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M Squad: Clench-jawed and World-weary

Lee Marvin 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.

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.

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