Posted Saturday night, October 15, 2016.
Jim Rockford (James Garner, right) tries to talk sense into the inept private eye wannabe, Freddie Beamer (James Whitmore Jr.), in an episode of The Rockford Files that I think’s echoed in the plot of Ryan Gosling-Russell Crowe comedy detective movie, The Nice Guys.
We watched The Nice Guys for Family Movie Night Friday night and as I said in my review back in May (re-posted below), director Shane Black and his cinematographer and designers re-created the look, feel, sound, and tone of the 1970s and then Black proceeded to ignore his and everyone else’s hard work and shoot the film as if it was just a routine contemporary comedy crime movie. The effect is that The Nice Guys isn’t about the 70s and it doesn’t simply look like the 70s. It’s as if it came out of the 70s. The only giveaway’s the casting of the leads, and then you can almost make yourself believe Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe traveled back in time to star in it.
I didn’t catch many explicit references or allusions to the movies and TV shows Black is parodying the first time we saw it in the theater. Didn’t catch many more this time through. Mostly it’s a matter of scenes and shots and characters looking and sounding as if they could have been lifted straight from some movie or show from the period but I couldn’t put my finger on any particular movie or TV show. Except one.
Gosling plays Holland March, a down on his luck private eye whose desperation and lack of ambition---whatever drive he ever had he’s lost due to his grief and his guilt over his wife’s accidental death---has reduced him to taking missing person cases from old ladies who want him to find loved ones who they can’t admit to themselves have died. It’s also given him a drinking problem. Early in the movie, there’s a throwaway moment when March is recovering from a hangover on the floor of his bathroom and we hear the phone ring in the background and the answering machine pick up. We hear March’s message: “You’ve reached March Investigations. This machine records messages. Wait for the tone and speak clearly.”
This isn’t a time marker like the recurring jokes about the microwave oven in American Hustle. Answering machines were hardly new in 1977 and people weren’t expected to be surprised at reaching one and need to have it explained to them what one was and how it worked.
The first time we saw the movie I thought the joke was on March. The commentary isn’t on the now dated technology of the 1970s, I thought. It’s on March’s showing off that he has an answering machine long after they’d become ubiquitous as if it puts him on the cutting edge. It’s a way of telling us how out of step he is with the times and how naive he is, considering his business.
Last night I decided it might have been more of a clue than a joke. Black and his screenwriting partner Anthony Bagarozzi do that throughout---rather than waste time on exposition setting up plot points to come, they drop hints that, if we were paying attention and remember them, will explain things that happen in later scenes. I think March’s answering machine message is giving us a clue to who his clients are these days.
Excited and frightened old ladies in 1977, who’d still remember when they had to dial operators to place calls for them, using what to them was the baffling cutting-edge of telephonic technology, push-button Princess phones, to call detectives to find dead relatives might need to have it explained to them that they’d reached a machine and not a human being and then need instructions on how to talk to the machine. One especially desperate calling to report she’d just seen her murdered niece alive and well might need to be reminded to wait for the tone and speak clearly. That would be true in 2016 as well as in 1977.
Both could be going on or neither, the joke on March and the clue being given. What I’m sure of is that the answering machine is there as an homage to a famous 1970s television detective who is still identified in blessed memory by the ringing of his telephone.
You’re ahead of me as usual here, aren’t you?
Every episode of The Rockford Files, which premiered in 1974, opened with a shot of the telephone ringing on Rockford’s desk, the answering machine picking up---”This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”---and someone, usually someone mad at Jim over money or with some other form of bad news for him, almost never a paying client, leaving a message we know Jim’s going to wish he could un-hear.
An all time favorite of Oliver Mannion’s and mine had Rockford’s troublesome scam artist friend Angel on the line: “Jimmy, old buddy? It’s Angel. You know that one phone call they give you? Well, this is it!”
In the person of James Garner, Bret Maverick, the hero of the 1950s TV western that brought Garner to stardom, looked as if he could out-draw, out-shoot, and out-fight any other TV cowboy except Clint Walker’s Cheyenne and James Arness’ Marshal Matt Dillon. If he had to. But he never had to. Because he could out-think them all, including the likes of Cheyenne and Matt Dillon---in one episode he out-thinks a Marshal Mort Dullard with the effect that Dullard’s self-confidence is shattered. Maverick, as an act of charity, glues Dullard’s ego back together by pretending Dullard has frightened him into leaving town.
I loved this when I saw it as a kid. (For the record, I’m not that old. I watched Maverick and most of the other famous TV Westerns after school when they were in syndication in the 60s.) If someone with fists as big and hard as Maverick’s didn’t choose to think with them, if he didn’t have to be quick on the draw because he was quick with his wits, then solving problems by resorting to fisticuffs and gunplay resulted from a failure of nerve and brain and was therefore obviously the wrong way to go about solving problems.
Rockford was intended to have been cut from the same cloth as Maverick. Like Maverick, Rockford, as originally conceived, could have been the same type of two-fisted, dead-eyed hero as the other heroes of his genre, if he wanted. It wasn’t meant to be the case that next to him Joe Mannix was a pacifist and Kojak a pussycat. But he was meant to be fit company for the likes of Philip Marlowe. Bogart's Marlowe more than his own and Chandler’s Marlowe more than either. With maybe a touch of Elliott Gould’s. After all, he also had to fit into 1970s L.A.
Just an aside: Garner’s Marlowe is my second favorite Marlowe, after Bogart’s, just ahead of Gould’s.
At any rate, in early episodes Rockford could be every bit as hardboiled as Chandler’s Marlowe, and sometimes as cynical and acerbic as Bogart’s. In the first episode, a potential client played by the pre-bionic Lindsay Wagner is offended by his apparent lack of sympathy for her plight and his brusque demand that he get paid up front.
“Tell me how you got this wonderful finishing school approach, Mister Rockford.”
“People come to me all the time and they all have problems...I used to be soft-hearted and I’d sit and listen. But they couldn’t pay the freight. So they’d leave and be all depressed. And I’d be depressed. It was turning me off my own business. So now I do it this way.”
A few minutes later he’s even acting as malicious and thuggish as Sam Spade slapping Joel Cairo and taking his gun away---"When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!"---and bullying Wilmer the gunsel. Wagner’s character’s punkish and hippie-ish drug store clerk kid brother tries to act tough with Rockford:
“You’re a cop, huh?”
“No. What I am, sonny, is about fifty pounds heavier and a helluva lot meaner. So you better straighten up your act. I don’t think I like you.”
The point is Rockford had a mean streak in keeping with his profession and with his having spent five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And he could be violent and threatening, if he wanted or needed to be. The premise of the show was that his time in jail had hardened him but had also made him something of an idealist. He’d become a private eye with the express purpose of helping people wrongly accused of crimes and solving cases the cops had bungled.
But the writers and James Garner quickly figured out that the forty-something Jim Rockford might have another reason to play things safe and try to outwit the bad guys rather than outfight them that the twenty-something Bret Maverick didn’t have: A long history of failure at either talking himself out of trouble or fighting his way out of it. Maverick was a gambler who was usually right in calculating the odds. Rockford might have been a gambler once upon a time, but he was aware his luck had long since run out and he acted or, more often, chose not to act, accordingly.
Many episodes of Maverick were built around Maverick’s getting himself into trouble through youthful recklessness or seeing a chance for some easy money or being drawn into it by a pretty young woman, some innocent in trouble, or an old friend who’d made a play for easy money and miscalculated the odds to a degree Maverick himself would not have. The way out of trouble usually had Maverick thinking and conniving and finagling his way to a solution to the fix he was in. Only once in a while did he wind up drawing his gun.
Rockford is always in some sort of trouble. When most episodes begin, we’re seeing him already having a bad day that’s just about to get worse.
His constant sorrows and woes, often brought on by his own weaknesses and bad judgment, have given him something Maverick seemed to lack. A guilty conscience. He has a habit of seeing things going wrong in other people’s lives as somehow his fault or as his responsibility to put to right. That’s made him a soft-touch. He dreads getting hurt himself. He hates seeing others get hurt, sometimes even people who are out to hurt him, and, despite his regularly stated determination to look out first and foremost for Number One, he sets out to protect them, from the bad guys and from themselves.
Stories, then, routinely feature him picking up strays. People who aren’t his responsibility and whom he often doesn’t like or want anything to do with latch onto him and he finds himself taking care of them to his regret and chagrin and cost---financial and physical. Holland March could be one of those strays. In fact, in a number of episodes those strays were other private eyes. The most beloved of them, as fans of the show will be quick and happy to tell you, was Lance White, who was everything Rockford was not, bold, brave, idealistic, optimistic, and successful. Everything worked out for the best for him. Things he did that in Rockford’s view should have gotten him hurt or killed earned him riches and fame and the love of good women. White was played by...Tom Selleck.
But then there was Freddie Beamer.
Freddie (played by James Whitmore Jr.) was not only more of incompetent than March, he wasn’t even a real detective. He was a mechanic who dreamed of being a private eye...like the guy whose cool car, banged up in another exciting chase or escape, he routinely worked on, Jim Rockford.
He idolized Rockford to the point of deciding to become him. When Jim’s away on vacation, Freddie “borrows” his identity and sets up shop as a detective. He uses Jim’s credit card to buy all sorts of expensive high-tech detective equipment of the sort Rockford would never use himself and, operating out of Rockford’s trailer-office, takes on clients whose cases he proceeds to bungle.
Jim returns home---unexpectedly early. His vacation was in Vegas and he blew all his money at the Black Jack table---and discovers that not only is his credit card maxed out but a number of very dangerous people are very angry at “Jim Rockford.”
The rest of the episode has Jim trying to get himself and Freddie out of the jam Freddie’s gotten them both into while Freddie continues to play, ineptly, at being a hardboiled detective. And there are echoes of this plot of The Nice Guys.
March, who was a good detective before his life fell apart, still thinks of himself as not just still good at the job but brilliant at it. He’s constantly showing off for his erstwhile partner, Russell Crowe’s character, the tough guy for hire, Jackson Healy, and his showing off and over-confidence cause trouble for himself and Healy that Healy has to get them out of. If Healy turned up on an episode of The Rockford Files, he wouldn’t be one of Rockford’s strays, exactly. He’d be one of Jim’s old army buddies or a prison crony who comes to Jim for some help helping someone else and gets Rockford in trouble with by being too quick with his fists or with a gun or too intimate with the worser sort of criminals. Healy’s not a detective himself but his work requires certain detective skills and he knows how to put those skills to effective use. More important, he’s braver and tougher than March and much more competent with his fists and a gun.
Put like that, Healy sounds a bit like Rockford himself in relation to someone like Freddie Beamer. And that brings me to something I brought up in my review of The Nice Guys: Who’d have played Healy and March if The Nice Guys actually had been made in 1977 instead of just looking as if it had?
I decided on Gene Hackman and Ryan O’Neal. I was torn between Jodie Foster and Tatum O'Neal for Holly but I made what I considered the sentimental choice and went with O'Neal because of Paper Moon. (One of my commenters, Nondisposable Johnny, agreed with my choice but he didn't think there was any sentimentality to apologize for. "Foster was the better grown-up actress (probably because she worked at it). She wasn't the better kid actress because nobody was. No need to bring sentimentality to your choice. From the way you describe the daughter, she sounds like a slightly older Addie Pray anyway and you've made me doubly regret that I missed this in the theater!)"
But now that I think of it, James Garner would have made a good Healy. The reason I didn’t think of him is that I don’t think of Garner as a movie star. He was, of course, but he was pretty much done with being a leading man in the movies by 1977. He made some good films after Rockford---Murphy’s Romance, Sunset (Well, not actually a good movie, but he was good in it), Victor/Victoria, and Mel Gibson’s Maverick (Really. It’s pretty good.)---but after Rockford, his best work, and it was great work, was on television: Promise, Barbarians at the Gate, and one of my favorites not just of his television performances but of all his work, The Streets of Laredo.
And, still thinking along those lines, something else has occurred to me.
Garner could have played Healy but I think Crowe could now play Garner. That is, if someone decides to reboot The Rockford Files (again but successfully this time), someone other than Vince Vaughn, please, Russell Crowe would make a good Jim Rockford.
Think about it. It works.
If you can’t see it yet, watch The Nice Guys then that episode of The Rockford Files with Freedie Beamer or, really, any episode. They’re all streaming on Netflix.
Because I just gotta, and you wouldn't forgive me if I didn't...