Thursday, February 9, 2012

RUSSELL THE RABBIT: "The Streets of San Francisco" (1974)

Between November 1973 and January 1975, Charles Martin Smith was featured in guest starring roles on six television series: "Love, American Style" (alongside "American Graffiti" co-star Cindy Williams), "Chase", "The Streets of  Francisco", "The Rookies" (alongside "Graffiti" co-star Bo Hopkins), "Petrocelli", and "Lucas Tanner" (alongside future "No Deposit No Return" co-star Herschel Bernardi). Unfortunately, out of those I was only able to find his episode of "The Streets of San Francisco". Damn, that's a lot of unseen CMS. I'm still on the lookout for them, but until then I have CMS in this rather compelling episode, looking quite cute in a pretty prominent role. 

The episode titled "Blockade" was first broadcast on January 24th 1974 on ABC. Along with series regulars Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, the impressive list of guest stars also includes future "The Buddy Holly Story" co-star Don Stroud, Ida Lupino, and Patty McCormack! Wow!

Before I jump into a plot rundown, I wanted to mention the location that the episode opens at: San Francisco's Cliff House. I have never eaten at the Cliff House, but I have spent a lot of time down in that vicinity, walking along Ocean Beach or the Coastal Trail, or enjoying the view from Sutro Park. The Cliff House today could be described as elegantly simple in it's appearance (perhaps even bland), but back in late 1973 when this episode was shot, it looked like a real eyesore. Oh, the horror of '70s tackiness...

The episode begins at the Cliff House late one night. As he did in "American Graffiti" (1973) and his screen debut "The Culpepper Cattle Co." (1972), CMS grabs the first shot as his character Russell Jamison walks across the Cliff House parking lot over to his friend Chet Barrow (Stroud), who is digging around under the hood of a parked car. He also once again gets the first line as he nervously blurts out, "Come on, she's gonna be off work any minute!"

Chet and Russell had crafted a plan earlier inside while they sat at table four, cruising their pretty waitress Susan (a pre-"Charlie's Angels" Cheryl Ladd!). Chet has rigged her engine to stall out after a few miles and the idea is somehow she's gonna be so happy to see them when they pull up next to her that she'll turn into a voracious nymphomaniac and service the both of them. Yikes! Their scary plan doesn't make much sense, huh? In fact, Russell seems a little sceptical too. Clearly this is Chet's idea and his pal "Russell Baby" is along for the ride. They hide behind a nearby parked car and watch as doomed Susan gets off work and hops into her tampered car.

The engine stalls out as she speeds down the Great Highway that runs along the western edge of San Francisco, just as the two schemesters planed. When they drive up and get out to offer help, she (not surprisingly) is creeped out and nervous. Chet lifts up her hood like he is going to fix the problem as Russell smiles at her through her driver's side window, but she recoils in fear and locks the door.

But her car's thin rooftop is no match for Chet's switchblade, as he carves a hole in it. The two attackers leer down at Susan as she begins to scream and plead for mercy. "You wanna see some action tonight, Russie-Baby?" Chet says. "You're gonna see it." Eek! 

Fortunately, we the viewers don't see it, since this is TV in the mid '70s after all. The scene abruptly cuts to the next morning, as Susan's body is found floating in a pond in Golden Gate Park. Detective Mike Stone (Malden) and Inspector Steve Keller (Douglas) arrive on the scene and the investigation begins.

When we next see Russell, he's sitting on the back deck of the Potrero Hill  home he shares with his mother, Wilma (Lupino). He's looking pretty anxious as he listens to the news broadcast coming off the radio. Mom comes home and isn't too happy to find him not at work. When he tells her he feel sick, she doesn't seem too sympathetic. Just as suddenly as she arrived, she's back out the door to offer her support to Judge Cameron's daughter. Poor Russell. Mom cares more about this Judge Cameron guy and pampered daughter Jill's marriage problems than she does about her own son.

In Russell's next scene, he's on the phone with Chet, all nervous and afraid now that their crime is all over the media. When Wilma abruptly comes home, he quickly gets off the phone and plays it cool. She's still pretty annoyed at him for being home from work, and she's not too happy that he associates with "that Chet Barrow" either. Then she conveniently brings up the murdered waitress when she reads the murder headline on a newspaper laying on the floor, and adds how Judge Cameron has his theories about the "deviants" that must have done it.

That's when Russell snaps. "Judge Cameron!" he shouts. "What does he know? Was he there?" And suddenly mother and son are deep in an argument about her former employer the Judge. It's really sad how wounded Russell is, still hurting from his lonely latchkey childhood while mom worked for 16 years as nanny to the Judge's daughters. Right on cue, Cameron's grown daughter Jill (McCormack) shows up on Wilma's doorstep in tears. Her marriage is a disaster and she just can't take it! As she sobs in Wilma's arms, neglected Russell drags his sad sack self up the stairs to his room. Awww...

Several scenes later, we're back with Wilma comforting a tearful Jill. She goes upstairs to find Russell coming out of the closet. Literally, not figuratively, as he is carrying an armful of clothes and packing his bags to leave. Seeing he is upset, she tries to comfort him. After some motherly reassurance, Russell breaks down and confesses his involvement with Chet and the dead waitress. Suddenly the doorbell is ringing. Is it the police? Have they come to take Russell away?

It's not the police, but Chet, who was nearly arrested by Stone & Keller and now he needs a place to lay low. When Wilma insists he leave, she gets a fist in the jaw! Damn! Russell rushes to his mom's defense but is subdued by nothing more than Chet towering over him and pressing two fingers against his chest.

Oh no! It looks like Chet is gonna hide out in their place and hold them as hostages! Chet locks the front door and leers at them menacingly as Wilma and Jill cower in fear. Russell, Russell... what are you gonna do?

The episode cuts back and forth between the police closing in on them and Chet's rage-filled outbursts at his captives in the house. "You animal!" Wilma shouts at one point, which seems to amuse Chet. "You think I'm an animal?" he asks Russell. "No, you're an animal! You're... a rabbit!" Why is Russell a rabbit? I don't know, Chet never explains further. But I have to wonder... Is is a reference to CMS's cute overbite? Or perhaps something more? Little tidbits that come out about Russell's relationship with Chet make me wonder what these two might have done in their spare time alone together. How intimate were these two "buddies"? Did Russell share his rabbit hole with Chet? Who can say? My thoughts are not impartial on the matter, I must admit.

There's more action and suspense as the episode reaches it's thrilling conclusion, but I'm gonna refrain from spoiling the ending. It's a pretty solid hour of TV and I'd say it's worth watching. Besides the surprisingly engrossing story arc concerning poor lonely damaged Russell, several strong performances help elevate the material above typical '70s television. Lupino is impressive as the struggling single mother shifting from angry to concerned to terrified, and Stroud is convincing as the genuinely creepy Chet. But best of all (of course) is CMS throwing himself into a tricky role, making an accomplice to rape and murder someone you end up caring about. It doesn't hurt that he's looking rather adorable in this one too. Perhaps I'm just biased....

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