Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #10

Series Title: The Streets of San Francisco | Years: 1972-1977, ABC | Starring: Karl Malden, Michael Douglas, Richard Hatch | Theme Music: Patrick Williams

“Ah, yes,” everyone says. “That was the one with Michael Douglas and the bridge, right?”

Michael Douglas, the bridge, and a lot else besides. Running to five seasons on ABC between 1972 and 1977, The Streets of San Francisco showcased actor Douglas (son of the legendary Kirk Douglas) in his first major TV or film role, plus the already well-established Karl Malden. A variety of big names also passed through the sets as guest stars--Leslie Nielsen, Robert Wagner, Patty Duke--along with a smattering of waiting-for-the-big-break performers, such as Larry Hagman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Bosley, and Stefanie Powers.

The producer, Quinn Martin, was known for bringing us Cannon, The Fugitive, Banyon, Barnaby Jones, The Untouchables, and so many other familiar shows. One of this series’ scriptwriters, James J. Sweeney, picked up an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his Season 4 tale, “Requiem for Murder.” The inspiration for the series apparently came from the 1972 crime novel Poor, Poor Ophelia, by Carolyn Weston, whose books were selling well for British publisher Gollancz at the time.

The stories revolved around long-serving Lieutenant Mike Stone (Malden), who had been assigned to the Homicide Detail of the San Francisco Police Department’s Bureau of Inspectors (Detective Division), and his 20-something assistant inspector, Steve Keller (Douglas). It was a pretty conventional pairing; however, the two actors brought to it a depth and periodic poignancy that lifted this program out of its format. There was the inevitable mechanic of youthful Keller learning the difficult art of urban detective work, of course, but also a developing--and at times raspy--relationship between the veteran cop and his less time-worn colleague. Oddly, the predictable friction between instinct and empirical investigation was reversed: the older man tended to go by his “gut,” whereas the younger detective, with his college education, was occasionally the more methodical one.

The plots of Streets episodes were at times quite unusual--remember the one about the stolen snake venom?--and the San Francisco setting (the show was shot entirely on location in that Northern California city) was shown as by turns scenic and seedy (in the way that it was again in the Dirty Harry movies, which began to appear at the same time).

And, of course, there was the bridge. The title sequence has stuck in people’s minds, I think, because of the way it uses an almost subliminal motif which sets up the dynamic between the two main characters even before we meet them. A set of graphic bars opens diagonally across the screen, letting us into the space between the sloping cables that hold up the suspension span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (aka Bay Bridge). Right away, we’re shown the motif of space and tension. As the following images slot into place--carried along by the staccato, metallic-edged jazz theme (composed by Pat Williams, who also created the themes for such series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Magician)--we’re constantly being shown how things stand in relation to one another: a tanker slides past the Bay Bridge, those big old ’70s cars move past each other on the Golden Gate Bridge, towers stack up next to one another on the skyline, buildings face each other on opposing sides of the streets, cable cars cross paths. Amid this jagged assemblage, the image of a crab on the Fisherman’s Wharf sign looks ominously threatening, and the words “Have a Pleasant Trip” on the road sign are loaded with irony. It’s a subtle, almost insidious presentation of the dynamic played out in the stories: the way the two cops stand opposite each other, complementing each other but also with tension between them--like the tense cables of the suspension bridges themselves, or the power cables connecting some of the buildings.

When the “diagonal bars” open up again to show us broken-nosed Karl Malden in his archaic fedora hat (at least, I think that’s a fedora) and then Michael Douglas in his smooth college-boy jacket, this motif of “tense pairing” is crystallized: we see a brief shot of the two in mid-discussion before the familiar images of the city begin to pile up again--Coit Tower, the Ferry Building, Chinatown. When the “diagonal bars” show us the episode’s guest stars, those faces too seem to be opposing each other, caught in some confrontation which we want to know more about, just as we want to see what’s at the end of the tunnel unfolding behind them. Having established this motif, the images take us on a rapid-fire travelogue of San Francisco: statues, crowds, busy streets, streetcars of course, but also a gathering dusk until neon signs light up. Again, the illuminated words and images seem to stand in opposition to one another and to the darkness itself. Even in the final shot, there’s a tense partnership between the clock tower and the arch of the bridge in profile against the twilight.

The Streets of San Francisco went into decline after 1976, at least in terms of audience numbers. Michael Douglas left the show in favor of bigger-time Hollywood exposure (his production work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been rewarded with an Oscar for Best Film of 1975). His exit was explained away with a clunky decision that the Steve Keller character should leave the police to become a teacher. Douglas’ replacement, Richard Hatch (later to star in Battlestar Galactica), gave a workmanlike performance, but the odd dynamic between the two cops seemed to lose its energy. The series was canceled after the fifth season completed its run in June 1977.

There were reports last year that CBS-TV has started work on a pilot for a new series of The Streets of San Francisco. No doubt it will be a delight if it materializes, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to come up with a title sequence to rival the original. Have a pleasant trip, indeed.

EDITOR’S TRIVIA: In his 1994 reference work, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television, author William L. DeAndrea had more to say about the adaptation of Carolyn Weston’s Poor, Poor Ophelia into the 1972 pilot for The Streets of San Francisco:
The novel was set in Santa Monica, and the characters were Sergeant Al Krug and Detective Casey Kellog. In the book, it is the younger detective who identifies with the falsely accused young executive; in the telefilm, it is the older cop. Weston wrote another Krug/Kellog novel, Susannah Screaming [1975], but it was never adapted for the series. Each episode did acknowledge her creation of the characters, however.
There was apparently a third Al Krug and Casey Kellog book, as well: Rouse the Demon (1976).

READ MORE:The Streets of San Francisco: The Ties that Bind,” by Robert K. Lewis (Criminal Element).


Fred Blosser said...

Michael Douglas -- isn't he the geezer married to Catherine Zeta Jones? It's a sad reminder of my own mortality that when I saw a recent clip of Mike on Entertainment Tonight recently, he looked about as elderly as Sam Jaffe in this '72 intro.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Michael said he was attracted to her 'like a heat seeking missile.'
I kind of wish I'd written that.

Lee Goldberg said...

I'd like to see the main title sequence of the short-lived STREETS spin-off BERT D'ANGELO: SUPERSTAR starring Paul Sorvino...but so far I haven't been able to find it. But I'm not giving up!


Lee Goldberg said...

All three of Carolyn Weston's Krug & Kellog novels have been republished by Brash Books...along with a brand new novel in the series, THE LAST GOOD PLACE, written by Robin Burcell, a cop herself.