M Squad isn’t Dragnet but at first they seem very similar. Dragnet was a radio and TV hit that painted the policeman’s lot in low-key quotidian terms; the cop’s job was a round of procedural shoe leather as he investigated all kinds of complaints. One prominent feature was its hero’s laconic narration, filled with bureaucratic repetition and jargon.
M Squad borrows that type of narration, inspired partly by radio and partly by pulp fiction, and the pseudo-realist sense of daily life as a weary cop just does his job. Then it injects a healthy dose of melodrama into the formula. The plots always involve serious crime, often murder—even serial killers and psychos—just to prove they had those back in the late ‘50s, too. Despite what some sources claim, the M doesn’t stand for murder; it might mean miscellaneous, though nobody ever clarifies. The squad can work on any case in the city and usually assists other departments; the majority of plots happen to involve murder or the potential for it, which is one way the show ratchets up the melodrama.
M Squad: The Complete Series
(NBC; US DVD: 11 Nov 2008)
M Squad always opens with a brief scene that hooks the viewer with some threat or outbreak of violence. After this curtain-raiser comes the dry, world-weary narration of our hero, who always identifies himself for those who came in late as “Frank Ballinger, Detective Lieutenant M Squad, a special detail of the Chicago police.” Usually we first glimpse him driving his car on his way to a call, and his narration serves as a procedural bridge throughout the story, letting us know the results of lab tests and round-ups and other nuts and bolts of investigation.
We learn that fingerprints are swiftly and surely identified and that laundry has invisible marks required by law. A good portion of the show features location shots of all kinds of Chicago exteriors used for these transitions; sometimes these are recycled as we see Ballinger walking into work or pausing thoughtfully over a railroad bridge as his narration wraps things up with a homily about “my town”.
Despite these declarations from the show’s moral center, the plot doesn’t necessarily follow Ballinger’s point of view. Sometimes the story confines itself mostly to his investigation of a mystery, but usually it shifts back and forth among the shenanigans of the week’s miscreants and victims, thus giving us a picture of more interesting characters than the interchangeable law enforcers in fedoras which, typically for this era, are justice-machines with only a desultory reference to private lives. (We do know, however, that the single Ballinger is a ladies’ man prepared to cock a jagged eyebrow at the week’s damsel.)
The parade of guttersnipes, demimondaines, the working class, the middle genteels and the Gold Coast privelegees plays well off of Ballinger, because Lee Marvin successfully embodies the show’s moral spine. He almost floats through his space, bending his graying hatchet-head forward on his tall lanky body, his loose limbs on the point of uncoiling into savagery when some mug pulls a rod or throws a punch. He’s a dangerous gentleman. Repartee via fists and guns are a necessary cliché of such shows and often a tiresome, ham-handed one, but Marvin’s explosiveness often gives these moments the cathartic power they’re supposed to have, but don’t, on lesser shows.
Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims Marvin owned 50 percent of the series. Does that mean Marvin owned Latimer Productions? This is the only show it produced. If true, this project was the actor’s canny repositioning of his image from bad guy to hero. He’d become established as a supporting antagonist on the big screen, including several significant titles: The Big Heat, The Wild One, The Caine Mutiny, Bad Day at Black Rock, Seven Men from Now and the underrated Violent Saturday. His three seasons on this 1957-60 series proved he could carry the action sympathetically by leavening his trademark toughness with gruff sensitivity. He was in his 30s, but on this show he looks 10 or 20 years older. A few years later, he picked up an Oscar and a career breakthrough via the comedy Cat Ballou.
The other series regular is Paul Newlan as Captain Grey, the worn, aging superior at M Squad. Less a character than a purely expository function, Grey has conversations with Ballinger that explain what everyone knows and acts as a sounding board while the latter thinks out loud with his unerring instincts for who’s telling the truth. For this purpose, Grey even appears useless to the point of incompetence, because he’s stuck being the guy who always has to draw Ballinger out by disagreeing with him—“You’re crazy, Frank, it just doesn’t make sense, it’s open and shut”—before finally nodding and saying “Okay, go ahead”. It was a paycheck.
After the first several episodes, the series began to show a knack for tightly plotted little half-hours with a not-always-predictable twist or two along the way. It provides many good examples of the get-in and get-out school of half-hour drama. Why have we abandoned this form?
M Squad wasn’t an especially violent show at first, though the quotient of bluntly presented depredations rises noticeably in Season Two until we eventually rise to such heights as a hand grenade tossed at a guy in a hammock. Some of the episodes about mobsters look like variants from The Untouchables. One show about juvenile delinquents has some especially startling bits of brutality, including a defenestration and the looming presence of a buzz-saw.
That episode, with guests Tom Laughlin (future star of the Billy Jack movies) as a teen thug and Burt Reynolds as a mixed-up “kid” who feels torn between gang loyalties and the straight life represented by his girlfriend, embodies the show’s own schizoid tone. An attitude of almost truculent law-enforcement against degenerate types, which derives mostly from its mytho-pulp origins, is balanced against a socially-conscious impulse to recognize liberal, progressive ideologies about therapy, poverty, insanity, etc. That’s why this entry wraps up with Ballinger’s semi-inappropriate assurance: “Now the city is tearing down the slums. Soon better housing will give better breaks to other boys growing up here.”
Cabrini-Green is on the horizon, though not his; black folks are mighty scarce in Frank’s town. Most of the characters have bland WASP names at one remove from Smith and Jones, with certain nationalities (e.g., Polish) thrown in for flavor. Season Three has a couple of Japanese witnesses. One is played by Tetsu Komai, who’d been all over Hollywood as stereotyped Asian villains in the ‘30s; this was his final TV role.
The truculent side is at its sourest in the episode where our hero is hampered by a meddling liberal-female journalist who, fortunately, learns her lesson amid personal danger and is rewarded with a date with Ballinger. However, that story contrasts nicely with a more satisfying and ambiguous third-season episode where Ballinger is again pestered by a woman reporter, and this time all parties are forced to revise their impressions in a cleverly twisty plot.
That episode, “Badge for a Coward”, convincingly explores the “everyone means well yet everyone is wrong” theme. It’s one of several directed by noted character actor Paul Stewart, an Orson Welles discovery, and at one point he employs the traditional yet cute transition of a flash that freezes the image and then pulls back to reveal it as a photo. By the way, this is one of two episodes starring a grinning, unhinged Leonard Nimoy; in the other, he and James Coburn play brother arsonists.
Still, the show’s most abiding irritation is that recurrent anxiety about successful women. Weak pathetic guys often blame their problems on their overbearing mothers and wives, including one near-outrageous first-seasoner (“Shakedown”) where the successful strong businesswoman shows amazing backbone against blackmail, only to find out her husband is guilty and blames her for it, an attitude Ballinger reinforces. The most admired women are those who show faith and loyalty to their man.
There are some exceptions, however, such as the slightly ambiguous but wise and likeable bar owner (there are a lot of female bar owners on this show) played by Rose Marie in “The System”. That episode also has a role for Ann Doran, known forever as James Dean’s mom in Rebel without a Cause and thus another of the era’s prototypical castratrixes, though here she’s merely a snooty society woman in a shady deal. The episode is further notable for co-writer Bernard C. Schoenfeld. He was probably the only Oscar-nominated writer on this series, and this is unfortunately his only contribution. He provided screenplays for Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady), Josef von Sternberg (Macao) and Douglas Sirk (There’s Always Tomorrow) and many scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Speaking of systems, some episodes about woman criminals transcend misogyny and rise into the corrupt territory of femme fatales, whose amorality makes them infinitely more interesting (and implicitly critical) than the merely overbearing females. One example is about a deadly mother-daughter duo, “The Harpies”, written by veteran TV crime scripter Robert C. Dennis and directed by Fletcher Markle, who worked with Orson Welles on radio and became an early TV producer. (At one time he was married to Mercedes McCambridge, who knew something about fierce dames.)