Universal // 1974 // 945 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // January 11th, 2006
"Come on, you know I only work on closed cases!" -- Jim Rockford (James Garner)
The 1970s were the undisputed golden age of small screen sleuthing, an era that saw the primetime airwaves teeming with quirky, one name private investigators, loose cannon homicide detectives and fey insurance agents. Between Colombo, Quincy, McCloud, Banacek, Kojak, McMillan, Cannon and Baretta, there were barely enough unsolved mysteries to go around, but that didn't stop falsely accused ex-con Jim Rockford from becoming one of the most fondly remembered TV dicks of the decade. Part conman and part professional punching bag, Rockford was a laidback but astute shamus who frequently circumvented the law in order to solve a case and earn that direly needed $200 a day (plus expenses).
Operating from his seaside trailer, middle-aged P.I. Jim Rockford (James Garner, A Man Called Sledge) takes on all kinds of cases -- kidnappings, robberies, insurance company fraud, and suspicious deaths -- but usually only when the fish aren't biting. Though his father Rocky (Noah Beery Jr., Rocketship X-M) disapproves of his son's job, it's clear that Rockford has a knack for sniffing out cold trails while tooling around town in his golden Pontiac Firebird, as evidenced by the bumps, bruises and bullet wounds doled out each week by dim-witted hired goons. With help from his ex-cellmate Angel (Stuart Margolin, The Stone Killer), his eye-catching lawyer Beth (Gretchen Corbett, Let's Scare Jessica to Death), and the perpetually grumpy Lt. Becker (Joe Santos, Shaft's Big Score) Rockford uses all his wits to keep his business in the black, and himself out of the pokey.
The Rockford Files finally arrives on DVD with a double-sided, three-disc box set, which collects the show's 23 first season episodes. Here's what you get:
* The Kirkoff Case
* The Dark and Bloody Ground
* The Countess
* Exit Prentiss Carr
* Tall Woman in Red Wagon
* This Case is Closed Part 1
* This Case is Closed Part 2
* The Big Ripoff
* Find Me If You Can
* In Pursuit of Carol Thorne
* The Dexter Crisis
* Caldonia -- It's Worth a Fortune
* Profit and Loss Part 1
* Profit and Loss Part 2
* Aura Lee, Farwell
* Sleight of Hand
* Counter Gambit
* Say Goodbye to Jennifer
* Charlie Harris at Large
* The Four-Pound Brick
* Just By Accident
The first hit show from über-producer Stephen J. Cannell, The Rockford Files offered audiences an action-packed modern updating of Garner's fast-talking hustler Bret Maverick. Jim Rockford actually began life in a Cannell-penned script for Toma, a short-lived, Roy Huggins-produced cop show that quickly fizzled out in the early 1970s. When ABC rejected his script for the series, Cannell reworked the story around his character of Rockford and sold it to NBC, who liked the idea and greenlit a pilot. With the always charming Garner cast in the role of the low-rent P.I., the show became a hit with audiences, and The Rockford Files began an impressive six-year run on the network, easily outlasting many pretenders to the TV mystery-solver throne. The popularity of Rockford eventually eclipsed Garner's Old West poker-player and became the actor's signature role -- one that netted him an Emmy and led to a revamped series of Rockford Files TV movies in the late 1990s.
What really set Rockford apart from the other small screen crime fighters was a consistently fine performance from Garner, coupled with an emphasis on action and comedy. Garner is every bit as good as fellow TV detective portrayer Peter Falk, and inhabits the role like a well-worn sport jacket, making what could have been just another run-of-the-mill character come alive with distinct mannerisms, a wicked sense of humor, and a magnetic likeability. When Rockford wasn't on screen coyly smiling at the ladies, scamming potential suspects, or getting punched in the gut, he was undoubtedly caught up in a high speed car chase -- a series staple that allowed Cannell & Co. to milk as much sex appeal from Rockford's Pontiac Firebird as possible. Though Garner was clearly the main attraction, The Rockford Files consistently boasted an excellent supporting cast of guest stars and recognizable bit-players, and this season brings memorable turns by James Woods, Ned Beatty, Suzanne Somers and Abe Vigoda, as well as smaller roles inhabited by well known character actors like Sid Haig, Lindsay Wagner, Val Bisoglio, and M. Emmet Walsh.
Generally, the quality of the shows presented in this set is consistently high, with impressive acting, inspired direction, and above-average action sequences. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that some of the shows on the set rank as some of the best examples of TV mystery writing for the decade. The series opener, "The Kirkoff Case" features an impressively aloof James Woods portraying a playboy suspected in the murder of his wealthy parents, while in a "Tall Woman in Red Wagon," Rockford and a young cub reporter follow the trail of a model on the lam from her gangster boyfriend that earns the P.I. a bullet in the face. "Sleight of Hand" is a pretty good puzzler that has Rockford's date for the evening suddenly vanish into thin air leaving behind her purse and her 3-year-old child, but the clear favorite is "Counter Gambit," which finds Rockford in the midst of a labyrinth of double- and triple-crosses, as an ex-con tries to regain a stolen pearl necklace from his girlfriend. When Rockford is hired by who he thinks is the insurance company out to sniff out a case of pearl fraud, he has to out-shuck and out-jive the best of them. It's just an outstanding episode with top-notch writing that isn't afraid to play around with audience expectations.
For everything that works with the show, there is one big disappointment that occasionally mars the proceedings: Cannell -- who wrote almost all the scripts this season -- was still honing his skills as a producer/writer as he worked on The Rockford Files, and has some difficulty stretching his premises to the 60-minute format. Most of the early shows on the set are blatantly padded, with lengthy sequences of Rockford parking his car, walking in hallways, or "remembering" the details of the case to facilitate needless framing devices. These filler sequences tend to throw off the pacing of the show, and eventually had me reaching for the fast forward button in frustration. To be fair, however, this becomes less of a problem toward the end of the first season run, with appropriately fleshed out stories and more even storytelling that really made the show one of the best crime dramas of the 1970s.
Like most TV on DVD releases from the 1970s, Universal's The Rockford Files: Season One isn't going to wow anyone on presentation. The included episodes look just about as sharp and bright than those currently making the rounds in syndication, but this has probably the most distracting grain and source artifacts of any of Universal's TV sets thus far -- it's all over the place. The mono 2.0 soundtrack is pretty typical for a TV show from the 1970s, cramped and slightly muffled, but music and dialogue come through more than sufficiently. Perhaps to make up for this dip in quality, Universal has done the almost unthinkable -- they've actually included a relevant extra on this TV box set, an all-too-brief eight-minute interview with Garner. He doesn't remember too many specifics about making the show, but he does offer some general comments about the stunts, what it was like on set, and his co-stars. I really would have liked Garner's featurette to be longer, but I suppose this segment is better than nothing, which is what Universal usually offers. The show's original pilot is also missing from this set, but it's likely that Universal plans to offer it as an extra on a subsequent season.
Lifted by James Garner's impressive acting and copious charm, The Rockford Files is one of the most distinct mystery shows in a decade that was teeming with similar programs. Although this season has a few bumps in the road, and the quality isn't quite as good as I might have hoped, it's still an excellent set for fans and newcomers alike.
Innocent. The Rockford Files: Season One is awarded costs in the amount of $200 a day, plus expenses.
Review content copyright © 2006 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 945 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with James Garner