ROCKFORD FILES: “The Countess” S1 E3

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“This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”

“Hey Rockford, very funny. I ain’t laughin’. You’re gonna get yours.”

The fun of this message is not in its words, but in its delivery, which comes from a masculine voice with a slight and indeterminate foreign accent. Nothing breaks the ice for TV audiences like a weak threat from a novelty voice.

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The episode begins not on the beach this time, but up in the hills. The Santa Monica Mountains to be precise. We hear the crunch of light footsteps coming through the brush. The camera pans across the canyon as the same ill-fated music that kicked off the Rockford pilot episode plays in the background. This sad, doomed symphony might just be telling us something we are supposed to know about this episode’s femme fatale, the Countess.

The footsteps belong to Jim Rockford, who is lugging around two cumbersome pieces of gear that turn out to be a portable video camera rig. The camera is boxy and looks like something the props department might have thrown together over the lunch break out of gaffer’s tape and Visqueen.

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Just how common an object was a video camera in 1974? Would it be normal for a P.I. like Rockford to have access to one, or would it have been as fanciful and exotic as Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone? This is one of those pieces of information that gets lost in the smog of time when watching 40 year old reruns.

Next we see a genuine looking 1950s New York Yellow Cab shambling up a chaparral-lined mountain road. In the driver’s seat is a genuine looking 1950s New York cabbie, who smiles sweetly at his backseat passenger and says in a gravelly pillow-talk voice, “I’m a Scorpio with Pisces ascending.”

The passenger is Susan Strasberg, guest-starring as the Countess. The roll of her eyes and weary “here we go again” expression inform us that the Countess can scarcely walk down the street without having this effect on men.

He's a Scorpio.

He’s a Scorpio, ladies.

The Countess instructs the cabbie to pull over and let her off at an obscure little clearing. He drives off, leaving the Countess waiting by the side of the road. Jim Rockford and his video camera are concealed in some shrubbery in the hills above, getting ready to film. So far we don’t know what the connection is, if any.

Pulling up in a baby blue sports car is the third party in this fertile triangle, Dick Gautier. Though I have obscure, glimpsing recollections of Gautier on the 70s game show circuit, my only solid memory of him was as Hymie the clunky robot in “Get Smart.”

That is why this version of Dick Gautier comes as something of a surprise. He emerges from the car a very handsome man, with great hair, a cocky swagger, and a well-tailored leisure suit.

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Dick Gautier blackmailing the Countess.

Gautier plays Carl, a cruel man in tan disco slacks, who delights in inflicting emotional pain onto his victims. His game is blackmail and his victim is the Countess. Low-born Carl delights in humiliating the Countess because he can; because he knows her shameful secret. To be honest, the Countess seems to get off on it a little, too. Being the damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by a string of strong men comes easy to her. It’s the only game she knows.

There were no femme fatales in the last Rockford Files episode, so apparently they decided to swing for the fences in this one. Susan Strasberg is the eldest daughter of method-acting maven, Lee Strasberg, so you know she’s bringing it all to the role of the Countess. It’s in her genes.

Susan Strasberg is the Countess.

Susan Strasberg is the Countess.

Strasberg is the first critically recognized actress to guest star alongside Jim Garner in the “Rockford Files.” A 24-year old Lindsay Wagner proved herself as a lead actress playing Sara in the show pilot, and Gretchen Corbett carved out a nice niche for herself as Beth Davenport in her first appearance, but the diminutive Strasberg fills the small screen with her character and her character’s stylish hats and fur collars, making you believe that this 1930s socialite actually exists on the map pages of 1970s L.A.

Dick Gautier’s sleek 70s suit highlights an important show meme: In the Rockford Files, the connected mobsters had the flash, but not Jimbo. James Garner wore an off the rack wardrobe to portray Jim Rockford. That’s how Raymond Chandler would have written him, too.

But this is the 1970s, not Raymond Chandler’s ’40s, and there is a pool scene that happens to be very reminiscent of Caddyshack, full of self-made Republican men in brightly colored tropical shirts, their overly snobbish blue-haired wives, and their entitled progeny splashing around in the pool. The only thing missing is the candy bar.

This is another John Thomas James screenplay, which means we are watching a Rockford Files episode that comes straight out of a 1940s detective novella. The Countess feels like a black-and-white era femme fatale because the script itself is a script from the black-and-white era put to film in the time of swimming pool parties and tan disco suits.

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Those first season Rockford Files directors were quite fond of filming at the beach. Although this episode’s action began up in the hills, the big fight scene takes place yet again down on the white sands of Malibu.

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Carl and Rockford fighting on the beach, shirts and skins.

Dick Gautier as Carl, a beach fighting man.

Carl, a beach fighting man.

Shockingly, the beach fight leads to Rockford being arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. It also gives us an opportunity to meet Rockford’s first great nemesis in the LAPD detective squad, a man Rockford fans love to hate (but mostly love), Lieutenant Diel (played by Tom Atkins).

Diel has concocted a confession for Rockford to sign, and he’s about to lock Rockford up until he can pin the murder on him, when in steps Beth Davenport in her new role as Jim’s attorney (rather than his client) to put Diel in his place and spring Rockford free–for now.

Rockford and Diehl. The beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Rockford and Diel. The beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Jim gets into no fewer than three life and death struggles in this installment of the Rockford Files, including a close call with the mob, in which we are treated to a made man explaining to Rockford precisely what the protocol for arranging and carrying out a hit is.

Needless to say, there are some high-speed car chases and fantastic getaway scenes in this episode. By the way, some advice to would-be witness eliminators: If you’re going to explain to someone in great detail that you’re about to take them some place secluded and put their lights out for good, it’s probably not a good idea to then hand them the car keys and say, “you drive.” Just a thought.

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The leitmotif of this dark novella is betrayal, and it’s everywhere. Carl betrays the Countess, the Countess thinks Jim is betraying her, and Jim accuses her of betraying him before figuring out that it is someone very near to the countess who is doing the betraying, but only because that person feels betrayed by the Countess. Dennis Becker betrays Jim, and Jim will end up betraying Dennis with a sucker punch to the gut before the episode is through.

In the aftermath, with one man already dead because of her secret and another bleeding out in the hospital, the Countess is awash in self-recrimination for the lives that defending her honor against her shady past has destroyed.

Once again, she is the damsel in distress, vulnerable and waiting to be rescued by a man with broad shoulders. In the hospital waiting room, she turns her pleading eyes to Jim and says, “they keep fooling you don’t they? They think everything’s real. Then when you get close enough so you can see, it’s just made of plastic. He was the only genuine article around, but he got hooked on a plastic countess. How do you deal with that?”

Instead of telling her to take a long walk on a short pier, Jim responds with these choice words: “We’re all scared to death. I guess that’s the penalty we pay for living in a world where all the price tags end in 99 cents, and they sell mortuary plots on billboards next to the freeway. What you do is, you just keep laughing…Stop worrying about it. You’re playing a big practical joke, just keep laughing.”

Some of the finest lines Jim Rockford ever speaks. Raymond Chandler couldn’t have written it any better himself.

Some Thoughts on the Subject of Videotape

“The Countess” marks the first Rockford Files episode where neither Jim’s fee nor his expenses are ever discussed. One never brings up finances in front of the Countess. She doesn’t do money. But that leaves us with an unresolved issue: Videotape.

Because money wasn’t discussed, we have no way of knowing what sort of effort went into procuring the video camera used at the beginning of the episode nor how much it cost for Rockford to film that first encounter with Carl. It’s still impossible to know just how rare video cameras were in 1974, but a few things lead me to believe they were still pretty rare indeed.

One is the quality of Rockford’s tape of Carl and the Countess. When they play back the footage he shot in a crouch from a slippery hillside hundreds of feet away, it is of cinematic quality–crystal clear and steady as a rock. In the era of camcorders, we know how grainy and shaky handheld footage generally is. But if the public has zero familiarity with home video cameras, they wouldn’t know that.

Jim gets cinema-quality closeups from this distance.

Jim gets cinema-quality closeups from this distance.

Also, when a technology is still new and unfamiliar, people aren’t sure what to call it, or how to pronounce it. Rockford says “videotape” like it’s a new-fangled word, putting the accent on -tape, when we all know the accent goes on the first syllable, “vid.” For comparison, by 1977, when Jackson Browne sings “The Load Out,” he says, “we’ve got Richard Pryor on the video,” using the word’s modern articulation. As we know, the technology curve can change a lot in three years. If by 1977, videotape was the province of rock stars on their tour busses, jus think how hard it must have been for a guy who lives in a trailer in a parking lot to get in 1974.

THE OTHER STAR OF THE EPISODE: A FIFTH GRADE EDUCATION

The Countess lets slip that her husband Mike has a fifth grade education, a number that seems astonishingly low. By the ’70s, even hardcore dropouts managed to make it to eighth grade. Maybe Susan Strasberg improvised this line, or maybe they’re playing up the fact that her husband would have been a child during the Great Depression, when dropping out at that early age was more of a reality. Maybe in the 1940s, when the novella was presumably written, fifth grade dropouts were a more common everyday occurrence than in the 70s, when the episode was shot.

ADDENDA

Rockford's trailer is still parked in the lot in front of the Tonga Lei (where lunch is from 12 to 4, with an ocean view). Note the Countess' sweet silver ride.

Rockford’s trailer is still parked in the lot in front of the Tonga Lei (where lunch is from 12 to 4, with an ocean view). Note the Countess’ sweet silver ride.

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In his film acting debut, James Cromwell plays Terry, the Countess’ tennis instructor. After this role, he worked regularly in television, before transitioning to movies in the 1990s, where he specialized in portraying ex-Presidents, Charles Keating, and the police captain in “L.A. Confidential.” Surprisingly for a guy who always plays straight men, his very next roll after his Rockford debut was as a comedic character: Archie’s buddy Stretch Cunningham in All in Family.

 

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