A wonderfully lurid, pulpy TV actioner.
By Paul Mavis
Having just had a Lee Marvin mini-marathon this past weekend (I started with the genius of The Klansman and worked backwards…), I scrounged up my copy of Timeless Media Group’s collection, M Squad: The Complete Series, the noirish, nightmarish NBC police suspenser that aired from 1957 to 1960. Headed up by Marvin in his first TV series (this made him a star, not movies like The Wild One and The Big Heat), M Squad is blissfully uncomplicated as it wallows in its own filth.
It doesn’t bother with messy things like a fully-dimensional lead or complicated character motivations or intricate crime plots. It goes for the gut, letting sensation and violence rule for a queasy half-hour as Lee Marvin’s Lieutenant Ballinger drills every punk in sight who dares to disrupt the order of Chicagoland. Beautifully sparse and minimalist, M Squad doesn’t care if you want explanations for why craven crybaby killers and scheming industrialists and sex-hardened molls do the evil they do. It just wants to show you what they do, in graphic (for late 1950s TV) fashion…and how they get bashed, ventilated, and fried for doing it. M Squad is a necessity, pure and simple.
By 1957, no one could blame NBC for looking around for another hard-hitting police series to add their schedule. Their venerable cop show Dragnet had been a consistent ratings’ powerhouse for years (reaching 4th, 2nd, and 3rd in the year-end Nielsen’s for the years 1952 through 1955), and while still a winner with the public, Dragnet, as is inevitable with any successful show, eventually began to trend downward, dropping to 11th for the year prior to the premiere of M Squad (before it was knocked out of the Top Thirty altogether against sitcom The Real McCoys in 1957, and westerns Cheyenne and Sugarfoot in 1958).
As well, 1957 marked a significant rise in overall crime in the United States (particularly in violent crime), a trend that would last until the 1970s. That, coupled with the public’s growing fascination (and some might say horror) with the continued break-down of established pre-WWII social norms (garishly reflected, albeit within the censorship rules, in the nation’s pop culture), created an opportunity for American TV viewers to wrestle safely with complex social problems through their favorite TV shows and stars (one might argue that, interestingly enough, American TV viewers overwhelming “looked back” to the nostalgic Western genre to filter through these new tensions, resulting in the popular adult, psychological Western series such as Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel).
M Squad, at least in design and execution, was as bare-bones as one could possibly get in a 1957 police procedural series. Set in Chicago (an unusual choice, considering L.A. and New York’s usual lock-grip on private eye, detective and police shows up to that time), M Squad starred Lee Marvin as Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger, who was attached to “M Squad,” a special free-floating division of the Chicago Police Department whose members could be assigned to any other division within the force—from homicide to bunko—as needed (the “M” in the title is never referred to anywhere in the series as representing “Murder” or the “Mob” or “Mafia”). Loosely supervised by his superior, Captain Grey (Paul Newlan), Ballinger is called in after a particularly violent or tricky crime has been committed, where he then proceeds, through dogged, flat-foot police work, to break the case, usually preventing additional crimes by the perpetrator by either beating him senseless or drilling him with his snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special.
And…that’s it for M Squad. Week after week, with metronome precision, the same basic set-up was recreated, with only the manner of the crime altered within the series’ framework. Locked down thematically and visually to the equivalent of those violent comic books of the late 50s that attracted returning vets who only wanted action and plenty of it, M Squad stripped away almost all of the reassuring, grounding elements that went with presenting a weekly series—a fully developed lead character, an established personal life for the lead, reoccurring sidekicks or friends—to present a harsh, angry depiction of relentless crime and punishment, American-style. Precious little time was wasted on the niceties of character development or complex plots within its tight half-hour format.
M Squad‘s star, Lee Marvin, while certainly a familiar face by 1957 to moviegoers and TV viewers (he had recently scored a substantial co-starring role in MGM’s high-profile flop, Raintree County), wasn’t exactly a household name yet, either. His handsome/ugly face and his cooly detached yet obviously simmeringly violent persona, further presented a rather anonymous, vaguely threatening allure to the audience—an attraction that wasn’t the norm back in “we need to be reassured” 1957 America.
Of course today, M Squad may well be better known for its influence on the creators of the failed TV spoof, Police Squad, and the enormously successful spin-off The Naked Gun film series. However, it’s importance in the American TV police series timeline is far more important than the fact that it was lifted wholecloth for a subsequent parody.
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While M Squad certainly owes more than a little bit of its structure to the previous Dragnet (the terse, unemotional voice-over narration, the concentration on “just the facts, ma’am” exposition), M Squad does have a twist on its noir elements—filtered through a be-bop, jazzy, brutal hipster sensibility—that’s quite unlike Jack Webb’s almost kabuki-like formalism of Dragnet. Ballinger, an agent for justice in “his” town Chicago (which is featured quite prominently in each episode, courtesy of some marvelously evocative location pick-up shots, most featuring Marvin himself in Chi-Town), is just that and only that: an agent of the law with precious little else to distinguish him from the equally nameless criminals he plugs every week.
For the lead character who appears in almost every scene of 117 episodes of a three-year series, Frank Ballinger is remarkably anonymous. We never see where he lives. We never see him with a girl, out on a date. We never see him engage in any kind of off-duty activity. We never even hear him discuss an off-duty life (although once or twice, someone makes a comment about Frank knowing a lot of women). He exists only within the claustrophobic set-up of the show which focuses relentlessly on his police-related duties. The only person he seems to engage on a regular basis is his boss—and we never get to “know” him, either. Frank Ballinger is, as his narration often suggests, simply a physical manifestation of the city of Chicago’s police department. And that’s all.
And any personal touches that creep into the character come strictly via his police duties. We learn that at times, Frank is disenchanted with his job, in the frequently noirish voice-overs that make M Squad play often like some forgotten little B-programmer gem (“Sometimes nobody wins. And you’re just a cop who’s done his job. And you go home, wondering why you don’t have a feeling of satisfaction when you nail some people,” from The Shakedown). Yet this sense of weary professional (and moral) defeat is later largely dropped, to be replaced with the more Chandler-esque “gallant knight among lowlifes” sensibility (“The town looked clean and honest and innocent. I hoped that all the people felt as good as I did, that the law, in protecting its own, had protected the city at the same time,” from Neighborhood Killer).
If Frank has tender feelings about women or children, it’s only expressed through the performance of his duties (such as the remarkably funny moment in Death by Adoption, where Marvin has some obvious fun, gruffly/sweetly feeding a laughing baby), never in a moment outside his life as a cop. As for personal friendships, he always seems to know old cons and sharpies, or friends from the force, but they’re held at a distance, merely plot devices to keep the stories moving. The most meaningful interaction Frank has with another person throughout M Squad is with his boss, Captain Grey, and even that is limited mostly to shop talk (and it’s quite believable shop talk, too, with Ballinger and Grey having a kidding/grumbling relationship that seems about right for two pros who spend a lot of time together). The chain-smoking, hard-nosed, professional cop Frank Ballinger, is a mystery to the audience in all areas other than his thoughts on a particular case at the present time. Everything else is superfluous.
The noir aspects of M Squad are frequently pronounced. The world created here is the beautifully grim, chiaroscuro lighted Chi-town, with quite a few scenes taking place in a night-time world of sharpies, molls, psychotic killers, low-life bums and scheming femme fatales rubbing elbows with the swells from Chicago’s Gold Coast. It’s also a thriving underworld where the relentless implementation of violence and even torture are used to settle the most base, venal criminal arrangements.
If we don’t get to personally know Ballinger, much like Sergeant Joe Friday’s private life is largely unseen, M Squad delivers up a hipster looseness, an almost goofy, giddy reveling in the thrill-kicks of violence and jazz and the basic squalidness of human beings, that is nowhere to be found in Dragnet. With Frank rendered almost a cardboard cut-out of an avenging cop, he’s free to indulge in the pulpy pleasures of a character not bound by complex motivations. M Squad often plays like those lurid True Crime and men’s adventure magazines that were reaching their zenith in the late 50s, where the sizzle was more important the steak, so to speak.
“Sensation” is everything in M Squad, where character motivation is all but eliminated in favor of setting up a rather ghastly crime, and then letting angry Frank loose on the underworld to try and solve it—usually with his fists and his gun (there’s an insanely right, correct shot in The Widows that sums up the series quite nicely: Frank, his cover blown during a set-up, calmly starts firing at some punk, while keeping his cigarette calmly in his mouth, never losing a drag). These are excessively violent cartoons, really, jazzed up with funny hep-cat dialogue (“Mickey Kilgrew. 37-26-36. IQ? 13,” from Mamma’s Boy) and the blindingly cool music cues of legend Benny Carter (who eventually scores most of the third season episodes).
These episodes are jazz riffs on violence and crime and justice, more than they’re meaningful “stories.” The wonderfully obsessive Dragnet, with its almost pathological devotion to correct police procedures holding back the looming chaos of illegality, is nowhere to be found in the jangly M Squad. The expositional framework is just an excuse for crude shock effects and sensation. Always sensation, daddy, along with some jive-ass talk (“When it comes to scoring, I’m the original kid from Scores-ville!” “Yeah, I bet you are.” “When I dig a score, I like to spread it around. I gave him a chance to fly high, but he just wasn’t cool.” “But you are?” “Yeah!” “Well, we got a little chair down in States-ville that will warm you up plenty,” from More Deadly).
Even though each M Squad episode ends with an obviously tacked-on “moral” where Frank intones that drug dealing, murder, blackmail, fraud, juvenile delinquency, and terrorism have been miraculously scrubbed away in Chicago, violent crime in the service of baser desires is never more than another week’s episode away in M Squad (right in line with the show’s jaundiced sensibilities, just as the series was ending, the infamous “Summerdale scandals”—where Chicago cops were discovered to be actually boosting stores in conjunction with a known cat burglar, while higher-ups knowingly covered it up—broke in the news). With the (unintended) aid of the fairly poor transfers available for M Squad (I’ve read the original elements are gone, but who knows), the show takes on a cheap, Grade-Z programmer look that only further cements the series’ True Crime mock-ups.
Violence is frequent, and largely unsentimental—both from the criminals’ and the police’s perspectives. Criminals in M Squad kill often, and they like it. And Ballinger beats them with his fists, or ventilates them with his S&W, before happily sending them off to the gas chamber or electric chair (if you go by M Squad‘s successful capital punishment ratio, Illinois must have had not just an electric chair, but electric bleachers). Those dopey messages of “Hope and Change,” Chicago-style (sure I’m giving him a dig…) at the end of each episode, are patently phony: even Marvin sounds humorously noncommittal during his delivery of them. The thrills of M Squad come not from justice upheld…but from vengeance served.
Right from the beginning, M Squad serves up the sensationalistic, sick thrills that must have really jolted the kids staying up late on Friday nights. Pulpy stories include a psycho killer bumping off people to appease his OCD (Face of Evil); a mamma’s boy serial killer who has a thing for blondes, with his murderous rage set off by a song (Blue Indigo; where Frank hilariously intones, “Everyone is capable of being mentally disturbed.”); a serial sniper (Shot in the Dark); Frank’s battle with a bunch of psycho motorcyclists (watch Marvin get a chance to imitate some moto-punk—a la The Wild One—in The Phantom Raiders); a crime school of death, where punk-in-training Tom Laughlin giggles while he pushes the principal out the window to his death (Burt Reynolds, with real hair, shows up as well in the gloriously dreadful The Teacher); more crybaby psycho killers in High School Bride and The Second Best Killer; a guy beaten to death with a saxophone—crazy, baby!—in Murder in C-Sharp (like, yeah, dad); a killer circus clown who bullwhips Frank (!) in The Tiger’s Cage; a grenade attack on some poor schlub sleeping in his hammock in the appropriately titled, A Grenade for a Summer’s Evening; and my personal favorite, Pitched Battle at Bluebell Acres (say that 3 times fast and see what comes out…). A bunch of remorseless bank robbers steal a bazooka to blow safes and knock out pursuing police cars; they buy the farm when Frank hunts them down with a Thompson submachine gun, eventually blasting the head psycho to smithereens with a casually-tossed grenade (take that, Miranda rights!).
By the time M Squad really swings into gear during its second season (when Count Basie’s hypnotically driving theme is utilized; Marvin gets a mean, nasty-looking crewcut, emphasizing the primitive ugliness/beauty of his long, rangy face; a new, iconic opening that has Frank blasting some unseen foe with his Police Special), viewers that were tired of Westerns that had more Freudian talk than a year on the couch with a head shrink, could tune into M Squad for resolutely impolite thrills.
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.