September 23, 2015

Sunday night TV: The FBI and The Rogues, two sides of the legal coin

Continuing a look at the Hadley Broadcasting Company's DVD viewing schedule,

Sunday Night Lineup:
The FBI
The Rogues

THE FBI'S STALWARTS: INSPECTOR ERSKINE AND SPECIAL AGENT RHODES
I
know I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating - the two greatest dramatic themes on television are Perry Mason and The FBI.  Each, in concert with its opening credits, summarizes its show perfectly: in Mason's case, Fred Steiner's music captures the single-combat warrior preparing to do battle on behalf of an unjustly accused defendant, while the jazzy, aggressive beat suggests the confident, determined man unafraid of taking chances - unafraid, really, of anything or anyone.  With The FBI, it's Bronislaw Kaper's majestic theme, set for the first two seasons against the symbols of Washington authority: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Justice, home of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  It makes you want to run right out of the house and sign up.

One of the things which I appreciate most about The FBI is its refusal to indulge in the private lives of its regulars; aside from the ill-advised addition of a daughter (Lynn Loring) for Inspector Erskine (engaged to Erskine's partner, no less), you rarely get a glimpse into the home life of its principals.  Who knows whether Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) lives in a house or an apartment?  What does Assistant Director Ward do in his spare time?  Do any of Erskine's partners (Stephen Brooks, William Reynolds) have any hobbies?  What are their favorite books?  What do they watch on TV in the evenings, aside from Quinn Martin programs?

Like Perry Mason, the story isn't about what happens outside the office, a blessed change from the soap opera-like obsession of today's programs and the quirkbot characteristics of their characters.  Instead, The FBI, like several series of the era, turns that focus on the guest stars.  It's one way to ensure a relatively constant supply of big-name stars, rather than the B-listers that populate most guest star rosters.  An early episode featuring Charles Bronson as a particularly nasty fugitive was a revelation; Bronson infused his character with a sensitivity and backstory that made him far more three-dimensional than the average criminal.  Not only was it a fine acting job and a well-written episode, it made the FBI's adversaries human rather than a foil for its regulars - something that today's series would do well to learn.

There's a crispness about the investigations in the show as well; without many of the technical shorthand that today's procedurals use, we're left to watch the Bureau's men engage in good, old-fashioned hard work, pounding the sidewalks and wearing out the shoe leather, following up on countless leads, most of which they already know will lead nowhere, seeing the frustration that accumulates as one suspect after another is crossed off the list, before hitting upon the one thread that leads to the next and eventually pulls the whole case together.  Again, it's a relief from the "and then a miracle happens" work of today's shows.

The casting is quality as well; Zimbalist has got to be J. Edgar Hoover's ideal FBI agent (no wonder the two of them were friends), and once Erskine's boss Ward (Phillip Abbot), gets off Lew's case (as he was for almost the entire first seasons), he becomes a supportive boss instead of a hard-ass.  I enjoyed Stephen Brooks as Erskine's first partner Jim Rhodes, but I also like William Reynolds, as Tom Colby.  And then, of course, there's the music!

But what I like the most about The FBI is that it's truly a throwback, not only in style but in tenor, back to a time when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was an organization of integrity and gravitas*, when the scene of an agent pulling out his credentials and solemnly saying, "FBI" put literal fear into the hearts of criminals.  Nobody, but nobody, wanted the FBI on their trail; look at how many times you hear them, even in movies not remotely connected with the series, talk about their fear of the FBI being called in the case. There was great dignity, even nobility, in the idea of being a part of the world's greatest police organization, which brings us back once again to the opening credits, and how The FBI portrayed an American justice that was, even if it never was.

*Yes, I know all about Hoover's excesses, and how the FBI had been used for political purposes, and all that.  This was an imaginary FBI, in a sense.  But it was the organization you wanted if you were dealing with kidnappers or extortionists or bank robbers or Communists.

***

THE FAMILY THAT STEALS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER: (FROM L) BOYER, YOUNG, NIVEN, COOTE; BELOW, COOPER 
It is a pity that The Rogues ran for only one season, 1964-65 on NBC, and a pity as well that it has never had a complete series commercial release.  But for those fortunate enough to have seen it during one of its runs on MeTV, or purchased it on the grey market, it is a delightfully offbeat, satisfying show - not as serious as Mission: Impossible, not as violent as The A Team, not as coy and self-important as Leverage.  What it is, mostly, is fun.

The tree stars of The Rogues, Charles Boyer, David Niven and Gig Young, play members of a most conniving family of con artists, the St. Clairs and the Flemings.  Gladys Cooper is the matriarch of the family, while Robert Coote plays Timmy, the loyal sidekick and master of disguise, who supports whichever lead happens to be appearing in the scam of the week.  From top to bottom, it's an outstanding cast.

The great thing about the show is that the family is often quite open about their goal: to bilk a rich businessman out of a significant amount of money.  The fact that the businessman in question is generally an asshole plays an important part in the plan, as it could be said they deserve what they've got coming to them, but sometimes they're just in it for the money.  On occasion the episode may start off with a smaller, self-contained scam which serves no purpose to the larger story other than to provide the family with seed money for the bigger sting they're about to pull.  Sometimes their scams go off without much trouble, but more often they're scrambling due to an unforeseen change in plans, and their adaptability is hilarious.  There are times when they don't end up with any money at all, due either to a narrow escape or a soft heart.

The writing is witty and literate, the plots significant without being wholly incomprehensible, the bad guys (Broderick Crawford, Telly Savalas and Darren McGavin to name three) are properly villainous, their innocent victims (either employees, family members, or those who've come out on the short end of the stick) satisfyingly innocent.

But there's no question that the star of The Rogues is, well, the stars.  Although it was not uncommon for two, or even all three, to appear in the same episode, one of them always takes the lead.  Boyer, as Marcel St. Clair, is a delight, his broad characterization often approaching laugh-out-loud funny, and his ladies' man approach being the perfect epitome of a Frenchman.  And yet, it is most unwise to take Marcel lightly; not only is he often the shrewd mastermind of the sting, but behind that light exterior there's an edge to his character (a former member of the underground) that can get quite hard when it comes out into the open.  This is a man, we are reminded, who could get quite dangerous when called on, even if it never happens in the show.

On the other hand, Niven's Alec Fleming is what you'd expect from the suave British actor: confident, let projecting an air of vulnerability; urbane, but with a twinkle in his eye.  Owing to his busy schedule with movies, Alec appears less frequently than the others, often appearing in a single scene, or on the other end of a telephone conversation.  Needless to say, his infrequent appearances are always highlights.

And then there's Young as Tony Fleming, the American cousin: a ladies man himself, and a born con man.  He's often wonderfully over-the top in his portrayals, able to present himself as anything from a wealthy industrialist to a down-on-his-luck bum.  He can even play a con man as cover for being a con man - how many people can pull that off?  Throw in Coote and Cooper, who are in virtually every episode (and were rewarded for their work with Emmy nominations for supporting actor and actress) and you've got a complete, flawless cast.

I called The Rogues fun, but the other word I'd use to describe it is "charming."  And they kind of go together, the two words, don't they?  "Charming rogue"?  That describes the Flemings and the St. Clairs to a T.  Gig Young once said in an interview that there were "a lot of people who liked The Rogues, and a lot of people who didn't."  Maybe they didn't want to see crooks hailed as good guys.  That's all I can think of, because there's no other reason you shouldn't be a fan of the con artists on the side of the Angels.

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