Friday, October 03, 2008

Faces Of Murder

MANNIX is one of television's great private eye shows. Running eight full seasons on CBS, the violent drama focused on Joe Mannix, an Armenian-American tough guy with loud sports jackets and a hard head who battled bad guys all over Los Angeles. Mannix was played by popular leading man Mike Connors, who worked his way up from Roger Corman movies like FIVE GUNS WEST and SWAMP WOMEN and the shortlived TV drama TIGHTROPE. Connors' film career wasn't exactly going full blazes (he was miscast in the limp spy spoof KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE) when he landed the MANNIX role in 1967.

Strangely, even though MANNIX premiered with an intriguing premise, it didn't become popular until it was stripped of everything that made it stand out among other private-eye series. The first season (now available on DVD and highly recommended) saw the individualistic Mannix working for an expensive agency called Intertect, where the two-fisted, old-fashioned dick contrasted with his clean-cut corporate colleagues and the fancy technology Intertect used in its investigations.

However, for Season 2, Intertect and its by-the-book leader Lew Wickersham (Joe Campanella) were out, and Mannix became a typical TV P.I. As series creator William Link says in his DVD commentary, if he and his late partner Richard Levinson had pitched this concept, they would have been thrown out of the office. On paper, there was nothing unusual about MANNIX now. He drove a convertible, had an office with a pretty secretary, Peggy Fair (played by black actress Gail Fisher, which was unusual for 1968), took cases he often wasn't paid for, ran into an unusually broad number of Army buddies and old flames, and generally solved cases by getting hit on the head and shooting back at the heavies.

The key, obviously, to MANNIX was not the concept, but Connors, its generally sturdy scripts and Desilu/Paramount's high production values. The memorable "checkerboard" main titles and Lalo Schifrin theme didn't hurt either. MANNIX ran 194 episodes, the last of which aired April 13, 1975. What's unusual is that Belmont Tower Books, which published four MANNIX tie-in novels, didn't do so until 1975, when the series was going off the air.

A different publisher released MANNIX, written by Michael Avallone, in 1968, which must not have been much of a seller for Belmont to wait seven more years to try again. All four Belmont novels are credited to J.T. MacCargo, obviously a pen name. It appears respected genre author Peter Rabe was MacCargo on two of them, but not the one that I read, #1, THE FACES OF MURDER.

I would have a hard time believing that any respected author would have written it, since it's not very good. Based on the sixth-season episode "The Faces of Murder" by Stanley Roberts (and directed by Jeffrey Hayden), the novelization finds Mannix terribly out of character and the dialogue spoken by everyone tongue-tieingly flip.

The startling premise has a young woman, Christina Hume (played by Susan Strasberg in the episode), hiring Mannix (Connors) to prove that she—not her brother Lucas (Fred Sadoff), who was arrested for it—is the murderer of a gangster named Gil Ryan (John Considine). The police, including Lt. Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), think the case is open and shut; a detective guarding Ryan heard the shots and entered the room to find the victim dead of gunshot wounds and Lucas standing over him with the smoking gun in his hand. Mannix reluctantly takes Christina's case, which leads him to a bribery scandal and a sleazy P.I. named Mel Faber (Woodrow Parfrey), who sets him up for an elevator hit.

156 pages, but with large type and wide borders, MacCargo probably didn't do very much to flesh out the teleplay, so I'm betting the book plays pretty much like the episode. The plot is a decent mystery, but the book doesn't feel very much like MANNIX. I'd be curious to read one of Rabe's tie-ins, however, which would almost have to be better than THE FACES OF MURDER.

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