The Rockford Files (1974-80)


Finally available on DVD is some sublime entertainment: The Rockford Files, a series of 118 episodes aired on TV from 1974-80.

By way of approach:

On page one of Raymond Chandler’s first of his four great detective novels, The Big Sleep, Marlowe, just admitted by the butler and waiting to be announced, stands in the enormous main hallway of General Sternwood’s mansion and immediately notices:

“Over the entrance doors…was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.”

Chandler, one of our best novelists, is simultaneously seminal about the modern sleuth and timeless in all story traditions in this magnificent passage in which, out of countless possibilities, he has the instinctively observant Marlowe look up at that stained-glass window with its frozen scene, frozen all the better to make sure it imprints our consciousnesses (just like those occasional pictures of key moments you suddenly page to in old novels published in the nineteenth century and which modernists like Faulkner achieve by painting static word pictures which, in the manner of the old drawings [as well as in the manner of the freeze-frame in movies], stamp your mind with definitive, characteristic, pivotal moments in the action).  Accordingly, Chandler uses that stained-glass window to clue us about the murderess, the who in the whodunnit in this marvel of a story, she of the long hair who has a habit of disrobing and is tied in knots by her craziness–literally of the mouth-foaming kind–whose healing would defy the most skilled therapists and an alluring threat who shouldn’t in almost any sense be unbound. (Of course, we can’t fully consciously know that revelation on page one, nor would we want to since it would undermine the suspenseful drama about to carry us along; but Chandler shows here that “subliminal clue” is just current jargon for a very old device of scribblers. Call it one of the storyteller’s ancient devices to “set-up” his or her listener. Which means: There are few really new tricks in storytelling.)

Apropos, as Pico Iyer, the travel writer, reminds us in a wonderful piece on Raymond Chandler sometime back in The New York Review, “The Knight of Hollywood Boulevard,” Chandler went to public school in Great Britain and, absorbing the old books of the Heroic Canon–El Cid, The Song of Roland, the Arthurian Legend, Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, Don Quixote and ilk–knew that the ancestors of Marlowe (Marlowe is named after a hall at that British school), and of all modern P.I.’s, are the knights-errant, the Samurai, the incorruptible warriors sent on solitary quests to Right Things, Slay Dragons, and Rescue Damsels in Distress, among other missions.

But Chandler, the latter day sleuthing master, does a pair of key things, one old, one new: the old one is that he makes sleuthing itself–the very cognition in the doing of sleuthing–the basic drama in the detective story; not blackjacks, gunfire, lovemaking, spilled blood, chases, fights and the rest, but the very profoundly suspenseful and most personal of dramatic questions, namely, Is my mind up to understanding the Who, What, When, Where, How and, most incisively, Why of Evil in a world where, as his fellow detective novelist Jim Thompson famously said, “Nothing is as it seems”? Thompson might have gone on to say of the tradition of the sleuthing cognitive drama that the world of appearances is downright perverse, mischievously misleading and tricking our minds at every turn. When is a clue a clue? (Certain estimable modern cognitive scientists could, and do, go on at length technically and with value about this plight–our faulty “heuristics” and biases–but we didn’t sell them any tickets to the present show because our show’s gotta move along.) The second, and by definition new, thing Chandler does is to plunk this old knight-errant hero, instantiated anew as the chalk-stripe-suited, trench-coated Marlowe, who carries on the heroic tradition as the Paragon of Integrity, down squarely in the middle of an unprecedented modern world, in some ways as foreign to him and his questing ancestors as Mars would have been and, in many ways, far moreso: Los Angeles. As Iyer notes, Chandler is deeply shocked by Los Angeles. Talk about having the Old World meet the New World! What a drama! Would Sir Gawain end up a hit-and-run victim on the San Bernadino Freeway?

Jim Rockford, coming along decades after Marlowe, isn’t essentially different, just more savvy of LA and all that means metaphorically: more knowing what to expect in the modern world. Rockford is hip. He’s been to San Quentin on a false rap and pardoned by the Governor; so he’s been around in these times just as PI’s today are supposed to be. He knows the street and its denizens. In The Rockford Files, in fact, there is a great richness of human types encountered across the 118 episodes.

The secret appeal of The Rockford Files is its human quality shown primarily in a usually perfect blend of the humorous and the consequential. The series is irresistibly charming because as a whole it is wonderfully seriocomic. With few exceptions, the episodes put Jim at risk but in sly and funny ways. He isn’t usually looking for trouble, hurts his hands in fist fights, wears checkered sport coats, seems to encounter goons frequently, is softhearted too often, and typically looks for the easiest way out. Yet he is especially worldly wise and, as needed, bruisingly tough. In short, The Rockford Files, a feast of clever, satiric and subtle allusions, is a hip but loving take on the classic detective tradition. Underneath its often breezy style, it retains all the power of the older versions and carries that indispensable tradition along. At bottom Rockford is a humorous update of Marlowe and his relatives.

As a direct descendent of the old heroes, Rockford lives by himself in a shabby trailer on the Paradise Cove beach in Malibu, is usually incorruptible, and has a steed in the form not of a 1930’s coupe let alone a stallion but a golden Firebird. And above all, Rockford continues the essential sleuthing drama, the drama of the sheer cognition in resolving the puzzle of appearances that is writ large in the detective story and, in the biggest sense, meant to be the Be-All of our basic problem of making sense of experience as we sally forth in this mysterious world. As Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The Rockford Files, whose last episode in the original TV showing aired in 1980, was, until the recent release of DVDs of the full series, entangled in legal dispute and watchable only via scattered TV syndication showing often mangled (“cut”) versions of its episodes. Yet it has been called the best of TV dramas. I can’t think of any other dramatic series that equals its excellence. The brilliance of The Rockford Files seems miraculous in the vast wasteland of TV.

First, there are the writers, led by possibly the best three teleplay authors in American TV; maybe TV, period; and creating at their full powers. Further, they were shielded remarkably effectively from meddling studio suits (here Universal making the series for NBC) by the tough Meta Rosenberg, one of the producers.

And the three writers? Stephen J. Cannell, Jaunita Bartlett and David Chase. It seems pointless to rank them. Chase, the most famous because he is the Godfather of The Sopranos, seems to me a genius teleplay writer who is a cynic, a disillusioned idealist. I think his writing for The Rockford Files surpasses that of The Sopranos. (Note the many actors who appeared in The Rockford Files in The Sopranos and that each episode opens with Tony tooling into town in the way Rockford does to open each episode in The Rockford Files.)

Cannell is astonishing: he could turn out superb teleplays quickly on demand; he has a depth of knowledge from A to Z that would make him unbeatable at Trivial Pursuit; and I’d have to believe he is the greatest craftsman of teleplays.

Bartlett, who has seemingly vanished from showbiz, wrote quite a few TRF episodes, many of them with a kind of Flaubertian grace and unity. She is idealistic to Chase’s cynicism. She owes much to Hitchcock. (She wrote the episode, “South By Southeast”: mistaken identity; espionage; beautiful woman; villain is named “Van Deerlin.” A warm, gracefully light homage to North by Northwest: mistaken identity; espionage; beautiful woman; villain [James Mason] is named “Vandamm.”)

Out of the 118 episodes made over 1974-80, most of them one hour long, I’d recommend these (all one hour) as not-to-be-missed.

“Irving The Explainer” (Chase).

“Quickie Nirvana” (Chase and an Emmy winner, the latter sometimes a badge of dishonor but not here).

“The Kirkoff Case” (Cannell).

“The Attractive Nuisance” (Cannell).

“Chicken Little Is A Little Chicken” (Cannell).

“Paradise Cove” (Cannell).

“The Trouble With Warren” (Bartlett).

“Caledonia–It’s Worth A Fortune” (Bartlett).

“Guilt” (Bartlett).

“The Big Cheese” (Shel Willens).

It would take a tome to analyze the wonders here and in most of the remaining 118 episodes. As do many scribblers, I flirted for a couple of years with Adventures On The Internet (i.e., many give-and-take postings), herewith “The Rockford Newsgroup” comprised of a couple of people who worked on the show, someone who probably worked on some Hitchcock films, a guy I imagine to weigh 300 pounds and live alone in an apartment without a shower or bathtub and crammed with every TV Guide ever published and who has a perfect memory and has never been wrong in even the most trivial recollection (he spotted Ed Harris in his first and momentary role in film as an uncredited gravedigger in the opening scene of the early TRF episode, “Tall Woman In A Red Wagon”), a guy in Canada who can recall verbatim whole passages by characters, a retired cop, a probable film-score composer, and (inevitably) assorted trolls and socks you’d like to turn over to the NKVD but (so goes the iron tight protocol) you try never to acknowledge no matter how personal their attacks (a protocol everyone violates every now and then because it’s so-o-o satisfying). Anyway, it’s a cyberspace Western of sorts, this kind of Internet Adventure, because you need to wear your gun low on your hip so you can clear that holster in a flash in the daily gun fights; you’re up against some quick and deadly shots. But for a while it was fun, because the connecting thing was the wonder of The Rockford Files.

A few reminders. Besides Jim Rockford, key characters are Angel Martin (another ex-con, entirely untrustworthy, and one of the funniest characters in TV history); Rocky, Jim’s dad and a retired trucker made up to look a little like Will Rogers and who played Wiley Post in The Will Rogers Story (Oklahoman Garner is 1/2 Cherokee, like Rogers, and behind Rogers probably the second most prominent Oklahoman); Sgt. Denis Becker of the LAPD; lawyer Beth Davenport. Guests: Joseph Cotton, Lauren Bacall, Victor Jory, Paul Stewart, etc.

Unifying stuff across the dozens of episodes: 1) food humor (not a single meal that isn’t comic, e.g., dinner at the country diner where, if you order the blue plate chicken, you get a free wig; Angel emptying a tube of bugs in his salad in a posh restaurant to get a free meal; 2) mobsters of every stripe, brilliant to dumb; 3) cons (rivals The Sting but much more variety in cons, e.g., “The Red Barn Sting,” “The Egyptian Sting” and so on); 4) “Berlin Wall Guardians” such as tough secretaries and petty bureaucrats who must be gotten past by ruses, e.g., Jim posing as a rug-cleaner. (Such ruses are a staple of detective movies, e.g., Chinatown and Erin Brokovich.) And many other unifying devices.

Here are short analyses of three of the recommended episodes.

“Irving The Explainer,”by David Chase, is probably the funniest episode and a true masterpiece in any genre. It’s a satire on the impossibly complex plots of some mysteries, e.g., Hammett had a tendency here. Jim can’t solve this one. No one can. Paul Stewart is superb as an old-time Hollywood director. It’s hilarious. Don’t miss it. (And see above: the Cognitive Drama at the heart of great detective storytelling. “Irving” is exactly about this drama. It’s also about the recovery of history and other weighty stuff, but with a comic touch that is perfect.)

“The Attractive Nuisance.” Victor Jory, the 1930’s tough guy, comes back in this one by Cannell. Here, Cannell writes a peerless, hip, funny but extremely warm homage to the earlier hard-boiled and noir traditions by tying together the 30’s/40’s and the 70’s. It’s also about older people saying, No, I’m not retiring! And it’s all about the hand-off of expertise and wisdom from one generation to the next. Cannell uses garlic as a repeated motif throughout the action to tie things together in one of the best crafted teleplays you could imagine. (In “The Kirkoff Case,” another not-to-miss episode, Cannell uses photography and photographs in a plot-unifying and -economizing way that will make you marvel.)

“The Trouble With Warren.” A beautiful light comic episode by Jaunita Bartlett. Ron Rifkin is flawless as the nerdy corporate genius, Warren. You’ll laugh from beginning to end.

Not to suggest that The Rockford Files isn’t also serious. It is.

As Abe Vagoda, playing mobster Al Danser, says to Jim Rockford in Bartlett’s 1974 episode, “The Dark And Bloody Ground” (the name of an epic novel and film in that episode which in turn is a take-off on the old reference to the Way West in Revolutionary times, namely the still-to-become-states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and onwards, “The Dark And Bloody Land”), “We don’t call them goons any longer, Mr. Rockford. We call them labor organizers.”

Leave a Reply