“The days happen.”
The second beginning for the cult detective series, Harry O. A few years ago, Warner Bros.’ unbeatable Archive Collection released Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, the 1974 pilot that finally sold the ABC network on David Janssen’s proposed detective series, Harry O.
By Paul Mavis
Co-starring a solid cast of pros including John Anderson, Howard Da Silva, Martin Gabel, Clu Gulager, Tim McIntire, Andrea Marcovicci, and little Jodie Foster, Smile Jenny, You’re Dead is a beautifully observed, low-key mystery/romance. It has a tone and pace quite unlike most of the detective smash-’em-ups that were popular on the tube in the early ’70s, featuring an agreeably different detective than you probably remember from that time period: Harry’s broke, broken in body, and busted in spirit.
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Every morning, Harry Orwell (David Janssen) wakes up with a grimace on his face, and it stays there all day. Why? Because this former police detective has a bullet lodged in his back. So…it’s either live with the constant pain, or risk an operation too close to his spine. Living in a small, ramshackle beachhouse in Santa Monica, Harry O supplements his disability checks with part-time private investigation work…but it’s still not enough to fix up his dilapidated boat, or even his car, which needs a $300 transmission overhaul. So Harry O takes the bus wherever he needs to go, because it gives a man “time to think.”
And he’ll need that time, because his latest case is particularly perplexing: model Jennifer English (Andrea Marcovicci) is being stalked by a murderer. When Jennifer’s estranged husband, Charley (Tim McIntire), winds up dead in an elevator with a bullet in his brain, Harry wants to help, because Jennifer’s father, Lt. Humphrey Kenner (Howard Da Silva), is an old friend from the police force. Harry’s presence at the crime scene puts pressure on Detective Milt Bosworth (Clu Gulager), who doesn’t want the retired detective hanging around his case. However, it soon becomes imperative that Harry O solve this mystery for one very simple and at the same time very complicated reason: he’s fallen in love with Jennifer.
Even though I was a kid—a kid who watched at least 8 hours of TV a day—I remember well Harry O and its pilot movie, Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, primarily because Janssen’s Harry Orwell was so temperamentally different from the other TV detectives on the networks at that time. Unlike the spit-and-polish, no-nonsense defenders of the California Penal Code over on Adam-12, or the glamorous, almost-Bondian cops and detectives of Hawaii Five-O or Mannix, or even the portly-but-pleased-with-himself Cannon, Harry Orwell was a mess, an existential character in constant physical pain and frequent psychological distress. He didn’t have a lot of money, he didn’t seem to have very many prospects, and that bullet in his back wasn’t ever going to go away.
Now of course, Harry O didn’t stray too far into semi-realism; it still occupied that glorified world of TV private investigation. In Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, Harry doesn’t collect a fee (something Joe Mannix was infamous for), and he has a gorgeous next door neighbor/sometime girlfriend (?), played in this pilot by the jaw-droppingly hot Barbara Leigh (in the series proper, a just-emerging Farrah Fawcett-Majors would fill in), and shack or no, he lives on prime beach real estate.
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But even Harry’s closest spiritual competition, financially strapped Jim Rockford, who premiered the same year in NBC’s classic, The Rockford Files, knew how to have a good time with his barbecues and beautiful women and his gold Firebird. Here in Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, Harry O travels around town…on a bus―the single least glamorous mode of transportation I can think of in the fantasy world of television detectives. Nothing says, “sex appeal” like mass transit.
Indeed, even though Jim Garner’s Jim Rockford lived in modest-at-best circumstances, the tone of his series was still essentially light: Maverick as modern-day private dick. In Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, the tone is exceedingly low-key, almost mournful, with star David Janssen’s mordant, gaze-averting grumbling and general air of being slightly pissed-off at everything and everyone, fitting perfectly together.
Scripted by crack writer Howard Rodman (TV’s The Naked City, three terrific Don Siegel films: Coogan’s Bluff, Madigan, and Charley Varrick), Smile Jenny, You’re Dead‘s downbeat musings are beautifully conveyed by the old noir standby of a cynical, world-weary narration, utilizing Janssen’s rusty, rumbly voice to great effect, giving real depth to Rodman’s already-persuasive lines (when Janssen intones over the soundtrack, “I kept hoping I’d reach her. I kept hoping I wouldn’t reach her…I had better days,” it’s like something out of Chandler or MacDonald). You certainly couldn’t call Harry Orwell a counterculture figure, but Rodman drops in enough little clues―Harry’s boat is called The Answer, and his dream is to literally “drop out” and sail his boat away from all civilization (“telephones bug me”)―to make Harry O attractive to younger viewers in 1974, while setting him apart from his acquisitive partners in TV detection. Ultimately, Harry just wants to get through the day without his back hurting.
Even better here is the believable romance that tentatively springs up between Harry and his client, Jenny (if you can even call her his client, since she never really hires him). Rodman paints an intriguing picture of model Jenny who’s completely aware of her ability to draw men to her, to make them want to come close to her and protect her (she warns Harry to be careful; she does it without trying), and her desire to stay an individual who won’t be owned by her husband. Harry, who makes no play for Jenny whatsoever, can’t help but fall in love with her precisely because he asks nothing of her; her plight moves him somehow (he muses on one of his bus trips that he can’t understand why she touches him), and he simply falls in love with her, holding her all night as she sleeps after she learns her older lover has committed suicide (or does he?…).
The beautiful, luminous Andrea Marcovicci never overplays this character (Jenny could have come off as conceited or shallow in a lesser actresses’ hands), and she develops a good chemistry with the gruff Janssen, who clearly responds in kind to her technique (their final goodbye is a model of understated―and unstated―character development). You believe they’re in love…just at the wrong time. And that’s not something you ever felt for Joe or McGarrett on Mannix or Hawaii Five-O.
Director Jerry Thorpe (TV’s The Untouchables, Kung Fu, TV movie The Possessed) keeps things on a low boil, saving some flashy moments as counterpoint to his steady, even pace (even the Jodie Foster scenes which could have been tempoed as more comedic are tuned for watchful drama). One of those grabbers is a terrific, jump-out-of-your-seat scare when Harry walks in on future exploitation king Zalman King, sitting in Jenny’s apartment. Keeping the camera on Harry, King suddenly jumps up and stabs Harry with a fork to the accompaniment of composer Billy Goldenberg’s screeching violins; it’s a solid, scary moment made all the more surprising because of how low-key everything has been before it.
And I particularly liked the climax of Smile Jenny, You’re Dead, SPOILERS! where King, totally insane, just jumps off the building, claiming he can fly. No explanation, no reason, just as the script admirably refused to attach clichéd Freudian boilerplates for his obsession with Jenny. His motivations are just as confusing to us as they are to Jenny, as is his death. Jenny’s safe from this particular fan…but what happens with the next one? Add this non-resolution of the movie’s central motivation―why does he want to protect/hurt Jenny―to Harry’s and Jenny’s failed romance, and Smile Jenny, You’re Dead stays faithful to its intriguing, unconventional aesthetic.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.