The Rockford Files: Season One
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The Rockford Files: Season One

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The main staple of film and television has always been the PI, private investigator. Usually, this man lived on the edge of danger. He was a smooth ladies man and often was slick and debonair. In 1974 a PI hit the television scene that threw all of this out the window, ‘The Rockford Files.' Jim Rockford (James Gardner) works in Malibu, Los Angeles as a PI. He was an ex-con, serving five years for an armed robbery that he did not commit and was later pardoned. Unlike previous TV private investigators Rockford was not very successful in his chosen profession. He lives in a trailer, drives an old, gold Pontiac Firebird and his answering machine is usually full of threats of repossession. One of the things most fans remember about this series is the phone messages. At the beginning of every episode, there was a different call, having nothing to do with the plot, telling Rockford to come up with cash or else. Rockford wasn’t menacing like the film noir detectives; he was the kind of guy that tried his best to avoid a fight. If he had his preference, he would usually avoid involvement in a case altogether. When financial pressures start to get to him, Rockford uses his quarter page advertisement to gather clients. His typical fee is $200 a day plus expenses. Often, he is unable to get the fee which just results in more collection calls on his answering machine.

Rockford has surrounded himself with a small but loyal cadre of friends and associates. Closest to him is his father Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.). Rocky typically helps his son with words of wisdom and the occasional helping hand in various cases. Rocky often tries to get his son to quit his dangerous profession and follow his foot steps as a cross country truck driver. Every private eye needs an inside man at the police force. For Rockford, this came in the person of Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos). He does the usual television help, running license plates, doing background checks and pulling Rockford out of trouble. In return, Rockford often gives the credit for solving the case to Becker helping his career. More often than not the source of that trouble is somehow involved with Rockford’s former cellmate Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin). Angel got his name in prison for his perchance of praying that the bigger men not beat him. Angel is always looking for the fastest way to obtain cash; legalities are rarely a consideration. As part of his, parole Angel works for his brother-in-law who conveniently owns a newspaper. He is the informer for Rockford, but his information is as likely as not to get Rockford deeper into trouble. When those problems resulted in Rockford’s arrest, he would call lawyer-slash-girlfriend Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Davenport (Gretchen Corbett). Although Jim and Beth are close friends now, the pair did share a romantic history together.

Rockford specializes in cases that have been closed or ignored by the police. He is often the last resort for his clients. After all, why would they come to a broken down PI like Rockford unless there was no other alternative? Rockford would usually take on a case that presented itself as straightforward. He would be hired to follow someone or investigate an unsolved murder. What made the plots of this series so much fun is nothing was like it so simple. Rockford would find himself rapidly pulled into a far more sinister set of circumstances. In one episode a Countess played impeccably by guest star Susan Strasberg, hires Rockford to look into who is blackmailing her. Soon, bodies appear, and evidence disappears. Rockford is framed, and an arrest warrant is issued forcing Jim to run from both the real killers and the law. It is the position of being caught between the good guys and the villains that make for the suspense.

This show plays a lot of the dialogue with the tongue planted firming in the cheek. The dry humor is what provided this series with a legion of loyal fans. Jim Rockford was just an average kind of guy would want to pay enough bills so he can go fishing and still find his trailer home there when he gets back. The typical private investigator as depicted in movies and on television seem to live in a world of significant financial means and a beautiful woman vying for his attention, Jim Rockford is not living that dream. Rockford is a blue collar character who is just as likely hiding from bill collectors than bad guys. He seems to have a distinct penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is perhaps one of the most defining characters for the veteran as to James Garner. In many ways, he is reprising a variation of a previous television role, Maverick. It is the laid back manner that pulls the audience in, retaining their attention. Rockford is believable as a character due in large part to the innate talent of Garner. He is handsome enough for the female audience while allowing the men to identify with him readily. By the time Noah Beery Jr. appeared in this series, he was already a familiar face to many fans of film westerns. He is perfect as Jim’s father Rocky. Part sage advisor, part cohort Beery plays Rocky as a dedicated father and friend to the series protagonist. Stuart Margolin is the perfect foil and sidekick to Rockford. While Rockford is honest and trustworthy Angel is the small time con man who is always looking for the quick buck. Margolin portrays his character as the wannabe criminal, never quite making the big score he lusted to attain finally. While most of the screen time for Gretchen Corbett is peripheral to the story lines, she always adds flair to the series. The way she plays Beth is a former girl friend that still holds Rockford as someone dear to her. She is bright and loyal, always willing to help.

Universal continues to bring these classic television series to fans using DVD season sets. This box set contains all twenty-two episodes of season one plus the original pilot TV movie. The re-mastered video is among the best for a vintage series that I have seen in a long time. There are a few very minor defects, but none were serious enough to spoil the viewing pleasure. The color balance is vibrant with better than average contrast. The two channel Dolby mono is mostly restricted to the mid range but is always clear. The only extra is an eight-minute piece where James Garner muses about the series. While interesting it would have been nice to have it expanded a bit. This is classic cult television at its best and hats off to Universal for providing it to all of us fans. While most modern crime dramas have gone hi-tech do yourself a favor, go old school and enjoy this series with the whole family.

Posted 12/7/05            07/28/2017

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