May 27, 2015
The series is so obscure that no one seems to agree even on its name. The trade papers then, and the reference books now, call it The Lawbreakers. The newspaper listings during its original run usually went with just Lawbreaker. But the title that appeared on screen was singular, no article, and celebrity-possessory: Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.
Whatever its name was, it’s not like anything else that was on television in the mid-sixties. Like the earlier Dragnet and Highway Patrol, it venerated the work of the police in a stone-faced-to-the-point-of-hysteria attitude. Like Day in Court or the early Divorce Court, it used actors to dramatize actual incidents. But Lawbreaker looked and felt nothing like those shows. Its star-hosted re-enactments of violent crimes have more in common with the Cheesy Recreation Theater aesthetic of America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911. But those came along decates later, in the era of smeary videotape and synthesizers, so they too prove inadequate as a point of comparison. For a formal analogue from Lawbreaker’s era, one has to look far outside the mainstream – to the midwestern industrial and educational films that gave Robert Altman his start, for one, and also to the regional, quasi-amateur exploitation films (like those by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Ray Dennis Steckler) that played the drive-in circuit during the sixties.
Lawbreaker orchestrates a complex reality. It maneuvers the viewer through half a dozen different modes of non-fiction and fiction. The episodes begin with the star, Lee Marvin, in what has been described extra-textually as “the control room.” In this tiny, windowless chamber, Marvin sits or stands at a giant console, occasionally flipping a switch or turning a knob, often addressing the viewer directly, but also interacting with other characters (both real people and actors playing them) who appear via a recessed video screen. This location doesn’t resemble any familiar journalistic or law enforcement setting. What it calls to mind instead is a nuclear bunker, of the sort common to Cold War movies and television episodes, where Air Force officers sit poised to launch the Big One.
It’s never clear why Lee Marvin should be hanging out in the thrift-store version of a set from Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, doing the work he’s doing in Lawbreaker. But then it’s not clear who “Lee Marvin” is, either. Is this Lee Marvin, Citizen, disseminating information in a public service capacity, quite separate from his profession as an actor? Or “Lee Marvin,” the television personality whose biggest starring role to date – on M Squad – established a grim, tough-on-crime persona upon which Lawbreaker trades? Or is Marvin playing an actual if fungibly-defined character, a sort of all-purpose avatar of omniscient law enforcement? Marvin (the human being) didn’t pretend to know. “Some critic will find a word to describe my function, and I’ll settle for that,” he told a reporter.
Integrated with Marvin’s running commentary in each episode are some or all of the following: filmed interviews with police, criminals, and civilians; recreations of actual, recent crimes in the places where they originally occurred; and (less frequently) clips from television news coverage of the incidents in question. While the bulk of the program is in color (still novel on television in 1963, when Lawbreaker was made), the news footage is usually in black and white. The recreations generally involve the actual participants and, to play the criminals (who are usually still incarcerated and unable to participate), both professional and non-professional actors. In some interviews, the real-life cops and witnesses have been directed to address Marvin as “Lee,” although there’s no real-time interaction between them. The overall impression is that Marvin’s questions have been scripted after-the-fact to match a field reporter’s footage. In some episodes, scrims or other objects are placed in front of the criminals (and occasionally the victims) to conceal their identities. Sometimes it appears that these person-in-silhouette segments have been faked to create a visual for an audio-only interview.
Every common technique of nonfiction filmmaking is in play: interviews, narration, found footage, re-enactments. But Lawbreaker shifts so rapidly and inelegantly through these modes that it doesn’t play like a true documentary. The restagings of crimes are at the heart of each episode, but Lawbreaker cuts away from them so often that it’s not possible to settle in and enjoy them as good stories – a quality that’s likely to be seen as a flaw by many viewers, particularly those early television fans who seek out the show expecting something along the lines of M Squad. Whether in spite or because of its non-traditional approach, though, Lawbreaker is one of the most fascinating artifacts of sixties television that I’ve discovered.
Where did this odd hybrid come from? Lawbreaker is a historical footnote in that it’s the last series to emerge from the ashes of Ziv Television. Founded by a midwestern advertising executive, Ziv transitioned into TV from radio and flourished in the fifties by producing popular, low-budget action shows (including I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol, and Sea Hunt) for first-run syndication. But that bubble popped as cheaper packages of popular movies and cancelled TV series became available to the same markets, and in 1961 Frederick Ziv sold his company to United Artists. Ziv’s partner, John Sinn, became the head of UA’s nascent television department. The company’s creative staff remained intact for another couple of years, reconstituted under a new name (Rapier Productions) to produce the second season of Ripcord in 1962 and then Lawbreaker the following year.
Although Lawbreaker has no creator credit, it was likely the brainchild of Maurice J. “Bud” Rifkin, a Ziv employee since 1938 who became UA-TV’s head of sales, and Maurice “Babe” Unger, a college buddy of Sinn’s, recruited from an Ohio mattress factory in 1949 to run Ziv’s new TV studio. (Sinn told him that making TV shows was no different than making mattresses.) In interviews Unger claimed credit for the premise of Lawbreaker, which was so novel that UA coined a term to describe its mixture of fact and fiction: an “actuality” (or “factuality”) series. But Rifkin, in his post-Ziv career with David L. Wolper Productions and National Geographic, specialized in what he called “documatics,” which were essentially the same thing as “actualities.” (Along with Lawbreaker, UA-TV’s other offering for the 1963-64 season was a package of six Wolper specials.)
To maximize the limited budget on which Lawbreaker would be produced, the two Maurices concocted an ingenious scheme. Unger went from town to town, selling the series to regional stations with an “on location” tie-in: If a station bought the show, that city would be selected as the locale for an episode (or two). It was a marketing hook for the station (one likely sweetened in major markets by “profit participation,” or in other words a kickback from United Artists, according to Variety), and a way for the Lawbreaker company to make cost-effective use of local production facilities and crews.
Lawbreaker brokered a similar relationship with local police departments. Police officers who made the original arrests were enlisted to play themselves, in re-enactments as well as interviews. Each episode ended with a segment in which the city’s police chief got to bloviate about his philosophy of law and order. (“We had to burn a lot of footage on them,” said Ken Gilbert, a Ziv script supervisor who made his directing debut on Lawbreaker. “It all came down to editing.”) Invariably this part of the show awkward and dull, but it was the key to ensuring top-to-bottom police cooperation during the filming of the show. The Lawbreaker crew could go just about anywhere, and did. Police chases and gun battles involved dozens of participants, large crowds of gawkers, and cars moving at reckless speeds – not to mention the occasional helicopter or boat. “Permits and so forth, they didn’t bother with that,” recalled Gilbert. The Unger-Rifkin plan meant that Lawbreaker looked like a million bucks, in a way that none of the earlier Ziv shows did, even though extensive location shooting had been a significant selling point for Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
“We had a truck, that was the other phenomenon,” Gilbert explained in an interview last year. “The driver did a phenomenal job getting from city to city. If we finished a show on a Friday night in Philadelphia, he would leave then and be there and have the equipment to set up to start shooting on Monday in Boston. We probably had less than ten people that traveled with the show. We picked up the crews [locally] – even that was very limited. We picked up a sound man and a couple of [other] of people, and that was about it.”
Executive producer Babe Unger, who traveled with the company, directed a number of episodes; the remainder were divided among Gilbert and two Ziv veterans, Eddie Davis and Jack Herzberg. (Dann Cahn, the legendary I Love Lucy editor, was brought in as a writer-director by his friend Lee Marvin, but completed only one episode before quitting to take over editing The Beverly Hillbillies. “I was not a happy camper,” Cahn said of the hectic Philadelphia shoot.) Casting was done locally, drawing upon the same sources that supplied the stories and facilities. Off-duty cops who weren’t playing themselves often portrayed the criminals they’d helped to put away. TV station staffers were hauled before the cameras as well, and as a last resort the overworked Lawbreaker crew would scout the local theater community. Jack Lennhoff, then the public relations director for Connecticut Educational Television, played the killer in the “Hartford” episode; aspiring actress Linda Peterson (above, with Lennhoff), the 21-year-old wife of fortysomething pugilist Willie Pep, played the victim. Noreen Hartsfield, cast as a woman murdered in a hold-up in “Seattle,” was a Seattle policewoman. A few familiar faces can be spotted in other episodes: Police Squad’s Alan North (below) and Seamon Glass turn up, respectively, in New York- and Los Angeles-based segments. Unfortunately, Lawbreaker’s actors were only sporadically credited on screen, so in many cases their identities remain unknown.
(Just like the name of the series itself, the individual episode titles are inconsistent. Each one opens with a wordy logline – such as “Greenburgh, New York, October 20: Youth Gangs Active in County” – which the Internet Movie Database appropriates as the official title. But 1963-64 television listings, as well as the DVDs, identify each episode simply by the name of the city in which it takes place – with an “A” or a “B” following cities lucky enough to get two episodes – and that’s likely what appeared on the scripts’ title pages. Some sources also include the state as well as the city in the episode title.)
It’s a bit surprising to find Lee Marvin in such a marginal enterprise as Lawbreaker, even though – two years before his Oscar win for Cat Ballou – the actor was at something of a professional low. Marvin’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem, and although he was getting juicy film parts (like the title role in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and guest leads on television, Marvin was frustrated that his career had plateaued somewhere south of stardom. Even with his name embedded in the title, Lawbreaker was a comedown from Marvin’s previous television series, M Squad, which had at least been on a network. Marvin’s company, Latimer Productions, owned a piece of Lawbreaker, but that had also been true of M Squad. And Marvin had hated making M Squad, complaining to the press that the repetitive work wasn’t as creative as what he could do in films.
The difference with Lawbreaker may have been that the producers agreed to schedule production around Marvin’s movie gigs. To shoot his segments, Marvin only had to work one day a week. “Babe [Unger] did all of Lee Marvin’s [scenes]. That was part of the deal that he had made with Lee, that he would direct all of those,” said Gilbert. “We had a little studio on Cahuenga Boulevard, and built that set [there]. Babe would talk Lee Marvin through who he’s talking to and what it’s like and so forth. They didn’t have the video equipment to be able to do them simultaneously. They couldn’t show him what he was looking at, they’d just have to kind of tell him, or maybe have a moviola on the set and run part of the interview so he could take a look at it.” The Cahuenga facilities were so threadbare that the office of associate producer Mort Zarcoff doubled as Marvin’s dressing room; the actor would come into Zarcoff’s office periodically throughout a shooting day to don a new suit for each intro.
As Dwayne Epstein points out in his brief but worthwhile biography of Marvin, the actor had seen incredibly graphic combat during World War II, had killed more than once with his bare hands, and likely suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. The subject of violence, especially the difference between screen violence and the real thing, was one in which Marvin often expressed an interest. In its promise to depict crime more bluntly and graphically than most fictionalized television series did, Lawbreaker was exactly the kind of pitch for which Marvin would’ve been a sucker.
If Lawbreaker has an overarching theme, it is the randomness of violence and the unknowable “why” of evil. The Gene Roddenberry-scripted “Seattle,” an early episode so quintessential that I guessed it was the series’ pilot (Gilbert says it wasn’t, and that “Chicago B,” the first episode in the DVD set, was the first one shot), articulates the show’s apocalyptic, pop-sociological them-versus-us theory of crime. It’s about a movie-star handsome teenager, Andrew Michael Olds, the “Queen Anne Killer,” who guns down a bystander while robbing a store to replenish his stake in a poker game. Following a restaging of the crime (in which one of the few professional actors to appear in the series, Michael Vandever, plays Olds), Marvin rolls clips of an interview with the victim’s widowed husband, and later with Olds himself. Not pausing to offer sympathy to the widower, Marvin repeats Olds’s most damning line – that it was “a little hard to fall asleep” the night after the killing – in a voice dripping with scorn. Cordoned off from Marvin by his high-tech video screen, the criminals in Lawbreaker are specimens to be contained and studied – degenerates distinct from law-abiding citizens. Olds, fittingly, went on to fulfill Lawbreaker’s nihilistic prophecy: One of the few criminals featured on the show to achieve national notoriety, he was paroled for the Seattle killing in the seventies and immediately undertook a second murder spree.
“Seattle” would be the only Lawbreaker script from Roddenberry, who sold his first series – The Lieutenant – to MGM during the same season. “Writing” Lawbreaker was as much a task of editing found testimony (and footage) as of imagination. Unger’s right-hand man Vernon E. Clark and Zarcoff, the associate producer, dominated the teleplay credits. “I wrote or rewrote practically all of them,” said Zarcoff. “There was kind of a front man, I forget what his name was, but [he] did the initial research and came to me with background, and I would choose from maybe half a dozen possibilities and pick the most interesting one and write on it.”
Even with all the various moving parts I’ve cataloged above, Lawbreaker’s storytelling formula wasn’t as rigid as it sounds. The writers shifted the emphasis from one component to the other in service of the material, so that the episodes are varied enough to be binge-consumable today. “Hartford” is a police procedural that follows the cops more than the criminals. “Pittsburgh” is pure action, going from bank robbery to car chase to foot pursuit to shootout, without ever stopping to tell us much about the participants. “Cincinnati,” an atypically soft episode, relegates crime to the periphery, focusing instead on the search for a rare blood donor. “Detroit” consists mainly of interviews with two twitchy, inarticulate thieves (below), who would come across as a comedy team if they weren’t also played by unsmiling actors in a grim recreation that shows one of the pair taking a painful bullet. The actors look nothing like the men they’re playing, and as it cuts between them “Detroit” creates one of the series’ most jarring multiple realities, in essence presenting two competing, tonally distinct versions of the same crime.
Speaking of multiple realities: Cahn’s remarkable solo outing, “Philadelphia,” depicts an incident in which a housewife and her two teenaged daughters are terrorized during a home invasion. During the criminals’ escape, one of the girls is briefly kidnapped and used as a hostage. “Philadelphia” is uniquely terrifying in the way it foregrounds the sudden, random nature of the crime. The two burglars barge into a surburban house without preamble – if they cased the joint, or chose it for a reason, Cahn doesn’t divulge those details – and they’re mean to their victims in a casual, soulless way. (“Junk,” spits a robber as he examines some costume jewelry. “Well, I paid good money for it,” retorts one of the spunky daughters.)
In keeping with Lawbreaker’s custom, all the members of the Philly family play themselves. What could it have been like for victims of a violent crime to relive that crime for the benefit of a camera crew, and then to watch themselves stepping through the charade on television a few months later? Why would a teenager agree to burlesque her abduction by a pair of gun-wielding strangers? Was the experience traumatic or cathartic? In its zeal for verisimilitude, Lawbreaker never articulates this question, never acknowledges it; but the sadism implicit in such a ritual is likely, I think, to provoke an unintended discomfort in the spectator.
Although few of the company’s regional contacts managed to contribute Lawbreaker teleplays – Gy Waldron, then an obscure Georgia-based actor and documentary filmmaker, co-wrote the “Atlanta” episode fifteen years before he created The Dukes of Hazzard – the best episodes, those that utilized character or suspense as a strong spine to hold up the disparate formal elements, generally came from established screenwriters. The most important was Steve Fisher, a pulp novelist (I Wake Up Screaming) and film noir scenarist (Lady in the Lake; Dead Reckoning) who wrote four excellent episodes. Noir was a significant influence within Lawbreaker, one that made sense in terms of its pretensions toward truth-telling (for there was a strand of noir that took its stylistic cues from newsreels), but that cut in the other direction too, functioning as a shot of lurid seasoning ladeled over the dry sinew of case files. “Philadelphia” feeds this line to one of the real-life cops during their testimonials: “I bruise easy. When a suspect threatens me, I get in the first punch.” And then this fatalistic one, spoken by his partner: “When your time comes, you go. Not before.”
Fisher’s “New Orleans,” in which a femme fatale offers an undercover cop a seamy tour of the Big Easy’s vice dens, is another essential entry that uses neon-noir tropes to deepen the show’s stoic true-crime trappings. Virginia Dawn Strawn (spelling uncertain), pill-popper and all-around B-girl, is a terrific character, and again we meet her twice: once in the form of an uncredited actress (above) with fearsome cheekbones, lava-red lipstick, and a tough-girl attitude, and again in an interview with the real thing. The real Dawn Strawn (below) – attractive and biting off her words in a Southern lilt – is something else altogether. Clearly still steamed over being betrayed by her narc boyfriend, Virginia doesn’t bother with the phony remorse that most of Lawbreaker’s jailbound miscreants trot out.
In a sense, “New Orleans” almost calls bullshit on the whole enterprise: Dawn’s sympathetic sullenness underscores a tension between the show’s message and the facts of the case. Nobody sticks up for Dawn Strawn on-screen, but the ostensible hero is a narc, the big fish of the New Orleans rackets get away, and you’d have to be a real dick not to feel like Virginia got a bum rap. The “Long Beach” episode contains some similar surprises. Kicking off with a warning to send the kiddies out of the room, “Long Beach” documents the modus operandi of an illegal abortion racket. The abortion gang are straight B-movie villains – one of them is a beautiful blonde played by Vana Leslie (bottom), who also decorated a few episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. But Marvin’s sequences veer into a weird territory when he introduces a young woman named Vicki Nessick (a pseudonym), her face obscured by a ridiculous-looking piece of cherry-red wood, who describes her own abortion at the hands of this gang. Marvin treats her with respect, even compassion. There’s an unmistakable sense in “Long Beach” of someone feeling passionate about the subject matter, of taking it personally, and when Marvin describes Nessick as an actress by profession, one has to guess that she’s an acquantaince of someone working on the series. (Mort Zarcoff, who wrote “Long Beach,” couldn’t recall any specifics when I asked him about the episode.)
Unexpected shadings like these are what make Lawbreaker special, and what make its otherwise noxious law-and-order bias bearable. There’s also another factor, irrelevant during the original run but overpowering in the present day, that brushes away Lawbreaker’s dubious politics and clumsy stylistic tics. I’m talking about the time capsule element: the potent imagery of sixties America that Lawbreaker captured through its rare location shooting. Repurposing a piece of entertainment as a tourist’s view of history is a treacherous enterprise – a formalist version of the violence that nostalgists and reactionaries do when they pillage fifties sitcoms for moldy, myopic life lessons. But I can’t see how to avoid re-inscribing Lawbreaker as a time machine, just like Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.
I’ve championed one of Lawbreaker’s contemporaries, Route 66, for the incidental Americana that got swept up within its peripateric storytelling. But Lawbreaker subtracts some of the requirements of narrative that adhered to Route 66. The buildings and the cars and the locals are the subjects in Lawbreaker, not just the backdrop. The furnishings, the fashions, the faces of Lawbreaker feel like a snapshot of authentic flyover living, one that in some ways pays more attention to regional details and distinctions than Route 66 could, even as the latter show tooled down roads outside the metropolis. Somehow I’d never known what a Pennsylvania dialect sounds like until I watched the trio of Lawbreakers filmed there. (What’s up with those O’s, Philadelphia?)
And of course Lawbreaker, unlike Route 66, is in color, gorgeous, gleaming color, of a kind you only get from the sixteen-millimeter film the series was shot on. (It helps that the DVD transfers are pristine; Lawbreaker’s film elements must’ve been sitting untouched in the vaults since 1964.) I’d always assumed that movies and TV shows like Down With Love and Pan Am and even Mad Men overstated the pastel palette of the early sixties. But no: Judging by the astounding pinks and aquamarines and lemon yellows on display here, they’re actually toning it down. The way that the cars always gleam in period movies, and none of them are ever twenty years old and falling apart, is another Hollywood cliche I’ve always mocked. But in Lawbreaker the cars really are perfect like that. Somehow they’re all shiny and spiffy, all of them, not just the picture cars, but the ones in the driveways they zoom past. Was it something about the paint back then? Did the Smiths and the Joneses all wash and wax because the film crew was coming to town? Or did the sixties really gleam a little brighter? I don’t know. Maybe Lee Marvin does.
Thanks to Ken Gilbert and Mort Zarcoff, who recalled Lawbreaker in phone interviews in February 2014. Dann Cahn discussed the series briefly in his Archive of American Television interview; all other quotes and background are drawn from contemporary newspaper and trade press coverage.