9 sept. 2010

Nobody wants to identify with authority, nor with a force that is purely antisocial, so the the perfect hero of a television series is Jim Rockford, of The Rockford Files. He's a private investigator, so he's not a cop, but not a criminal either. He's an ex-con--but innocent and pardoned by the governor. He's good-looking, but rumpled and inelegant. He wears a jacket or blazer, but a cheap one, and worn with no tie. He is suave and awkward by turns. Selfish--and altruistic. Honest and deceitful. He always is reluctant to take any case, but ends up taking it anyway, in a curious blend of activeness and passivity. He charges a lot of money for his service ($200 a day + expenses, a lot for 1975), but the running gag is that he rarely gets paid at the end of the episode. He is friends with a policeman (Sgt. Becker), but every episode involves conflict with the police. Becker benefits from his involvement with Rockford (solving cases) but also gets into hot water with his supervisors for associating with Rockford in the first place. In short, everything in the series is perfectly balanced: cynicism and sentiment, authority and rebellion. Rockford is always in trouble with the police and the mafia at the same time, betwixt and between.

Since receiving violence induces more sympathy than inflicting it, Rockford usually gets beaten up at least once an episode. Yet he also inflicts violence on other in self-defense. (Nobody wants to identify with a pure victim who cannot defend himself.) When he punches someone hard, his hand hurts as much as the other guy's face. In the signature car chases of the series, he is usually the one chased. He is investigating a case, the subject presumed to know, but usually knows less than any of the other parties involved: he gather information mostly through others who seek to do him bodily harm or get information from him that he does not possess.

James Garner brings exuberance to this role: you feel his palpable pleasure, as an actor, at interacting with his costars, so that he manages to be a ham and perfectly "natural," all at the same time. There is always chemistry with the various young attractive women in each episode, as well as with his male co-stars, Noah Beery as his father Rocky, Joe Santos as Becket, Stuart Margolin as his ex-con buddy, conman Angel. Garner inhabits the role physically: it suits his body exactly.

The reluctant hero bit, self-interested but noble, is straight out of Bogart: there's a resonance to his performances, even though in filming over twenty episodes a season things becomes heavily formulaic.

6 comentarios:

Thomas dijo...

Just to be sure you're aware of it, Raymond Chandler's classic description of the hero of the hard-boiled detective novel is available here:


My favourite line is the second-to-last paragraph:

"...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

Jordan dijo...

Your account squares with my childhood memories of the show. But I tried to watch it again recently and was floored by how incredibly slowly the show moves. Chase scenes that go on for minutes, with long takes on Garner's face as he negotiates traffic. Evading calls from bill collectors. Whole seconds of standing around doing nothing.

I miss that world, but somehow can't revisit it.

Jonathan dijo...

I love those car chases. The fact that there is at least one in every episode, and that they are pretty much interchangeable. That they don't include spectacular visual effects but that they are witty.

JforJames dijo...

Thanks for the memories. It was a show I used to watch with my Dad. Haven't seen an episode in years. Almost afraid to watch one lest it taint those good feelings I have for Jimmy and the other characters.

Josh dijo...

I am obsessed with this show - I'm watching season 1 streaming on Netflix. You capture a lot of its appeal, Jonathan; and when I've talked about it on Facebook, Ben Friedlander remarked on how Garner and his father embody a working-class ethos that peaked in the 70s and has all but vanished since. How many of Rockford's cases (this is true of Philip Marlowe too, of course) involve his exploitation by rich clients, whom he only sometimes succeeds in hoisting by their own petards? (See also the more reliably successful, perpetually underestimated Columbo.)

Jonathan dijo...

I'm just stating to watch season 4 now on netflix. I remember at some point the show losing some of its edge, but I don't know what season that would have happened.

It was the same period when there were a lot of trucker movies, and the Rocky character is a retired trucker. Rich people in the show often turn out to be gangsters. Federal agents are foolish prigs. Ordinary cops are ok, but Lieutenants and Captains are not to be trusted.

The fact that Raymond Chandler's novels were also set in LA doesn't hurt; it gives the series a lineage to which it can remain faithful in spirit.