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.)
Count Basie Snazzy and Brassy
Image from M Squad fan / retro police site
The second season is when the show adopts a snazzy, brassy theme by Count Basie to symbolize Chicago with its ambience of jazz clubs, which provide frequent characters and plot locales. (Basie’s theme was more or less parodied as the theme for the ‘80s spoof series Police Squad, which led to the Naked Gun movies.) Until this point, the only music credit had gone to Stanley Wilson, who was listed as Music Supervisor (and frequently not listed at all). This implies he was in charge of plugging in cues from a music library rather than composing new music for the show, although the accompanying CD soundtrack does credit him with several cues. If he did write new music in the first season, it must have been written to resemble bland library cues, although the subpar audio and video on these prints does the music no favors.
As of Season Two, the new theme kicks in and the show begins listing a composer credit for each episode, with Wilson still receiving his Supervisor credit further down the list. The episode scores come from a variety of people, with jazzman Benny Carter getting a lion’s share. John (usually listed as Johnny) Williams, Buddy Bregman, Alexander Courage, Ernest Gold and Herman Stein are among the soundtrack all-stars, and the score does indeed ramp up the intrigue, often becoming cool or teasing. The song “A Lady Sings the Blues” (credited to Wilson and Sonny Burke) is featured in two episodes, apparently in the attempt to make a hit.
At the end of the second season, Robert Bassler takes over as producer from John Larkin and the already clever scripts become wittier in dialogue and character portrayals. “The Dangerous Game” extends its wit to the complicated mix of characters working at cross-purposes as a savvy switchboard operator becomes a wild card in the plot. This show was written by Frank L. Moss and directed by Bretaigne Windust, a major director of Broadway hits (e.g., Life with Father) who finished inauspiciously in TV.
Maxwell Shane produced and sometimes scripted the third and final season, and several modifications can be noticed. The show develops a self-conscious transitional device in which a character’s gesture is used to cut from one scene to the next. This is a sign that the show was beginning to notice and exploit its own coolness. Next, the show indulges more lengthy character moments that have nothing to do with moving the plot forward; these can be comic or pathetic.
Finally, our man Ballinger becomes even more of an action hero. He had frequently gone undercover, being a convincing underworld menace or good-time charlie until he lowered the boom in the last scene. Now suddenly he’s involved in speedboat chases, carrying ticking bombs, being held hostage, or being handcuffed to a building about to blow up in an especially suspenseful sequence.
Shane had written and directed a handful of interesting movies, including two paranoid Cornell Woolrich adaptations, Fear in the Night and Nightmare (one a remake of the other). His longest association was as a writer for the long-running radio series Big Town, about a crusading journalist; later he served as a producer for Boris Karloff’s TV anthology Thriller.
Herman Hoffman, who would helm a notable Thriller for Shane, was one of the most important directors for the last season of M Squad, along with the aforementioned Stewart. (Hoffman is also known for The Invisible Boy with Robby the Robot.) “A Gun for Mother’s Day” is something of a tour-de-force. The villainess is a striking, no-nonsense hillbilly knock-off on Ma Barker who keeps her grinning son in tow, but the show is dominated by the comic stylings of Marvin Kaplan as a holdup victim. He launches into epics of character behavior as he complains about his suspicious wife. The other character in the plot also has problems stemming from a violent woman. This festival of female trouble was, like the above-mentioned “Badge for a Coward” and along with a third episode, co-written by the obscure Jay D. Crowley; these are his only credits on IMDB.
This is the season where we get an episode about Ballinger’s evil lookalike—a device already used in an earlier episode with two characters played Jim Davis (Jock Ewing of Dallas). Surely there’s a limit on this gag. And yet something nice is done with it. Ballinger spends many episodes undercover; here he’s masquerading as a self he really might have been, and the fate of his double is a moment of pulp-existentialist poetry that hits him. This is one of the episodes directed by former actor Don Taylor, who helmed some horror films and one of the most celebrated segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.
The big problem with this box, which astonishingly contains the complete series of 117 episodes on 15 discs, is the quality of the prints. We’ve been spoiled by the pristine condition of contemporary shows on DVD—I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, etc.—M Squad has evidently been licensed by an independent company with the cooperation of NBC/Universal, but we must suppose they didn’t have access to original prints, and certainly not negatives.
These seem to be syndication copies which fade out suspiciously in the middle of sentences for commercial breaks, or before the credits are over. The best (mostly in Season Three) are acceptable, the worst (too many) are dark, faded, smeary eye- and ear-sores. The publicity states that they couldn’t even locate all the episodes at first but have borrowed some from private collectors who apparently taped reruns off the air. This is what you’re getting.
Perhaps this was unavoidable but we can’t stress enough the difference between inferior presentation and optimal; it’s nothing less than the difference between appreciating the show’s visual style and not knowing that it has one. For example, if shots fade in and out of focus to suggest the POV of a wounded man, as happens in a third-season episode about an armored car robbery, it’s helpful to begin with a clear picture. On the episodes in better shape, it’s possible to recognize certain smooth felicities of composition and movement, not to mention lighting and shadow. Not that the show ever looks like it was shot by James Wong Howe or Sven Nykvist, but veteran B-film directors like John Brahm are trying to inject some unpretentious efficiency into the proceedings, and bad prints often nullify their efforts.
The first-season “Lover’s Lane Killing” is directed by the young Robert Altman, though this unremarkable episode (with another spoiled shady dame) is in no way Altmanesque in style. It’s scripted by Joel Murcott, the show’s most prolific writer.
Another early episode, “The Watchdog”, is from worthwhile B-stylist Robert Florey (The Beast with Five Fingers), but it’s impossible to distinguish anything remarkable here. The story, about the search for a man with rabies, is written by Douglas Heyes, who directed the campy Ann-Margret favorite Kitten with a Whip and important episodes of The Twilight Zone (including the famous “Eye of the Beholder”) and Thriller. This episode is a unique collaboration between these cult figures.
Perhaps most surprisingly, “Mr. Grim’s Rabbits”, about illegal trade in fetal sealskin (with another sleek, rich, viperous female) is directed by David Butler, known for musicals with Shirley Temple and Doris Day. He later migrated to Leave It to Beaver.
Other directors include Don Medford (who did significant live TV work), Sidney Lanfield (best known for Bob Hope comedies and TV’s The Addams Family), Bernard Girard, and David Lowell Rich. Several episodes are from Francis D. Lyon, recalled more or less with affection for the horror clinkers Cult of the Cobra and Castle of Evil (and more charitably for Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase); he was an Oscar-winning editor. Busy TV director Robert Ellis Miller had a sporadic big-screen career highlighted by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. One Season Three show, “The Velvet Stakeout”, is handled by William Witney, the king of serials and B westerns.
Other writers include prolific TV vets Jack Laird (who later produced Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and Kojak), Stuart Jerome (prolific on the anti-commie propaganda I Led Three Lives), Rik Vollaerts (while writing for the concurrent Highway Patrol), Wilton Schiller (later producer of The Fugitive and Mannix) and Merwin Gerard (significant as creator and associate producer of the early supernatural anthology One Step Beyond). Jerry Sohl, known later for science fiction and horror, seems to have gotten his earliest credit for the episode where Ballinger spends the whole show as a hostage in one room.
Before Captain Grey settled into his position (or M Squad into a regular office), Morris Ankrum showed up in four of the earliest episodes as a supervisor sometimes called Inspector Dean, sometimes Captain Dean. In fact, Grey is sometimes called Inspector in his early appearances too; someone must have been unclear about ranks. DeForest Kelley is in three episodes as Sgt. Miller. Middle-aged character actress Claire Carleton and pretty leading lady Gail Kobe each play different roles in four episodes, and other actors sometimes pop in more than once.
Memorable guests include squeaky-voiced character actor Percy Helton as a sleazy blind man, Jack Elam and Dick Miller as robbers turned home invaders, Charles Bronson as a boxer, Howard McNear already doing a version of his Floyd-the-Barber shtick, Herschel Bernardi as an icy yet dumpy hitman, and balding heavy-lidded milquetoast Robert H. Harris in two roles: a nebbish in the death house, and, with his Donald Pleasence vibe turned counter-clockwise, a vicious smuggler.
Other familiar faces include Angie Dickinson, Mike Connors, Bobby Driscoll, Werner Klemperor, Bruce Gordon, Kevin Hagen, Lawrence Dobkin, Whit Bissell, Raymond Bailey, Lyle Talbot, Bethel Leslie, Janice Rule, Ruta Lee, Jacques Aubuchon, Gloria Talbott (I Married a Monster from Outer Space !), Sarah Selby, Philip Ober, Kent Smith, Harry Lauter, Ed Nelson, John Hoyt, Paula Raymond, Ross Martin, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Luana Anders, Jocelyn Brando, Marion Ross, Mike Mazurki, Madlyn Rhue, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Quinn, Carol Ohmart, Joanna Barnes, Whitney Blake, Malcolm Atterbury, Jimmy Lydon, Joe Flynn, Jeanne Cooper, Alan Hale Jr., Dennis Patrick, Peter Brocco, Les Tremayne, Bert Freed, and Richard Deacon.