Judge Paul Corupe respects a man who talks straight and shoots even straighter; too bad Universal doesn't.
There ya go!
The 1970s were the undisputed golden age of small screen sleuthing, an era that saw the prime time airwaves teeming with quirky, one-named private investigators, loose cannon homicide detectives and fey insurance agents. Between Colombo, Quincy, Rockford, Banacek, Kojak, McMillan, Cannon and Baretta, there were barely enough unsolved mysteries to go around, forcing NBC to develop the NBC Mystery Movie, a unique 90-minute "showcase" series that kept the network's growing roster of TV detectives on a less intensive monthly rotation.
One of the original residents of the NBC Mystery Movie stable was McCloud, an action-packed police procedural that joined Columbo, and McMillan and Wife for the Mystery Movie's long, seven-year run. With Dennis Weaver as Marshal Sam McCloud, a frank, intelligent New Mexico Marshal solving high falutin' New York crimes while on an exchange program with a Manhattan police precinct, McCloud is an intriguing, well-written show that has now joined his peers on DVD courtesy of Universal.
Facts of the Case
Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud (Dennis Weaver, Touch of Evil) leaves behind his hometown of Taos, New Mexico to learn the art of crime detection on the grimy streets of New York City. Under the direction of the unflappable Police Chief Peter B. Clifford (J.D. Cannon, Cool Hand Luke), McCloud brings his blunt, uncomplicated investigation techniques to all manner of cases, from murder beats and fraud stings all the way down to lending a hand at the Central Park Zoo.
McCloud finally moseys on to DVD with a double-sided, three-disc "Season One and Two" box set, which collects the show's original two-hour pilot movie and ten 90-minute episodes from the Marshal's rounds on the NBC Mystery Movie.
• Portrait of a Dead Girl
• Man from Taos
• Manhattan Manhunt
• Murder Arena
• Encounter with Aries
• Top of the World, Ma!
• Somebody's Out to Get Jennie
• The Disposal Man
• A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley
• Fifth Man in a String Quartet
• Give My Regrets to Broadway
It isn't the concept, it's the quality of the show that matters most. If McCloud proved anything in his seven-year run on NBC, it's that even the most derivative archetype can be elevated from the doldrums of mediocrity by excellent scripts and solid acting.
If the "country meets city/fish out of water" premise of McCloud seems like a fairly uninspired plot set-up for a TV detective show, that's because it is. Treading in the well-worn footprints of groundbreaking films from the late 1960s like Midnight Cowboy and Coogan's Bluff, McCloud never originally sought to challenge viewers with anything they really hadn't seen before. Indeed, the show's concept owes a tremendous debt to Coogan's Bluff, Don Siegel's western/crime hybrid that had an Arizona Sheriff, played by Clint Eastwood, sent to New York City to retrieve a prisoner as he deals with culture shock of the big city. Not surprisingly, McCloud was co-created by Coogan's Bluff writer Herman Miller, and can easily be considered a toned-down, weekly version of the film, albeit altered slightly to fit the NBC mystery format. But where other shows might have been swallowed by their predictability in this situation, the cast and crew of McCloud used these easily identified precedents as a jumping off point to create something singular and unique. With stylistic touches borrowed from another 1960s crime film, The Boston Strangler, the show outgrew its inspirations, giving McCloud its own unique twists on humor and action, and ultimately, its own distinct personality.
What really set McCloud show apart from Columbo and McMillan and Wife as part of the highly successful NBC Mystery Movie formula was its extremely tight focus on action and police procedures. Although the foot chases and fistfights were increasingly phased out as the show matured, McCloud often got himself in sticky situations that required as much brawn as wits, all which put the show in a different class than the other Mystery Movies. Still, the writing of this show is just as stellar, and the action was never used as a substitute for an engaging plot. The murder culprit in each episode is untangled only after McCloud cuts through a swath of conspiracy, where he unfailingly finds that the killing was a symptom of a much more complex crime. Hinting at the anti-authoritarian cop movies yet to come, the corruption at the heart of each show almost always extends to high-ranking officials, who must be put in their place by McCloud's clever sleuthing and plainspoken country ways.
More so than the other NBC Mystery Movies, McCloud also made clever use of humour. "A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley" is a distinct highlight of this set, an episode that I would have accused of stealing from Diamonds are Forever if it hadn't aired the same year that the well-known Bond film hit theaters. With bumbling crooks, an elaborate scheme to dilute penicillin and hilarious mortuary tours that always feature a long detour in the elegant funeral home's gift shop, it's a surprisingly entertaining little story that almost borders on camp. Additionally, several other episodes in the set open with McCloud having to deal with crazy New Yorkers trying to file police reports about alien mind control waves, or in one case, a lothario wannabe who claims he is sexually harassed by women everywhere he goes.
Generally, the quality of the shows presented in this set is consistently high, save two extremely notable exceptions. The show's two-hour pilot movie is just amazing—almost too good for TV, with inspired direction, exciting action sequences and damn fine acting. However, it must be noted that before the premiere of the 90-minute NBC Mystery Movie in 1971, McCloud first hit the airwaves in 1970 with six, hour-long mysteries—episodes that were part of another timeslot that rotated among four different shows. When McCloud joined the NBC Mystery Movie with its longer run times the next year, the six 60-minute episodes were reconstituted into three 90-minute "movies" which are included here. It really was a poor choice by Universal to include these barley comprehensible, hacked-up shows rather than the full six 60 minute episodes—this set does not contain the first season as originally broadcast, and must therefore be considered incomplete.
The damage to "Man from Taos," originally a two-parter, is not quite so bad. Obviously about a half-hour of footage has been lost, but it seems to be inconsequential scenes, and the story still more or less makes sense. The following two episodes, however, "Manhattan Manhunt" and "Murder Arena" awkwardly graft two different, abbreviated mysteries together. They each start with McCloud already embroiled in a suspicious plot—which is pretty much completely lost on the viewer—before he is handed a second case by the Chief. To patch up the incongruous edges, these shows are rife with sloppy inserts of McCloud's hands and feet to allow additional dialogue to "ease" the transitions between each investigation. These two episodes are needlessly confusing, editing room monstrosities that a straight-shooter like Sam McCloud would have filled full of six-gun holes.
As the congenial McCloud, Dennis Weaver is every bit as good as his fellow Mystery Movie detectives Rock Hudson and Peter Falk, despite his comparative lack of screen experience. After almost a decade of portraying Deputy Chester Goode on Gunsmoke, he slips into the role of the happy-go-lucky Marshal without blinking, making what should have been a clichéd, unimaginative character come alive with distinct mannerisms, a social conscience, and a magnetic likeability. Weaver later picked up two Emmy nominations for his work on McCloud, a fact that should not surprise anyone who has seen the show.
Perhaps second only to Columbo, McCloud was also the Mystery Movie that consistently boasted an always excellent supporting cast, and these seasons bring memorable turns by Milton Berle (in a straight role), Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, and Richard Dawson. Backing them up are a slew of near-legendary character actors in minor roles, including the incomparable Vic Morrow, Elisha Cook Jr., Bo Svenson, and Roger Corman's favorite go-to-guy, Dick Miller, as a ruthless killer.
Like most TV on DVD releases from the 1970s, Universal's overdue McCloud: Seasons One and Two isn't going to wow anyone on presentation, but it's adequate for the material at hand. The included episodes look sharper and brighter than those currently making the rounds in syndication, but minor source artifacts and grain crop up every now and again. The mono 2.0 soundtrack is pretty typical for a TV show from the 1970s, cramped and slightly muffled, but noticeably better than some of the other shows of this vintage. Music and dialogue come through more than sufficiently. Fans of the show will also be disappointed to discover that there are no extras included except for an episode of McMillan & Wife entitled "Murder by the Barrel." It's better than nothing, I suppose, but it's obviously only included to fill out a vacant slot on the last side of the last disc, and to cross-promote another Universal DVD title.
McCloud is a well-crafted show that has held up extremely well over the last three decades, but it would have been nice if Universal had shown it the proper respect. It was a regrettable mistake that the original six hour-long episodes have been hogtied and replaced by their highly inferior 90-minute amalgamations. Mystery fans will certainly want to lasso themselves a copy of this all-around excellent series, but they should be aware of what they're getting, and this set is not even near as complete as it should be.
Guilty of corruption and manipulation of a TV mystery classic, Universal is hereby invited to their own private necktie party. Yeehaw!
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Scales of Justice
• McMillan & Wife episode, "Murder by the Barrel"
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