Perception Studies in Seventies Crime Shows
July 30, 2009
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television. The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media. Andersen prefers the real thing. I’m not sure I agree.
One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar. The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience. Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers. Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how reality has been manipulated during its creation.
For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City. The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed. For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard. (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.) In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended. That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.
Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files. The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels. In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot. The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel. The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard. The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.
Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object. The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge. It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport. Here’s a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right). But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the “entrance” to the Delman Motel.
(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time. But Universal’s prop department still had some catching up to do. In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department. Realism came fitfully to television.)
Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background. The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards. Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).
During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties. Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen. Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators. But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.
I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice. I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge. As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling. We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.
Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch. In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.
Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector. “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.
Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.
Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment. He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.
Movies do this all the time. They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye. Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story. But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.
I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle. But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.
Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer. In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor. Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film. Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result. Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.
In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices. The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative. The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.” How do we make that choice? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other? Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.” My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show. But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view. They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.
Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity. In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image. Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue. Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession. Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence. Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not. Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.
Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies. That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error. Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way. Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed? Of course. But the filmmakers had the last word. They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.