[1 February 2009]
Sorry, John McCain, but Joe Mannix is the original maverick. “I guess I’ve always been a loner,” the LA private investigator confesses in the season two opener, explaining why he left the PI firm Intertect, his employer for most of the first season. Mannix (Mike Connors) would work out of his home for the rest of the series’ eight-year run (1967-75), assisted by girl Friday Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), who manages the office, tracks down leads, and engages in occasional undercover work, when she isn’t being kidnapped or menaced by villains.
The show is known for its violence, and each episode features an extended car chase, gun battle, or fistfight. Mannix receives his share of lickings, and seems to have particularly bad luck behind the wheel. In one episode a saboteur disables his brakes and Mannix careens out of control down a winding road; in another he rolls his ride when a chase ends at a road-closed barrier. A bruised and dusty Mannix walking away from the smoking remains of his car became a signature shot in the series.
Mannix has more at his disposal than his fists, sidearm, or convertible, however. With his crooked smile, he talks his way out of danger, or charms unsuspecting bartenders, dancers, clerks, or wise guys out of information crucial to a case. And while he may bend the law in the service of his clients (breaking and entering is an almost weekly offense), he always obeys its spirit. All hard-boiled detectives adhere to a code, and Mannix has a well-developed good Samaritan side. Open-minded and fair, he sticks up for the little guy, waving his fee when a client can’t afford it.
Mannix embodies the integrationist trend of late-‘60s television. Connors’ own history no doubt sensitized him to racial and ethnic difference (he was born Krekor Ohanian to Armenian parents in Fresno), and he and series developer Bruce Geller lobbied producers to cast African American Fisher as Peggy.
The move paid off. Fisher, who won an Emmy for her work on the series (the first black actress to garner the award), stayed with the show until it ended. Race and ethnicity figure in several season two plots. In the finale, “To Catch a Rabbit”, Mannix exonerates a young Latino wrongly accused of murder. “Who Will Dig Their Graves” moves from the home of a millionaire businessman to a Navajo reservation. Mannix even utters some passable Spanish and learns how to say goodbye in Navajo. Of course these episodes recapitulate some stereotypes, but the series earns points for grappling with contentious issues of the day.
The show also reflects ‘60s cinema’s rejection of studio-enforced rules of continuity editing. Gone are the static shots of earlier series like Dragnet, replaced by much livelier camera work. Extreme close-ups, lens flares, canted angles, circling shots, out-of-focus fade-ins, aerial shots, and backward-zoom establishing shots reinforce the suspense at key moments, and, while they date the show, they also give it a surprising vitality after 40 years.
In the teaser for “Death in a Minor Key”, shots of jazz musicians alternate with shots representing the POV of the cornet player Gabe (Yaphet Kotto) until his gaze, and the camera, fix on Peggy at a table in the front row. Later in the episode, when Mannix is being shadowed in a lumberyard, a vertiginous POV shot captures tumbling boxes aimed at Mannix, and a tracking shot reveals the stalker reflected in a puddle.
Lalo Schifrin’s theme song sets the tone for the jazzy scoring in season two (Shifrin also wrote the themes to Mission: Impossible and Starsky and Hutch). Atmospheric percussion, spooky flutes, dissonant horns, hip bongos, and the occasional creepy harpsicord follow Mannix through his adventures. “Death in a Minor Key” includes some great jazz by Gabe’s group; unfortunately, no musicians are named in the episode’s credits. While the DVD case claims that some music has been changed, reviewers have maintained that CBS transferred the scores as originally aired.
Students of ‘60s pop should note that the show indulges in the mid-‘60s vogue for incorporating performances by pop acts into episodes. In “Who Will Dig Their Graves”, psychedelic band The Peppermint Trolley Company (responsible for the theme songs to Love, American Style and The Brady Bunch) sing “Trust”; their sound, as well as their ruffled shirts and cast-off Sgt. Pepper jackets, remind modern viewers that the ‘60s happened a long, long time ago. A better performance follows, when Harry Dean Stanton, as the owner of a recording studio, sings the first verse of “Black, Black, Black is My True Love’s Hair” to his own guitar accompaniment.
Episodes provide plenty of hard-boiled dialog—“I can’t hear you Mannix, so stop chewing on my ear!”; “I’m a private investigator, all I want to do is talk to the lady”; “It’s a hand-varnished all-wood frame!”, as well as Age of Aquarius hipsterisms—“I’m sorry, I’ve gotta blow”, “If you’re looking for grass, try the park”; “She was a turned-on chick, man.”
Season two welcomes series regulars Sgt. George Kramer (Larry Linville), Lt. Dave Angstrom (Frank Campenella), and Lt. Adam Tobias (Robert Reed), the latter unconvincing as a cop, especially in interrogations (as Mike Brady, he would give sterner lectures to Greg and Marcia). Guest stars include faces familiar to fans of ‘60s and ‘70s episodic television—Sheree North, Hugh Beaumont, Richard Anderson, Jill Ireland, and George Savalas—as well as better known stars like Sally Kellerman, Paul Winfield, Slim Pickens, and Cloris Leachman.
Although a scene here and there appears not to have been restored, the episodes look and sound great. Viewers hoping for extras will be disappointed; there aren’t any. The first season DVD set has plenty, though, including the series pilot, a promo spot for the show, and interviews with Connors and other cast members.