Judge Christopher Kulik learned his tough-guy patter working for the notorious L Squad. That's L for Love, baby.
My name is Detective Lt. Frank Ballinger of M Squad, a special detail of the Chicago police department.
An early police drama with a distinctive noir feel, M Squad must have seemed like just another imitation of Dragnet when it premiered in 1957. Today, this largely forgotten relic is really the program which catapulted leading man Lee Marvin to stardom. Throughout the 1950s, Marvin had lots of TV bit parts and small roles in numerous films (including The Wild One and The Caine Mutiny), culminating in a substantial role in Edward Dmytryk's Raintree County. That same year, viewers would catch him every Friday night at 9 pm as Det. Lt. Frank Ballinger, a hard-nosed cop who was committed to law and order. Three seasons later, Marvin would get in demand, garnering an Oscar in 1965 for Cat Ballou.
I'm not sure if this is the first time that a studio as well as fan support led to the creation of a complete series set. If it is, then it will no doubt set precedence in getting other obscure shows on to DVD with the same collaboration. All 117 episodes of M Squad are presented by Timeless Media, with assistance of NBC Universal. Originally, this was merely to be a "best of" compilation, because they weren't able to locate every single episode. That's when the fans chipped in by submitting their personal VHS copies (!), thus making it a complete set. Instead of listing and describing every single episode (which would be too much for this review), I will list only selected episodes which I felt stood out. All run approximately 24-25 minutes:
Episode #1: "The Golden Look" The series premiere has Ballinger investigating a bank robbery followed by an auto accident where one of the burglars makes his escape. Ballinger's only clue is a witness saying the robber had gold teeth.
Episode #6: "Street Of Fear" Ballinger gets into a parking lot brawl while helping out a girl who gets mugged. Turns out the girl is a model who may have connections to a jewel thief, so Ballinger goes undercover as a furniture salesman and romances the girl.
Episode #10: "Diamond Hard" A suspicious man with an attitude has been making trouble at a local tavern, so Ballinger befriends him to find out what's going on. When he's forced to shoot a colleague with blanks, however, he and the man go on the lam together. This episode co-stars DeForest Kelley (Star Trek) as Sgt. Masrin and Angie Dickinson (Police Woman) as the creep's girlfriend.
Episode #16: "Blue Indigo" Young blondes have fallen prey to a serial strangler who always listens to the title record after dispatching his victims.
Episode #17: "The Long Ride" Convicted killer manages to make his escape before going to prison—and murders three more people in the process. Ballinger's obsession in tracking him down pays off way outside of Chicago, forcing him and his prisoner to make a long train ride back home. When the killer gets Ballinger's gun, however, he proceeds to "switch places" with the cop, making Ballinger the prisoner!
Episode #20: "Lover's Lane Killing" Pretty rich girl cries home to her father, reporting that her boyfriend got shot and killed while they were out on a date. Not one of the best episodes, this still has the distinction of being directed by a green Robert Altman (Nashville).
Episode #25: "Chicago Bluebeard" As the title suggests, a man is frequenting Lonely Hearts Clubs and poisoning potential partners.
Episode #27: "Hideout" Two bank robbers (one played by cult veteran Dick Miller) hole up in a residential neighborhood and take a mother and her 8-year old daughter hostage. Ballinger decides to pretend to be the mother's boyfriend in order to penetrate the residence and find out what's going on inside. Also features DeForest Kelley in his second (and last) appearance as Sgt. Masrin.
Episode #30: "The Fight" Clean-cut, champion boxer (Charles Bronson, Death Wish) finds himself in hot water when a recent opponent dies suddenly after a bout. The manager blames Bronson's sledgehammer punch, but it turns out poisoned chocolates is the weapon.
Episode #39: "More Deadly" The second season starts out with a bang—literally—as an icy blonde cashier shoots not only a customer but also her boss with no apparent motive.
Episode #45: "The Phantom Raiders" A male-and-female duo on motorcycles are holding up convenience stores and shooting the clerks in the process. In order to trap them, Ballinger poses as a cyclist himself (shades of The Wild One!).
Episode #53: "The Teacher" A gang of young hoodlums, led by Sharpie (Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack) are causing a violent ruckus at a local trade school. One former member, Pete (Burt Reynolds, Smokey And The Bandit), feels tied between his old loyalties and listening to the law…especially after the principal gets murdered.
Episode #66: "The Fire Makers" An arson team is now responsible for over 30 fires across the city, and Ballinger is determined to smoke them out. The arsonists, by the way, are played by Oscar-winner James Coburn (Affliction) and Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek).
Episode #92: "The Ivy League Bank Robbers" Collegiate seniors double duty as maintenance men who commit bank robberies. Their success is cut short after running over a woman pushing a carriage, however.
Episode #99: "The Man With Frank's Face" Just like its title implies, a man who has a striking resemblance to Ballinger ends up in the hospital. After saying a few things, he dies without warning, and Frank must find out what he was alluding to.
Episode #110: "Dead Parrots Don't Talk" A young couple robs an arcade, shoots the owner and his pet parrot, and then makes their escape. The parrot's beak yields a blood type O, which clears a deaf-and-mute peddler as the initial suspect. When Ballinger and his lab boys discover the bird has parrot fever, urgency arises to find the couple.
Episode #113: "Badge For A Coward" Leonard Nimoy makes his second appearance as a hood who robs a small grocery store, then shoots the cop who gets in his way. While cop's partner attempts to save his fallen comrade, the store owner accuses him of being a coward for not going after the thief.
Despite its low-budget roots, M Squad still emerges as one of the better police dramas from the early days of television. Filmed entirely on location in and around Chicago, it captures many sights and sounds of the Windy City, going everywhere from Cook County Hospital to the seedy flophouse areas which sported an endless stream of dance halls and brothels. The grainy, almost oppressive at times, black-and-white cinematography gives the show a foreboding, atmospheric quality which proves to be a huge benefit rather than a distracting liability. Thus, suspense is generated in generous doses, even when the action scenes have the requisite number of bullets and knuckle-sandwiches.
There are other impressive elements. The stories are smart and well-written, with Ballinger and the rest of the characters given dialogue which avoids clichés such as "crime doesn't pay," and "a man is innocent until proven guilty." True, the plots wrap up a little neatly and quickly than we might prefer (this show might have fared better in an hour-long format), but there is still much to enjoy because of the fast-paced, urgent attitude exhibited in each show. M Squad also broke some ground into the depiction of Chicago's finest, with several references to corruption which actually led to the city's mayor to ban all filming of movies and television show for over 20 years.
Still, the glue that holds the show together is the towering Lee Marvin. Ballinger is a cop so cool he keeps a lit cigarette while also shooting at a criminal. Never letting romance in the way of doing his duty, he's nonetheless smooth with the ladies. Plus, he knows how to handle suspects and criminals during interrogations, even if a few face slugs are warranted. Very few of the supporting characters are recurring, allowing Marvin to dominate the proceedings, but there are still many familiar faces in all the episodes. Bollinger's captain is played by Paul Newlan (The Americanization of Emily), who's in fine form, although he doesn't get top billing until the second season.
Marvin's star power is a major drawing card, but this is also the show which inspired the 1980s spoof Police Squad!, which later led to the successful Naked Gun trilogy. Fans of the franchise will notice stunning similarities between both shows, including the hero's voice-over narration, his long walks contemplating the cases and, obviously, the names of the man and his unit. Captain Grey later got comically re-incarnated as Capt. Ed Hocken and even remnants of lab assistant Ted Olson can be seen in some of the secondary characters. Any fan of the bumbling Frank Drebin should take a look at M Squad just to catch all the references which Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers' affectionate stole for their comic re-invention.
Credit must be given to Timeless Media for their super effort in assembling this 15-disc DVD set, with all 117 episodes presented in their original full frame format. As expected, the visual quality varies wildly from episode to episode, with about a quarter of them yielding cases of bleaching which "whites out" Marvin's face at times. Other anomalies are numerous and often, with cigarette burns, scratches, holes, and excessive grain found. The worst episodes are two with separate disclaimers stating that the best effort was made to find alternate masters; both episodes look like seriously aged video copies, obviously from a fan's private collection. Audio-wise, we are treated to mono soundtracks which bring out the best possible in Count Basie's theme, which was utilized for the second and third seasons. No subtitles and no closed captioning. As far as extras, we have only one and it's pretty good one: a bonus CD featuring music from the entire series. Among other things, Count Basie's theme is included, along with a track by none other than John Williams, who was billed back then as Johnny.
Verdict: Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Timeless Media
• The Music from M Squad
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