Posts Tagged ‘Sutton Roley’

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.

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Episode 74: The Avenger

September 21, 2011

Monique, a woman who leaves a string of dead lovers in her wake, claims a jealous acquaintance is responsible for the murders.

Monique Travers: Joanna Cassidy, Phil: Tim Thomerson, Roger: Michael Delano, Bobbie: Hildy Brooks, Minnie: Marki Bey, ME Delaney: Charles Cyphers, Hotel Clerk: GW Bailey, Barman: Steve Mayne, Girl in Disco: Suzanne Kent. Written By: Robert E Swanson, Directed By: Sutton Roley.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

When Starsky and Hutch are wrong: During the run of the series the two men have excellent intuition, memory, and detecting skills. However, there are times in which they come to erroneous conclusions based on the available facts (as opposed to being temporarily misinformed). I’m thinking of “The Crying Child”, where they point the finger at Guy’s father rather than his mother, “Foxy Lady” in which they are spectacularly hoodwinked by silly Lisa. Hutch is led astray – or, more precisely, the truth is withheld – by Gillian; Starsky is similarly taken in by Sharon in “Starsky and Hutch Are Guilty”. They are both completely suckered by fake-friend John Colby. To a lesser extent, they believe Terry Nash’s story in “The Set-Up” for far too long. All these instances have one thing in common: Starsky and Hutch’s sympathies have been aroused by a victim story. In this episode, too, they are misled by Monique’s version of events in spite of its inconsistencies, and feel compassion for her plight. However, this an instance in which the victim story is partially true: consciously, Monique believes her own tale and so is not technically lying. But Starsky and Hutch do not use their normally excellent skills at reading people here. The whole San Francisco murder thing is too low-key (surely the lack of evidence would make them suspicious), she complains about having to go down to the squad room again even though it’s crucial to the case, has no problem staying at her supposedly blood-drenched hell pit of a house, and goes out to a bar the night after the murder. Starsky and Hutch, for the most part, ignore these glaring oddities, even if the whole experience feels strange and unnatural to them on an unconscious level. They know something is wrong here, but are unable to pinpoint why.

On the other hand, the idea of a victim being also the perpetrator is so unusual no one can blame them for not getting it right away. Psychotic and detachment disorders are poorly understood even to this day, particularly this, the mother of all psychiatric conditions: Dissociative Identity Disorder, once known as Multiple Personality. Once thought to be a)fake and b)extremely rare, DID is now thought to affect a surprising number of people who have experienced severe trauma. It may not manifest itself in dramatic ways, with personalities emerging and submerging on cue, each with names and jobs to do, coping mechanisms like the one Monique has are very possible. At least Hutch gets it when he does – most cops wouldn’t.

There are other factors at work here too. At this point in our social history a young, single, and powerful woman is a kind of psychological no-man’s-land. Monique has a kind of desperation mixed with potency that is very difficult for men to identify and respond to, an imposing mix of guilt, masochism, and rage that is very late-1970s Looking-For-Mr.-Goodbar and a remarkable precursor to the kind of tortured, vengeful heroine only now surfacing in contemporary culture. It’s both distracting and disquieting to the detectives. Look at Starsky’s hands-off attitude throughout. He’s cautious, unable to figure her out. A generally flirty guy who has been known to overlook flaws if the girl is hot enough, he stays well away from this one.

On the marvelous Joanna Cassidy as Monique: She is perfectly cast here. She has a muscular, imposing, mature presence and is very different from the smaller, perkier, more frazzled or less competent female characters we often see, and it’s essential she project this air of authority since she has to convince both Starsky and Hutch of her absolute innocence. Calm and detached as a sleepwalker, she moves in slow-motion through a series of bad dates, exemplar of feminism gone wrong. Even when dancing and smiling there is something murky and inscrutable about her. Cassidy imbues Monique with a kind of tragic forbearance – she’s in the grips of something terrible, is helpless to combat it while on some dark level understanding, even welcoming its inevitable manifestation – that so very difficult to convey. In the magical scene in which Starsky sings and plays guitar during his late-night turn as guardian, her schizoid shift into murderess is nicely handled. It’s a challenge to switch identities without the audience guffaws, and yet she manages it. I wonder if my own response to this character – sympathetic, uneasy, supportive without any warmer feelings of wanting to protect or save her – is typical of audience reaction. The combination of Swanson’s nuanced script and Cassidy’s intelligent interpretation of that script make this a very special episode indeed.

Sutton Roley shines again in this strange episode. He makes use of odd angles, slow-motion photography, and documentary-style camera shots to tell a story that is dependent on who is telling it. This episode is also notable for a measured pace, and the long stretches of quiet punctuated by bursts of sound. Hutch’s slow realization in the squad room is very well done – it seems to take forever, and it’s wonderful that way: we are lulled into intense anticipation for the last pieces of the puzzle to slip into place. Monique’s warped sense of realty is wonderfully depicted using tricky lens and lighting, and you can feel the director’s enjoyment in depicting the unusual and the esoteric.

The first scene is similar to last season’s “Deckwatch”, in which a young woman sitting at a bar in a disco is bored by a hungry male. In this case, it’s even more bitterly amusing, as the guy drones on about his car and Monique finally says she isn’t interested in cars, but in organic food. The guy smirks: “your body’s a temple, right?” If Monique’s body is a temple, then her bell tower is suffering a pretty severe crack.

Monique agrees to go back to her place with boring Phil, who irritates her with his self-absorbed talk of cars, macho posturing, veiled put-downs and his smoking. The reason she agrees to do this is not only about loneliness. I always had a feeling she is briefly supplanted by her altar-ego, who is desperate for a homicidal fix and doing all he can to engineer one will happen. If Monique is all there, i.e. sane, she would have refused Phil’s advances. A girl as beautiful as she is, alone in a disco, would have her pick of any one of a dozen men. Surely not all of them are as bad as Phil is (or Roger, later). Or are they? Is this a supposition buried in the script: that all men are, in fact, losers?

At the pool game Hutch has an “astrological biorhythm calculator” that tells him Starsky’s numbers are a big fat triple-zero. Hutch is gleeful. Huggy doesn’t help much by saying Starsky should believe it, given his skills that night. Starsky tries to get his money back from Hutch and it rips between them. Starsky is crestfallen, but look at Hutch, in possession of a worthless half-bill. Look at the satisfaction on his face: he could be looking at a stack of gold coins. Just what has he won? Whatever it is, it’s really, really good.

It’s funny how Hutch has to turn the light switch down to get the light to the bathroom on. It’s always up, as far as I know. Would it be a stretch to think this indicates a topsy-turvey what’s-down-is-up quality to this case?

The chaos surrounding a murder scene is very well captured as Hutch quietly walks through by himself in a very withdrawn, insular way as voices and activity go on around him. It’s only later we see Starsky talking to a very casual-sounding ME. This seems to suggest Hutch is more solitary than a team player. He states some facts about the killer that show up the ME and Starsky does his usual sardonic half-smile, accusing him of “raining on the witch-doctor’s deal”. In this episode Starsky and Hutch don’t seem to be as connected as they should be. Hutch seems to be in his own world much of the time, and Starsky has withdrawn into languid irony.

At this point in the episode it becomes clear there is a strong correlation between the abstruse and the everyday, the magical and the scientific. I’m not going to articulate it all that well, but the mention of a witch-doctor, the metamorphosis of one person into another, the jokey biorhythms talk and its correlating pop-occultism swirling around contemporary Los Angeles all seems very of its time. It seemed, in the late 70s, that reality wasn’t what people assumed it was. Old preconceptions were being overturned, stereotypes exposed to be wrong and harmful, the political and religious landscape was undergoing upheaval, mass communication and its resultant wave upon wave of cynicism and revision meant that what you thought you believed, what your parents and their parents steadfastly proclaimed to be true, was probably not true at all. “Starsky & Hutch” itself is a paradigm: this “new breed” of cop understands that empathy, compassion, open mindedness and intuition can play a major role in a police investigation. Yes, they are not perfect in this regard. They should have listened better, and thought about the disparity between what Monique said and what the evidence showed. But all in all their willingness to use a more perceptive and less persecutorial way of seeing and interacting with this case – particularly Starsky’s breathtakingly gentle song – is very revolutionary, and reflective of the uncertain, questioning times.

All that blood? All those wounds? And none on Monique?

Starsky tells Dobey “8427” seen on letter Monique finds is “the last half of a zip code” in skid row. It isn’t really “half” if it is only missing one number. Current viewers could assume he did mean half of the ZIP+4 codes we use today, but those didn’t come into use until 1983. This assumes, knowing California ZIP codes all start with a “9,” the ZIP is 98427. This, however, make it a place in Washington State. Strangely, there are no ZIP codes that start with 984, even in Washington as ZIP code structure skips from 983 to 985.

The guys go to the hotel to check on Harry Ashford. In the foreground of the scene are two rough-looking guys sweating through an arm-wrestling contest. Starsky and Hutch are comically riveted to it throughout what should be a fairly average incident: this is staging genius. Note, too, the interesting “scary” music as they go into the creepy room, reminiscent of “Bloodbath”.

The way the initial murder scene is shown, as well as in this later hotel room, shows an increasing respect for actual police procedure. This is the first time either detective is shown collecting evidence properly. Latex gloves were not widely used until the late 1980s.

Why would Monique have a book of matches, if she doesn’t smoke, and in fact seems the be the sort of person who actively abhors smoking? For burning incense, perhaps?

Disco, Act Two: this boring guy, Roger, is talking stocks. Monique barely listens and seems very melancholy, which is odd for someone out on the town and actively cruising for a good time, but Roger, like Phil, doesn’t notice. Or if he notices, he doesn’t care. Again, men on the make (perhaps the only kind of man Monique knows well) are portrayed as boorish, self-involved, callous and predatory.

Two murders in three nights on her bed and Monique still goes back to stay there? Not only is this pretty weird, but her apartment would be a crime scene, and she wouldn’t be allowed back for a while. Changing a minor detail – having the murders happen in an alley behind the disco, for example, would have made more sense. In fact this would make Monique’s involvement even more tangential and therefore even less likely she would have anything to do with it, making the “twist” even twistier. But I digress.

Monique is once again visited by Harry. Interestingly, she appears to be in flux for several moments, aware of the personality takeover and suffering for it although many people with dissociative disorders as severe as this one are unaware when the change happens or at the very least 100% one or the other. There is no half-and-half, as here when Monique says she will get rid of Roger in order to make Harry leave. This could mean Monique may suffer from schizophrenia rather than multiple personality, or some surprising hybrid which makes for great television.

There’s some great direction as the guys bring Monique in for questioning and then Dobey calls them into his office. The camera is documentary-style and the lighting in Dobey’s office is the same as in other Fourth Season episodes: lush and diffused rather than bright and stagey. Dobey is flattered by the soft blue sky behind him sliced by Venetians, and the scene is highlighted by Starsky’s lovely naughty looks at Hutch when he’s announced as the “winner” in the who-gets-to-date-Monique sweepstakes. Of course, Hutch has to have the last word in this scene. The nosey, journalistic camera moves in with an intimate close-up as the two of them look at each other, not two inches apart. “You really think you can make him jealous?” Hutch says, “Why not,” Starsky says, laconic and enjoying this. “Well, the guy may be crazy but he’s not stupid,” Hutch says. Hah ha, good one Hutch. Proud of yourself?

Starsky calls Hutch a “home-in-front-of-the-fire type of guy” as opposed to Starsky’s “charisma” and “flair.” Is this generally true, or is Starsky just getting back at Hutch for saying he has zero biorhythms?

Crime and Punishment, or the Lack Thereof: this is an episode about a psychotic act of feminist retribution. However not all the egregious offenders are punished like the truck guy and the stock market guy. Hutchinson, I’m talking to you. At the disco, Hutch’s nodding off is interrupted by a woman asking “blondie” if he would like to dance. She is attractive and a good dancer, but because she is heavy he makes an unbearably rude comment, dismissing her. This is similar to his bad behavior in “Discomania” but worse here, because here the victim of his rudeness merely vanishes, unlike Judith, who stood up to him. He probably ruined her night and took her self-esteem down a few notches too. He also says he’s going to get Starsky “dancing lessons” for his birthday, even though he knows Starsky is a good dancer and he is not. As far as good behavior goes, Hutch is on par with every other man in the place.

When Starsky goes undercover, it’s the only time Monique is seen dancing and enjoying herself. And yet she later feels the urge to kill Starsky, even though her conscious mind understands he is not like the others, but rather someone assigned to protect her. A clue to her motives surfaces when she asks him point-blank if he likes her. Starsky says that he does. Is this her trigger? Both Roger and Phil obviously liked her, at least in the beginning. So perhaps we can surmise it isn’t a desire to rid the world of sexist boors but rather to punish those who like her that lies beneath the urge to kill. This says a lot about the emotional and psychological complexity of this case.

Monique says she would like to get to know Starsky better. Starsky says, “under different circumstances, maybe.” This cautious reply is in stark contrast to both Starsky and Hutch’s earlier behavior in which they freely engaged sexually with any witness or potential victim (“A Body Worth Guarding”, “Class in Crime”, “Running”, “Rosey Malone”, “Blindfold”, among others). This could be a case of Starsky maturing, or it may be because he is actually turned off by her. Starsky’s good instincts may be in play here, as he tunes into the depth of her sadness and the hint of psychological torment (which he would most likely interpret as “high maintenance”). When they eventually return to her apartment, he is notably not flirting with her. Instead he is every inch the Detective, checking windows and doors; and when he removes his jacket he makes it clear it’s a professional decision and not a personal one.

Like the arm-wrestling championships, it’s a nice scenic detail of Minnie and her disco kung-fu moves after midnight. Everybody is having a better time than poor Hutchinson. Minnie mentions the letters “CII” as the place that identifies fingerprints. Central Identification Information? Something else? Fictional?

The scene in which Hutch puts together a composite sketch of the suspect is truly wonderful. Broken with scenes of Starsky and Monique, it nevertheless is one of the longest and quietest of the entire series. It emphasizes Hutch as a solitary individual who perhaps is best on his own, with no distracting partner to tease and torment. Does this mean Hutch would be better off going solo? How much better would Hutch be without Starsky? Let’s speculate on the idea that what is best for someone professionally is possibly the worst for them personally.

This is, sadly, the only episode in which Starsky plays the guitar and sings. It’s a rather startling performance, coming as it does out of nowhere, and is a moment of total vulnerability on Starsky’s part, unusual in such a strong, self-contained person. It’s late and he must be over-tired, which may have allowed him to take a risk and use music as either a way of comforting someone he knows is suffering, or soften the atmosphere to make it more pliable for some surreptitious questioning. His motives remain a mystery, so we are left to enjoy this beautiful and gentle scene. Is this a song he has written himself? The words are apropos: the isolated misfit, looking down at the normal world, emphasizing the isolation of the moment and the loneliness of people who feel different and out of step from the world.

Most people, particularly actors, look beautiful when they are listening, and Joanna Cassidy is no exception. For a brief second she looks completely at peace, which is mesmerizing.

Filming notes: the guitar is apparently David Soul’s, which is only fair as Glaser lent his to his friend when Soul recorded his first album. Also, note the long finger-picking nails on Glaser’s hand.

As complex as the case turns out to be, Hutch also comes to a similarly complex “jealousy” reading when thinking of the sister as a suspect.

Monique drugs the chamomile tea to incapacitate Starsky. She does this because he’s more than able to overpower her and grab his gun. She didn’t bother with this with her earlier, more clueless victims. If she had, she would have been discovered long before this. Also, why does Starsky remove both holster and gun? He should have tucked the gun in his waistband. Rolled up and behind the chair is bad planning on his part. Didn’t he learn anything from the debacle of “Quadromania?”

Monique’s long speech about what Harry hates and loves about her is one of the most satisfyingly complete scenes in the canon. It’s a potent mix of self-knowledge and delusion, an abrasive, haunting, nasty tutorial on how to hate yourself. Starsky is riveted, and for good reason: her staccato delivery, her refreshing lack of self-pity, her refusal to excuse herself, to a suicidal degree, well, it’s just amazing. Nicely filmed from an unusual angle, it’s Robert Swanson’s best writing gig on the series, although “Hutchinson for Murder One” is also excellent.

Starsky is drugged, the world is a kaleidoscope. And yet he manages to say, “Hutchinson” even though Monique is familiar enough to know him by his nickname.

Hutch visits Bobbie to accuse her of the crime. This is, what, two, three o’clock in the morning? And yet Bobbie is dressed, alert and awake. With altar candles burning.

Both Travers sisters have a similar drive or emptiness; they are both compelled to go out every night, though to two different types of establishments. Church and sex: each of them has found something to fill those empty spaces.

Hutch knows she’s a murderer, but doesn’t call a back-up?

Unlike Lionel Fitzgerald in “Quadromania”, and without the aid of props or makeup, Monique looks completely different when under the guise of madness. She is truly terrifying when she attacks Starsky and screams at him through the window. In this moment it is very difficult to believe Monique and Harry are the same person. Nice going, Joanna!

The Treatment of Women Question: Starsky never hits a woman, but Hutch hits Diana in Fatal Charm, and now forcefully slugs Monique. Does Hutch use more physical force when he is protecting Starsky than protecting himself? Or is it because Monique is dressed as a man and this is makes the rationalization easier? Generally Starsky is rougher with women while using less overt physical force: he’s masterful and controlling when the woman is exhibits behaviors or decisions he believes are weak, unstable, or impulsive, like Sharman, Rosey Malone, and Emily Harrison. By contrast Hutch is more distant and careful, but when he explodes his violence is greater. One suspects Hutch is less comfortable all-round with women, more formal, more “gentlemanly” (this despite his unpleasant “I have a bad back” comment to the woman at the disco). Starsky is less concerned with niceties and rules, but altogether more inclusive.

One thing this episode never tackles is the reason for Monique’s psychosis, either narrowing it down to Multiple Personality Disorder or schizophrenia or revealing what could be terrible enough to precipitate it. Schizophrenia is largely understood to be a biological entity but severe childhood abuse is a common factor in most disassociate disorders, and it fits here although it’s never said aloud. Bobbie’s extreme religious devotions could also be a clue, suggesting both sisters were driven to a kind of madness by a traumatic past (I’m not taking a shot at religion, but rather suggesting immersion to the point of negating one’s identity to something “larger” is happening here).

Tag: Hutch is comically over-solicitous about Starsky’s fake biorhythms and engineers a picnic with Huggy, although one wonders how this solves anything. Hutch is all over Starsky, excitable and micro-managing, trying to get his partner to relax but having the opposite effect. As usual. On a minor note, bumblebees are gentle creatures and rarely stingers. Even if they land on you, grabbing them is not the way to go.

Clothing notes: it must be hot because neither wears a leather jacket, and seem minimally attired. Starsky wears the great orange shirt with placket, and a beige cloth jacket. Hutch wears the blue Port Mungo bowling shirt with white-collar, with a blue t-shirt underneath. “Al” is stitched on the front and the name of a USN bowling club is on the back. He also wears a ring on his right ring-finger, a blue cabochon. During the pool game, Huggy looks great in his red satin ensemble and tortoise-shell glasses.

Episode 71: Photo Finish

August 16, 2011

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 pursuit of 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 is 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. Reinhart 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 of 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 behavior, 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.

Episode 50: Death in a Different Place

November 12, 2010

Starsky and Hutch investigate why their old friend and colleague John Blaine was found dead in a hotel in a destitute part of the city, and uncover a plot that involves another cop.

Alec Corday: Don Gordon, Nick Hunter: Gregory Rozakis, Orrin Lawford: Dick Davalos, “Sugar”: Charles Pierce, John Blaine: Art Fleming, Margaret Blaine: Virginia Leith, Peter Whitelaw: Colby Chester, Murph: Allen Joseph, Maxine: JoElla Deffenbaugh, LaVerne: Shelley St. Clair, ME Ginny Simpson: Adrien Royce. Written By: Tom Bagen, Directed By: Sutton Roley.

QUESTIONS AND NOTES:

This episode is groundbreaking for its compassionate and sensible look at what was then considered the most provocative immorality in contemporary society. It’s almost inconceivable now to imagine how acceptable, even mainstream, was homophobia in the late 1970s. It was hatred of the murderous, “they all deserve to burn in everlasting hell” sort, even in the liberal entertainment la-la land of Los Angeles. Hatred against the LGBT community was so pervasive, so sickening, and so much a part of the norm that violence against these people didn’t even register as a hate crime. Assaults against gays were under-reported and under-investigated, and I point here to the notorious Upstairs Lounge arson in New Orleans which brutally killed thirty-two people a scant four years before this episode was filmed. Speaking later of the charred remains of the victims, some still clinging to one another, the chief of police joked that the ashes would have to be swept into “fruit jars”. Similar jokes were said and repeated by journalists and witnesses to try and minimize or dismiss the tragic event. Which makes this episode even more special and endearing: writer Tom Bagen has written a complex, nicely-realized, unsugar-coated story which also happens to include a slice of contemporary gay life in middle-class America. He doesn’t turn “gay lifestyle” into some vanilla concoction, he includes a relatable “everyman” hero who just so happens to be gay, and doesn’t overdo the exoticism either but instead reveals the seamier (and glitzier) underside of the culture with refreshing candor that would have been brand new for about 99% of the viewing audience at the time.

I’ve thought a lot about Starsky’s “negative” reaction to hearing John Blaine’s secret. Having him share Hutch’s sensitivity might score political points, but it would make the episode more bland, and unrealistic, than it should be. We wouldn’t get to enjoy his eventual enlightenment, and see that people’s attitudes can change from ignorance to acceptance to something even better when it comes to gay rights or anybody’s rights for that matter: the acknowledgement of commonality, that everyone is part of the same spectrum of humanity. The joke at the end implies both Starsky and Hutch, rather than “tolerating” homosexuality – a patronizing term that always gets my back up – are in fact empathetic and inclusive in a way that is far more understanding. But Starsky’s initial response is more complicated than a reflexive yuck. All signs point to his having a typical, even traditional upbringing, and with that comes traditional assumptions and values, so yeah, a knee-jerk distaste might factor into his reaction. But my guess is this isn’t just about being disturbed by his mentor’s hidden life, it’s also about his own ignorance of it, that someone close to him was able to lie so successfully to loved ones. I see his disappointment as much professional as personal, Starsky thinking I’m a detective, and I didn’t see that?

Opening scene: okay, we know it’s a heat wave, and it looks miserable, but should Hutch really threaten Starsky with the dissolution of their partnership when the Torino overheats on those asphalt-melting highways? The first spoken lines in most episodes are wonderful in that they encapsulate the guys’ personalities so well, and in this episode there is no exception: Starsky gets out of the car with a conciliatory “Yeah, wait a second,” and Hutch with a furious, “YEAH ALL RIGHT!!” Hutch then says it’s time to choose between the car and him. Hutch seems to conveniently forget his own car would be even worse in these conditions, a fact that Starsky, martyr-like, does not mention.

I wonder what John Blaine thinks of the old-married-couple repartee Hutch and Starsky indulge in at his door. How Hutch is perennially frustrated by the car, how amazed he is that Starsky offers to pay for drinks, etc. Does he think to himself, jeez, these guys are gayer than I am?

There’s a lot of addiction references in this episode and an honest reflection of what was and is going on in the gay community. For instance, Sugar Plum is on stage, nattering away. Just as Sugar says she has no drinking problem at all because she has “no problem drinking at all,” John spills his drink. Jack Ives displays his “drinking problem” spilling champagne on himself out of glasses and spilling wine on himself while drinking straight out of the bottle. It’s a good, economical encapsulation of the issue.

Just how many drinks did Blaine have? He is drinking a martini when Hunter propositions him. Hunter buys him another drink when he spills his scotch and water on Blaine. Blaine refers to “all those drinks” having “really hit me tonight.” It may be that he drank more than usual that night. But more likely it was Hunter dropping something in his drink which makes Blaine at first sloppy and careless, and then nearly comatose. Blaine is a career police officer. Even taking into account these are his off-hours, he doesn’t seem the type to drink to the point of blackout, especially in a public place. This is far too vulnerable a position to be in. Note just how cautious he is when meeting potential-trick Jack Ives, even though he’s cute and seemingly available. Also, owing to his generation and his profession, most likely he’s a drinker and not a drug addict. Dobey later says “everybody takes pills” but is seems unlikely these barbiturates are Blaine’s own.

The whole seduction-in-a-gay-bar scene is overlaid with a touristy sort of wonderment that comes close to outright esoteric. Remember, this is the first look at a gay bar many viewers would have ever had and I would dearly love to know how many thought satan’s lair! and how many would have thought, hey, that’s actually rather pleasant (and how many 8-to12-year olds perked up and thought I’m feeling a tingle of recognition). Because, for all the dreary, faintly desperate atmosphere of casual pickups and ageing performers, it’s also rather lovely. The close-ups, the music, the sparkles and misty murmuring, it’s as colorful as Oz.

It’s nice to see Gregory Rozkaris again, after his memorable role as the junkie in “Pariah”. He’s just as good here.

I appreciate the intelligently presented scene when the two ladies of the night enter with the camera fixed on the semi-conscious youth staring into nothing; one of the girls gives him her mostly-smoked cigarette and he takes it. This tiny segue is a further illustration of the world this episode is trying to illuminate for us: a lonely, somewhat bleak place where narcotic escape can be a necessity, and small gestures of kindness are the thin threads holding it all together.

It’s very touching that when Dobey says, “John Blaine’s dead” all the detectives in the squad room come close and listen in, with obvious distress.

It’s always interesting when fleabag hotels have high falutin names, as if to mitigate their surroundings and cast a benevolent light on their patrons. The hotel John Blaine stays in is the St Francis.

Director Sutton Roley gives us a great news-footage-like POV in which the Torino arrives at the crime scene. First we hear police-radio chatter, then the camera’s lens draws back to reveal the busy street, with the iconic Torino pulling up. There’s Starsky, flashing his badge, which we witness partially through ambulance windows. It’s immediate, jarring, and effective. Mr. Roley passed away three years ago and this from a beautifully written on-line eulogy by Stephen Bowie: “I used the term “legendary” in the header, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.  More than any other director of his generation, Roley was known within the industry for his exuberant visual sense, a near-constant use of skewed angles, distorted lenses, long takes, elaborate tracking shots, and bold compositions (as with many of his contemporaries, the influence of Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane” was paramount).  This led to conflicts with more conservative producers, cameramen, and actors, but when Roley encountered equally adventuresome collaborators he could produce some of the most dazzling imagery ever composed for TV.” Roley’s style (he will go on to direct four more episodes) is never better shown than in this wonderful scene.

There’s a female coroner at the crime scene, Ginny Simpson (ably played by Adrien Royce) who, along with the gay subtext of this episode, shows how times are in the process of changing.

Sutton Roley strikes again in the staging of the crucial scene in which the truth is revealed about Blaine. Shot from below, both actors in profile, the summer heat beating down, it’s a great, compressed scene and beautifully underplayed by both leads. I like how Hutch knows about Blaine before Starsky does, and you can see him briefly holding back before he says the word “male” when listing the attributes of the person Blaine brought to his room. Starsky, predictably, begins to offer excuses, but Hutch seems to accept the fact immediately. Shift to the outside looking in, in exact imitation of how it looks from the “outside” when considering someone’s secret life. Only Hutch understands the gender of the trick is irrelevant: “buy it or not,” he tells Starsky, “Blaine’s dead. And he was with another man.”

It’s slightly heavy-handed but still necessary when the interior shot of Blaine’s house lingers on the wall of trophies, citations and medals he won throughout a distinguished career. Every member of the viewing audience at that time – and some still now – needs reminding that bravery, dignity and wholesomeness of character has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

There’s a brief, interesting glimpse into Starsky’s complicated view of things when at the Blaine household he picks up a photo of he and Blaine. “John taught me how to fight,” he tells Hutch. “Bloody nose and all.” It’s difficult to imagine a more physical activity than that, head-locks and free-throws, lots of bodily contact. What’s going through Starsky’s mind when he realizes this?

Former Hollywood bombshell Virginia Leith gives a great, understated, notably dry-eyed performance as John Blaine’s widow.

“A man is dead, Mr. Whitelaw,” Hutch says when their witness becomes obstructive. “I don’t care whether he’s gay or straight. Labels don’t mean a thing.” Whitelaw looks at Hutch immediately sees his honesty. He then looks at Starsky and just as quickly realizes there is a shadow of discomfort there too, the sense both detectives have wandered into unfamiliar territory, and unfamiliarity can sometimes cause a kind of defensive unease. As both a gay man and a politician, Peter Whitelaw has a nearly supernatural knack for digesting a complicated situation. Get this man to Washington, stat.

When Peter Whitelaw talks about the injustice facing gays, he looks accusingly at Starsky, who says he doesn’t think Whitelaw has to stand of the platform of homosexuality in order to campaign for social change. Whitelaw glances at Hutch, who seems … what? Embarrassed at his partner’s naiveté? This dialogue is still going on, in one form or another, to this day: the often unconsciously homophobic assertions people make when they say I don’t care what you do as long as I don’t have to see it, or I don’t see why they have to have a parade or variations along that theme. It’s a pernicious attitude that is difficult to change and equally difficult to define, and the fact that it is done so well here – in about seven seconds, and beautifully underplayed – is another feather in this episode’s cap.

Charles Pierce, one of the greatest and most admired female impersonators of the twentieth century (and a kick-ass actor too) leaps into his scene like a racehorse born and bred to burst out of the gate. Throughout this episode he’s riveting: charismatic, confident, startlingly bitter. It’s fascinating to see an actor turn on a dime between glamorous star and scrappy street-fighter, but he does it time and time again, and he’s a marvel to watch. (Please see a more detailed tribute to his skills in “Character Studies: Five Perfect Cameos”.) I especially love Sugar’s speech to Hutch about where he was during the night in question, culminating with complimenting Hutch’s “gorgeous hair” saying he was going to bleach his the same color. Starsky reacts in a humorous way to Sugar’s comment, while Hutch has a moment of genuine wounded pride, one of those micro-expressions Soul is so freakishly good at. “It’s not bleached, it’s natural,” he says. Starsky is amused out of his grumpy mood, and Sugar whips off his wig. “What a coincidence! So’s mine.” Half in Sugar’s voice, half in his own. One of the wonderful aspects to this scene is that even though we all know he’s a female impersonator, it’s still startling to see when the facade is dropped. I still remember the delicious thrill of it, watching for the first time all those years ago.

Sugar, for all the “let’s all just get along” attitude, nevertheless protects bad-boy Hunter, to the point of covering up a crime. Why? Is this a live-and-let-live approach, or does it reveal a profound mistrust, or even (most likely warranted) hatred of the police?

The chase scene with Hunter is another standout piece of direction: in this case the camera is hand-held, rendering everything jumpy and discordant.

There’s a deeply uncomfortable silence before Dobey says, “the department is under a lot of pressure right now to let gays on the force.” In the next breath he says, “So the department is not anxious to let the world know that one of its finest might have been a homosexual.” Dobey is making two opposing statements, which pretty much underscores how complicated it all is. What, do you suppose, is Dobey’s own opinion on this matter? It would have been interesting to hear it, although that’s asking a lot from a script that is already generous enough.

“I don’t want to know about it!” Dobey cries out as the guys say they’re going to fight to the end. Is this an early version of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

It’s too bad Blaine is presented as such a cardboard figure. Not enough screen time is given to the real person; all we know about him is in the eulogizing. There is no time to develop his character, or to know much about him other than the depth of his lonely misery.

The Gay Decorating Theme seems to start with beading curtains in the doorway. The Green Parrot has them at the bar doorway and upstairs. Orrin Lawford has them in his place as well.

What is Corday’s history with Starsky and Hutch? Hutch is immediately suspicious and hostile while Starsky glares in the background. Yet when Hutch asks Starsky later what he knows about Corday, Starsky says not as much as he should. What tips Starsky and Hutch off about a fellow cop they appear to have heard nothing negative about?

How does Hunter know Corday killed Orrin Lawford? How fast does news travel on the gay circuit?

Both Starsky and Hutch have substitute father figures with secrets, who ultimately disappoint and come to a bad end. There are a lot of contrasts as well as comparisons if we look at the Starsky/Blaine relationship and the Hutchinson/Huntley relationship in the later episode “Birds of a Feather”. Blaine shields Starsky from his problems while Huntley tries to pull Hutch into his. Blaine’s death saves Starsky from having to risk a gesture of solidarity that could have hurt him, professionally and personally, while Huntley’s actions force Hutch to take a public stand. The presence of both these older male figures – and their profound impact – underscore the fact both Starsky and Hutch accepted a mentor in their lives at some point. Perhaps the patriarchal structure of the police department encourages this kind of relationship, because it is not commonplace in most men’s lives. Of note, too, is the fact that neither Starsky nor Hutch have a father to speak of. Starsky’s is long-dead and under suspicious circumstances, Hutch’s is simply nonexistent. We can add Huggy Bear to the mix here as well, as his own father-figure JT Washington also drags him reluctantly into a dangerous, emotionally volatile situation (“Huggy Can’t Go Home”).

Dobey seems amazed at Starsky and Hutch’s access to Corday’s file. “You got Corday’s file out of Narco?” Getting an officer’s file didn’t seem to be too much of a problem for Starsky and Hutch when they got Mike Ferguson’s file from R & I. It would be interesting to know how much access officers have to their peers’ records and cases.

Huggy’s immediate recall of Sugar’s address is extraordinary. How is it he can keep all this stuff in his head?

When Starsky asks him to go undercover, Huggy makes an extraordinary statement. “I’ve been undercover all my life”. Although this is brushed aside with Starsky’s hilarious “as a gay dude in the Green Parrot”, one wonders what Huggy means. Huggy doesn’t say “for years”, which may refer to his (not so secret) life as a police informant, he says “all my life”. You have to ask the question, undercover as what?

As an aside, why do the guys need Huggy at all? Surely they could have gone together, with Hutch lounging at the bar fending off the inevitable admirers; they really don’t need to drag Huggy onto the dance floor. It serves no purpose and it puts their friend in harm’s way. Is it because they feel uncomfortable going as a pair, considering the implication? Too much pressure to dance together? If this is the case, why not take another detective with them? Another trained (and armed) professional would be very helpful in this case and Huggy doesn’t add much to the equation other than being sharp-eyed (and accommodating). Are there no departmental rules for engaging regular citizens in potentially dangerous situations? Just like girlfriend Molly’s sleuthing in “The Collector”, yanking amateurs off the street to help in the apprehension of dangerous criminals makes me nervous. Whatever the reason, Huggy shows great forbearance just showing up, ready to work when he doesn’t have to, and really shouldn’t.

I love the dueling gold medallions Hunter and Sugar wear.

Hutch seems to think dressing like the aristocracy counts as a gay disguise, as he shows up at the Green Parrot with a tweed cap, scarf, and sunglasses. Later, in “Targets Without a Badge 2” he shows up in much the same outfit, which now becomes his unemployed look. Hutch seems to believe – to his credit – that if you’re going to be on the margins of society, you might as well look like a Rothschild doing it.

How much time has Hutch been dancing with Huggy before Hunter, Sugar and Corday show up? Does he enjoy it at all? He seems to. When he’s propositioned by the silver fox on the dance floor he takes it in stride, touching the guy with elaborate, dare I say flamboyant regret on the cheek as he passes. One wonders at his relaxed and open attitude, which is both praiseworthy and frankly amazing, considering the times. This is one of Hutch’s finest moments as a human being and goes a long way to rehabilitating his reputation as contentious and difficult. It’s as if he just doesn’t care about what anybody thinks. In fact, he likes the attention. Doesn’t matter where it comes from – a compliment is a compliment.

This may be the best tag ever, especially since Hutch is being so wonderfully provocative with his partner. He also understands that the best way to educate is through empathy, and the following exchange perfectly illustrates this:

Hutch: “Starsky, would you consider that a man who spends seventy-five per cent of his time with another man has got certain tendencies?”
Starsky: “Seventy-five – you mean three-quarters?”
Hutch: “Right.”
Starsky: “Yeah. Sure. Why not. You mean that was the case between John and…”
Hutch: “No, no, that’s the case between you and me.”
Starsky: “What?!”
Hutch: “Well, figure it out. In a five-day week, there are about eighty waking hours, right?”
Starsky: “Yeah.”
Hutch: “We work, eat, and drink about twelve of those hours, right? That’s sixty hours a week, seventy-five per cent of the time we spend together and you’re not even a good kisser.”
Starsky: “How do you know that?”

The funny thing is, with the after-hours socializing at the Pits and other places, weekends playing basketball and going camping and fighting off Satanists, plus all that double-dating and taking naps at Hutch’s place, it’s more like ninety per cent.  And while we’re at it, when Starsky says “John and …” what does he mean? John wasn’t with anyone, but perhaps Starsky was just listing off the names of the people at the Green Parrot.Hutch starts this amusing conversation in the first place because he is trying (subtly, sensitively) to rock Starsky’s conventions a little, perhaps dislodging the very last trace of prejudice his partner may have. And when Starsky makes his little joke, we know he has succeeded. Starsky being in the back seat during this exchange is another funny little joke, no doubt staged by either cast or crew.