Monday, November 26, 2007

The Wrong Time To Be Right

Yes, I know it's been a long time since I last reviewed an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES.

”Sleight of Hand” is one of THE ROCKFORD FILES’ darkest episodes. It opens with Jim Rockford (James Garner) forlornly wandering the beach, reacting to flashes of a dead girl lying in the surf surrounded by a crowd, and it ends on a very tough note. It also happens to be one of the series’ best episodes.

The episode is based on THIN AIR, a 1948 novel by Howard Browne, an author, editor and screenwriter of dozens of films and television shows. If the plot seems familiar, it may be that you’ve seen one of the many TV adaptations of THIN AIR, authorized or otherwise. Reportedly, Browne sold the rights to his novel to Universal, which recycled it several times as scripts for their television series. In addition to THE ROCKFORD FILES, THIN AIR was also the basis of episodes of JIGSAW, SIMON & SIMON and others. Ironically, SIMON & SIMON co-star Gerald McRaney may have experienced déjà vu when he starred in his episode, also titled “Thin Air” and co-written by Browne, because he plays a supporting role in “Sleight of Hand.”

For the last six months, Rockford has been in a serious relationship with Karen Mills (Pat Delaney), a divorcee with a three-year-old daughter. Returning home late one night after a weekend car trip to San Francisco, Jim sends Karen ahead to unlock the front door of her house, while he carries the little girl inside. But by the time he reaches the foyer, Karen is gone. Without a trace. And without her keys or purse. How could she have vanished so quickly? Jim was right behind her. He calls his police detective friend Becker (Joe Santos) for help, but Becker’s lieutenant, Diehl (Tom Atkins), thinks Rockford killed the woman somewhere between Frisco and West Hollywood.

Garner is great in the episode, showing more depth than he usually was asked to do in this usually light crime drama. While he’s still perfectly natural doggedly following the clues or wisecracking his way past the bad guys, Rockford’s personal stake in the mystery means Garner is more sober than usual. This is borne out in his scenes with Noah Beery Jr. as Rockford’s father, who feels his son’s pain and tries to help bring some closure, as well as his encounter with McRaney as an officious hotel clerk, who is reluctantly bullied for pertinent information, even though Rockford realizes he’s stepping over the line.

Guest star Lara Parker was one of the loveliest actresses working in ‘70s TV, and is likely best known for her run as Catherine Collins on the cult daytime serial DARK SHADOWS.

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