More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

David Chase and "The Rockford Files" (Season 5, Episodes 9 & 10: "Black Mirror")

For me, one of the most heartbreaking episodes in all of television’s history is also one of the most unsung.

“Love is the Word”, Season 6, Episode 6 of the perennial private investigator program “The Rockford Files” was written by the sole mind behind “The Sopranos”, David Chase, and directed by one of that show’s greatest assets, John Patterson (he helmed every season closer up until his death of prostate cancer in 2005, “The Sopranos” sixth season finale being dedicated to his memory). It’s a story of the proclamation of a love delayed, as Jim Rockford (James Garner) visits his on-again, off-again psychologist girlfriend Megan Dougherty (Kathryn Harrold, of MODERN ROMANCE) only to discover that his complicated feelings towards her have gone undisclosed for too long, and it’s too late -- she’s set to marry another lover in the near future. He takes her out to a Barbara Mandrell concert, and the performance of one of her renditions stings him to the heart, bitterly. There is little to say on the drive home, and once Rockford’s back to his ramshackle trailer, Garner delivers in a prolonged, meditative sequence that wonderfully exhibits a pained sense of his rugged masculinity, of regret and longing, of kowtowing to the cinematic-archaic code of honor that states a man can’t reveal his true feelings, a code that probably has never existed in the first place. Garner’s so terrific in this episode - hell, in these first ten minutes (before the rote mystery plot kicks in) - that it reminds the viewer of what a privilege it is to see such a big-screen talent on the small screen.

So, as Season Six isn’t yet available on DVD, I retreated back last night to Season Five, almost magically selecting a “Rockford Files” at random, and figuring that the two-parter (read: 90 minutes) “Black Mirror” might be intriguing, I put it on. Credits rolled, and both Kathryn Harrold’s and David Chase’s names came up. It turns out, to my delight, that “Black Mirror” is the precursor to “Love is the Word” – the beginnings of a relationship told within the narrative of a standard private investigator tale that involves a madman terrorizing his blind psychologist.

It all starts out on a luminous Californian beach near Rockford’s home. Rockford literally stumbles onto a sunbathing Dougherty by the missing of a football catch thrown by his venerable pal Angel (Stuart Margolin). She refuses Rockford’s dinner invitations, but the two soon cross paths when one of Dougherty’s psychoanalytical patients begins stalking her, making threatening phone calls late at night (I could swear that former “Rockford Files” guest star Strother Martin was the culprit, by the throaty swagger in the voice of the first call; perhaps he was making an unbilled voice cameo?). Dougherty contacts Rockford after this sudden need of his peculiarly protective, investigative services, and the two are soon in the middle of an affair. She is fiercely combative of his suggestions that he read her patient confidentiality files in order to dig up a clue, but there is soon a break in the case when the bodyguard Rockford hires is assaulted, and an observer in the medical building spotted the assailant as he escaped.

The fact that Dougherty is blind is but an afterthought, only servicing to make her predicament that much more frightening in a WAIT UNTIL DARK fashion. Confusion is stirred at first, as Rockford doesn’t realize she’s without sight on the beach, causing for a jocularly played self-loathing scene where Garner questions whether it was his looks that made her decline his company for dinner. Harrold’s likewise adept in both parts of “Black Mirror”, suggesting a rigid independence and conquering of her so-called disability that can, at times, give way to an equally as strong self-conscious nagging, but only to parties she’s decided are trustworthy (in a frank scene, and the only one in which the origins of her impaired vision is broached, she explains to Jim a former fondness for letting go by driving fast in an open convertible; Jim relents, and borrows a convertible for this purpose). She speaks of the notion that this activity is freeing for her, as for blind people “walls” are the world, that running into one means you must back up and find your way all over again; driving fast means “there are no walls”.

Character actor Leo Gordon plays the bodyguard that Rockford entrusts with the safety of Dougherty, and his numbskull dialogue wouldn’t seem so out of place in the mouth of Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) from “The Sopranos”, as his double-breasted suit sums up his relentless but turgid energy and ‘40s gentlemanly appearance to a tee; “I bet I know what kind of music you like”, Gordon intones to Dougherty, after informing her that he’s terrified of revealing too much of his true character to even a psychologist off-duty -- “Stevie Wonder?”

After some lethargic attempts at fooling us with red herrings, the true identify of the psychopathic patient is revealed to be Danny Green/Jackie Tetuska (John Pleshette), a conflicted double personality between that of a shut-in loner and a contract killer well known in the underground circuits and amongst Rockford’s friends. A meeting is arranged through Rockford’s police cohort, Lieutenant Becker (Joe Santos, another staple of “The Sopranos), and Dougherty is placed with the man and his hitherto secret identity; Tetuska, the hit man portion of the split personality, is sincere in his statements that he doesn’t recall Dougherty. But some quick thinking on her part jogs his memories to background childhood details otherwise private; afterwards, he catches up to her, but is thwarted by Rockford.

Another aspect of “The Rockford Files” that I’ve always loved is the sense of Rockford’s backwoods network of Los Angeles denizens and close-knit, shady acquaintances. In one pithy, amusing scene, Rockford enlists the aid of a handwriting expert he knew in prison (the offender has left some scribbles on a matchbook inside Dougherty’s apartment). Informing Jim of the death of a mutual friend, Rockford begins to cheerily speak of the well doings of other inmates the two men both knew – before the handwriting expert interjects that those men have since died, too.

Director Arnold Laven (SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE with Dan Duryea and Walter Matthau; THE RACK with Paul Newman; and, perhaps most importantly, one proponent of the Levy-Gardner-Laven production company that spawned “The Rifleman” on television, and WHITE LIGHTNING and GATOR on the big screen) didn’t direct another “Rockford Files”, but he displays a flare for blue-mood lighting in the silent sequences that occur in the medical building as the troubled individual makes pointed attacks on Dougherty’s life. There’s almost an Italian giallo flourish in the generous splashes of bright color, making for an unrecognizable style from any other episode of the series that I’ve seen.

Chase, Garner, and Harrold would reunite one more time with this dynamic in Chase’s follow-up to “Love is the Word”, the tele-movie “Punishment and Crime” (1996). I haven't seen it, but as it’s apparently a reworking of the Fyodor Dostooyevsky novel that’s reversed in the title, I’m sure it’s of further interest and I look forward to catching up to it once Universal gets to releasing the made-for-TV films.

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Anonymous Richard Stout said...

1930's Bulldog Drummand star John Howard did NOT play the bodyguard that Rockford entrusts with the safety of Dr. Dougherty in "Black Mirror." Tough guy character actor Leo Gordon played Charles Martell, the big, beefy bodyguard hired by Rockford. Howard is credited as playing "Mort."

2:35 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

I've made the necessary changes. Thanks for writing in.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Korman said...

I have a vivid memory of stumbling across that episode on cable a few years back. Early in part II, I realized that in almost every scene together the show signaled their rapport by having them share a cigarette. One would light a cigarette, smoke a few puffs, then set it in the ashtray; the other would pick it up, smoke it, then return it.

There wasn't any attention called to this at all — you could easily have missed that it was happening — it was just a subtle grace note ... that must have been very tricky to stage without screwing up the continuity. Beautiful.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Mattie said...

This episode (Black Mirror) sounds amazing... is there anyplace online I could find it? Oh gosh, I'd really like to see it!

3:47 AM  
Blogger aaron said...

I can't say I know of a place to watch it online - but I do know it's out on DVD. Netflix should carry it (I believe it's on disc 3).

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Mattie said...

Okay, thanks for the info! :)

3:09 PM  
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7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished the two parter "Black Mirror" and have to agree it is the best Rockford episode ever! No doubt the subtleties were lost on me as a teenager, but it is such smart writing and Rockford is such an endearing good guy.

11:04 PM  
Blogger William Lenz said...

In Megan's dream, what was meant by "OK miss, go and stand with the group that has made it"? Rockford told her he would be in that group too but to me, I don't think he meant it.

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