"It's my job and the Bureau's job to do this in the safest and fastest way we can...and it's your job as a private citizen to help in any way you can!"
They're back...so you better not screw around with the U.S. of A., pal. Warner Bros.' fabulous Archive Collection of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) library and cult titles has released The FBI: The Second Season, Part One, a 4-disc, 16-episode collection representing the first half of the hit ABC series' 1966-1967 season (I'll be reviewing Part Two next week). Famed producer Quinn Martin's most successful television series, The FBI continues to keep its head down this sophomore season, relentlessly, relentlessly driving on with its fact-based storylines while showcasing a truly remarkable gallery of Hollywood's finest supporting actors in this top-flight, exciting police procedural. No extras, again, but the transfers are good for this terrific-looking show.
Washington, D.C., 1966. In a small, tidy, spartan one-bedroom apartment, FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) readies himself for bed after a long day of work...right before the phone rings. On the line is Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott), Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (second only to the Director, J. Edgar Hoover). Whatever rest Erskine planed on getting, he better get it on the next plane out of D.C., because he's been given another assignment. As his superior Ward has often stated, Erskine gets some leeway from the Director because he gets results...but when duty calls, it doesn't matter if its night or day, Erskine must go. Investigating federal crimes ranging from interstate fugitives to foreign spies to industrial saboteurs to murderous bank robbers, Erskine is often paired with Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks), a young, slightly cocky agent. Scrupulously avoiding any relationships with the various women he encounters during his investigations, Erskine grimly goes about his work protecting the United States from its enemies within.
Looking back over my review for Season One, Part One of The FBI...and grumbling about not receiving Part Two for review (you can read that review here), I noticed I wrote quite a bit about Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s iconic character, Inspector Lewis Erskine. We won't have that problem with this particular review because, rather surprisingly, he seems to be M.I.A. for many of the stories here in this first half of the season. Zimbalist, Jr. is in every episode, with Erskine receiving his orders to investigate a particular crime, and assorted shots of him asking about clues and interviewing witnesses before the inevitable wrap-up when the FBI cracks the case and arrests (or kills) the perp. However, as a character, Erskine is almost non-existent here (at least in this first half of the season). By this point in the series, since it maintains the same aesthetic as the first season―stick with the stories and 86 anything "personal"―we don't really expect to see Erskine enjoying his leisure time or going out on a date. As a state-hopping, never-tiring FBI agent, Lew has no free time, because there are Commies and murderers and bank robbers and spies to smash. However, I did expect Zimbalist, Jr. to at least dominate the episodes, since he's the headlining star. Curiously, though, he's infrequently seen, with the producers and the writers concentrating mostly on the criminals and their complicated moral dilemmas (and the innocents who get involved, as well), rather than on Zimbalist, Jr. as a hands-on investigator. Indeed, those few scenes with Zimbalist, Jr., sprinkled throughout the episodes, feel more like simple linking devices for the more important main plot points―the criminals and their activities.
As much as I enjoy Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s grim, authoritative performance here, though, the producers and writers' decision to stay with the criminals yields strong anthology drama (a hallmark of producer Quinn Martin's other big success on ABC at the time: The Fugitive). The season opener, The Price of Death, is an unpleasant kidnapping/murder story featuring a typically fine performance from Robert Blake (seen that same year in Richard Brooks' classic, In Cold Blood) as a tortured crook who can't understand how far his schemes have gone since he hooked up with his amoral killer brother, Scott Marlowe. The Escape, a hard-nosed escape episode with murdering cons on the run, has Roy Thinnes and Steve Ihnat creating quite a bit of tension as killer brothers, with Marlyn Mason caught in the middle (I particularly like the unapologetic, Old Testament, pre-P.C. sentiments of the murdered FBI agent's wife, played by Virginia Vincent, who states, "it's over when they hang."). "Peace activism" in The FBI's world either means "Commie front" or "clueless naiveté", the latter being the case in the excellent The Assassin. Peacenik Dean Jagger (always good at dithering) can't believe anyone would really want to assassinate him, just as he can't comprehend Inspector Erskine's quite logical and rational skepticism about the Commies not wanting a real peace. William Windom (one of my all-time favorites) is terrific as the cold, calculating assassin suffering from a cynical, world-weary fatalism.
The Cave-In is an exciting entry (with producer Martin's usual attention to production detail evident in the big screen-worthy cave-in scenes), with John McIntire perfectly cast as the grizzled miner/saboteur (but soon-to-be-exiting Stephen Brooks not making much of an impression, here...he's featured even less than Zimbalist, Jr. in this first half-season). The Godfather fans will no doubt enjoy The Scourge, which features Robert Duvall as a newly-initiated "friend" of La Cosa Nostra, where he operates as a "juicer," loan-sharking vulnerable companies and then taking them over. That dangerous, almost feral intelligence of Duvall's, on display in so many of his working-actor TV appearances in the 1960s before stardom came, really sells this taut little suspenser (as well, this episode is a good example of The FBI giving the viewer a detailed look into a criminal activity they may not be aware of; in this case, a "juicer"). Fans of mob movies will also be intrigued by the depiction of a "made man" initiation rite here, where a large-scale set and dramatic lighting suggest as much a horror film as a Mafia movie. Another favorite, Arthur Hill, has a strong role in The Plague Merchant, where a chemist steals what he thinks is a hand cream formula (for the purposes of industrial espionage to pay for his crippled daughter's operation), only to discover he's stolen a deadly virus for a foreign power. The episode doesn't give him too easy of an out for his moral dilemma, while the cast, including the wonderful Michael Strong (so good with those slightly creepy, soft-voiced villains he excelled at) and Eduard Franz, is top-notch.
Ordeal is a fun mini-The Wages of Fear take-off featuring always-good, gruff Gerald S. O'Loughlin as a nitro driver taking one last job, with Brooks along for the ride (O'Loughlin has some particularly good scenes with The Fugitive's Jacqueline Scott as his understanding wife). Collision Course plays like a grim little forgotten "B" noir, with Jack Lord (always better, I thought, when playing a baddie) sparking well with the incandescent Pilar Seurat, who's wonderful as a loving deaf mute (again, as with other QM productions, the set dressings are impeccable―an amazing amount of detail went into these seemingly simple sets). Lois Nettleton, maybe the single best actress regularly working in serial television during the 1960s, is fine as expected in Vendetta, a Nazi/Commie-themed suspenser co-starring Alfred Ryder and John Van Dreelen (good, too). Any episode from any TV show that has the lead character locked up in prison gets an automatic pass from me, and Anatomy of a Prison Break is no different. Lots of good detail here (death by toothbrush shiv, guns smuggled into prison via lead ingots), while Zimbalist, Jr. gets beaten to a pulp in the prison shower. Gold.
One of the half-season's best episodes, The Camel's Nose, scripted by series' regular Mark Rodgers and directed by one of my favorite unsung directors, Joseph Sargent (the original brilliant The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), is a nasty, violent, thematically complex thriller featuring Murray Hamilton and Fritz Weaver as business partners who kill their best friend to cover up a defective shipment of airplane parts to Vietnam. Memorably violent (Hamilton viciously beats Cheers' Nick Colasanto to death with a pool cue, only to later have his own screaming death out a high-rise window), this episode also makes a rare admission (which some might find amusing today) that before J. Edgar Hoover's involvement with the Bureau, it was...corrupt, doing political favors and compromising its objectivity. List for a Firing Squad features another personal favorite, the sultry Suzanne Pleshette, as an émigré to the United States who falls in love with a Eastern Bloc Commie spy, played well by Charles Korvin (this being The FBI, he of course is foiled in his plot). Finally, I quite enjoyed The Raid, a snappy, no-nonsense actioner with excellent location shooting (at the famed Victory drive-in in the San Fernando Valley, seen the year before in Ski Party) and a tough cast of characters headed up by Ralph Meeker (way too good for this sort of thing, but welcome, none-the-less) as a vicious bank robber holding a little kid hostage. Written again by Mark Rodgers and directed by series' regular, Ralph Senensky, The Raid has that relentless, plot-driven economy of storytelling that The FBI excels at; nothing superfluous is introduced, either in character motivation or plot points, creating a hardscrabble little thriller that's as clean as it is entertaining.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.