Late afternoon sunlight glistens off the rain-splashed asphalt of the Bay City Motel parking lot. Jim Rockford’s Firebird pulls in accompanied by the breezy strains of a Price Is Right-showcase horn suite.
In the brief moment it takes for Rockford to park and exit the vehicle, the parking lot has been swallowed up by dark shadows. The breezy trumpet has stalled on a dissonant monotone–just about the sound a car horn makes with a lifeless body slumped over the steering wheel. A muted orchestral bell begins to toll, announcing that Rockford is on the case before we even know what the case is.
Jim spots a jumbo-sized metallic baby blue Cadillac in the parking lot, checks its license plate against a crib note in the palm of his hand, then finds his way to an upstairs room and tries the front door. Finding it unlocked, Jim lets himself in. Signs of struggle are everywhere, and it doesn’t take Jim long to discover the body.
Taking care not to leave any fingerprints, Jim methodically combs over the scene of the crime, and we see what Jim sees: A man sprawled out lifeless on the floor with his eyeglasses on the carpet beside him and a pistol peeking out from beneath the drapes across the room.
Rockford’s next stop is the Bay City Police Department, but not to tell the cops what he saw, because that would be admitting to unlawful entry. Instead, Jimbo tells the officer on duty, a Sergeant Larsen (played by Mills Watson), that he’s a private investigator whose client is very worried about her husband, Prentiss Carr, the man Jim already knows to be lying dead in Bungalow 14 of the Bay City Motel. Jimbo would like Bay City’s finest to check up on him, and presumably to discover the body themselves.
Sergeant Larsen clearly smells a rat, but Jim is relentless, finally telling the detective, “just check the motel; you’re gonna have to do it sooner or later.”
“Alright, alright, alright. You made your point. We’ll take a look,” Larsen says just to get Rockford off his back.
When Sergeant Larsen and his partner, Lieutenant Furlong (played by Warren Kemmerling) return from the motel, they break the news to Rockford that they found Prentiss Carr dead. Only they say it was suicide. They found the gun in Carr’s hand, the door locked, and the motel room in pristine condition.
When Jim second-guesses their verdict of suicide by gunshot to the belly, the two cops don’t like it one bit.
Rockford’s third stop of the night is to pay a visit to his client, Mrs. Prentiss Carr, a tall redhead who is waiting for Jim at her well-apportioned Pasadena home in a dress that looks like it was made out of peppermint swirl ice cream. Jim has to break the news that she is now a widow. As Janet Carr pours them each a stiff drink, Jim can’t help but notice that she’s behaving like a textbook suspect in her husband’s murder. She has means, motive, opportunity, and has already given Jim one bogus alibi. In addition, her coffee table is covered with travel brochures and she seems strangely calm when Jim tells her Prentiss has been shot to death.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Janet Carr and Jim used to have a relationship, that for a married woman she seems to maintain a pretty active and ongoing dating life, and that in her first hour of widowhood she beckons Jim to spend the night.
Assuring Mrs. Carr that the police would be paying her a visit that evening and that they probably wouldn’t understand, Jim leaves, but not before advising her to remove the travel brochures as well because the police probably wouldn’t understand that either.
The following morning Jim returns to the Bay City Police Department and goes straight to the chief of police to tell him what he saw in Prentiss Carr’s motel room and how it differs substantially from what the two detectives claim to have seen.
This goes over about as well as you’d expect it to, with Jim being bum-rushed to the city limits by the two detectives, who threaten that if they ever find him in Bay City again, they’ll fill him full of lead and make it look like he was resisting arrest.
The scripts for the first fifteen episodes of the Rockford Files are all adapted from stories penned by the creator of the show, Roy Huggins (credited under the pseudonym John Thomas James) when he was a young scriptwriter and novelist in the 1940s. It’s these scripts, created in the era of classic Hardboiled L.A. detective noir, that give the early Rockford episodes a special timeless flavor, despite being so clearly set in the 1970s.
Of these initial Rockford Files episodes, “Exit Prentiss Carr” is the one that stands out as the most enduring and classic example of L.A. noir, an episode that could work as a different television program altogether. Jim is in a strange parallel universe here. There is no Beth, Dennis, or Angel. And Rocky only shows up for one brief scene.
In this episode it’s just Jim, a coy ex-lover, a pair of extremely foreboding cops who zealously patrol the perimeter of the fictitious town of Bay City, and a corpse that refuses to stay in one place. Except for one quick shot, Jimbo’s trailer isn’t even in the show. It’s just Bay City and a secluded Pasadena estate.
Bay City may sound familiar to fans of classic L.A. detective noir because Raymond Chandler liked to use it as a setting for his Philip Marlowe stories.
In Chandler’s writing, Bay City is a stand-in for Santa Monica, but in this episode Jim actually namedrops the Santa Monica Police Department to the Bay City cops, so we are led to believe that Bay City is one of the many other small beach towns that line L.A.’s coast. A further hint as to Bay City’s location comes when Sgt. Larsen says it’s a “45-minute drive tops” from Pasadena, which sounds about right for a crosstown trip to the beach in those days.
Pasadena was L.A.’s original money neighborhood. Back in the Philip Marlowe era, when Malibu was ranchland and Beverly Hills was just beginning to fill up with those tacky showbiz types, Pasadena was where L.A.s bluebloods resided. Presumably the matrons of Pasadena wiled away their days on their backyard tennis courts in those days, because that’s what Mrs. Carr is doing when Jim drops by.
In fact, the wealthy (or wealth chasing) women seem to play a lot of tennis in each of these first four Rockford episodes. In “The Kirkoff Case” Jim goes to a tennis club to track down a money-chaser; In “The Dark and Bloody Ground” he finds his wealthy no-goodniks not at a tennis club but at a horse racing track; in “The Countess” Jim confronts the episode’s wealthy wife/murder-suspect taking her tennis lesson with the club pro; and here in “Exit Prentiss Carr” Jim finds the newly widowed Janet Carr happily returning serves in the tennis court of the estate her husband has just left her.
This episode is populated by classic pulp fiction prototypes: A blonde blackmailer in a fancy sports car, an insurance executive up to his greying temples in white-collar crime, adulterers spilling off of every page, and an inexplicably shirtless guy in a windbreaker who appears to be some sort of beach tough, reminding us that this script was written in a pre-Gidget era, when beach bums were synonymous with dumb bodybuilders looking to make a quick buck, basically just the West Coast versions of hoods who hung out in pool halls.
Even the blackmail scene is straight out of the Hardy Boys, featuring the surreptitious handoff of a package on a crowded pier in plain sight where anyone who happens to be watching from a discrete distance, as Jim is, can see everything go down in plain view.
The character names themselves are classic pulp-fiction. The wealthy men have fancy WASP names like Prentiss Carr and Sterling Parker. The guys who work in lumberyards have plain names like Jack Clark.
The rich executives are corrupt; the working class men are mostly good folk; the women are smart cookies who play the hand they’re dealt. It’s a fairly common theme in the Roy Huggins scripts. Huggins came of age during the Depression and seems to have developed an acute class-consciousness as a young man. Ideas about how the fabulously wealthy spent their time and how they became wealthy in the first place seem to readily percolate to the surface of his fiction.
Pull up a chair for “Exit Prentiss Carr” and slip into the timeless alternate universe of Bay City, a hidden corner of Los Angeles not found on any map, where the conventions of Bogart-era detective noir rule the day no matter what decade we’re actually in.
Allow yourself to enjoy the old-fashioned pacing of what is only the fourth ever episode of the Rockford Files, before the show finds its stride and assembles its familiar pieces.
Starting with the next episode, “Tall Woman in Red Wagon,” the show’s action and pace will change dramatically. Jim’s portable printing press will make its debut. Soon, his trailer will be moved from the dirt lot next to the Tonga Lei tiki bar into the parking lot down by the pier. Before long, Angel Martin will become a regular fixture of the show.
But for now, it’s just Bay City and a tall shamus in a checkered sports coat who once did time and just can’t help but get himself mixed up in the affairs of rich, attractive widows throughout the Los Angeles basin.
This is the episode where we’re introduced to Rocky’s truck, which makes its triumphal entrance with a loud toot of the horn. “Gee. Did you wash it?” Jim asks Rocky, noting how clean the truck is.
“Twice a week,” Rocky beams, going on to brag about how the truck’s best feature is the lights mounted on its roll bar.
“I don’t want to show it in competition,” Jim cuts his father short. “I just want to drive it for a little while.”
The running gag of this episode is that Jim has to constantly borrow new cars so that the Bay City police won’t recognize him when he returns to their city to do more sleuthing. So when Jim borrows Rocky’s truck he wants to know what it’s going to cost him. “Oh nothing much,” Rocky tells him. “Just top off the tanks if you could.”
Did you hear that? Rocky didn’t say “tank” singular, he said “tanks” plural.
Jim catches on quick, protesting that Rocky’s dual fuel tanks will take 40 gallons to fill up.
“And I don’t use no regular gas, no sir.” Rocky finishes the thought, getting the last laugh with a sly callback to the old grifter Rocky (played by Robert Donley) we saw in the show’s pilot.
Rockford Files tropes in this episode:
Jim reunites with an ex. This is the first time in the series it happens (opposite Corinne Michaels as Janet Carr), but by no means the last. Usually, it’s a woman of sophistication and striking beauty (like Corinne Michaels, whose somewhat icy demeanor makes her an ideal non-grieving widow in this episode. That icy demeanor would make Michaels very convincing when she portrayed a Fembot a couple of years later in The Bionic Woman, as well as in her return appearance on the Rockford Files as yet another strangely passionless wife. Michaels would make a grand total of four appearances on the Rockford Files).
Payphone as plot device. A payphone features prominently in the episode’s action-packed denouement. In this scene, we get to witness a ritual that has by now disappeared from our daily routine–using a rotary-dial payphone in an emergency, in this case a call to the police: A guy picks up the receiver, waits for the dial tone, drops a coin into the slot, dials information (411) on the rotary dial, asks the operator for the number for the Bay City Police Department. He then repeats that number manically to himself so as not to forget it, dials the number on the rotary phone, and finally tells the cops there’s a gunfight going on and they need to get there pronto.
It’s impressive how long a scene like this can be stretched out to maximize suspense. Today we have 911 on speed dial, but every one of the abovementioned steps required to place a call to the cops was fraught with tension-building uncertainty. In a life and death situation where every second counts, it feels like an eternity for the number to be dialed digit by digit, having to wait a full one-one thousand between each stroke of the finger for the dial to return to its resting position. (In full disclosure, even in those days you could actually just pick up a phone and dial zero to get the operator for an emergency, but the way they do it here is much more dramatic).
Rockford’s record. At some point the Bay City police detectives find out about Rockford’s stint in the pokey and throw it in his face like a trump card, as if they’ve just unmasked the Lone Ranger and sunk his battleship all in one.
THE OTHER STARS OF THIS EPISODE: WARREN KEMMERLING AND MILLS WATSON
Besides Dennis Becker, cops on the Rockford Files are usually portrayed as dimwitted bullies with badges. And that’s how it seems it’s going to play out when Jim tangles with Bay City’s finest over the Prentiss Carr case, but they hold their own against Jim in the battle of wits. And although at first we fear for Jim’s life with these two, in the end they (along with their chief) turn out to be far more decent to him than the LAPD will ever be.
Warren Kemmerling is an imposing, decidedly non-flashy ex-Marine with a rich Midwestern baritone that lends itself very well to square cop roles. He would have fit right in with the cast of Fargo.
He got steady work in Hollywood playing austere authority figures, and we’ll see him again for another Rockford episode in Season 2, but he is probably best known for playing Wild Bill, the gung ho military man in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Warren Kemmerling passed away in 2005.
This is the first of Mills Watson’s four Rockford Files appearances. In those four episodes he plays four different characters. He’s just got one of those classic character-actor faces. Watson has done a ton of TV work, and is probably best known for playing Deputy Perkins in The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and B.J. and the Bear, as well as a prison guard in the film Papillon.
Watson was born in Oakland, CA and lives in Jackson County, Oregon, near the city of Ashland, two top-tier destinations in my book.