrupt and just as often he is gentle and empathetic; often he is clumsy and sometimes exceptionally graceful. Very often in Season Four he works alone, very often he is the one to make the rational decision rather than the instinctual one. He likes to mar his beauty with brash undercover personas and grotesque disguises while his partner emphasizes his with cartoonishly magnified romanticism. He expresses an interest in computers, he is witty, he is emotionally variable. He is a Midwestern boy with a Swedish heritage, athletic and smart. He has married and divorced (how often we don’t know; like Starsky’s geography, this essential detail is not clear). These things we know. What we do not know, what is never told to us, is how he came to be here, in dusty, gritty Bay City, and why a man with his extraordinary good looks, intelligence and professional success is so angry so much of the time, and why has someone with so many markers for introversion let himself to be so inextricably linked, in life and career, to his colleague, partner, and friend David Starsky. And it’s these whys and hows I’ll attempt to answer here. My observations are built on quicksand, and that is both the joy and the frustration of it. I’m guessing, pure and simple, falling into the unknowable waters of the intemperate, brave, resolute and complicated Kenneth Hutchinson.

Calm, controlled, disciplined, serious by nature and predominantly conflicted. Easily hurt, quick to anger. The child of possibly upper-middle-class parents (there is something patrician about Hutch that no serape, rubber nose or dented Ford can quite disguise), with a sister. A conspicuous risk-taker (cub scouts, sea scouts, lifeguard, first aid, wrestling, championship dart-playing, and all manner of daredevil sports) and a preoccupation with self-reliance that does much to build a portrait of a man who is trying to stabilize or even reform himself. Doesn’t like being on his own, and yet finds difficulty in forming bonds. Is prone to saying and doing things without completely understanding his own motivations, such as the perennial teasing of Starsky which verges on cruelty but which is actually a mechanism to keep himself safe. Likes to play the superiority card, which is both a distancing tactic, a test of fidelity and an unconscious ploy to be relied upon or needed. Has difficulty getting close to people – continually questioning those who profess to like him – and may be more invested in this partnership/friendship than Starsky is, if only because he feels he has fewer options. It’s possible what he dislikes most about himself is his own profound dependence on Starsky, believing it makes him vulnerable to exploitation, to an inevitable let down, and in low moments wonders if he’d be better off alone. Hides the depth of his feelings through condescension, the opposite of Starsky, who hides his through banality. When relaxed, can be wonderfully self-deprecating, but when pressured becomes proud and unapproachable. Is a very good fabricator, which makes him a great undercover cop. In fact it could be that it’s all fake, to some extent: the superiority, the cavalier attitude, the arrogance, the pushiness. Used to being the best-looking guy in every room, which is both a bane and a source of pride. He protects and bolsters his looks while simultaneously satirizing them, which may explain the strict diet, the jogging, the tidy and occasionally flashy or silly) sartorial choices. Has an affinity for the Woody Guthrie-esque wrong side of the tracks, the lowlifes and country music bars and the open road he believes is truer and more authentic than his own reality of suburban ranchers and liberal-arts degrees. Is obsessed with concepts of truth and authenticity because of a feeling of alienation but in reality is intelligent, perceptive, creative, honorable, loyal and brave. Throughout the four years we are fortunate enough to know him, he travels from the same path as Starsky: the path of self-knowledge, which rightly ends with himself as hero and savior, his fullest and best self revealed. For four years he has been struggling with choices, making the wrong or hurtful one as often as the honest or courageous one. His struggles are ours. He has been cruel when he should have been kind, thoughtless when discipline was called for, but haven’t we all? And in the end he makes the ultimate choice – to go forward, to face the fear head on, to keep going when all around him tell him to stop, to allow himself to admit that what propels him, what defines him, and what gives his life meaning, is the thing he has not always wanted to acknowledge.

Part Two: Starsky

What we know about Starsky will fill a thimble, what we think we know about Starsky is immense. Like Hutch, the facts of his biography, sprinkled through four years of uneven scripts, are few and also inconsistent. The writers have chosen to make him as east coast as Hutch is west coast, which is, in American stereotype, meant to imply he is tough, bossy, urban, practical, forthright, possibly Jewish and possibly merely “ethnic” in a vague melting-pot way, possibly anchored by a large and boisterous multi-generational family unit and possibly not (those numerous aunts and uncles are awfully abstract, and the loss of a father can mean a broken or peripatetic family). We know his mother is alive, far away, probably in New York with his volatile, resentful younger brother. We do know that he is easy-going, confident, on the quiet side, and we know that he is less likely to feel the need to prove himself than his sometimes-brittle partner, which may imply a stable and strong sense of self. We know that he is emotionally centered, romantically successful, charming, and imaginative. Hutch calls him a hedonist and we have no cause to doubt it. These things we know because we observe them often. But what we don’t know is how he came to be this way, since the Facts are in opposition to the man. The facts are that Starsky’s father was murdered in something connected to the mob, a deeply fracturing event that would shatter the psyches of most people. And while I always have the feeling both Starsky and Hutch are on the journey toward enlightenment, which is why this series has such a profound sense of importance, Starsky appears to be a little further down the road than his complicated partner. Exactly why, I have no idea, but it may have something to do with a lack of weighty baggage, the sense you have that Starsky really is free in a fundamental way, what the Buddhists may call śūnyatā. And so without the aid of canonical facts, here I go into the dark:

Composed, explosive, confident, physically graceful, deeply loyal. Like Hutch, the “inside” does not match the “outside”: in Starsky’s case he is more concerned with the corporal, the factual, and the immediate than with suppositions or abstracts while outwardly advocating for the absurd and the childish. Intense, emotionally present, flirtatious, easily angered, easily calmed. “Crummy,” to use a phrase by Hutch, in his choice of clothes but exacting and neat in his private spaces.  Neat and, one suspects, neatly compartmentalized. Has the unusual ability to be comfortable in both solitude and in groups; a team player but good on his own. Optimistic by nature and rational, and can be conventional in his thinking, a strong sense of right and wrong. Can also be myopic and stubborn, lightened by a great sense of humor. Quick to blame himself, to the point of martyrdom, a trait shared by his partner. Less in need of external cues than Hutch. Doesn’t feel the need to explain himself, which is the mark of a masterful, confident man. Has a healthy, seemingly indestructible ego (ironic, since Hutch, quick to lord everything over Starsky – social standing, intelligence, etiquette, lifestyle and choice of cars – secretly harbors feelings of low self-worth). Is more natural and effortless with displays of love and loyalty than Hutch is. Withdraws when attacked. Unusually, he can be at his best when angry: his anger is majestic and controlled rather than rash or erratic, and is also almost always altruistic in nature. Put another way, he is more likely to become angry on behalf of others, or perceived injustice, rather than for his own needs and purposes. Is also sentimental, given to enthusiasms, and likes things like stuffed animals and toys and token objects, like cars and watches. Is sensitive to emotional tenor, is watchful and thoughtful. Uses charm to get what he wants, the hallmark of a favorite child (which may explain his brother’s insecurities). Seems to viscerally understand the mechanics of friendship and love, and is continually working, on some obscure and covert level, to keep that friendship working smoothly, even if it means subjecting himself to teasing and criticism. Despite seemingly to be more casual about emotions than Hutch, he is in fact deeply sincere and “in touch” with them. The more emotional he feels the less he shows it, often hiding the negative emotions, fear and anger, under a smooth veneer of cracking jokes and acting cool (while Hutch is more liable to revert to sarcasm or tension in the same situation). Loves to flirt, is simultaneously facile and oddly sincere in flirtation, a ploy to get what he desires (chiefly female approval) as well as a method of avoiding confrontation, serious conversation, or to hide social embarrassment. His balanced and durable self allows him to be, at the end of this journey, the goal of that journey. Stay with me here. He falls, and Hutch must catch him in time. He becomes, then, the rock that is thrown into the air. That rock is both weapon and instrument, object of self-preservation and empowerment as Hutch moves through the stages of bewilderment, loss, rage and finally resolution. This is the perfect last act of Starsky: his stability and selflessness is given its purest expression as he lays motionless in a hospital bed, allowing himself to be saved, and in turn, saving his partner.

Character Studies 28: Rethinking “The Psychic”: Mysticism, Magic, and the Lost Wig Theory

May 2, 2014

“Starsky and Hutch” is, by and large, a hard-hitting police drama. It takes place in and around Los Angeles and brings us a variety of hardened criminals and tough survivors, family men in trouble, lawyers on the take. When people think back to this series they remember the gun battles and squealing tires, the close partnership. But, as unlikely as it seems to the casual fan of the show, there is a consistent thread of what might be called “magic” in the series, moments in which the veil is seemingly lifted, ever so slightly, to glimpse (or imagine we glimpse) a light coming from the other room. In that room is a whole mess of coincidence and divinity, absurdity and ambiguity, signs and portents. The 1970s was a time in which the metaphysical and occult – for centuries known only by a select few – had exploded in popularity, spurred on in part by mass-marketed fascination with so-called ancient wisdom and the explosion of youth culture. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough for the Hierophant to jealously guard his sacred books. UFO hysteria and fetishistic fads like Pyramid Power and Scientology joined uneasy hands with pharmaceutical “trips” and Eastern philosophy; everyone wanted in, they wanted to find themselves, get somewhere that wasn’t here. In this series, this kind of salad-bar approach to mysticism is charmingly satirized by Starsky, whose reciting of supermarket tabloids – and put-upon gullibility – is precisely calibrated to irritate his skeptical partner.

In keeping with the times, there are many episodes playing with the theme of the supernatural. The talismanic dog in “Snowstorm”, the visions suffered in “The Psychic”, cults and magic in “Bloodbath” and “Satan’s Witches”, various psychics – charatan and not – in “The Hostages”, “The Shootout”, and “The Psychic”. “Survival” is riddled by magical coincidences. Commander Jim in “Lady Blue” communicates with aliens. “Voodoo Island” is replete with curse-throwing vodun priests, and it could be said Monique is “possessed” in “The Avenger” as Rene is likewise posessed in “The Vampire”. There are devil worshippers in “Terror on the Docks” and “The Vampire”, and “Satan’s Witches”, and one spectacular instance of sixth sense in “Sweet Revenge”, when the doctor listens to his inner voice and tries once more to revive his patient. There are only three traditional religious figures in the series and none are up to snuff: the discomfiting padre in “Terror on the Docks”, the complicit nuns in “The Set-Up”, and the murderous bokor Papa Theodore in “Voodoo Island”. There are also impersonators who borrow the collar’s cache to get what they want in “Silence”, “Murder on Stage 17” and “Little Girl Lost”.

But it is important to note, with the possible exception of Joe Collins in “The Psychic”, there is not a single instance in which we are shown unequivocally that magic or mysticism is either genuine, profitable, or helpful. Rather, the series shows us, time and time again, supernatural beliefs are either a way of coping with extreme stress, the byproduct of mental illness, or purely mercenary (and murderous) in nature. Starsky and Hutch themselves dabble in occultish guesswork as a way of engaging the other in the loving mockery that so often defines male friendship – Starsky tries out his ESP in “Black and Blue” and Hutch guesses his partner’s biorhythms in “The Game”. The series casts a clear-eyed, hard-hearted look at the concept of slavish devotion to a faith or ideal: even the potions of Voodoo Island are more medicinal than mystical. The two charismatic cult leaders in the series – Rodell in “Satan’s Witches” and Marcus in “Bloodbath” – are sociopaths with inflated egos, who most likely control their all-male lieutenants with the promise of lecherous dominion over female followers, and even the most minor satanist, pathetic druggy Slade, uses his “beliefs” to get young girls into bed. Blind faith of any kind falls into the Institutional Evil category, and Starsky and Hutch are shown as iconoclastic, individualist, their morality not bound to orthodoxy or any sense of belonging at all. If they belong to anything it is to each other, solely. In the remarkable and tricky episode “Survival” – an episode playing with the idea of chance, coincidence, and the presence or absence of an Organizing Principle (my vote is on “absence”), when an injured Hutch cries out into the brilliantly starry sky for help, his own voice echoes back at him.

What of Joe Collins, then? This single instance of a genuine psychic throws a spanner into the works. “The Psychic”, as we recall, is tells the story of a high school girl held hostage by three desperate men. It features a vivid and unforgettable performance by Allan Miller as a man who finds only pain and regret in his extraordinary gift. Before the kidnapping is even known to police, Starsky and Hutch are led to Joe Collins by their friend Huggy, who tells them a dead body needs investigating. And who has seen that dead body? It’s a psychic in hiding from a tragic past, who at first vehemently denies any knowledge of the crime and then reluctantly helps the two detectives. He is subjected to explosive, uncontrolled visions that at first baffle and then begin to help Starsky and Hutch zero in on the kidnapped girl. For years I accepted this as true. I wanted to believe it, much as Starsky and Hutch do. But it is possible, though, that Joe is not psychic at all, but rather an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

The first clue comes when Huggy gives a colorful version of what he heard Joe say: “Where giant happy wheels climb into the sky and pretty dead horses grazing in the sun, that’s where you’ll find the last of the remains.” When and why Collins has said this is not clear – he certainly isn’t interested in repeating it or even sharing it with people who might actually be helpful. Does he cry out in a trance, does he mutter it to himself within earshot of our nosy friend? Whatever the delivery, it’s not as if Collins gave a truly remarkable instance of clairvoyance. He does not say “a girl has been kidnapped”. Rather, he says, “a guy I know is lying dead at the fairgrounds.” What the “last of the remains” means is unknown; if it means Joe thinks only one person will die in this case and it’s Julio, he could be wrong, as it’s likely the kidnappers die in the car fire. And yet this isn’t exactly what Collins says. The baroque language isn’t his: Huggy has embroidered this statement to the point of outright invention. If anyone here is a mystical poet it’s him, which adds a fun extra layer of skepticism onto this story. (Huggy, as the self-proclaimed “sorcerer’s apprentice” muddying the waters for his own entertainment.) Anyway, back to the action. The dead man Joe Collins acknowledges he has glimpsed in a vision is Julio, who comes into his cafe regularly. There are many hints in the story that Julio an essentially good man with a gambling habit and a crumbling conscience, and with that comes the strong possibility he blurted out some kind of confession to the severely, even pathologically empathetic Joe, whose capacity to take on the suffering of others overwhelms him from time to time. Joe internalizes Julio’s moral agony, and unconsciously relates it to his “visions”. After all, the Atlanta case that made Joe famous left a lot of people skeptical and angry, and the fact Joe tearfully denies involvement does not mean he wasn’t involved on some level.

The episode could make a case for the supernatural, as Joe’s highly detailed and exact visions blast seeming from nowhere, with an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The scrapyard hiding place could have been chosen spontaneously by the kidnappers, which would make Joe’s “rose” image truly psychic in nature. But a kidnapping takes detailed planning, and weeks of reconnaissance. Julio would most likely know about the truck. With his employment at the garage, which may mean he regularly takes abandoned vehicles to be scrapped, he might have been the one to find it. A single instance of drunken mumbling, with Joe distracted by work and not consciously listening, would be enough to lodge those images in his brain. Also, Hutch remarks that the kidnappers have done this same thing before, in Philadelphia. As a transient club magician, Joe might have been in that city during the crisis, and read all about it in the newspapers. Joe Collins may be unconsciously implicit in all that happens, his “talents” more to do with an extraordinary compassion rather than second sight.

There is only a single instance of “what the – ” in the episode, and that is Joe’s foreknowledge of the “211” down the block. It comes out of nowhere and does not even have a tangential relation to the case. But there is a fascinating coincidence here that bears remarking upon. “The Psychic” opens with the wonderful take-down of a repeat offender by the name of Fireball, who is disguised in women’s clothing and loses his wig in the chase. The armed robbery in the bar down the street is an exact replica of that situation, with the “old lady” getting her wig snatched off by Starsky, who is shocked to see a man. This is unusual enough to get us thinking. Both criminals not only use disguise, but gender-bending pretense. In both situations most people are fooled by that disguise, which is used for ill-gotten gains. Both are unmasked by Starsky and Hutch as agents of justice. The exposed reality is somewhat pathetic and sad (Fireball begs to be shot to avoid jail time). It’s a possibility we are supposed to understand this as a metaphor for the episode’s approach to supernaturalis, that which is ostensibly given by God and separate from nature, is, beneath its wig, prosaic and mundane.

This doesn’t explain why Joe was able to “see” the 211, but perhaps there are some mysteries which are better off unsolved. As with the series as a whole, the episode takes a pragmatic, humanistic approach to the idea of the ineffable. And casting this wonderful, perceptive, beautifully written episode in a skeptical light – perhaps in the light it was intended to be seen in – helps us to appreciate it all the more.

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.

NOTES AND QUESTIONS:

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.

Let’s revisit “The Specialist”

February 19, 2014

After a stray bullet kills retired special agent Alex Drew’s wife, he sets out to kill all the cops he thinks were in on the plot – including Starsky and Hutch.

Alex Drew: Joel Fabiani, Janice Drew: Melendy Britt, Arthur Cole: Charles Cyphers, Sally Hagen: Linda Scruggs- Bogart, Mr. McDermont: Jack Zoller, Carl: Michael Twain, “Flashy” Floyd: Anthony Ziggarelli, Hooker: Denise Gordy. Written By: Robert Earll, Directed By: Fernando Lamas.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

Alex Drew is portrayed as a loving, attentive husband. When he insists that he take his wife shopping for clothes she doesn’t need and doesn’t want, is this a loving act? He practically pushes her out the door.

Drew tells his wife – sharply – that he will put his suitcase in the closet. We see later this suitcase is an assassin’s arsenal, with guns and other deadly paraphernalia packed neatly in custom foam inserts. A few questions arise here about motivation and planning. It seems obvious that Drew’s wife does not know about the weapons – if she did, she’d be a lot more tense about the luggage. So why doesn’t he tell her, and why bring such an elaborate weapons stash in the first place? On the surface of things it seems as if this Los Angeles trip is a holiday, but it lasts a rather unusually lengthy three weeks, and Drew’s wife is returning to Washington on her own. What reason does Drew have to stay behind, and does it have anything to do with those guns? Given that we discover later he has been “forcibly retired”, and has suffered a breakdown of sorts because of it, is revenge on his mind already? Has he traveled to California on some kind of crazy mission to get his job back or exact revenge on the person who downsized his department? If so he has done an extraordinary job of fooling his trusting wife, which is not out of the realm of possibility for an ex-CIA operative, even one with a screw loose. But now that Alex Drew is a regular citizen like everybody else, how on earth did he get that suitcase past airline security? Things weren’t that lax in the seventies.

Starsky always gets the best parking in the place – right in front of the building.

They’re in the locker room, changing from what is probably a workout, and Hutch is worrying over his hair in a way you would never see Starsky doing. Starsky is not fussy about his appearance, Hutch is, or appears to be.

Hutch of course enjoys needling Starsky, who says he’s “thinking”. “Well, we all want to wish you beginner’s luck,” he says, and smirks off to the side as if he’s got a rapt audience for his witticisms. Starsky proceeds to blow Hutch’s mind with a series of what-if questions, and it’s fun to watch Starsky’s intense, blue-eyed gaze at his partner as he weaves an absurd alternate universe. It looks like a cobra-charmer at an Indian market. Hutch, the cobra in this instance, can’t look away. For a moment there, acting or not, he is stunned by the absurdist leaps in logic Starsky makes. When he says, in response to Starsky’s admonition that they’re going to be late, “what if we were?” we can see how much he has been secretly enjoying this conversation, and is willing to play along.

Where is Hutch’s gun? Starsky has his on. Hutch dresses in the locker room but is gun-less.

It’s ridiculous there is a gun battle in the middle of a busy street. No one shouts a caution, either, even though there is a big point made of this necessity in “Pariah”; the police simply start shooting wildly into the crowd. Only Hutch is seen trying to get people to safety. Property is simply not worth killing over, jewelry or not, a point that seems lost in this episode and every day in actual life too.

Exactly whose bullet killed Alex Drew’s wife? It’s never revealed, although it would be easy enough for ballistics to tell. The beat cops probably use .38s but Starsky and Hutch have very different guns. My money’s on Carl, rather than Mac. He’s portrayed less laudably than his partner and seems sloppier somehow.

Drew wants to bring his wife’s body back home. Dobey seems anxious to help, but then he asks Drew to not only book the flight himself, but to then report back with the airline, flight number and time. It seems like an awful lot for a bereaved husband to do, a husband whose very bereavement is due to grievous police errors. It seems to me there should have been more done by the department. A ride to the airport isn’t enough.

Do Dobey, Starsky and Hutch know that Drew is a government agent during this initial meeting? Common sense indicates they would, considering the flurry of paperwork following the shooting, but it’s never said one way or the other. When Drew makes his angry call to Washington, commandeering a plane, nobody looks shocked by that display of political pull or asks who the hell he is, making a call like that. But then, on the other hand, no one says, when Drew storms out, “I wonder if this shooting is going to get us in trouble with the feds.”

It’s neat that Starsky’s what-ifs continue in Dobey’s office. Since the whole show is about the vagaries of fate, the fact that Drew had the two other officers files ahead of Starsky and Hutch’s is the Big Coincidence never directly addressed by the show.

Sometimes – all right, fairly often – ignoring glaring procedural errors is important if you are to fully enjoy this series. It’s too easy to nitpick about rules, regulations, inconsistencies and outright transgressions, legal or otherwise. This is not a series about the law. The fact that Starsky and Hutch are police officers is pretty much beside the point; this is narrative scaffolding upon which to hang more interesting issues about identity, love, justice and the search for meaning in a chaotic and often meaningless world. This is one big allegory, Homeric in scope and capable of great wisdom and insight, if you want to look for it. I say this as a prelude to my observation that Starsky and Hutch have absolutely no right or reason to be in the meeting between Dobey and Drew. An officer-related shooting is being investigated, and they are suspects in an involuntary manslaughter, an extremely serious charge. Legally, even ethically, they should be stripped of their weapons and either assigned to desk duty or suspended with pay. They shouldn’t be anywhere near this meeting. However, let’s gloss over these tiresome facts and concentrate on the thematic significance of the episode as a whole, and Starsky and Hutch’s role in it. That life is random, inexplicably bad things happen, and a violent intercession is not a way to bring order or meaning to those events. Starsky and Hutch are the voice of reason and compassion: they are narrators of this episode rather than active participants in it. Like Drew, they are flotsam, helpless to change things. But unlike Drew – and also unlike Dobey and Cole, incidentally, who are the metaphoric architects of this disaster, Cole as head of a department which has created and then abandoned this Killing Machine, and Dobey as head of a department with such hazy, ill-defined rules regarding public shooting – they lift themselves out of chaos by acknowledging the randomness of fate. This is nicely encapsulated by Starsky’s game of What-if. You can propose as many alternative realities as you want, but that will never change things. Roll with it, they urge Drew. He does not, and cannot, listen.

If Alex Drew was downsized or fired from the CIA, as we find out later, then how can he command a special flight for the return trip to Washington so easily? He barks out the order, fully expecting to be obeyed without question. It’s not that the people on the other end know about the killing, either, and so are acting out of pity. It’s before anybody knows the circumstances of his wife’s death.

It may be correct procedure for the time, but it strikes me as odd that an old-fashioned hearse is coming for Mac’s body after the explosion. Even if it is a coroner’s wagon (although we see no official insignia) one would expect to see an ambulance, even if nothing is left of the poor man but cinders.

Mac Senior sits on the fire truck after his son’s murder. The truck is a Mack truck, which is a nice detail. When Mac Senior tells Hutch that he told Mac Junior his job as a policeman would make him come to a bad end, could he have possibly imagine this circumstance? This lovely, quiet scene shows that Hutch is unafraid of the sensitive, unpleasant jobs demanded by his profession. He has an easy and gentle way with people belied by his sarcastic, prickly exterior.

Starsky’s behavior toward Hagen is truly reprehensible. (Later, he has slaps another female officer’s behind rudely with a file, and looks disappointed when she doesn’t react). Hutch, on the other hand, is elaborately respectful, but only in an attempt to make himself look good beside his partner and not because he believes in women’s rights. (In the tag he’s as bad as Starsky, and they both call her, at different times, “child”.) This scene contains another interesting example of how Starsky deliberately sets himself up for ridicule: he says to Hutch, “have you ever wondered, Hutch, what would have happened if you’d been born charming and handsome, and I’d been born a dullard?” Of course, Hutch predictably takes the bait. “Well, Starsk, there’s just some things in this world that you don’t have to wonder about.” Is this an altruistic gesture on Starsky’s part? Is this a role he has willingly signed on for?

Ollie the mystical teddy bear is sitting on file cabinet in squad room. He’s glimpsed briefly as the guys look for suspects in Mac’s murder. There seem to be a lot of other toys around too, a Mickey Mouse doll and a plastic horse, among others. Plus the plastic piggy bank which has lived on Hutch’s desk for the whole series.

Invigorating: There are many fine moments during the Flashy Floyd sequence, and it’s one of the great strengths of the series that we get these glimpses into the eccentric debauchery of the sex trade. Of course it’s all a harmless bit of fiction, devoid of the true horror and violence, but it’s creative and enjoyable nonetheless. When they pull up to the Temple of Bodily Invigoration Hutch explains, “it means they probably appreciate a well conditioned body.” And then, with a comic’s timing, he says, “what are you looking at?” There’s a joke about the variety of customers, including a 90-pound weakling who is terrified of what’s being offered to him, and the guys make fun of the décor (Hutch says it’s “Early Nothing”) when in fact the room displays the kind of energetic set dec a viewer waits for. The striped super-graphics are mod, the clash of seventies modern with faux-Napoleonic are great. Starsky says, following the coin toss, “I’m in the mood for tails”, it could be an off-color joke.

Also, the collapse-and-drag is a great trick to getting into rooms. The whole thing has a wonderful choreography to it, and performed with such practiced ease we know this something they’ve done before. (Filming note: When they filmed the fake-collapse scene, Glaser’s shirt rode up and an assistant dashed over to tuck it in, but Glaser’s so ticklish, he collapsed for real, laughing. The rest of the day, Soul had to just wiggle his fingers at Glaser and he would burst out laughing.)

“You cops don’t even look like cops any more,” Flashy Floyd says, ingratiatingly, which is a long-running point of pride in the series and repeated fairly often.

By the time we get to the end of the sequence, and the cute pinch Starsky gets – apparently this temple is staffed by happy-go-lucky hookers – it’s difficult to remember why we’re here in the first place. The brutal murder of a police officer is nearly lost in all the fun and games.

Alex Drew changes his method of killing, deciding to poison the next one instead of rigging his car with explosives. This aggressive ingenuity, while cinematic, is exhausting and inexact. Drew, an experienced agent, should have just followed each man home in the dark and placed a quick bullet in the back of his head. Boom, over. However, logic has relatively little to do with story-telling. On a more superficial note, he shaves his moustache off and looks ten years younger, which should be a lesson to every man.

Could that be the glass that poisoned Carl Hutch is holding – sans gloves – at the bar? It better not be. And on the subject of fingerprints, Alex Drew is mighty careless when he leaves without taking his own glass with him. However, it’s possible he knows they’re on to him at this point and has ceased to care about anything but getting the job done.

Hutch shouldn’t look so surprised when it’s revealed Drew has their personnel files. It’s obvious he’s after them too, as both detectives discussed this at length following Carl’s murder.

The aptly-named Charles Cyphers as Cole, the CIA operative, has an unforgettable scene in which he is forced to explain a few Unpleasant Facts about Drew’s capabilities. He seems to pop out a sweat bead with each reluctant fact. He’s mesmerizing, as is Hutch, who goes head-to-head with him, trying to make him see the human cost of bureaucratic operations. Starsky, as usual, is phlegmatic and understated.

How often is the Torino in the shop? In other episodes Hutch makes a few disparaging comments about its continual need for tune-ups. When they both get into it, there’s a lovely moment of synchronicity when they look at each other, each thinking the same thing. “Care to take a little stroll?” Starsky says.

In the garage scene there’s a rare “swipe-edit” cut between the guys sitting in the Torino and the bomb disposal people carefully lifting out the explosive. They transfer it to the truck while the voices of Starsky and Hutch are barely heard is very creative and unusual. We join them in mid-meeting.

Neither detectives accept that Dobey is in charge of the case. “We’re living in a regular democracy, aren’t we?” is Hutch’s parting shot as they walk out of the meeting. Well, actually, the police department is not a democracy, and both Starsky and Hutch are naïve to think it ever was.

At the dingy motel, Dobey nods to the two undercover detectives scrubbing the pool. This is far more likely an undercover role than the cruise ship social directors, country music stars and dancing instructors enjoyed by Starsky and Hutch.

Hutch looks very dubious reading from the Bible in the hotel room, as does Starsky, in his dramatic legs-on-each-bed pose, watching a typical shoot-em-up TV show. Apparently both these call for a fair bit of skepticism.

Talking to Dobey, both men show tremendous humanity when saying Alex Drew is a victim like all the others.

It doesn’t seem possible Hutch would have missed Cole sitting in the corner of the restaurant, especially if he is being extra-vigilant. However, it does give Starsky the opportunity to call him “Mr. Personality”. At this point we start to wonder about the logistics of this operation. They have checked Starsky and Hutch into the motel to draw Drew away from … from what? Populated areas? The motel is fully booked, if the restaurant is any indication. And what do they think Drew is thinking as he tracks them to this place? Starsky and Hutch wouldn’t be the only ones thinking they were like a “duck in a barrel”. Alex Drew would know for certain this was an elaborate set-up, and would plan accordingly. Keeping to their daily routines, however, might have lulled Drew into a false sense of security, enabling an arrest without endangering more lives. The only explanation for this would be if they thought it looked suspicious not to go into hiding.

Soul has the best sad laugh in the business, a sort of gentle exhale. He does it when Hagen gives him the endless series of choices at the restaurant, and when Starsky compliments her on her waitressing.

It appears Hutch ate Starsky’s plain baked potato, as he mentions the two Irish plums he consumed. (The plain potatoes they both order is a weird detail – they both say they’re “counting calories”, which is so not true.) But Starsky pays him back by hogging all the pillows in room 39 at the Country Squire. Hutch has to make do with some sort of upholstered cushion. Uncomplainingly, apparently. The Nasty Hutch Game has been retired for the evening.

“Don’t scream,” Alex commands. “There’s nobody around to hear you.” But there are. Cole and Dobey are just steps away, and the kitchen must be full of staff. Alex Drew is good, but good enough to incapacitate ten, fifteen people?

Why does it apparently take at least four hours for Dobey and Cole to discover Officer Hagen’s kidnapping? It’s interesting to speculate. Perhaps Cole has talked Dobey into trying to solve this by themselves without the help of the two detectives. Cole seems to genuinely despise them in the tradition of all suit-and-tie bureaucrats who take an instant dislike for no discernible reason. Jealousy, maybe? Imagine the scene where Cole and Dobey try unsuccessfully to bring Drew in, hammering on doors and trying to get a fix on strange cars in the neighborhood and talking to frightened kitchen staff. Imagine Dobey’s growing frustration, and Cole’s unwillingness to concede defeat. Imagine when the phone rings and it’s Drew, wanting only to talk to Starsky and Hutch.

Despite all the gunfire, only two innocent bystanders are shot in the series. Both are women and both shootings involve Starsky. (“Photo Finish”, “Specialist”).

Why does Alex fire at the van from so far away? All he does is alert them to his position. An expert like him, he could have waited until they got closer and then fired from close range. We can blame is mental disintegration for all the odd choices he has made throughout.

There are more excellent climbing and high-wire acts from Hutch. Starsky draws fire not unlike how he distracts Father Ignatius at the movie theater in “Silence”; is this what Starsky is talking to Hutch about when he comments about feeling like a carnival game when he and Hutch walk along the balcony at the hotel on the way to dinner? It is an incredibly selfless and brave thing for him to do, and shows a great faith in his partner’s abilities.

Hutch asks Cole what’s important to him. He replies, “the continued strength of our nation.” (Off-camera, an exasperated “oh boy” from Starsky.) Cole adds, “And it should be important to you, too.” “Oh it is,” Hutch says, “but not at your prices.” This conversation is even more relevant today – Cole would have been in Homeland Security.

Tag: Everyone is laughing and joking about Sally Hagen, which seems mean and unfair. When she shows up, she’s subjected to even more flirting and grabbing from the guys, who pass her between them like a trophy. Yet it’s important to note the tone of this scene isn’t vindictive – again, like the scenes in Flashy Floyd’s place it has very little to do with the actual horrible realities of sexual harassment. The line between teasing and respect is a thin one in this instance; one feels certain Starsky and Hutch will cross it soon, and wholeheartedly. Plus the denouement is all having to do with their comeuppance, which is richly deserved but again without any hint of real bitterness. This particular war between the sexes is a fairly good-natured one. Meanwhile, it’s back to the joke as Sally asks them for “research” as she’s starting in Vice.
“There’s two of us,” Hutch says, taking her around the waist, “and only one of you.”
“I thought about that a lot,” Sally says, “but I think it would more fun with the both of you.”
Now, at this point, given the whole threesome innuendo, the thing to do would be to laugh it off and refuse her offer. But what do they do? Cut to Hutch’s apartment. The guys have actually agree to meet her, and Hutch has obviously added, “let’s go to my place.” Thrown hard on the floor, they groan in pain. “I don’t know about you,” Starsky says, “but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.” Oh? What exactly did you have in mind?

This tag makes the later “Starsky Vs. Hutch” war even odder, since the guys seem to have no compunction about sharing.

Let’s Revisit “Tap Dancing Their Way Back into Your Hearts”

February 3, 2014

Marsha Stearns: Sondra Currie, Carl Starger: Devren Bookwalter, Marianne Tustin: Veronica Hamel, AC Chambers: Liam Sullivan, Ginger Evans: Audrey Christie, Mrs. Dodsman: Dorothy Shay, Deidre: Nora Marlowe, Officer: Nicholas Stamos. Written By: Edward J Lakso, Directed By: Fernando Lamas.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This is a light-hearted episode that could use a little bit of darkness to improve it. The broadly-drawn characters of Charlie and Ramone, while charming, keep the script from being its best. A bit more edge – more grime, maybe, more toughness, a deeper expression of sympathy for the victims in this story – could have elevated this script, but instead things are kept relentlessly airy throughout. Not that I’m complaining, because this is, all in all, a delightful episode. The original script does not have the hot dog stand conversation, Starsky’s pinch, or the dip scene back at headquarters (the whole tag was to take place while they were seated at their desks), all of which are, frankly, the best parts of this episode and most likely more proof of Glaser and Soul’s unsung contributions. And while filming, ever in the spirit, Glaser more than once broke into a tango whenever the director called action.

Starsky is not sporting a real moustache although he’s certainly capable of growing one; you can see the gleam of spirit gum in most of the scenes and he’s quick to rid himself of it during the dockside arrest. While he could have been called to this undercover operation before he could properly grow one, days and even weeks have passed since. Wouldn’t he be worried about this faux facial hair slipping? And in the same lines of inquiry, did he have to take extensive dance lessons in preparations for this undercover assignment? He’s been shown to be an enthusiastic dancer, yes, but the intricacies of the tango and the foxtrot would demand certain educational standards.

I like the opening scene in which Dierdre is basically ordering Starsky to engage in erotic talk with her, taking control of the situation while pretending to be in his thrall. Starsky is similarly wonderful in that he catches on with her little act and willingly – dare I say respectfully – goes along with it, causing her shivers of delight. Hers is the first line spoken in this episode and it charmingly echoes the last of the episode as well: she asks, “Ramone, when do we dip?” And then, mischievously, “You do dip..?” Oh yes Dierdre, he does. An older, somewhat matronly woman’s strong libido is not something we normally witness in series television, even now, which is worthy of a round of applause for writer Edward Lasko, for she is not represented as either silly or embarrassing but rather just a regular woman with an interesting hobby. One wonders if she’s just naturally hot to trot or if her tango teacher is bringing out a new side of her personality. We also see that Claire Dodsman, another lady of a certain age, has had sex with Starger – setting her up for blackmail. Somewhat off-topic, I should mention we rarely, if ever, see an accurately presented forty- or fifty-something female character; this series, as many others, appears to assume women go from nubile youth to stately pensioner (“Photo Finish” might be an exception, with Nicole Monk as a sexually-rapacious wife who seems to be about forty). It could be purely a marketing decision, as mature women were not expected – or really intended – to be in the audience.

This criminal operation, which is basically luring rich folks into compromising positions and then blackmailing them, would be far more interesting if the story concentrated only on older, vulnerable women like Dierdre and Claire. The fact that the police investigation has begun after the murder a recalcitrant male victim – Ted Tustin – is just an easy way to include Starsky and Hutch in the undercover operation, with Hutch as another possible target. It’s never quite believable that Tustin, powerful, rich, and on the younger side of middle age, would gravitate toward a fuddy-duddy establishment like Ginger’s Tango Palace. A guy like that would be far more likely to flash his cash at a strip joint or the bar scene.

It’s hilarious when Marsha inquires what the stench – or rather the “aroma” is, and eager Charlie says proudly, “That’s toilet water.” I understand the somewhat old-fashioned term, but it still cracks me up.

“Somebody pinch me,” Charlie gushes when he’s told he’s invited to “terpsichore” at Ginger’s “soiree”. Starsky, who’s been watching this burst of character-acting from his partner with an expression on his face that could be called affectionate bemusement, obliges.

It’s interesting that Hutch is willing to blow their cover – obviously well thought out, and carefully executed – for a silent alarm call. And watch for another in a series of long-running jokes about Starsky never being able to eat when he wants to, as he is denied a bite of the hotdog when duty calls.

It’s a cool little detail when Starsky lets the Torino shut its own door when he drives off.

The whole take-down at the grocery store is very neatly done. The guys exhibit great psychic skills and inventiveness: the spider distraction, a paper-bag explosion, and some misplaced shoes. Atypically, neither pulls a gun, preferring instead the unexpected-punch method of subduing a criminal, which implies great strength. When the cop arrives all the robbers are handcuffed together – one hopes the guys get their gear back – and the joke is wonderfully dry. The cop asks who did this and the store owner says, “You won’t believe this. It was a blond cowboy and an Arab with funny shoes.”

Marianne Tustin says regarding her brother’s affair with Marsha, “Ted’s one failing. He loved his wife, adored his kids, but he loved to play.” The very next thing she says is, “My brother always had a very bad temper, I mean a really bad temper.” Does Marianne not consider this a failing? Or having grown up with him, doesn’t take his temper seriously? Do you think his wife and children feel the same?

Occam’s Razor: Marianne makes a mighty big leap when she says, regarding Marsha, “do you think this girl was trying to blackmail him?” She doesn’t say anything like, “so you think this girl’s boyfriend got jealous enough to hurt my brother?” which would be the more obvious explanation.

After Marianne’s remark that Starsky must be posing as “the doorman”, (a humiliating misnomer Hutch chuckles at, of course) Dobey comes through the door saying the credit check on “Charlie” has gone through. He says this right in front of Marianne, and this is classified undercover information. This is sloppy police work, and it makes me cringe every time I see it. Neither detective seems unduly worried about it but no family member or anyone should ever know details of an ongoing undercover investigation. It ends up putting everything at risk, and blowing the whole case.

But at least Marianne proves herself to be determined and resourceful, and she might have made a good police officer if she was willing to drop into the middle class. But her ambitions make her less laudable, as one has to question whether she is really motivated by the death of her brother or just living out a fantasy.

Ice-queen Veronica Hamel is slightly miscast as the avenging sister. She’s altogether too composed and arch, and does much better next season as the unfortunate Mrs. Hutchinson. You don’t quite believe her version of Marianne would go out of her way to help anybody – if that is, in fact, what she’s doing. Personally I feel Marianne is having just a little bit too much fun, and her shopping habits prove it – there is no way she came to Los Angeles with that red dress in her suitcase. She has bought it recently, happy to be playing a glamorous role in this game of cat and mouse.

Still, Marianne is right about one thing: putting a blackmailable woman on the case is probably a better bet. I suppose it’s too much to expect there to be any woman on the force over the age of forty who could slip into the role; Marianne is far too young and assertive – verging on aggressive – to really be an attractive victim.

Hutch’s (intentional, mostly) clumsiness is put to good use in this assignment, as is Starsky’s natural grace.

Claire Dodson leaves the office, obviously upset, and both Starsky and Hutch are remarkably diffident about it even though they know the reason why. Yes, the chances of her admitting anything is remote, given the extreme embarrassment she must be suffering and what it might cost her if she admitted her affair to her husband. Why not discreetly approach her the following day, out of her husband’s sight, just in case she’s willing to make a statement? They don’t even try. Likewise, they never attempt to draw Ginger into their confidence. Ginger has been hoodwinked by Chambers, and surely would be angry enough – and strong enough – to exact revenge in a useful way. After all, this is her good name on the line. This is a story about older women being victimized because of their romantic yearnings. These are lonely, alienated, frustrated women who have taken a huge risk – and this includes Ginger, because she was a long-forgotten movie star offered a chance to shine again. The fact that the script does not sensitively explore this issue, preferring to concentrate on the Tustin murder and pretty young Marianne’s involvement, is a misstep.

Gold Star for Villainy: As he leaves Chambers’ office following the extortion demand, we see Devren Bookwalter’s Starger as just the most evil, smug, self-satisfied bad guy ever. Don’t you just want to slap the smirk right off his face?

If Huggy knows Hutch is undercover when he shows up at the mouse races with Marsha, how was Hutch able to impart this information to Huggy beforehand? More importantly, why would he jeopardize the whole case by coming here in the first place? Surely Huggy would have more than one bar regular coming down, and there’s a very good chance someone in the crowd would recognize him. If Hutch wanted to prove to Marsha he was a betting – and a losing – man, who not just take her to the horse races? It’s more impressive than a bunch of mice in a cardboard enclosure, and much less likely he’d run into trouble. Does he come to the mouse races because he’s experiencing symptoms of loneliness, trapped in the character of the Loathsome Cowboy for days on end? Does he just long to see a familiar face? Does he simply wish to show off to Huggy his rather impressive acting skills, or, more complicatedly, does he want to see himself as a stranger in a strangely familiar situation – recognized but not acknowledged – as a way of proving something to himself?

Also, note how Soul enjoys his cheroot smoking in this scene. He’s puffing away like his life depends on it.

Hutch calls himself “Hutchinson” when he scolds himself. “Hutchinson, you sure picked a winner,” he says about Diana in “Fatal Charm”. In this episode, deep in Marsha’s lair, he asks himself under his breath, “What did you get yourself into, Hutchinson?” Is it too much to speculate that, on some dark level Hutch believes he is alone in this world, hence the stern self-talk? What do you think Starsky refers to himself under similar circumstances – or does Starsky never engage in the sort of disassociative behavior Hutch does?

“Seems almost a shame to charge him money,” says a sleepily pleased Marsha to her colleagues in crime. Okay, okay, this raises a bunch of questions, none of which can be answered but must be posed anyway. How much of that tape did Marsha play? It would seem mighty strange, if you ask me, if she played the whole tape to her two male co-conspirators, including her own complicit moaning. Also, I guess this encounter went all the way – or did it? Could Hutch, as a police officer, really have sex with a suspect just to get a conviction? How is that legally possible? How would that tape be introduced into court, anyway? What sort of licentious police department is this?

Back in Dobey’s office, there is more self-congratulation. “Do you think they taped you last night?” Dobey asks. “If they didn’t, they should’ve,” Hutch replies.

“I’m sure you’ll solve this case before I compromise my virtue,” Marianne tells them. That is to say, Hutch’s virtue is moot. This is comically understood by all as glances go around the room.

At this point one begins to wonder what exactly Starsky is contributing to this undercover operation. He told Hutch earlier he let it be known he was corruptible, but as an outsider, an unknown quantity, none of the blackmailers are willing to risk letting him in on their game, and why should they? Starger is the gigolo here, they hardly need another. As if he has figured this out long ago, Starsky is distracted throughout, preferring dancing to detection, and thus does very little to advance the case.

As for the series’ tendency to put its stars in the roles of cowboys, hairdressers, country music singers and other exaggerated characters, it might be a ratings ploy, or it might be a case of producers trying to keep their stars happy and engaged by dangling the chance for buffoonery in front of them like keys dangled in front of a toddler.

Hutch is amazing undercover in the scene in which he’s given the tape and blackmailed. Throughout he’s been convincing all the way as Good Time Charlie, and clearly enjoying himself to the point of shamelessness (grabbing Ginger, for example, and doing the worst imitation of dancing, and in front of an audience, no less). But at the moment of being blackmailed, he plays the right mix of rage, embarrassment and bewilderment, never seeming to be false.

Dobey reminds the guys extortion is tricky to prove, and Hutch says impatiently, “I know that.” A few things about the arrangement don’t seem to add up. It’s the morning after, so to speak, when Hutch arrives at the dance studio. He knows he’s going to be hit up for money – if not that day, then very soon. And yet he’s not wearing a wire when he goes into Chambers’ office. Therefore, whatever happens is going to be hearsay by the time it gets to the justice system. Especially since this is an episode about wiretapping, not to use the technology at their disposal puts the police department in a troublesome situation.

Also, when asked for money, why does Hutch refuse to bring it to the office, naming a freighter by the docks instead? It’s a far less stable environment than the office at the studio. More things can go wrong. If he just made out a cheque in Chambers’ office the following day, and had Chambers take it, couldn’t be have shut the whole operation down at that second, and be done with it? Why the mess of a second location, and marked bills? And how does Hutch know about that freighter in the first place? I’m asking these questions even though I know the answer. Because plot, as they say in amusingly economical internet parlance.

Chambers is awfully assured of victory when he says all they have to do is kill Hutch before the drop. He doesn’t seem to think there’s any hard evidence against them, and isn’t fazed by reports of two cops and the Chief of Detectives having a meeting. There’s no sweaty panic, no realization his carefully constructed empire is about to fall. Starger is right when he says they should just cut their losses and run.

Why does Chambers have Marianne’s hotel phone number memorized? He dials it without reference or hesitation.

Marianne makes the stupidest move of the year when she accept’s Stanger’s anxious-sounding but vague invitation to an unknown location. She doesn’t alert the police and leaves without hesitation and without any sense at all. Perhaps there is an element of sexism hidden in the script after all.

“Hutch,” Starsky says, “take it up.” He’s referring to the forklift. “Okay, Charlie,” Hutch says, deftly transferring his undercover persona onto his partner.

Dobey, as is usual when allowed in on a bust, makes things worse by losing his cool during the arrest.

Do Starger and the heavy really think they’re going to be dumped into the ocean? It seems a little gullible to believe the cops are capable of cold-blooded murder. If they had the sense to calm down and demand a lawyer the whole forcing-a-confession enterprise would have fallen apart.

Why does Marianne kiss Starsky when he releases her from the trunk of the car? I don’t buy the just-glad-to-be-alive spontaneity. It seems like something a socially inept or immature person would do. Like not knowing how to tell a guy you like him, then doing something dumb, like throwing a punch or lifting up your dress.

Tag: It’s a relief that Ginger Evans is proven innocent of any crime. She’s a lovely character: tough-minded, charming, and likeable from the moment she appears.

Starsky tells Hutch regarding the tango, “I’ll lead” because he is teaching Hutch. In other shows Hutch teaches Starsky to play chess, to meditate, to play golf. Starsky rarely, if ever, actively teaches Hutch something.

Hutch is resistant to being taught to dance, but when the guys link arms and prepare, Ginger knocks on the door. Now, the guys are basically caught in each other’s arms, but instead of being embarrassed – leaping apart, making excuses – Hutch actually throws his arm around Starsky’s shoulder and keeps it there.

Double mockery: Hutch mocks Starsky’s sexy reputation with the clients at the dance studio and then Starsky, instead of resuming the dance lesson, skips to the end and throws Hutch into a dip – and a really good one at that – and says, mocking Hutch’s two-time use of the phrase, “if you got it, flaunt it”, to which he adds, in mimicry of Hutch’s southern accent, “boy.” This is one of the most-loved little scenes in the canon and an all-too-rare case of the guys having a goofy good time with each other while showing, once again, how remarkably at ease they are in each other’s company.

Character Studies 27: Do It Light

January 20, 2014

The 1970s were a tumultuous time. Despite the youth-oriented counter-cultural revolution sweeping through the Unites States during the heady 1960s, during which gender and racial equity made huge gains and antiwar protests gained strength, there was a distinct shift into what is known as “The New Right,” a kind of suburban backlash to the alienating upheaval of the previous decade (remember the ghastly “silent majority”, anyone?). As political conservatism and “traditional” family values met with a generalized post-Watergate disillusionment felt by many Americans, many people withdrew from meaningful interaction altogether, and pop culture certainly capitalized on this need for sunshiny distractions. The hippie mantra of liberty and self actualization devolved into doing whatever felt right. The political became the personal, and in many ways “Starsky and Hutch” perfectly reflects this trend. But there is genuine greatness to be found in what seems initially to be frivolous or uncomplicated. Much dismissed as unimportant or glib is revealed to be, after a long passage of time, redolent with emotional or intellectual depth (especially in all things “pop”: music, art, literature). In fact it’s often more pleasurable to find and appreciate the subtleties in the things derided or dismissed by so-called cultural pundits.

Popular culture was infected by the same virus of show business in the 1930s, which likewise pumped out seemingly brightly inane films at the same rate as the vacuous Spelling empire. The similarities between these two decades are numerous and fascinating, from fashion (those flares!) to politics to stylistic primacy of art deco. Both decades were reeling from a prior decade in which traditions were violently upended in a gush of threatening modernism. The world seemed unpredictable, even frightening, and entertainment was a balm. Bring on the pretty girls and glossy romance.

I have no idea what the writers and producers of “Starsky and Hutch” were thinking, or what conversations took place in production meetings but my assumption is they were under tremendous pressure to shape the series to fit the general pop-cultural tenor of the times: frothy, relentlessly positive, youth-oriented. As the two handsome stars became sex symbols, and the series’ widespread popularity with love-struck teenage girls and car-obsessed boys grew, certain exploitative marketing decisions were most certainly made. We lament those decisions today, but it certainly helps to take the long view, and see the challenges faced by those behind the scenes. I think many writers and most certainly the actors understood that what they were making had, at its core, something both unique and powerful; like a pyramid, the strength of “Starsky & Hutch” is at the base. They have sustained this remarkable series and it’s their hard work that makes it endure. Time has passed, fashions wane, the landscape of society changes, and what may have been the initial impetus for this series is lost. It’s up to all of us to interpret this towering cultural landmark in new and better ways, and to see it the way the people at ground-level hoped we would.

A New Year’s Wish

December 31, 2013

Just a note to all my Starsky and Hutch friends all over the world, here, on Tumblr and elsewhere: may you be healthy and happy in 2014, curious and inspired, and strong enough to thrive in this chaotic world of ours. I appreciate all of you for your kind comments and observations and for taking the time to read this little blog – you have made this project stronger and better.

And as well to Mr. Soul and Mr. Glaser, a sincere and respectful thank you. You will most likely never read this, but thank you all the same.

Merl