Thursday, June 28, 2012

HAROLD THE HERO: "Baretta" (1976)

I have vague memories from my childhood of seeing episodes of the relatively popular "Baretta" TV series (1975-78). I mostly remember the dramatic theme song ("Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow", vocals courtesy of Sammy Davis Jr) more than anything particular about the show. When it comes to the star, Robert Blake, I am more likely to think of his freaky performance in David Lynch's mindfuck masterpiece, "Lost Highway" (1997), than I am any of his other roles. Shhh... Don't tell anyone, but I still haven't seen what is probably one of the most famous films he ever appeared in: the 1973 cult classic "Electra Glide In Blue". One of these days, I'll have to finally sit down and give it a viewing. Mr. Blake isn't bad in this show: he's supposed to be a plainclothes New Jersey cop, but he looks and acts more "of the streets" than "from the Academy". Baretta has two signature behaviors worth noting: When investigating a case, he frequently dons elaborate (and sometimes silly) disguises in order to penetrate deeper into the world of crime.  He also has a pet Cockatoo named Fred who listens to him as he sits in his run-down apartment, talking his way through his case and putting the pieces together. 

This episode from the 3rd season, titled "Shoes" (after the nickname of Charlie's character), was first broadcast October 27th, 1976 on ABC (just a few days shy of CMS's 23rd birthday). We first see Shoes about 5 minutes in, demonstrating how he earned his nickname, shining some guy's  shoes in an urban pool hall. A few feet away, Baretta casually plays a game of billiards, absentmindedly banging his cue stick on the floor as he contemplates his new case between shots. This gets the attention of the deaf-mute bootblack, who can feel the vibrations through the floor. 

We even get a close up of his hand on the floor, sensing the impact of the stick through his palm pressed agains the linoleum. When you look at his hand, the first thing you probably see is how dirty his fingers and nails are. Meanwhile,  I don't even pay any attention to that, instead zeroing in on the healthy amount of hair on Charlie's wrist and forearm. I'm so predictable... If I had a bootblack fetish, I'd be getting very worked up right about now.

Baretta is really frustrated. Usually he's content to voice his thoughts to Fred the Cockatoo (who's sitting on a shelf by him), but today Fred's not enough. "Shoes, my good man. I'm glad you're here," he says as Shoes turns to him. "You're one of the few people that listen." Har har, a deaf guy that listens... that's supposed to be funny or something. "I will explain to you my dilemma," Baretta continues on. "Betwixt you and me and the pool balls, we'll come up with some answers." There's a rapist on the loose in the neighborhood recently, and he's just claimed another victim and left her strangled corpse in an alley. Baretta rattles off his observations  while Shoes just sits and stares at him, being an even less interactive "listener" than the cockatoo. He gets bored after a minute or two and wanders away, leaving Baretta alone with Fred, asking his rhetorical questions to a room strangely empty of any customers or even any employees.

Among the assortment of characters in the neighborhood, we meet exceedingly eager young missionary Sister Olive (Bond Girl Lana Wood, hiding behind a thick pair of coke-bottle glasses), who boisterously bangs a tambourine and belts out religious hymns, rousting street bums passed out in back alleys and sending them over to the mission for hot soup and the word of the Lord. In one scene, we see her dancing around a side room in the Eternal Rescue Mission building, singing yet another hymn (she just can't seem to stop), while Shoes (who occasionally hangs out with the singing missionaries on the area sidewalks) sits nearby eating a baloney sandwich under a huge painting of Jesus. There's a knock at the front door, and Olive wanders into the other room to answer it while Shoes quietly munches away.

It's a man claiming to be a police officer searching for the neighborhood rapist. He'd like to come in and look around, but Olive shuts the door in his face with a rather sassy reply: "There is no need for police in the house of the Lord." But the guy actually is the neighborhood rapist! He barges in and wrestles Sister Olive to the floor. "Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!" she screams out as the rapist struggles with her. It kind of makes for a strange scene, since the rapist has no idea she's talking about a person and must think she's just randomly shouting about footwear while he's trying to violate her. Shoes is just around the corner and oblivious to the crime occurring in the other room. Until Olive starts violently kicking the floor, sending vibrations through it to the deaf guy's palm as we had seen demonstrated before in the pool hall. Shoes feels it, and suddenly senses that something is wrong.

Shoes swiftly gets to his feet and steps into the room next door, peering into the darkness and spotting the two people struggling. He quickly sees that his friend Olive is in trouble, and he suddenly and without hesitation runs over to save her from her attacker. Go, Shoes, go! Such bravery!

The rapist immediately gets Shoes into a headlock and starts savagely pounding on the poor guy's head! Oh my God! He's really pounding on Shoes! Olive scampers away and out the door as the two men continue to battle. The fighting is really intense and Shoes is really taking a beating. It's so convincingly brutal that I actually started crying as I was watching the episode! I just couldn't handle watching Charlie get roughed up like that!

Shoes is finally thrown to the ground, holding his battered head and writhing in pain. Behind him on the floor, the rapist dropped something: a police badge. Is the rapist a police officer? Poor pulverized Shoes opens his eyes just long enough to see the attacker pick up the badge and pocket it. Oh Jeez! Poor, poor Shoes! I know, I know... It's just acting and it's not real. Still, this scene really upset me. Charlie made his suffering very convincing, something he has proven to be good at. You'll have to pardon me a minute. I need to grab a kleenex and wipe my eyes.

We see Charlie again in a scene where Shoes shows up at the 53rd Precinct, the same one where Baretta works. But Shoes is here on a special mission: he didn't get a good look at the attacker's face, but he saw the badge and saw his shiny black shoes. It seems that although Shoes is not an educated guy, he's not mentally deficient either. He stakes out a spot in a hallway for a bit, scrutinizing the footwear of the other people walking by. He then moves on to the police locker room, and begins digging through the contents of an unlocked locker until he comes across a pair that seems to be identical to the ones he saw the other night.

Of course somebody notices what Shoes is doing and he is almost arrested as a pickpocket. But Baretta happens to be at the station and intercedes on the young deaf-mute's behalf. "He ain't a pickpocket," Baretta tells the arresting officer. "I known the guy 15 years. He wouldn't steal a golfball." It's interesting that although he's supposed to have known Shoes for 15 years, this is the only episode you ever see the character in. The other officers recognize that this is another one of Baretta's "charity cases", and since no one was hurt and nothing was stolen, they let him take the young guy off their hands.

Baretta escorts Shoes outside, asking him questions that the bootblack can't hear, and we get the feeling that he can't read lips either because nothing Baretta says or does seems to be getting through. Why was he going through the locker? Does this have something to do with Sister Olive (who has been missing since the attack)? No response from Charlie. After a minute or two, he gets frustrated with Shoes and gives him a shove and a kick in the pants, sending him away to stagger sadly down the street. Jeez! More violent treatment for poor Shoes! So heartbreaking!

We see a brief scene of Sister Olive showing up to work at another Christian soup kitchen, which does not escape the notice of the rapist. Meanwhile, there's an investigative trail that leads nowhere for Baretta, and he retreats to the neighborhood pool hall again to rethink the details of the case. Once again, he finds himself looking into Shoe's sad stare as he rattles off his thoughts.

Baretta touches Shoes on the head, who flinches in pain when the still-tender top of his skull is pressed on. When Baretta examines more closely, he feels big swollen bumps and finally realizes that the poor guy has been the victim of serious violence. I hope you feel bad now for knocking him around earlier, jerk.

Baretta starts putting it all together, connecting Shoes, Sister Olive, the rapist, and the incident at the police station. OMG! Shoes knows who the attacker is, and that the attacker is a cop! Baretta confirms this when he pulls out his badge and gets more of a reaction from the deaf guy, who now is clearly agitated and frustrated by the communication gap.

I don't know how, but after much shouting and wild gesticulation somehow they finally get through to each other. I'm not sure how he would know this, but Shoes knows where Sister Olive is now working, serving hot soup to the homeless (where the rapist is watching her from nearby). The two of them rush from the pool hall and into Baretta's car, zooming off to Sister Olive's rescue.

Usually, with these entries, I've been trying to not give away the endings. But I think I am gonna suspend that policy here, since I just have to tell you how absurd the whole thing becomes. There's spoilers coming up...

It's time for Sister Olive to take a break, and she heads off to the building's rooftop to sit alone with her thoughts. The evil rapist slips away from his spot at a nearby table in the dining room and follows her up the stairs. Baretta and Shoes show up a moment later, looking everywhere for the doomed missionary girl. "You stay here!" Baretta tells Shoes as he runs to the stairs in pursuit to the roof, but of course the young fella is not going to stay put. While the rapist is strangling Olive, Baretta bursts through a door and starts firing. There's a shoot out between the two, as Olive is thrown over a ledge, barely hanging on by her fingernails as she dangles over the cement many floors below. In the middle of all this, we see that somehow Shoes has climbed the wall on the side of the building as if he were Spiderman, pulling himself over the edge and onto the roof behind the rapist and the endangered missionary.

Like the superhero he now seems to be, Shoes runs over and fights with the attacker, the air filled with the pops of gunfire and the screams of Olive, who is still hanging on the edge of the roof. It's all so melodramatic. In a way, appropriately enough, the whole thing reminds me of the fight scene at the end of Fritz Lang's silent classic, "Metropolis" (1926):  hero Freder and villain Rotwang fighting on the cathedral rooftop while missionary girl Maria hangs from the edge by her fingertips. Maybe it's just me. Anyhow, after much struggling and screaming Baretta gets a bullet into the rapist, who lets out a yell and throws himself off the roof to his death.  Olive is quickly pulled back over the ledge to safety.

It's time for that last scene again, that one I have mentioned before that is at the end of just about every single TV show from the '70s where all the characters come together for a smile and a hug, where we see all the plot lines are resolved and everything is going to turn out great for everyone. In this particular instance, we hear that Shoes is finally going to go to school to learn sign language. And Sister Olive shares a final revelation: Shoes has a real name, and it is Harold Hergesheim. Awww. What a nice name. Strangely, there is no mention of Olive needing any treatment for suffering 2 attacks at the hands of a brutal serial rapist, and she doesn't seem the least bit traumatized. Instead, she's happily off to school with Shoes/Harold to learn how to communicate with him better. Yay. Group hug, fade out, the end.

Well, I had some pretty mixed reactions to this one. At times I really got pulled into the drama and danger, and I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Charlie, who did a great job playing another difficult & demanding part. I believed his deafness, and even more I really believed his pain. His committed performance made up for some weaknesses in the script (especially that silly ending).  That's '70s television for you...

Only select episodes of "Baretta" have been released on DVD so far. This particular installment is not among them. I'm so happy a dedicated fan out there was kind enough to upload it, filling a gap in my CMS collection.

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