Reviewer's Note: I was sad to see the news last week that Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. had died. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Zimbalist, Jr. a few years ago, when The FBI was rolling out on DVD for the first time, and of all the celebrities and actors I've spoken with over the years, I can't think of anyone who was more gracious and kind in tone--genuinely so--than Mr. Zimbalist, Jr.. In what would have been a "grin and bear it" publicity chore for some other performers, Mr. Zimbalist, Jr. quite unexpectedly seemed to be enjoying himself: on a strict time limit, he politely asked me, when our time was up, if I could stay on the line a little bit longer, so he could tell me a few more stories about old Hollywood, and about the actors he knew and worked with over his long career. He was articulate and well-spoken, and he seemed sincerely glad to have the opportunity to speak with me about his life. From what I've read, he extended that courtesy and consideration to everyone he met. A gifted actor and a true gentleman, he will be missed.
At this point...interest lies increasing with spotting the guest stars. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The FBI: The Complete Seventh Season, a 6-disc, 26-episode collection of the ABC crime anthology's 1971-1972 season. With absolutely no change in the show's direction for this seventh go-around, nor any new types of plots or villains utilized for its trim, no-nonsense weekly little crime mellers, no matter how much you admire the professionalism of the production, one can't help but feel The FBI is growing...a little tired by now. No extras for these good fullscreen color transfers.
Washington, D.C., 1970. FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is on the line with Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott), Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (second only to the Director, J. Edgar Hoover). Whatever personal life Erskine may have (and it's not entirely certain that he does because we never see it...), he can forget it because he's been given another assignment. Investigating federal crimes ranging from interstate fugitives to foreign spies to industrial saboteurs to murderous bank robbers, Erskine is often paired with Special Agent Tom Colby (William Reynolds), a young agent who is also selflessly devoted to the Bureau. Devoid of outside interests, Erskine and Colby grimly go about their work--unsmiling and largely unmoved by any extenuating circumstances for either criminal or victim--protecting the United States from its enemies.
In previous reviews of The FBI, I've made it clear how much I admire the consistent no bullsh*t tone of the series: lean, carefully-structured scripts, efficient, exciting, no-nonsense direction, a charismatic lead performance by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. anchoring the anthology aspects of the show's construction, an impressive roster of Hollywood's best supporting players, and production values that rivaled TV's big-screen counterparts at that time. It's an aesthetic I admire for its dramatic and visual simplicity, and it's one that owes no apology for its straight storytelling aims. However...there's also no denying that by rigidly sticking to the same kinds of crime stories (1971's America's then-roiling sociological and political changes are nowhere to be seen here--just bank robbers and boosters and Commie spies), and with the same kinds of antagonist/protagonist dynamics, and with
The season opener, Death on Sunday, from scripter Mark Weingart and regular series helmer Virgil W. Vogel, is a prime example of this stagnation. A tired extortion plot (that feels a little like the upcoming Two-Minute Warning) involving "borderline psychotic" Andrew Prine blackmailing pro quarterback Frank Converse, fails to go anywhere, with an anti-climatic ending involving a potential shoot-out at the big game, that's positively criminal (the closest The FBI is going to get to the counterculture this season is probably here...with all the squares throwing out lines like, "I can't cop out," "Everything's cool," and "Wanna rap?"). Better is Recurring Nightmare, where underrated actors Tim McIntire and Ralph Meeker kidnap Belinda Montgomery and high-tail it into the Sierras to find some long-hidden money stolen by Montgomery's father. It may smack of quite a few earlier FBI episodes where crazies take a girl into the mountains (with an ending lifted straight from The Treasure of the Sierra Madres), but the two leads put it over. Vogel's The Last Job is a sweet vehicle for old pro John McIntire, who's quite affecting in this melancholy little escaped-con-on-the-run outing (there's an excellent scene with McIntire's real-life wife, Jeannette Nolan, where she bluntly tells him, "I forgot you a long time ago....It was all such a waste; not for me, but for you. There wasn't a mountain you couldn't have climbed," before Vogel gets a nice shot of once-nostalgic McIntire seeing how time had passed--how old he had really become--in a mirror).
The Deadly Gift is a familiar phony psychic scam, enlivened a bit by Dana Wynter's straight-faced emoting and Fritz Weaver's nice turn as a charming, lying rat bastard (watch for another instance of Zimbalist, Jr. 's amusingly undemonstrative agent: when victim Wynter sobs at the end, she gets the merest pat on the shoulder as a largely unmoved Zimbalist, Jr. exits stage left). Dynasty of Hate is a good example of this season's middling success relying more and more on the quality of the actors cast each week. A strong group--Earl Holliman, L.Q. Jones, Henry Silva, Dabbs Greer (a fav), and Jim Davis--single-handedly carry this nicely-mounted but well-worn tale of kidnapping and murder among an avaricious, powerful ranching family. Much, much better is the two-parter, The Mastermind, a season best, from scripter Robert Heverly and director Vogel, which harkens back to the best noir FBI episodes. Powerhouse cast Clu Gulager, Steve Ihnat, Scott Marlow and Bradford Dillman--dressed as Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Pepe le Pew, and Bugs Bunny, no less--execute a daring robbery of an amusement park...before mastermind Dillman screws his gang over for the loot. Caught in the middle, sweaty, increasingly scared-but-still-gutsy Dillman (always excellent) has to dodge both teams--crooks and good guys--as the FBI races to catch him before murderous Gulager does. The kind of polished, tight FBI noir episode that could have easily played on a 50s B crime meller double feature. An interesting Commie spy ring outing from Gerald Sanford, The Watch Dog has solid support from Stuart Whitman and particularly the suave, icy Ivor Barry (his gimmick with the Rottweiler attack dog is a classic), but it stumbles badly whenever Sharon Acker is on (her, "Oh my poor baby! My poor baby!" is hilariously bad).
Another season's best, The Game of Terror, finds creepy private school students John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) and Marcia Brady's husband (Jerry Houser) kidnap a younger student and bury him alive for ransom--a nasty plotline made even more pungent by Thomas' unpleasant turn as a psycho who actually wants to get caught...to be famous (Thomas was good at playing whack jobs--You'll Like My Mother--before The Waltons ruined it). Excellent suspense at the end, when the kid's underground dungeon is bulldozed, and Zimbalist, Jr. has to crawl in and save him (Dabney Colman's wasted in a nothing part, though). Ed Waters comes up with an interesting twist in End of a Hero: war hero Ed Nelson is really a phony. Some hairy helicopter stunts in this solid heist outing (fav Lee Meriwether is fine, as always). Mark Rodgers scripts Superstition Rock, a fairly engaging story about Indian mine workers caught in a nefarious business deal. Excellent cast here includes Lou Antonio, Marj Dusay, Wayne Rogers (always good playing a sneaky sh*t), and Dana Elcar. Unfortunately, The Minerva Tapes from Warren Duff is a fatally familiar Commie spy ring outing that has Zimbalist, Jr. undercover again as a Rooskie contact (didn't he do that a couple of times already?), with Louis Jourdan the top spy (I know he played this role already on the series). A trite, boring script. Bitter Harbor isn't much better, with Cameron Mitchell doing what he can with a dopey, cliched story about the mob taking over the local fishing industry (notorious hambone Joseph Wiseman's turn as a proud, not-too-bright fisherman stinks from the head down). The Recruiter bounces us back, though, when always-good Monte Markham (should have had a bigger career in movies) shines against effortlessly interesting Jessica Walter (looking dishy, as usual), in an engrossing robbery/romance outing with telling little noir flourishes.
The producers stick Zimbalist, Jr. with that same ridiculous porn 'stache as Inspector Erskine goes undercover again, in The Buyer, as he tries to bust thieves Tim O'Connor, David Hedison, and Stefanie Powers (all too good for this thoroughly routine outing). Scripter Dick Nelson's A Second Life isn't anymore original than The Buyer, but it does benefit from a typically intense, knowing performance from Martin Sheen as a mob hitman finding love with hippie Meg Foster too late to change fate (the two work well together, and the script stays honest to the end: he doesn't really reform). Donna Mills plays a disloyal, two-timing, money-hungry slut quite well in The Break-Up, where her hard-as-nails chippie ditches her loser husband for a smooth, big-time operator (Charle Cioffi, silky and fun). Enjoyable tough-guy dialogue from series regular, Ed Waters. Inspector Lewis gets dangerously close to the counterculture in Judas Goat...where the counterculture is represented by squeaky-clean folk/rock singer John Davidson, that is (Lewis does get to interview a real hippie, shaking his head when he leaves). Davidson's contract is bought by the mob (Linden Chiles, the most clean-cut, polite enforcer you ever saw), and the squeeze play is on (I don't know what's groovier: Davidson's red velvet jacket with black suede accents and belt...worn with purple-checked pants, or Zimbalist, Jr. actually smiling at Davidson's concert). Unfortunately, The Hunters plays almost exactly like about 10 other FBI episodes I've seen where a Commie spy ring is busted, with only Richard Kiley, Hurd Hatfield, and George Voskovec offering any relief. Much better is Ed Waters' Arrangement with Terror, where junkie architect Roger Perry (always good) is getting squeezed by his mob connection Reni Santoni and his boss, Robert Loggia. Diana Hyland, as expected, turns in a nicely-shaded turn as Perry's increasingly desperate wife, who's willing to steal to keep him going. A surprisingly tense outing, for this season.
Seymour Robbie helms the clean, efficient The Set-Up, a beautifully-cast scam outing (Jessica Tandy, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Burr DeBenning, Robert Pine, Sian Barbara Allen) that finds a gang of robbers preying on resourceful, rich widow Tandy (a particular favorite, Sian Barbara Allen, is wonderful, with familiar face Pine working well as a duplicitous gang member assigned to fall in love with her). Director Michael O'Herlihy creates a nicely creepy mood with the familiar kidnapping story, The Test, from scripter Mark Weingart. John Colicos hams it up a bit (what else?), but Robert Foxworth is excellent as the scared, alcoholic son of victim Harold Gould (Harold Gould sired Robert Foxworth???). Good location work on this one. Robert Drivas scores a bull's-eye in Robert Heverly's The Corruptor, where Drivas plays a murderer and robber who's well on his way to ruining another young man's life...after he's already set his brother on the path to death row (Drivas, an underrated actor, puts a quirky spin on this character that freshens up the familiarities here. Look quick for a young Mark Hamil, years away from Star Wars). Just as impressive a turn is Broadway actress Penny Fuller's full-on performance in The Deadly Species, where she plays an amoral thief and killer, looking to score enough money to get her son (Leif Garrett) back...a son who wants no part of her. Tom Skerritt is good as a midget racer in a The Killers subplot (it's weird that just two years out, M*A*S*H didn't do for him what it did for Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould). Series star Philip Abbott turns to directing again, this time for Dark Journey, a thoroughly recognizable father/daughter con artist outing that features good support from Claude Akins, Lindsay Wagner, and William Schallert. And finally, Escape to Nowhere won't surprise anyone with its overly familiar story of an escaped convict, John Vernon, teaching overprotective mother Diana Muldaur (I'm feeling faint...) and son Lee Harcout Montgomery some life lessons they don't want to learn. However, the leads are quite good, particularly Vernon (he could do that charismatic bad guy role in his sleep). It's perfectly indicative of most of the entries in this season of The FBI: entertaining, to be sure, in satisfying its genre conventions, and aided greatly by its pro actors...but perhaps too familiar and repetitious by this point.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.