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Somewhere between Columbo and Matlock

“Call me Billy Jim. Everyone else does,” says Billy Jim Hawkins, an attorney described in the premiere as the leading murder specialist in the country. As played by James Stewart, you can already picture him: a lanky drink of water with a steely blue glint, ingratiating but wily, whose act consists of blowing bits of West Virginia cornpone in your eyes between shrewd questions. As he explains with his avuncular scratch that he’s the oldest of 14 siblings, that he has 52 nieces and nephews (already 58 a few episodes later) and 174 cousins, he’s both the drawl and the snarl, a backwoods Columbo who fools nobody. Stewart had played a younger, more high-strung variant in Anatomy of a Murder, but now he’s too old to let much throw him.


Now and then the writers get carried away and toss him a lengthy tailor-made speech, either to watch him get het up into a righteous blather or, in more restrained mode, just to hear his melancholy pauses. Even though it usually didn’t pan out, TV producers were often giddy with delight to convince a major movie star to headline a series. The Golden Globes couldn’t wait to hand Stewart an award for Best Actor in a Drama Series. Without him, there’s no show, no framework on which to hang the character explorations that serve as this week’s plot.


cover art

Hawkins: The Complete TV Movies

(CBS; US DVD: 26 Dec 2012)

This 90-minute series lasted for one season in 1973-74, airing every three weeks in alternation with Shaft (also available from Warner Archive) and The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. Therefore, only eight episodes were made, and they’re labeled here as TV movies, which isn’t strictly accurate. Actually, just to be confusing, the character originated with a 90-minute pilot movie, Hawkins on Murder (March 1973), which was recycled as the series premiere in October 1974. It’s included in this set in that series configuration, with the episode title “Death and the Maiden”.


The first two episodes are scripted by producer/creator David Karp (who wrote five) and directed by Jud Taylor (also five). Both open with pre-credits sequences using “subjective” avant-garde techniques, such as rapid and dislocated editing, to disorient the audience about the violent events being depicted. In some episodes, this opening sequence is more straightforward but always ambiguous and emotional. After this grabber, whether wild or plain, Jerry Goldsmith’s driving theme music kicks in with the opening credits, a snazzy montage of newspaper headlines—MURDER, ARREST—and footage of an airplane bearing Billy Jim, arriving from the heavens to dispense wisdom and justice. Then the pace slows to a country amble, and the visual approach settles down to one or two notches above no-frills ‘70s TV plainness.


Karp’s interest lies less in the details (or credibility) of the mystery—and indeed the premiere’s solution is nothing a child mightn’t guess—than in the observation of human behavior. Not only are the episodes longer than usual, but the individual scenes of interviews and analysis are much longer than on today’s shows, where the equivalent scenes are fragmentary bustling events laced with flashbacks and littered with flashy set-ups.


At its best, the style and writing of Hawkins isn’t slow or repetitive, just deeper. In the aforementioned pilot or premiere, the chief beneficiary of this process is Bonnie Bedelia as the fragile heiress who doesn’t know whether she’s crazy. The strung-out tease on this element neglects other areas of story and procedure but she sure gets a few nice arias out of it.


It’s too bad the premiere was already a repeat, because the second episode, “Murder in Movieland”, is stronger. Cameron Mitchell, so habitually a bad guy, gets to shine as the sad, confused defendant in a long, darkly lit interview composed in tense shots, sometimes with his eyes looking over a divider as shadows huddle around him. Sheree North bites her lip as his slutty actress wife, and Kenneth Mars is a big swishy red herring whose mannered extravagance dominates his scenes. This turns out to have a strong queer theme running through it, and what once might have looked over the top for shock value (“I think he’s a sissy!” says Billy Jim’s cousin R.J.) now plays more naturally, especially as things turn out. One wonders if this would have been too “controversial” as a premiere.


The state of contemporary TV is alluded to when an actress not only explains what “sitcom” means but, when asked if her pregnant teen character is supposed to be funny, says, “Oh, it’s one of those relevant ones. You know, generation gap, my father is a hardhat, my mother’s into women’s lib.” Yes, we know. These were the shows that put CBS at the top of the ratings at the time. This conversation is delivered on the porch of a house, and then they walk inside and close the door to speak more confidentially, and then the camera pulls back to reveal it as a false front. They’re still outdoors. It speaks nicely to the larger point that all fronts are false here, or as one character states, everyone lies, even to themselves.


By the way, with its Hollywood setting, this episode shows the Los Angeles Criminal Court exterior where Perry Mason hung out, and for all we know might use the same set. Come to think of it, every episode seems to use the same courtroom set, even though the stories take place in different cities. That’s really okay, since no matter whether it’s supposed to be New York or Washington D.C., the exteriors always seem to have palm trees and bungalows.


Both Hawkins and Perry Mason are defense lawyers, but the resemblance ends there. The aggressively non-colorful Mason virtually never puts his defendants on the stand, while Hawkins initially depends on grilling his own clients or otherwise impeaching his own witnesses, the better to wander into the kind of speechifying and out-of-order procedures that even Mason reins in. Even as Hawkins dithers his way to wry one-liners that cause appreciative chuckles from the jury (“Sorry, your honor”), the judge and prosecutor rarely object as strenuously as they should, knowing their proper status as virtual extras.


The next episode, “Die, Darling, Die” (mis-titled on IMDB) is based on Karp’s story but scripted by Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon. This time the pre-credit sequence is wordless, mysterious, subdued, and there’s no question that the soon-to-be widow is choosing not to give her husband his meds. The sensitive spotlight is on Julie Harris throughout this one, as she gets in Billy Jim’s way by refusing to testify or make any statement. She spends the whole show looking pained and forlorn.


This is the first of three episodes directed by Paul Wendkos, a TV giant with many notable TV movies and series. He narrowly avoided being classed as an auteur for a handful of interesting features, leading Andrew Sarris to list him in The American Cinema among the “oddities” with a career “consistent only in its inconsistency”. Focusing on his TV work, however, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi in The American Vein call him “perhaps the most impressively ‘personal’ of all directors”, notable for “a clinical detachment from his characters… His analytic view intensifies the feeling that we are watching insects under a microscope. . . Wendkos’ framing of a cold world is usually meticulously correct, frustratingly proper… Surprisingly, for a director involved with action pictures, he understands the women who move in the predominantly men’s world with which he deals”.


All this is clearer in his TV movies, though it’s relevant to this episode’s emphasis on the implosive, long-suffering women (Harris, Diana Douglas) and also his episodes of Harry O (reviewed by PopMatters here). In reference to the microscope, the aforementioned silent pre-credit sequence uses wide lenses to offer a warped, fisheye effect in certain shots, so yes, it’s like studying wildlife. (Wicking and Vahimagi weren’t even aware of Wendkos’ work on Hawkins.)


Wendkos’ association with Karp goes back to the highly regarded TV movie The Brotherhood of the Bell, a conspiracy thriller written and produced by Karp based on his 1953 paperback novel The Brotherhood of Velvet, which was misleadingly marketed in the wave of “homosexual sleaze” or “queer pulps” with provocative covers. The novel does have a closeted secret, which links it to the episode “Death in Movieland” mentioned above. (If you find a copy of that novel cheap, grab it.) Karp had previously adapted his book for a 1958 installment of Studio One.


The next episode, “A Life for a Life”, returns to the Karp/Taylor partnership. The intriguing backdrop is a university’s psychological experiments that may have driven a studen to suicide, and this feeds into Karp the novelist’s recurring theme of institutions and organizations that attempt to control the individual. It seems to have been the subject of most of his books. In this one, William Windom gets to play Julie Harris and run through the whole pathetic gauntlet of anger and denial and self-flagellation (Billy Jim has to keep him off the stand too), while a hostile young Tyne Daly seems scary and capable of anything.


Admirably, these episodes play fair with the audience in that after Hawkins shows up, the narrative confines itself entirely to what’s seen and heard by him or his surrogate—one relative or another that he drags along on every case to serve as an investigator. However, “A Life for a Life” does contain an exception, one gratuitous confrontation outside of Billy Jim’s knowledge to mislead and confuse the audience. That’s a misstep because we should never know more than Billy Jim, but perhaps Karp felt the mystery was too obvious otherwise, or maybe it was just padding, or maybe it gives the episode a bit of juice, or all of the above. You could argue that “it works”, but it steps outside the elegance of a fair mystery.


Billy Jim’s relations include his cousin Raymond or R.J. Hawkins (Strother Martin), who acts as his foil by being a bigger hick. “I AM a hick, and so are you,” says R.J. to Billy Jim in the first episode. R.J. is also the deputy (later sheriff) back home in Beauville, which must not make too many demands on his time as he shows up in five episodes. Nephew and journalist Jeremiah Stocker (Mayf Nutter) appears thrice, nephew and law student Earl Coleman (James Hampton) twice.


They all show up in “Blood Feud”, a Karp/Wendkos outing (more wide angle lenses) set in Billy Jim’s home town of Beauville, where he keeps his office. Now that we get a look at this hamlet, which seems no bigger than Mayberry, it’s less convincing that Hawkins is renowned as the country’s murder specialist. (Populated by a handful of white folks, it looks as much like a lived-in Southern town as any clean, picturesque Hollywood backlot.) As one of Billy Jim’s aunts, Jeanette Nolan does one of her patented fire-breathing old ladies, whose favorite son (hated by all) gets himself killed at a Civil War charade. The theme of this episode is borrowed from Faulkner’s oft-quoted observation about the past not even being past. It also illustrates Billy Jim’s repeated maxim that more murders are committed for love than hate.


“Murder in the Slave Trade” is the provocative title for a story set in the world of pro football (and in which all the characters are white), where a murdered owner is portrayed as a kind of fatcat Simon Legree. Wendkos injects a few subjective moments and some nice all-encompassing shots to avoid ping-pong close-ups. This is one of two episodes scripted by the prolific Robert Hamner, who produced and created the police show S.W.A.T.. (Beware: the IMDB has him confused with Robert Hammer, a man known exclusively for the horror film Don’t Answer the Phone.)


The last of the Karp/Taylor’s, “Murder on the 13th Floor” opens in an especially bizarre and disorienting manner as it shows something surprisingly horrific. The show is stolen by Jeff Corey as an eccentric shut-in who bitterly rants against modern civilization with its filth and vermin. He puts the capper on this sour outing set in a New York hotel housing wasted and tragic lives under its genteel veneer and yellow wallpaper. It’s run by the only woman (Teresa Wright) whom Billy Jim wanted to marry.


Peopled by veteran stars (including Signe Hasso, Kurt Kasznar and Albert Paulsen, all of whom have elegant immigrant accents), this angriest episode presents a grim picture of rotting or callow youth surrounded by impotent oldsters, and in this it recalls “Blood Feud”. These are the inverse of the episodes in which youth rages against oppression by the old. The closer we look at the series, the more prominent are the themes of tension between generations and unholy pacts of mutual exploitation.


For this episode, executive producer Norman Felton is also credited as a producer along with Karp, while in the next, final episode, “Candidate for Murder”, Felton takes sole producer credit and Karp seems to be out. Felton’s illustrious resumé at MGM-TV includes Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant (also available from Warner Archive), and a forgotten but intriguing psychiatric drama called The Eleventh Hour (which we’d love to see available).


Did Karp really leave the series? We don’t know, but it’s a mediocre finalé. Scripted by Hamner and directed by Robert Scheerer, it has a completely mundane opening sequence and the episode as a whole is routine. Without the brooding, almost oppressive approach of Taylor and Wendkos’ direction, which prefer lengthy shots and wide angles, and without Karp’s penchant with self-flagellating characters who dig deeply into their own misery, we only have a bunch of superficial suspects talking to each other in discrete close-ups and Billy Jim getting on his high horse, now and then.


Scheerer is an accomplished director of musical and comedy programs, although his resumé later branched out to everything from Star Trek: The Next Generation to a good run on Matlock (you could see that coming). Here his work is purely functional and may have been rushed. One attempt at a large composition, as Hawkins confronts a union leader and they look like distant sticks in hardhats, is misjudged as well as contrived.


What sort of fish was this Karp anyway? He was a novelist who broke into live anthology series of the ‘50s and then high-profile dramas like The Untouchables and The Defenders. His New York Times obituary (20 September 1999) compares him to colleagues Paddy Chayevsky, Horton Foote, and Reginald Rose in tackling social issues. It further states:


Mr. Karp’s television play ‘‘One’’ told of the ordeal of a college professor striving for free expression at a future time when the state is supreme and all traces of individuality have been stamped out. ‘‘One’’ was based on his novel of the same name and was produced twice on television, on the Kraft Television Theater in 1955 and the Matinee Theater in 1957. [According to IMDB, it was also dramatized in England as an ITV Play of the Week in 1956.]... Other television dramas written by Mr. Karp dealt with themes like the dangerous power of political bosses (’‘The Big Vote’‘) [The Alcoa Hour, 1956], the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary (’‘The End of a World’‘) [Alcoa Premiere, 1961] and an episode from John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage [turned into a 1964-65 series] that involved a senator who held out against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. He also wrote ‘‘The Plot to Kill Stalin,’’ [Playhouse 90, 1958] naming several top Soviet leaders as conspirators.


With this background, one can understand why Karp was comfortable writing a detective show that emphasized long two-handed scenes and soul-searching monologues. He followed Hawkins by serving as executive producer on an even shorter-lived mystery, Archer (1975), starring Brian Keith as Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles detective. That show has no particular reputation, though we must wonder how it would play today.


Thanks to Warner Archive, we can now see all eight episodes of this utterly forgotten series in one handy package. While not at the top of the heap for its genre and era, it’s no disgrace, either. As whodunits, the construction is mediocre, but the show doesn’t neglect to base its tragedies on human sadness, which is taken seriously and essentially without exploitation or heart-tugging music.


Inevitably, a part of Hawkins charm for modern viewers is the parade of guests, who also include Kate Reid, Robert Webber, David Huddleston, Dana Elcar, Charles McGraw, Antoinette Bower, William Smithers, Sam Elliott, Henry Jones, Murray Hamilton, Jeanne Cooper, Lew Ayres, James Best, James Luisi, Dick Gautier, Peter Mark Richman, Herb Edelman, Russell Johnson, Harvey Lembeck, Paul Burke, John Ericson, Diana Hyland, Andrew Prine, Pernell Roberts, Gregory Sierra, and Ian Wolfe.


Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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