Monday, September 19, 2011

Arrest And Trial

LAW & ORDER was not as original a concept as you may have thought. During the 1963-1964 television season, ABC aired ARREST AND TRIAL, one of the most obscure television series to receive a DVD release. Obviously, the title is one tip-off that L&O creator Dick Wolf remembered this crime drama, but its format is the most obvious clue.

Like LAW & ORDER, ARREST AND TRIAL was split into two distinctive sections. The first half ("The Arrest") starred Ben Gazzara (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) as Sgt. Nick Anderson, an unusually introspective Los Angeles police detective who investigated that week’s crime. In the second half ("The Trial"), Gazzara gave way to Chuck Connors (THE RIFLEMAN) as defense attorney John Egan, who went to court to defend whomever Anderson arrested.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of ARREST AND TRIAL is its unusual 90-minute format. Only 30 episodes were ever filmed (ratings woes were likely the result of its killer timeslot against THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on CBS and BONANZA on NBC), and its 90-minute format has kept it out of syndication in the fifty years since it went off the air.

The other unusual aspect of the series—and its biggest difference from LAW & ORDER—is that the “Trial” portion took the point of view of the defense, spending the rest of the episode attempting to free the guy Anderson busted his hump to arrest during the first half.

The L&O series are almost entirely plot-focused, eschewing stories about its characters in favor of murders “ripped from the headlines.” With ARREST AND TRIAL’s hour and a half to fill, writers were encouraged to create full-figured characters for the weekly guest stars to have fun with. Scenes that would be considered padding in today’s ADD television landscape were allowed to play out in full, adding layers to characters’ motivations and giving name actors a reason to sign on to an episodic guest role.

Timeless Media released two volumes of ARREST AND TRIAL episodes on DVD. As a showcase for your home theater, they aren't even close to ideal. Reportedly, Universal (which, by the way, also owns LAW & ORDER) agreed to lease Timeless the rights to ARREST AND TRIAL, but provided no elements. Therefore, Timeless prevailed upon private collectors to lend 16mm prints, which, at least in the case of Disc 1 of Volume 1, resulted in the episodes having no opening titles and suffering from various scratches and blemishes. Don’t get me wrong—the episodes are more than watchable, but they have not been cleaned up in the slightest.

It’s possible that the show’s skillful dramatics will overpower the 16mm visuals anyway. Reportedly, some critics of the time cast doubt on Connors’ ability to overcome his exceptionally popular RIFLEMAN persona and believably wear a three-piece suit and tie, but both he and Gazzara are very good. The natural casting process would have been to switch the two actors’ roles, but both actors playing against type seem to relish the opportunity. By the way, you’ll also see future IRONSIDE sidekick Don Galloway as Connors’ assistant, perennial guest star Roger Perry as Gazzara’s partner, and John Larch and John Kerr as district attorneys.

Egan’s client is Sgt. Anderson in “A Shield Is for Hiding Behind,” in which the detective guns down a teenage hoodlum played by future HAWAII FIVE-0 sidekick James MacArthur. The boy’s father (Barry Sullivan) refuses to believe his son could be a killer, leaving it up to the only witness, MacArthur’s younger brother, to clear Anderson’s name.

“Whose Little Girl Are You?” boasts a powerful performance by Joseph Schildkraut (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as an elderly tool-and-die maker unable to come to grips with the loss of his physical dexterity due to age. Stubbornly refusing to step aside to make room for the young at his brother-in-law’s (Leif Erickson) plant, Schildkraut kills a co-worker in a rage, leaving it to Egan to convince the jury it was all an accident.

Michael Parks (THEN CAME BRONSON) is also quite good in “We May Be Better Strangers” as a 19-year-old vandal who gets into a beef with a judge (Everett Sloane), busting up his collection of ancient weaponry and beating a security guard almost to death. As with the Schildkraut character in “Whose Little Girl Are You?”, Parks isn’t an ordinary thug, and a great effort is made to humanize him and explore the reasoning behind his violent acting-out. Gazzara and Connors have little to do in this episode, which revolves around Parks, Sloane, and Lillian Bronson as Sloane’s wife. Martin Sheen also appears as Parks’ friend; Sheen later guest-starred in Parks’ THEN CAME BRONSON pilot, and Parks played Sheen’s brother in the TV-movie THE STORY OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD.

Although the series was on the air only one season, Lancer Books released two tie-in paperbacks. The first, simply titled ARREST & TRIAL, by Norman Daniels is split into two "books." "The Arrest" follows Anderson and his partner as they investigate the shooting of Vince Callanan, the new head of the Grenville Construction Company. The chief suspect is Callanan's old friend, Fred Lansing, who was drunk during the shooting, but had plenty of motive to do it. Lansing is eventually arrested, but defended at "The Trial" by Egan. Interestingly, both "The Arrest" and "The Trial" are exactly 78 pages long, as if Daniels was writing two 45-minute chapters for the 90-minute TV show.

Daniels' book isn't bad. He seems to write for the main characters well, even though the book almost treats them as supporting cast. The prosecution's case is all circumstantial, and I'm not convinced a real district attorney would have taken it to court. Daniels also wrote a follow-up novel for Lancer, THE MISSING WITNESS, in 1964.

For much more on ARREST AND TRIAL, see Stephen Bowie's excellent Classic TV History website.


R.A.M.'67 said...

It was a risky move for Connors to stop the run of The Rifleman and do Arrest and Trial; he must've alienated some of his fans in the process. A&T was one of his rare chances to really stretch as an actor, and he did a better job than what I was expecting.

Parts of the "A Shield is for Hiding Behind" episode seem to be a subtle parody of Leave It To Beaver. The brothers are dressed like Wally and Beaver, the exterior of the their house is (I think) the same used for the Cleaver residence, and the boys are smarter than their father (Barry Sullivan), who is no Ward Cleaver! This all adds a unique flavor to this story.

One wonders what might be holding up a third (and final) DVD release of the remaining shows by TMG. (I'd like to see the one with William Shatner as a guest star.)

Nice post, a logical follow-up to the one about The Defenders!

Gary Gerani said...

Thanks for one of the smartest and most objective critiques of this series I've read so far. Most reviewers seem content to ape the popular '63 cliche that Chuck Connors was "horribly miscast" in his role because of the rugged star's association with westerns and action films. In truth, Connors is extremely interesting playing against type, and while Lucas McCain may be CC's signature TV role, defense attorney Egan is actually a far more intellectually satisfying character to portray, and clearly a welcome challenge for the actor. Another frequently-cited "bad thing" about this series that is actually quite brilliant is the notion that while Hero A (Gazzara) nabs the crook, Hero B (Connors) sets them free, seemingly putting the series at odds with itself. Excuse me, but lead characters sometimes working against each other while pursuing the truth creates INTERNAL CONFLICT RESULTING IN EDGY THOUGHTFUL DRAMA; typical TV characters working in tandem may be soothing and warm (Perry Mason and his team), but have cartoon-like personal conflicts (if any conflicts at all) and almost never engage in soul-searching or ideological quandaries. ARREST AND TRIAL may have fallen short in some ways dramatically, but it's clear many of this show's legitimate, offbeat, groundbreaking virtues are simply over the head of many critics -- then, and now.

Marty McKee said...

Hi, Gary! Thanks for the kind words. I bought FANTASTIC TELEVISION when it came out (I was about ten) and read that sucker cover-to-cover about fifty times through junior high and high school. It was very influential in cultivating my interest in science fiction and horror television, and for that, I thank you.