M Squad

M Squad (1957)

Crime, Drama

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M Squad d2e8-14.iso

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HeΓÇÖs a Good Guy, but HeΓÇÖs Not Very Nice 

Published: January 9, 2009 

WELL before he won an Oscar for ΓÇ£Cat BallouΓÇ¥ (1965) or made revenge an almost abstract art in John BoormanΓÇÖs ΓÇ£Point BlankΓÇ¥ (1967), Lee Marvin logged television time starring in ΓÇ£M Squad,ΓÇ¥ which proves to be catnip for cop-show fans in a new 15-disc, 117-episode DVD release from Timeless Media Group. 

Broadcast from 1957 to 1960, ΓÇ£M SquadΓÇ¥ (the M stands for murder) featured Marvin as Lt. Frank Ballinger of the Chicago police, a brusque cynic whose tight lips were most often puffing savagely on a cigarette. Even though Marvin was 33, his hair looks gray in these grainy black-and-white tape transfers, and he tends to keep a small snap-brim fedora clamped firmly on his head as the cameras follow him out of the dingy squad room into even dingier exterior locations on mostly marginal Chicago streets.

The showΓÇÖs half-hour episodes are textured with prickly details out of hard-boiled pulp. Ballinger grills a suspect in a dive bar called Club Hangover; when he pursues two other malefactors into a beatnik club called El Guitar Coffee House, Marvin, in his Squaresville narrow-lapel cheap suit, wrinkles his small, blunt nose at the wan trilling of a folk-singing duo, ΓÇ£Bud and Travis.ΓÇ¥ The actor makes clear what the script does not: Ballinger thinks the arty types tapping their toes to melancholy chords are callow punks with soft hands. They donΓÇÖt do the dirty work this cop requires of someone worthy of respect. 

The suspects Ballinger is after in that episode ΓÇö ΓÇ£Fire Makers,ΓÇ¥ about a gang of arsonists ΓÇö have familiar, if young, faces: theyΓÇÖre played by Leonard Nimoy and James Coburn. Scattered throughout the series are appearances by before-they-were-stars actors like Angie Dickinson (MarvinΓÇÖs co-star in ΓÇ£Point BlankΓÇ¥), Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, Don Rickles and (in addition to Mr. Nimoy) another future ΓÇ£Star TrekΓÇ¥ player, DeForest Kelley.

But the focus centers, as it should, on Marvin. ΓÇ£M SquadΓÇ¥ was clearly influenced by the just-the-facts-maΓÇÖam storytelling of the more well-known ΓÇ£Dragnet,ΓÇ¥ which made its television premiere in 1951. Unlike the stiff Jack Webb in that series, however, Marvin is a loose-limbed energy junkie, impatiently jiggling his leg when forced to sit at his squad desk, and possessed of a blithe cockiness thatΓÇÖs enormous fun to watch. In ΓÇ£The SpecialistsΓÇ¥ everyone in one scene looks attentively at a lawyer articulating his defense of three robbers. Not Ballinger, though: with an insolent brazenness worthy of Marlon Brando, Marvin angles his body away from the lawyer and stares at the floor, radiating contempt. ΓÇ£IΓÇÖm not a nice guy,ΓÇ¥ Ballinger says at one point in this episode, and you believe him. Cutting off crooks answering his questions as though theyΓÇÖre wasting his time in getting to jail, Marvin creates a man who you just know lives by a pre-Miranda, confess-or-IΓÇÖll-slug-ya code. 

The ΓÇ£M SquadΓÇ¥ collection is not for DVD lovers who prize visual crispness. Many episodes have a cloudy blur and dropped-out frames that modern technology cannot improve. But there are other saving graces, including a CD of music from the series that has driving jazz from big names like Count Basie and Benny Carter. The showΓÇÖs bopping, squealing, squad-car opening credits were parodied 25 years later on the short-lived cop spoof ΓÇ£Police Squad!,ΓÇ¥ from the satirists who made ΓÇ£Airplane!,ΓÇ¥ Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry.

ΓÇ£M Squad,ΓÇ¥ however, is both unironic and, thanks to MarvinΓÇÖs pent-up acting, bracingly modern. The series even presaged the current trend of CSI-style forensics. Ballinger frequently tells an underling to save some piece of evidence for ΓÇ£the lab.ΓÇ¥ As early as the showΓÇÖs second episode he was saying, half-derisively, half-admiringly, that the lab was ΓÇ£dousinΓÇÖ, burninΓÇÖ, and smellinΓÇÖ ΓÇ¥ some blood and fingerprints on a crime scene. Ballinger concludes with the astringent sarcasm that makes ΓÇ£M SquadΓÇ¥ such a happy rediscovery, ΓÇ£We may as well take the day off, now that the science-fiction boys got it all wrapped up.ΓÇ¥ KEN TUCKER
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