Judge Jim Thomas is reminded of an old Polish proverb: "A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn."
Banacek: Would you like to come to my house for breakfast? I'll be making
In the early 70s, NBC had a tentpole series called the NBC Mystery Movie. It was a clever setup, actually; three different series rotated throughout the season. Even though each episode was a 90-minute movie, the rotation eased production pressures on all the shows. The initial 1971-72 season featured three shows—McCloud, Columbo, and McMillan & Wife. The concept was an immediate hit, and the next year, NBC added the Wednesday Mystery Movie. Take that, CSI and Law & Order!! The new Mystery Movie also had three installments: Madigan, starring Richard Widmark reprising his 1968 film role as a streetwise NYPD detective, Cool Million, starring James Farentino as a private investigator and security expert whose fee was a cool…well, you know.
The final chapter was Banacek, starring George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany's) as a sophisticated freelance insurance investigator. Banacek ran for two seasons; it was green-lighted for a third, but Peppard quit—he was in a messy divorce battle with Elizabeth Ashley, and didn't want to do all that work just so that Ashley could command a larger settlement.
Arts Alliance America brings the series back in Banacek—The Complete Series Box Set.
Facts of the Case
Thomas Banacek is the nation's top insurance investigator, operating out of a luxurious home in Boston. When the major insurance companies are on the hook on a big policy, they call Banacek. This annoys the insurance companies, as Banacek charges ten percent of the insured value of the property, plus expenses. It further annoys the companies' own investigators because Banacek's presence means that they're not doing their jobs. He's aided (sort of) by his chauffeur Jay (Ralph Manza) and his friend Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), a rare bookstore owner and researcher. In the second season, Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) was added as a regular foil/quasi-love interest.
Banacek's cases are locked-room/impossible heist style mysteries—a train car disappears in the middle of a trip, an object disappears while a crowd looks on, etc. The boxed set includes all 16 episodes, plus the two-hour pilot.
Banacek finds himself in a race against an old adversary to solve the case of a missing armored truck which disappeared—along with $1,600,000 of gold bullion—while under police escort.
• "Let's Hear It For A Living Legend"—Banacek is called in after a star running back vanishes from a dogpile on national television. Guest stars include Stephanie Powers, Anitra Ford, and John Brodie.
• "Project Phoenix"—Banacek investigates the disappearance of a valuable prototype automobile.
• "No Sign of the Cross"—Banacek searches for a valuable church artifact that disappeared from a sealed box.
• "A Million the Hard Way"—Margot Kidder guest stars when a million dollars vanishes from a Las Vegas slot machine display.
• "To Steal A King"—Banacek searches for a missing coin collection.
• "Ten Thousand Dollars A Page"—A valuable book disappears from a highly secure room.
• "The Greatest Collection of Them All"—Banacek gets called in when a large charity art exhibit vanishes.
• "The Two Million Clams of Cap'n Jack"—Plates used in the printing of stock certificates vanish. Jessica Walter guest stars.
• "No Stone Unturned"—A three-ton statue disappears from a museum.
• "If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is?"—A huge medical computer vanishes from its secure building. Anne Baxter guest stars.
• "The Three Million Dollar Piracy"—A hand-carved wedding coach disappears from a sealed shipping container.
• "The Vanishing Chalice"—An ancient chalice disappears from a museum during the official unveiling party. Guest stars John Saxon, Caesar Romero, and Eric Braeden.
• "Horse of A Slightly Different Color"—A race horse is swapped for another in the middle of an exercise run.
• "Rocket to Oblivion"—A prototype rocket engine vanishes during a private showing.
• "Fly Me—If You Can Find Me"—After an emergency landing at an abandoned desert airstrip, a charter airliner vanishes, leaving a dead member of the flight crew as the only trace.
• "Now You See Me, Now You Don't"—Banacek assists the daughter of a stage magician, suspected of grand larceny, who disappears during his act—for real.
Banacek was the perfect show for the mystery movie format. The plots are fairly formulaic, but since the episodes were broadcast only every third week, the formula doesn't get tired. We see the object of the week disappear, Banacek shows up and ruffles a few feathers, pokes around, and sleeps with the most attractive woman involved in the case, someone generally turns up dead, and then Banacek gets everyone together, smokes out the villain, and then explains how the theft happened. The show has a very calm, sedate pace; episodes average 72 minutes, with usually only about 65 minutes of plot. The balance is usually filled with long tracking shots of Banacek walking or driving somewhere. It never becomes boring, though, partly because of good editing, but mainly because of the score, which makes great use of the show's lovely theme.
George Peppard manages—in the first season, at least—to hit all the right notes. He's not out to save the world, he's not out to right wrongs—he's just out to make his ten percent. He is a true Seventies man, bedding whoever catches his eye. Because his suave, assured manner never becomes cocky or arrogant, it works. Of the other regulars, Murray Matheson is easily the best; he and Banacek are kindred spirits, and they play off each other well. Ralph Manza, as Banacek's chauffer Jay, borders on two-dimensional at times. Christine Belford plays her part well and has great chemistry with Peppard; her problems lie within the character itself (see rebuttal witnesses). The guest stars are a mixed bag; there are some good performances here, some flat performances there.
Video is pretty inconsistent. The first six or seven episodes are pretty good; colors are a little muted, but nothing distracting. Beginning with the last two episodes and continuing throughout the second season, colors are oversaturated and inconsistent, particularly reds and flesh tones. For the later episodes, I get the impression that they stopped doing any restoration and just fed the film into the machine—there are noticeable scratches and blemishes during the first two or three minutes, but not in the rest of the episodes. Sound is clear, letting the music shine.
The only extra of note is the pilot episode, "Detour to Nowhere." It's a little longer than the others, as it was a two-hour movie instead of a 90-minute episode, but the basics are unchanged. Interestingly, Carlie is introduced in the pilot, but doesn't make another appearance until the second season. I haven't been able to find out why she was dropped in the first season.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The second season is pretty hit or miss; not only are the scripts not as tight as in the first season, but the presence of Carlie not only doesn't add anything to the proceedings, it actually messes up some of the dynamics. In the first season, Banacek is always supremely assured, but rarely drifts into smug or cocky; it's a fine line, and Peppard's ability to walk that line makes the character work. Giving him a regular foil who is constantly: 1. Competing with Banacek, 2. Losing to Banacek, and 3. Sleeping with Banacek makes it all but impossible for the character to avoid smug/cocky territory.
Banacek remains a fairly enjoyable series. While it's most assuredly dated, it has an easy, comfortable feel to it.
The series recovered some fond childhood memories watching TV with the rest of the family. What's ten percent of that?
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