Universal // 1976 // 1089 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // February 6th, 2008
James Garner stars as the wisecracking ex-con-turned-private-eye whose approach to crime is cooler than his sleek Pontiac Firebird.
Jim Rockford and friends entertained us with their private eye crime capers -- 123 episodes worth -- from 1974 to 1980, and set the bar for a host of emulators to follow. It's doubtful that the next-best television detective series, Tom Selleck's Magnum, P.I., would have existed if not for the gumshoe trail blazed by James Garner's Rockford character.
The Rockford Files: Season Three is a five-disc set that alternates between four and five episodes per disc for a total of 22, all neatly packaged in a trifold box with slipcase.
The third season breaks down as follows:
* The Fourth Man
Lori, a flight attendant, is threatened by an assassin.
* The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit
Rockford tangles with a media-hungry psychic who implicates him as a potential killer of a wealthy dope pusher.
* The Family Hour
Rockford and his dad are roped into babysitting a nine-year-old girl whose father is missing.
* Feeding Frenzy
Rockford's fiancée asks him to convince her father to return the half-million dollars he stole three years earlier from an oil company.
* Drought at Indianhead River
Jim Rockford's former cellmate attracts the attention of underworld types when he makes a bundle in a dubious real estate deal, and he turns to Jim for help.
* Coulter City Wildcat
Jim's dad, Rocky, wins the rights to a piece of land that may be on top of an oilfield, but some dangerous characters are out to claim his deed.
* So Help Me God
Rockford finds himself in deep trouble with the justice system when he is ordered to give testimony about his supposed knowledge of the kidnapping of a union official.
* Rattlers' Class of '63
Angel is neck-deep in a scam to marry into a wealthy family, but sometimes the player becomes the played.
* Return to the Thirty-Eighth Parallel
An old buddy from the Korean War entangles Jim in a missing-person case that involves a dangerous smuggling ring.
* Piece Work
Rockford stumbles into a gun-smuggling scheme while investigating an accident claim.
* The Trouble with Warren
Beth's brilliant but arrogant cousin is thought to be responsible for the death of his superiors.
* There's One in Every Port
Rockford is swindled by a father-daughter team of card sharks and proves to them you should never con a conman.
* Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Waterbury Will Bury You
Private investigators are losing their licenses in record numbers in a series of frame-ups by their clients, and Rockford appears to be slated as the next fall-guy.
* The Trees, the Bees and T.T. Flowers (Part 1)
An old friend of Rockford's father has been committed to a mental hospital by his daughter and son-in-law. Rocky pleads with his son to intercede.
* The Trees, the Bees and T.T. Flowers (Part 2)
* The Becker Connection
Rockford comes to the defense of his friend, Detective Becker, who is accused of stealing drugs from the evidence room.
* Just Another Polish Wedding
Gandy Fitch, Rockford's old ex-con buddy, wants tips from Jim on how to break into the detective business.
* New Life, Old Dragons
Rockford becomes embroiled in a kidnapping plot being investigated by the CIA.
* To Protect and Serve (Part 1)
Rockford is stymied in his job to find a gangster lawyer's missing fiancé by a thrill-seeking police groupie.
* To Protect and Serve (Part 2)
* Crack Back
Attorney Beth Davenport becomes the target of a stalker when she asks Jim to help her locate a witness for her client.
* Dirty Money, Black Light
Jim's dad is receiving large sums of money in the mail, which draws the interest of mobsters and the FBI.
I rarely missed an episode of The Rockford Files during its original run, and caught all the reruns once or twice to hold me over until the next season. I was devastated when Attorney Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) departed the series; I almost shed a tear when Evelyn 'Angel' Martin (Stuart Margolin, Futureworld), Jim's untrustworthy source of criminal intelligence and all-around conman, lost his best chance for a loving wife thanks to his sneaky cut-and-run nature; I delighted in all the quirky, unexpected plot twists and clever one-liners. In short, I was a Rockford junkie, and watching these episodes after about a twenty-year hiatus only reaffirms my high opinion of this inimitable TV show.
A quick summary cannot convey the sublime goodness of the series, but here it is anyway: Jim Rockford (James Garner, Twilight) is a regular, no-nonsense sort of guy. He has heart and smarts in abundance, loves to fish with his dad, Rocky (Noah Beery Jr., Red River), and knock back a few cold brews with his buddies. He lives in a rust bucket house trailer (before they were coined mobile homes) that squats in the middle of a large expanse of asphalt. The only redeeming feature of Rockford's bleak digs is an ocean view.
Jim hates guns and keeps a .38 revolver in his cookie jar for only the most dangerous situations. He rejects force in favor of persuasion and reasonable argument -- or a slick con if required. He's an iconoclastic working class detective who is proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. If you've never watched the series this may all sound too trite for words. Try to catch a few episodes in syndication and you'll understand why all the praise. The Rockford Files was nominated for a slew of Emmy and Golden Globe awards, won four Emmys, and even to this day is still picked as the best detective TV show by critics and fans of the genre.
Most of the episodes were scripted by Stephen J. Cannell, Juantia Bartlett, David Chase, and Roy Huggins. The dialogue was witty, and the densely twisted storylines a marvel to behold. Too many dramatic television series from the seventies and eighties were stretched to the breaking point to fill their allotted 50 or so minutes. Not so with The Rockford Files, which sometimes packed so much action and dialogue into a single episode the story was rushed to reach its conclusion. A number of the episodes would have benefited from an extra 30 to 45 minutes runtime to flesh out characters and situations.
Generally, the episodes have a humorous undertone that leavens the suspense, but occasionally the story is dead serious and tackles a specific political issue. The standout dramatic show in the third season is "So Help Me God," that deftly lays out the nightmare of being summoned to testify before a hostile Grand Jury where most of a citizen's basic rights are left at the entrance of the courtroom door. On the lighter side, "There's One in Every Port" is a craftily written sting operation twisted enough to hide behind a corkscrew. And one of my favorites for this season is Margolin's star-turn in the tragicomic "Rattler's Class of '63." It's a deft blend of the usual snaky, sneaky comic antics of Angel, with a dramatic development in the final act that unexpectedly rounds out Angel's personality. We see why he has grown into such a shifty, frightened man -- and the sad consequences of his latest scam when it scuttles his one shot at a genuine loving relationship.
The picture is quite decent for a series of this age. Colors are vivid and solid for a TV show, if rather flat, and the film is marred by only a few scratches and debris here and there. Audio is unremarkable but serviceable. There's a bit of distortion in some of the louder scenes that's typical of old optical tracks, but the dialogue is clear and solidly anchored in the centerfield of the mono mix. The only extra is an episode from the fourth season.
Fortunately, The Rockford Files just missed the tall-hair era of the eighties. Yes, there are wide lapels, long sideburns, and a few polyester leisure suits in evidence, but the fashions are easier on the eyes than shows from a few years later. The sets, autos, and exterior action shots somehow appear more historical than kitsch.
Aside from the dated sets and a few too many car chases, the series holds up quite well. In fact, it set standards so high for television's P.I. genre that its inventiveness and charm is still unmatched three decades later.
Jim, Rocky, Beth, Dennis, and Angel, we miss you. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1089 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode: Season 4 - "Quickie Nirvana"
* DVD Verdict Review - Season 1
* DVD Verdict Review - Season 2