Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: M Squad (1957)

M Squad

Debut: September 20, 1957
Starring:  Lee Marvin, Paul Newlan
Synopsis: The hard-boiled adventures of Lieutenant Frank Ballinger, a member of the Chicago Police Department's M Squad, an elite crime-busting unit.

Trey: M Squad ran from September 1957 to June 1960 on NBC. It starred Lee Marvin (in his debut as a lead) as the tough-as-nails Frank Ballinger. In the 2nd and 3rd season, it had a theme music composed by Count Basie. 

We found several episodes on YouTube and watched episode 37 in season 2 from June 12, 1959. It's called "Decoy in White" and has M Squad investigating the murder the owner of a chemical company ties in to a mob money laundering scheme. Bellinger has to protect a young woman who was an unwitting accomplice to the lethal ambush and who grabbed a double sawbuck from the scene that could expose the whole criminal enterprise.

An interesting note, The show's main sponsor was Pall Mall cigarettes who Marvin did promotional spots for. 

Jason: The past is a foreign country! Back to that Bassie theme, it really sets the tone for this debauched noir-adjacent world of men's men, smooth swindlers, stone cold killers, and platinum blondes. Notably, a young John Williams also contributed jazzy musical cues to M Squad over the course of its run.

Trey: Interesting! I think Marvin is great in this episode. He's already got the screen presence he;s going to take into his tough guy movie roles. And that "menacing purr" (as I read one reviewer described it) of his line delivery.

Jason: I totally agree. That trademark presence is fully developed and deployed to excellent effect. His speedily delivered, information-packed voiceover narration is a vital element of the condensed storytelling, but still manly as hell. 

Trey: Admittedly, there isn't a lot to it here. The story seems a bit simple maybe to those of us weaned on hour long dramas. But you know, I'm sort of sorry this format didn't hang around. It gets to the point and doesn't skimp on the action!

Jason: The plot is king here - we've only got 25 minutes to cram in all the beats required to get us to the climactic (and spectacular) beat-down. There is no time for character development or delving into the various characters' lives. The cast must deliver lines almost entirely devoted to advancing the plot, injecting whatever personality they can manage with scant moments of screentime. It's a bit jarring, but I have to agree that it works!

Trey: The platinum blonde, Judy Bamber, plays the young woman, Kitty Osborne. IMDB describes her as a "lovely, buxom, and shapely blonde bombshell" which is perhaps a bit repetitive, but I can't fault its accuracy! I recall her from Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Jason: Her performance here is almost as hard-boiled as Marvin's. A moment that raised at least one of my eyebrows: when Kitty produces her birth certificate for Bellinger's examination, fearful that he will declare her unfit to conduct her own life and ship her back to her parents for much-needed supervision. Or something!

Trey: Good thing she kept it handy!

Jason: Though produced in the late 1950s, the shadow of WWII hangs over this hyper-masculine entertainment. Bellinger (and presumably many of the tough guys of a certain age he encounters) is a veteran of the War, specifically the South Pacific Theater, where he learned about karate, which (as presented) was still regarded as novel and exotic. Bellinger calls it "the most vicious form of hand-to-hand combat known to man." 

Trey: Maybe I should take my daughter out of those after school classes?

Jason: Or up the frequency?

Trey: Is it just me or are TV fight scenes just better with a jazzy soundtrack?

Jason: You are not alone! And what a fight scene! Revolvers are emptied, karate chops land with devastating effect, both combatants are staggered, and only old-fashioned, straight ahead American body blows can bring down a convincingly powerful foe like character actor Mike Mazurki. 

For me this show was entertaining on multiple levels. I am left with an urge to find more, especially episodes featuring some of the impressive list of guest stars like DeForest Kelly, Burt Reynolds, and Leonard Nimoy.

Trey: It's well worth a few more action-packed half hours!

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